When you picture a Civil War soldier’s rifle, most people automatically assume that the soldier is going to be carrying an American made rifle. No matter which side of the conflict he is fighting for, Union or Confederate, you would probably assume it to be either a Springfield, or Harpers Ferry Armory produced weapon, or one of the copies made by commercial or government interests in the North and South.
This assumption would be wrong in a large amount of cases. By far, the most widely issued weapon North and South was a British produced musket. The Enfield factory Pattern 1853 rifle-musket was a favorite of troops on both sides of the line.
While the United Kingdom is not known for its weapons’ production today, in that century the United Kingdom was a powerhouse of military technology and production. Weapons that came from British factories were top of the line and cutting-edge technology for their day. Britain's Army and Navy were the largest, with the best and most modern equipment. But the United Kingdom wasn’t fighting anyone at the moment, so there was a large surplus of production to its needs. British-made weapons showed up in conflicts across the globe. The American Civil War was a prime example of this.
When the war broke out, neither side had enough modern weapons to arm their existing troops. Pre-war stocks of weapons were mostly obsolete muskets and other long rifles dating back, in some cases, to the Revolutionary War. Even before the war was declared, the armories on both sides were almost stripped bare of weapons.
This doesn’t even include the massive armies that would eventually be raised, especially in the North. Both combatants looked overseas for other suppliers to fill their needs. Quantities were available from various gun makers across Europe. Some of these guns were better than others. Austrian Lorenz rifles, for example, were prized for their meticulous workmanship. Many countries used this as an opportunity to get paid to dispose of outdated muskets to eager buyers. But these suppliers were still not enough. The largest ready supply was from the Enfield Factory in England. Already tooled up and producing the modern Pattern 1853 for British military use, they were more than happy to sell to anyone with the money to buy it.
The Confederates didn’t have enough money so most of their supply was bought through trading cotton smuggled out on fast blockade-running ships. This cotton would be sold for British pounds, and then the ships loaded with guns for the return journey. Union agents attempted contracts to lock up all production of rifles in Europe to starve the Confederacy of weapons, but never succeeded due to the British desire for Southern cotton. This ensured that the Confederacy saw a small but steady supply of Enfields come their way.
While the Confederacy bought all the arms they could to smuggle through the Union blockade, the Union bought far larger quantities to equip its massive army. Springfield Armory and the multiple commercial companies could not produce enough to meet their needs, so the Enfield was purchased in massive quantities.
So, what made the Enfield so desired? Firstly, it was a rifled musket, which as its name implies, means it was an upgrade over the old smoothbore musket. It fired the so-called Minié Ball (named after its French inventor). While still loaded slowly from the muzzle, this round was a major advancement over the old round ball. Its design allowed faster loading, but also increased accuracy. It had a pointed nose and rear hollow skirt that would expand to grip the rifling to ensure better ballistics. It was chambered in .577 Caliber, which allowed use of the .58 caliber ammunition issued by both sides interchangeably. This meant there was no special ammunition required. By a happy coincidence, it also used the same size percussion caps as American designs, which again simplified supply issues. Lastly, the Enfield was extremely rugged, as it was designed to be mass produced and used by poorly trained soldiers. So, it was perfect for the troops who were being conscripted. In the Union case, many of the troops included new immigrants, inexperienced with military service entirely, so simple and effective weapons were ideal.
The Enfield would become a prized weapon. Many soldiers would trade with other troops to obtain an Enfield, and were fiercely proud of the capabilities of this rifle. It would serve throughout the war on both sides. Large quantities were sold off as a surplus after the war by the Union government. They could be bought by civilians from surplus gun dealers like the famed Bannerman Company of New York, which listed them as available for sale up into the early 20th century. The British government would keep them in service for decades as well, devising various breechloading conversions that served until the Martini Henry rifle took their place.
Large amounts of troops either purchased, were given, or quietly took home their Enfields at the end of the Civil War. There was also a cottage industry of companies that converted them into smooth bore shotguns with cut-down stocks. In either of these forms, they would go on to serve as hunting rifles and fowling pieces to put meat on many family tables for years afterwards.
Enfields have always had a following among military collectors and history buffs for their storied career. Reproductions are available from most of the big replica gun makers if you can’t afford or find an original. Small quantities of original Enfield surplus gun parts are still discovered occasionally and offered for sale.
The Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifle musket played an important part in the American Civil War, but it has not often been given its due in favor of the more widely known Springfield. If you had an ancestor who fought in the Civil War, chances are good he fought with or against an Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifle Musket.