Confederate Whitworth Sharpshooters

I became interested in the Whitworth rifle used by Confederate Sharpshooters and after doing some research, decided to write a short article about what I’ve discovered.

There were two types of Confederate sharpshooters; the “battalion sharpshooters”, armed with the best available weapons, such as the Enfield rifle, and the “Kerr” and “Whitworth” Sharpshooters. The Sharpshooters, armed with the Whitworth rifles were few in number, but very effective. Whitworth Sharpshooters received their orders daily, they reported to division headquarters and received orders directly pertaining to the local tactical situation. They also drew their ammunition from a wagon specifically used by Sharpshooters. They could be deployed as individuals, drifting along the front lines looking for targets of opportunity or in small detachments for specific tactical missions. They were essentially “snipers”, and used a rifle which was as accurate as any used by modern snipers.

The battalion sharpshooters were essentially “light infantry” comparable to Berdan Sharpshooters, only fewer in number. They served as pickets, scouts, and advanced skirmishers. Often, they were handpicked men.

The Whitworth and Kerr-armed men were not called “snipers”, they were just referred to as  “Sharpshooters.” According to the U.S. Army sniper training manual (TC23-l4, Sniper Training and Employment) the word “sniper” originated in the last century with the British Army in India where the snipe was a favorite game fowl. A good snipe hunter had to be an expert shot and know his quarry’s habits.

 The Kerr rifle required a special long cylindrical lead bullet, wrapped in paper with a special small-bore rifle powder made in England. British-made cartridges were not easy for the Confederacy to obtain through the Union naval blockade. Even though Kerr rifles were quite accurate at long ranges (1000 yards), they had a fairly high trajectory compared to modern sniper rifles, accurate long range fire required accurate estimation of the range to the target. This could be accomplished by using a stadia, a small hand-held instrument that allowed the shooter to estimate range based on the visual size of a target.

In 1860 a company known as the Whitworth Rifle Company was established in Manchester, England. In May 1862, the firm’s name was changed to the Manchester Ordnance & Rifle Company, because by then Whitworth had begun producing cannons. Most rifles were made in .451 caliber and rifled with a 20-inch pitch, but there are very rare versions with a .564 bore and a 25-inch spiral. The earliest military Whitworths manufactured in any numbers were those with 39-inch barrels made for government trials conducted in 1857 and 1858. In 1860 a small number of two military models, a heavy and a light-barreled version, were prepared at Enfield and rifled at Manchester. Testing showed superior characteristics and led the British government to order the production at Enfield in 1862 of 1,000 Whitworths with 36-inch iron barrels. The 1862 Whitworth version was so successful, another 7,900 rifles, known as “short” Whitworths with 33-inch steel barrels, were manufactured at Enfield in 1863. During this time, 100 similar rifles were made by Whitworth at the Manchester Company’s works. These became known as “Manchester” Whitworths.

The manufacturing process of the Whitworth was very unique. The barrel was cast into a bar from molten steel and compressed while in a fluid state. The compression set up internal stresses that allowed the barrel to accept very powerful loads. The Whitworth was extremely well made, with iron mountings throughout and an attachment for a telescopic sight mounted on the left side. It had iron sights graduated to 1200 yards. With a Davidson scope attached it was accurate up to 1800 yards.

The Whitworth bore was hexagonal in shape to increase accuracy; a hexagon bullet was the most accurate. But most Confederates used cylindrical bullets probably due to supply reasons and because after several shots it became very difficult to ram a hexagon bullet down the barrel.

 General Specifications of the Whitworth Rifle, Ammunition and Telescopic Sight:

Caliber:                        .45 (.451, rifled, six-sided, or hexagonal)

Bore:                            .450 inches; one turn in twenty inches

Barrel Length:             thirty-three inches, thirty-six, and thirty-nine inches

Rifling:                       hexagonal (six grooves, slight rounding at the corners)

Total Rifle Length:     forty-nine inches (some noted at fifty-five inches)

Weight:                      (without scope) eight pounds, fifteen ounces (8.95lbs.)

Scope:                        (mounted left side) Davidson telescope, fourteen and one-half inches length,
                                   cross-wire reticule; 145/8” x 15/16”.

                                   Some Whitworth rifles were reported with a “Globe” sight instead of a telescopic
                                   sight.

               

Kerr Rifle

                    

 

An early account of a Whitworth Sharpshooter was written by a surviving Sharpshooter following the war.

 John West was a Georgian in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Below is an excerpt from his writings.

 “In ‘62 General Lee received thirteen fine English Whitworth rifles that were warranted to eighteen hundred yards. These were the best guns in the service on either side. Thirteen of the best marksmen in the army were detailed for this special service, and I was the only Georgian that was selected. We were placed under the command General Brown, who had no other duty than to command us. We were practiced three months before going into service. A score of every shot was kept during these three months, and at the end I was 176 shots in the bulls eye ahead of the rest. The last day of practice in marksmanship was tested by our superior officers. A white board two feet square with black diamond about the size of an egg in the center was placed fifteen hundred yards away. The wind was very chilly and it was unfavorable for good shooting, and I put three bullets in the diamond and seven in the white of the board. I beat the record and won the choice of horse, bridle, spurs, gun, revolvers, and sabre. Our accouterments were the best the army could afford. Then we entered active service, and I have been through scenes which have tried men’s souls. I soon became indifferent to danger and inured to hardships and privations. I have killed men from ten paces distance to a mile. I have no idea how many I killed but I made a good many bite the dust.  We were sometimes employed separately and collectively; sometimes scouting, then sharpshooting. Our most effective work was in picking off the officers, silencing batteries and protecting our lines from the enemies Sharpshooters.  Artillerymen could stand anything better than they could sharpshooting, and they would turn their guns upon a Sharpshooter as quick as they would upon a battery. You see, we could pick off their gunners so easily. Myself and a comrade completely silenced a battery of six guns in less than two hours on one occasion. The battery was then stormed and captured. I heard General Lee say he would rather have those thirteen sharpshooters than any regiment in the army. We frequently resorted to various artifices in our warfare. Sometimes we would climb a tree and pin leaves all over our clothes to keep their color from betraying us. When two of us would be together and a Yankee Sharpshooter would be trying to get a shot at us, one of us would put his hat on a ramrod and poke it up from behind the object that concealed and protected us, and when the Yankee showed his head to shoot at the hat, the other one would put a bullet through his head. I have shot them out of trees and seen them fall like coons. When we were in grass or grain we would fire and fall over and roll several yards from the spot whence we fired and the Yankee sharpshooters would fire away at the smoke.”

The Confederate Whitworth Sharpshooters claimed they killed many Yankee Sharpshooters and didn’t seem to hold Berdan’s in very high regard. It seems they resented all the attention the Berdan’s were getting in the northern press and claimed that Yankee Sharpshooters killed very few Whitworth men and were not as “good shots” as they were.