During the Civil War, a muzzle-loaded, single-shot rifle was what the Confederates depended on to shoot down Union officers and more. This rifle was arguably the first-ever long-range sniper that the world had ever seen, and it changed warfare for the next centuries after its creation. Designed by a prominent British engineer, it was called the Whitworth rifle.

Civil War Rifles

Rifles in civilian hands were tools as well as defensive weapons. Quite a bit of the meat on the table in rural American homes got there by hunting so accuracy was prized in a rifle. There were five types of weapons that were developed during the Civil war. All were built for specific purposes: muskets, short rifles, repeating rifles, rifle-muskets, and cavalry carbines. Both short rifles and cavalry carbines were used for close-quarters fighting, which made a long barrel unwieldy to handle and load from a saddle. As the name suggests, cavalry carbines were designed to be used on horseback. When the repeating rifle was invented, soldiers could fire faster than two to three rounds per minute in strict formation. The impact of changing weapons technology changed the culture of the gun in America. By the end of the war, rifle and optics had a significant progression that made it possible to get a rifle capable of accurately firing up to 1000 yards and more.

Whitworth rifle, fitted with Davidson telescope, about 1861. (uncredited, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Whitworth Rifle Was Worth It

Joseph Whitworth. (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Whitworth rifle was said to be the first long-range sniper rifle and was designed by Sir Joseph Whitworth, an English engineer, entrepreneur, inventor, philanthropist, and Crimean veteran. Before the rifle, he first created the British Standard Whitworth system, an imperial-unit-based screw thread standard that he devised in 1841 and soon became a British Standard that was the first one in the world. He did so after noticing that the British standard-issue rifle was not super accurate compared to the cannons used by the British in Crimea. He thought their hexagonal rifling could be scaled down and applied to a long gun. With the Whitworth system of rifling the barrel, the grooves did not cut into the bullet as it traveled down the barrel, the result was a much higher muzzle velocity, with improved range and accuracy. The result was the Whitworth rifle, made to be superior to the 1853 Enfield rifle that was commonly used at that time, was able to hit the target out past 1,000 yards versus the Enfield which could only manage a distance of maybe 600 yards with any accuracy.

A Whitworth rifle co. Manchester .451 RIFLE. Circa 1860. (andrewbottomley.com)

He was successful in terms of creating a better weapon. However, the British were not interested in his rifle, as it was also more expensive than the Enfield rifles. The British didn’t need their troops to better shots, they just needed them to stand in the ranks and fire their volleys in mass at close range when ordered and then charge with bayonets.

Selling To The Confederate Armies

Whitworth was able to sell his rifles to the French and to the Confederacy. During the American Civil War, the sharpshooters who fought were equipped with Whitworth rifles and were tasked to take down Union field artillery crews. Perhaps their highest score was when they killed Major General John Sedgwick, one of the highest-ranking Union Army officers. Sedgwick was shot down at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.  He had been warned not to approach a road near his HQ as it was under fire from some distance.  His men were dodging about trying to avoid individual rounds being fired at them. Sedgwick chided them for being so skittish told them to take courage saying, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”  An instant later a bullet hit him in the face just below his left eye.

It turned out Whitworth was lighter than other long-range rifles available at that time, and its bullets were more compact, which resulted in its accuracy. The Confederates loved the rifles and put them to good use by not only arming their sharpshooters with them but also deploying them with infantry units to shoot down the officers and Union artillery crews as well. Soon enough, the trademark weapon became known that the sharpshooters of the South even took the name of their rifle, and they became known as Whitworth Sharpshooters.

To the Union troops, these Whitworth Sharpshooters became a cause of fear among them, as these snipers were known to have taken out the Generals not only at Spotsylvania but also at Chickamauga and Gettysburg. Whitworth’s rifle technology proved to have made huge advances before and during the war, with staggering casualties compared to their previous encounters.