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I'm listening to Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears and the officers on both sides seem to always exhort their men to "aim low". For instance, General John Gibbon told his 2nd Division infantry:

Do not hurry, men, and fire too fast—let them come up close before you fire, and then aim low, and steadily.—Gettysburg, p. 436

This was on July 3 as Pickett's division approached Cemetery Ridge.

There seem to be a number of variations on the command, such as "fire at their feet", but it always seems to be intended to correct the problem of overshooting rather than undershooting. It makes sense to me that artillery fire could be more effective if the rounds bounded across the ground (and at Gettysburg the Southern gunners tended to fire ineffectually over the heads of the Union line). But I would have assumed the best musket and rifle shots would have been aimed slightly high to account for a ballistic trajectory. This might have been a better question for the late Firearms.SE, but what was it about Civil War weaponry that caused trained soldiers to need reminding to aim low?

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Military rifles were much more powerful than the civilian arms most soldiers were used to and hence had a flatter trajectory. – Tyler Durden Mar 5 '15 at 3:38
up vote 54 down vote accepted

The sights on the Springfield Model 1861 had settings for three distances: 100, 300, and 500 yards. In the civil war, however, many battles were fought at much closer range. According to Battle Tactics of the Civil War (Paddy Griffith) many were fought inside of 100 yards. At this shorter range, the bullet didn't drop as much as the sights were calibrated for. Worse, it's almost inevitable that at least a few were using an incorrect setting, so their sights were calibrated for the even longer distances. If you were shooting only 50 yards with the sight calibrated for 500, the projectile was going to hit a lot higher than where you aimed.

Another point to keep in mind is that many of the soldiers were probably accustomed to shooting various hunting arms. A military load used a prescribed amount of powder that was intended (as you can probably guess from the sight calibration) to maintain accuracy out to around 500 yards. Most people hunting at the time almost certainly used considerably less powder to minimize their costs (at the time, hunting wasn't a game to play in the fall; it was a primary source of protein). Most were probably accustomed to compensating for a fairly extreme trajectory, but the military load shot much "flatter".

There is another point that isn't specific to that particular war, but it's probably still significant: shooting high tends to either kill (if you happen to hit somebody in the head) or miss completely. Although missing is obviously undesired, what may be less obvious is that killing generally isn't considered the optimal result either.

It's actually generally preferred that you wound an enemy rather than kill him. Although it doesn't always happen, if a soldier is wounded there's some chance that one of his comrades will attempt to rescue him and get him back to where his wounds can be tended to by medical personnel (or at least get him out of the line of fire). When/if that happens, you've effectively taken not just one, but two enemy soldiers out of action (at least temporarily). Although a rescuer might come back into battle later, getting even a few extra enemy soldiers out of the battle at the right times could be decisive if the two sides started the battle almost evenly matched.

Aiming low increases the chances of wounding an enemy rather than killing him (at least immediately).

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Welcome to History.SE and thanks for the answer. That explanation makes even more sense when you consider the order seemed to come when officers exhorted their men to wait for the enemy to close distance (even until they "see the whites of their eyes"). – Jon Ericson May 12 '12 at 20:05

This was an ongoing problem with musket armed soldiery; in the Peninsular and Napoleonic wars, in-experienced infantry often shot high, and given that Brown Bess was the standard musket for the British Army from 1722, presumably an issue at least since then.

As such I am doubtful whether the sights of Springfield rifles are a key factor in this problem!

At a guess I would pin responsibility on two factors:

1) If you don't allow for it, the recoil of a musket will tend to kick the muzzle upwards - an experienced soldier can ride the recoil and control it reasonably well, but inexperienced troops are likely to let it rise. If the muzzle kicks upwards, the bullet will go higher than you expected, and so inexperienced soldiers are likely to shoot high. This is going to be exacerbated by the twin facts that many armies did not practice musketry with live ammunition on cost grounds, and that even those which did usually practiced volley fire only, not target shooting, so there was no clear way to gain knowledge that you were shooting high before engaging in combat.

2) The unwillingness of most soldiers to personally kill when they do not feel immediately threatened. As researched more recently (an article reporting on it can be found here, most soldiers looking over their sights at a human being not already trying to kill them will feel a strong impulse to aim off, or close their eyes when shooting to give the guy a chance, or similar. Assuming this phenomenon held true 200 years ago, and I see no reason it should not, the most sensible way for a soldier standing in line, facing a line of enemies to his front, to deliberately miss is to aim up. If, however, all of his mates are keeping their weapons fairly low, aiming at chests or stomachs of the opposing line, he will look very obvious if he aims above their heads! So getting the whole formation to aim low could be a way of using social pressure to overcome the unwillingness to actually aim directly at enemy soldiers, and thus make more of your volley hit.

