Warfare from the 1850s to the 1950s and the late adoption of high rate of fire rifles

During the US civil war, the most common rifles were Minié-type muzzle loaders which have a range of 300-400 meters and a rate of fire of around 3 shots per minute.

During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the Dreyse and Chassepot rifles were the main rifles used with a rate of fire of 10-15 shots per minute.

The Martini-Henry used by the British in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 had a similar rate of fire.

Now, we can see the improvement in the rate of fire. The increased range didn’t matter very much because most engagements occur within 300-400 meters. The rate of fire matters very much, though.

What surprised me was that repeating rifles with higher ammo capacity and rate of fire existed in the 1850s and 1860s. Yet all militaries used slower-firing main rifles up to the 1930s for the US and the 1940s/50s for other countries. I understand why they were only used on a small scale during the US Civil war; They were recently invented and large scale production can take some time to come online. Why did it take nearly a century to get rifles with similar capacity and rate of fire adopted as the main rifle?

Were repeating rifles that much more costly, unreliable, less accurate and non-durable than the 1861 Springfield, the Chassepot, the Dreyse and the Martini-Henry? Were there other factors?

Some military leaders argued, quite seriously, that higher rates of fire would lead to ammunition being wasted.

A repeating rifle is one that can fire more than one round without being reloaded. Technically the bolt-action rifles used by most countries through WWII were repeating rifles.

Part of the reason they lasted so long is there wasn’t any need for anything faster until the house to house fighting of WWII. Bolt action rifles, particularly the Lee-Enfield design which could hold more ammo and be cycled faster than Mauser/Springfield or Mosin-Nagant designs, could be cycled fast by a trained operator. Evena a civilian operator like myself I can cycle Lee-Enfields pretty fast, Mausers and Mosins not so fast. Also by WWI squad machine guns had taken over rifles as the main killing machines so rifle developement wasn’t a priority.

It’s worth noting the US got the only high powered semi-automatic rifle in common use before focus shifted to intermediate power select fire weapons with the STG-44. The Germans and the Soviets both had their own high powered semi designs but they never got to be in common use. The M! was going to use a somewhat lighter cartridge, even before WWII it was looking like in the future quantity might be better than power, but the US had a shitload of 30-06 meant for the M1903 and insisted the M1 use it. That’s why it has an odd capacity of 8 rounds, it was supposed to hold 10 somewhat lighter rounds.

You’re talking about two disparate types of war in two different eras.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-'72 was not a mechanised war in the sense that WW1 (‘total war’) was; in that it was still based on horse-mounted cavalry charges (with sabres drawn, not firearms), soldiers ‘forming square’ in reserve, and cannonade. Indeed, this was still true through the Crimean War, the Zulu Wars and both the Boer Wars. Not until WW1 did machine guns - in any quantity - come into use.

Prior to WW1, whilst various patents of machine gun had been submitted, but they were mechanically unreliable, over-heated to the point of being useless on the field, and, as with any dug-in position, if they failed when needed, then that position was easily over-run by the enemy.

This was so even during the American Civil War: http://failuremag.com/letters_to_editor/article/richard_gatling_letter/

During the Civil War, weapons like the Model 1861 Springfield and the British Model 1853 Enfield cost under $15 each. Repeating rifles like the Henry cost $45 to $65 each. They did prove their worth on the battlefield, but they were just too expensive to produce in large numbers. After the Civil War, instead of switching to repeating rifles, they went instead of cartridge breech loading rifles, which had also proven their worth in battle (10 to 12 rounds per minute compared to the 3 or 4 rounds per minute of a rifle-musket) but were much less expensive to produce. They could hack apart an old leftover Model 1861 musket and turn it into a “trapdoor Springfield” for about $5 per rifle, and they had a lot of Model 1861 muskets lying around after the war. Considering that the U.S. was in the dumper economically after the war, cheaper was definitely better.

Another factor was ammunition. A weapon with a high rate of fire doesn’t do you any good if all you do is run it out of ammunition really quickly. There were several machine guns produced during the Civil War, in small numbers, but they weren’t used much because commanders thought they wasted too much ammunition and didn’t give enough impact on the battlefield in return. In the late 1800s there were dramatic improvements in the production of brass that made large scale production of brass cartridges practical. Without large scale production of brass cartridges, you couldn’t really have practical high rate of fire weapons. The practicality of ammunition is what dictated the standard infantry weapon after the Civil War, and in many ways still affects the choice of the modern infantry rifle. The modern U.S. M-16 was criticized a lot at first because of the smaller and lighter round that it shot (and the fact that the first ones out to the field were admittedly unreliable pieces of junk, but that’s another topic), but the point of the smaller round was to allow the soldiers to carry a much larger number of rounds. Keeping soldiers supplied with enough ammo is a big issue during wars.

You can criticize the military leaders of the late 1800s for not wanting to waste ammo, and therefore failing to see the future potential of the machine gun and higher rate of fire rifles, but the technology of the late 1800s really wasn’t up to producing enough ammo for those kinds of weapons.

Comp Geek,

I’m surprised and appreciative that you know the prices paid back then. Do you have any idea of the price of ammunition in those days?

Military people are very conservative, in the past even more so. We know that what we got works. If we move to something new, especially during wartime, and it doesn’t work there will be hell to pay.

This changed in the WWII era when Western militaries embraced science and innovation as a cure-all to all problems.

Well, yeah. And they were right to think that. Before the Industrial Revolution war technology & tactics both advanced at the same pace, namely slower than a snail. The Industrial Revolution caused a rapid increase in advance of technology, but it was only natural that tactics took much longer to catch up. The American Civil War is the best example. The Springfield .58 caliber was a rifled musket, meaning that although it was still a muzzle-loader it had a *rifled *barrel and was accurate at a range an order of magnitude above how it was used then. Of course, to take advantage of this you would also need to train each individual soldier to be a marksman, and that sort of thing can’t (and won’t) happen overnight. Unfortunately, the start of the War kind of did.

Point I’m making is that you shouldn’t view the above quote as being primarily driven by the Officer ranks having little respect or even disdain for the enlisted man as nothing more than cannon fodder. Sure, class-warfare existed between them, but the idea that a high-rate-of-fire weapon was a bad idea was not based upon penny-pinching, greedy Generals or Quartermasters. It was based on a practical (and real) fear that it would cause disorder, chaos, and a complete breakdown of military discipline in the rank & file of battle. And, once they did start to realize the accuracy of rifled weapons and did begin to train the individual soldiers to take more careful, individual aim instead of relying on massed volleys, a fast-firing rifle was seen (again, accurately) as going counter to that!

Definitely not true. There was a desperate need for faster weapons well before WWII. Both troops and officers were calling for faster weapons during WWI. Bolt action rifles were all but useless in much assaulting trenches, which is why they were commonly discarded in favour of clubs, axes, swords etc. Which is one major reason for the invention of the SMG.

The primary reason the European powers didn’t switch over to an semi-auto rifle after the lessons of WWI was economic. Everyone acknowledged that a faster weapon was greatly superior, but the cost of re-equipping and training an entire army when there were literally millions of WWI surplus weapons in stock was prohibitive. Instead they focussed on developing SMGs, which were cheaper to make, for issue for assault engagements, and retained the bolt actions as the standard long arm.

I just bought this book, “The Illustrated Dictionary of 20th Century Guns” (isbn 0-7603-1560-4) and it says in the introduction to the section on heavy machine guns: “The American inventor, Hiram Maxim, was one of the first to appreciate that the recoil generated by one cartridge could be used to eject the empty case and and then to load the next round, an idea that gave birth to his machine gun in the 1880’s.” (452)

So, the modern version of the machine gun wasn’t invented until 1880.

I can add more detail from this book, but I gotta go out atm.