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This is an interesting answer and certainly plausible. But your two factors seem to be extrapolations from other eras. Firearm technology certainly was improving in the early and mid-1800s. Both the Springfield Model 1861 and Pattern 1853 Enfield were rifled, for instance. On your second point, that might be true, but Civil War soldiers had another tactic that worked even better--not pulling the trigger. Accounts of guns found on the field after Gettysburg reveal that many were loaded with up to ten rounds, which means they were not fired between loading. – Jon Ericson Oct 4 '12 at 16:12
Even so, +1 and thanks for the answer. It's always good to have multiple options. ;) – Jon Ericson Oct 4 '12 at 16:13
You could consider a third element as well. Whenever the ground had firmed up a bit, a low shot would ricochet up into the legs of the oncoming soldiers, so even a shot that was theoretically too low might still be effective. This was also why Napoleon (unrifled) cannon were best utilized on flat ground and aimed level, or just barely elevated (0.5 degree or so). – Pieter Geerkens Dec 9 '13 at 4:15

In fact it is because of the ballistic trajectory that the soldiers were advised to aim low. If a soldier aimed too high (and this seemed to be the natural tendency, given the frequent admonishment), the bullets would pass over the heads of the advancing enemy.

See this wikipedia article on the Springfield Model 1861, and page 196 of Daily Life in Civil War America by Denneen & Volo.

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Hmmm... I see that the tendency was to aim too high, but I still don't see why. A projectile will always end up falling down from a straight line drawn from the end of the barrel, so a marksman must always account for that drop-off. It seems just as likely that a raw recruit would adjust too low as often as they would adjust too high. – Jon Ericson May 11 '12 at 23:48
@JonEricson: See Guy F-W's recoil theory. – nic Oct 5 '12 at 9:41

Having shot an 1861 springfield i have to say i believe that the kick is not really a factor. The normal non leaf sights left me shooting about 7-8 inches high at 50 yards so if i was aiming for center mass i would most likely miss a soldier all together.

If it was anything other then the sights i would have to say it would be trigger jerk and recoil anticipation causing a high trajectory but i really think the sights played a huge part.

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Welcome to the site, but ... this may fit better as comment (instead of answer). – Drux Mar 1 '14 at 15:57

I agree with point 1 on the third answer - it was because of the kick on the musket that would send the ball too high if aimed horizontally. By pointing the musket down slightly from horizontal the kick on the musket would bring the ball slightly higher than horizontal which with falling trajectory would have a much better chance of hitting 'a target' in a group of men.

Let's not forget here that smooth wall (non rifled) muskets of the type used early on in the Civil War were notoriously inaccurate when fired from any kind of range. From close range their inaccuracy didn't matter, from longer range it was more a question of luck whether you hit anything.

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For future reference, the third answer was written by Guy F-W and the point 1 is: " If you don't allow for it, the recoil of a musket will tend to kick the muzzle upwards - an experienced soldier can ride the recoil and control it reasonably well, but inexperienced troops are likely to let it rise. ..." – Jon Ericson Dec 10 '12 at 18:43
@JonEricson Thanks for your note. I still believe your selected answer is wrong (as is so often the case on here) it had nothing to do with the incorrect range selection and everything to do with the kick of the musket sending the ball high. It's questionable how many Springfield rifles were in use at Gettysburg considering they only started production in 1861. In the early parts of the war, smooth bored muskets will still being used. – spiceyokooko Dec 10 '12 at 19:06

Bullets (and shells) of the guns of the day, had a tendency to "fly high." That meant that many of them missed the enemy.

The purpose of "aiming low," was to improve the likelihood of hitting a man SOMEWHERE. The usual idea was to aim "waist high." Such a bullet might hit an enemy in the stomach, chest, or legs, depending on the trajectory of the bullet.

A bullet aimed at the face was more likely to kill someone if it hit, but also more likely to miss. From a military point of view, a chance of 2X of hitting (aiming low), which might wound OR kill, was better than a chance of X of hitting and killing.

As a practical matter, there were more men wounded than killed in battles. But unless the wounds were superficial, they were nearly as disabling as a shot that killed. And "disabling" was the point of inflicting casualties, so that the enemy couldn't fire back.

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I know this has been answered, but from an actual firing of multiple civil war muskets and rifles, practical experience does suggest that the recoil and close range <100 yards would cause an elevation slightly higher than aimed.

I personally found that I had to aim below the target about 7-8 inches and to the right about 3-4 inches to hit the inner circle or bullseye consistently. I use a Model 1853 Enfield rifle.

My 1842 Springfield musket (smooth bore) was pretty much all over the place, no matter how I aimed, thus the need for the 'buck and ball' typical load for this weapon. A 69 round and 3 000 buckshot created a nice 18-20 inch pattern at about 50-100 yards.

Just a little practical field conclusions I made...

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