More information from the same book:

Bolt action rifles were popular until WW1, as accuracy was considered more important than rate of fire, such as the Lee-Enfield. As time passed, rate of fire became more important. (192)

Early models (pre-wwII) of machine guns suffered from various issues, such as overheating, weight (thus needing a tripod) and jamming. The first machine guns used in WW1 used a cumbersome watercooling method. Later models used air cooling, but were also prone to jamming or needing to “rest” between bursts. These guns often came with a spare barrel that needed to be changed.

But, all that being said, I also think that as mentioned above military strategies changed as well. Up until WW2, bayonets were still issued to soldiers in nearly all countries, some models had built-in or permanent bayonets. From watching historical films, even by the Civil War, the technology was advanced enough that the stately military march in formation was suicide.

Well, there was a pretty direct evolutionary lineage between the Brown Bess era muskets and the bolt-action WWI and WWII rifles like the Mauser K98, 1903 Springfield, SMLE and Mosin-Nagant.

All of the rifles involved were intended more or less for line-formation infantry combat- with the exception of range, there wasn’t a huge difference in the infantry doctrines of most countries up until WWI, at which point the Maxim gun made that style of fighting suicidal, and caused the combatatants to dig in out of a sheer lack of anything else effective to do. Somewhere in there “machine pistols” or submachine guns were developed, but fired pistol caliber rounds relatively inaccurately and at very short range.

The solution to the trench warfare brought on by machine guns was the tank, and this changed the role of infantry. However, it took another 25-30 years before infantry weaponry caught up with the development of the assault rifle by the Germans in the Sturmgewehr-44.

WWII was fought by infantry with either outdated or overpowered rifles, and for a long time after WWII, the NATO countries didn’t quite get the memo that half of the point of the assault rifle was the shorter and less powerful rifle round. 7.62 NATO isn’t a whole lot weaker than old-school .30-06, so automatic fire and lighter weight rifles weren’t really taken up in the West until 5.56 became common. The Soviets on the other hand, took the lessons to heart and developed the AK-47, which we all know is quite effective in it’s intended role.

Nowadays, the pendulum has swung back somewhat; infantrymen are considered skilled professionals and marksmen, and in the US Army and Marine Corps, don’t fire full automatic, so there’s some push for more accurate and harder hitting rifles than the M16/M4, and some units have gone back to 7.62 NATO designated marksman rifles and for other uses.

Superhal, the info is appreciated.

I understand why machineguns weren’t used much until WWI and possibly the Russo-Japanese war. They’re complex and heavy weapons.

I understand why lever repeaters wouldn’t be used after the later 1890s; spitzer bullets are very aerodynamic but their pointiness creates a hazard in a tubular magazine.

I can see why, right after the Civil War, the US would have preferred trapdoor Springfields for 5$ a pop over 10x more expensive lever guns. I don’t know why most European countries didn’t adopt lever guns and instead opted for one-shot breech loaders.

Was there significant trench digging during the US Civil War and the Franco-Prussian war?

Were there many wars after the US Civil War where most battles included extensive melee fighting? I know that the Zulus got the jump on the Limeys a few times during the Anglo-Zulu war but I mean battles where both sides were prepared.

I can’t quote the source since it was a book I rented back in the 90s as a teenager but I remember it said that in WWI, nearly 60% of casualties came from heavy weapons, nearly 40% from small arms, 2% from grenades and less than 1% from melee. In the US revolutionary wars, about a third of calsualties came from melee. In-between those two points, something happened that made most battles overwhelmingly shooting affairs.

“From watching historical films, even by the Civil War, the technology was advanced enough that the stately military march in formation was suicide.”

Pickett’s charge seems to confirm that. It might have worked in past wars but with advances in artillery and the Minié-ball (a few years later, breech loaders), charging several hundred meters accross open ground wasn’t going to be a mainstay of battle anymore.

It’s been touched on earlier, but by the 1930s the “main rifle” was actually the light machine gun - initially the Lewis, later the Bren gun, the MG-34 and so forth. The riflemen were there to carry the machine gunner’s ammunition, and the machine gunner was there to keep the enemy’s heads down so that the riflemen could close with and destroy them with grenades. In that context full-power rifles of any stripe were, if anything, an awkward compromise; the Soviets eventually moved to the widescale adoption of submachineguns.

The US had a slightly different approach; their M1919 light machine gun was heavy, and their BAR squad automatic weapon was light, which might explain why they felt the need for a semi-automatic rifle. I’ll quote a bit from Wikipedia, which supports my thesis and therefore must be accurate:

Fire and movement tactics centered around the M1 riflemen in the squad, while the BAR man was detailed to support the riflemen in the attack and provide mobility to the riflemen with a base of fire. This doctrine received a setback early in the war after U.S. ground forces encountered German troops well-armed with automatic weapons, including fast-firing, portable machine guns. In some cases, particularly in the attack, every fourth German infantryman was equipped with an automatic weapon, either a submachine gun or a full-power machine gun.

The Soviets also had semi-automatic rifles, the Tokarev SVT, but it was more rifle than Soviet industry and the Soviet army could cope with. I surmise that pre-WW1 the global industrial base wasn’t there to support automatic infantry, post-WW1 the money and political will were lacking. That, and the problem whereby full-power automatic rifles were overkill; it took a willingness to adopt smaller-calibre, less-powerful ammunition before each soldier had his own personal machinegun.

No, it was mostly a movement war. There were sieges, though, but I’m not sure how useful a machine gun could be during sieges.

Most trench-digging in the American Civil War was in the last two years or so. The Siege of Petersburg was particularly noteworthy - looked quite a bit like WWI:




[quote=“Elendil_s_Heir, post:17, topic:630355”]

Most trench-digging in the American Civil War was in the last two years or so. The Siege of Petersburg was particularly noteworthy - looked quite a bit like WWI:


Vicksburg, too - very similar in many ways. However, automatics still wouldn’t have been that useful as, frankly, nobody in those seiges was getting very close to the other sides’ trenches without great planning and great luck. The field trenches and fortifications used by both sides during many “normal” battles were much closer to everyday WW1 warfare.

I think the real reason that repeaters weren’t in use at the time had more to do with technical limitations than ammunition. Military weapons, more than anything, need to be practical for rough handling and bad conditions - early repeaters often weren’t. Aside from which, most had a shorter range and were more prone to jamming than the rifled musket. It’s no shock that the calvary, which needed lighter weapons and could take part in fewer battles, picked them up first, although later in the war other units did start to get them. Military technology improved rapidly during the war, including for repeaters.

Does anyone know what main individual weapon the US used from the 1830s to the 1860s? I see that the M1819 Hall rifle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M1819_Hall_rifle) had the superior range you could expect from a rifle (800 yars) while having the rate of fire you could expect from a breech loader (8-10 rounds a minute) which is much higher than the 2-3 shots a minute you could expect out of a muzzle loader like the Springfield 1861.

It used a flintlock but it seems like it could have easily been converted into a percussion cap weapon.
Upthread, I asked about melee fighting after the US civil war but what about during the US civil war? Were there major battles where melee fighting features prominently?

James Longstreet, Confederate general, is credited with “inventing” the transverse (or “traverse,” the online literature seems to use either word liberally, and I’m not sure which is correct) trench:

The point of such trenches was that they zigzagged, so anyone who flanked a section of trench and fired down into it could only affect a short section of the trench at a time. Being flanked in a straight-cut trench could be disastrous; the troops would be penned in and lined up for slaughter. At Antietam, the Confederates held the trench-like, but essentially straight, Sunken Road against all attack until Union soldiers reached a flanking position. Their fire killed so many of the suddenly-exposed Confederates that the place was forever after known as the Bloody Lane.

In WWI, traverses were ubiquitous in all trench systems.

So a critical element of 20th-century trench warfare was developed during the American Civil War.