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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

12 Answers 12

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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
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    The propensity of military firearms to be zeroed at rather long ranges carries over all the way into WWI. During that war they finally figured out that most combat happens inside 300 meters and started to adjust their sights and cartridges to match. – Schwern Mar 4 '17 at 23:03
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    Another thing to consider is that many people have a tendency to raise the weapon slightly when depressing the trigger, thus causing shots to go high. This is especially true of partially trained conscripts. Telling them to aim slightly low compensates for that as well, by the split second it takes the bullet to leave the barrel, it is on track for center mass. – jwenting Sep 12 '17 at 7:41
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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
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    Even so, +1 and thanks for the answer. It's always good to have multiple options. ;) – Jon Ericson Oct 4 '12 at 16:13
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    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
  • @JonEricson, I've always heard a reason for the multiple bullets that is they forgot the powder load during the fog of war on the first shot. With those cap lock rifles, it took some doing to get a bullet out with no charge. Something that wasn't easily accomplished on a battlefield. – Tombo Jan 4 at 15:21
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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
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    @JonEricson: See Guy F-W's recoil theory. – nic Oct 5 '12 at 9:41
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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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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
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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.

  • 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
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    @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
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Think of aiming up or down hill in the extreme - that is, straight up or straight down. There is no trajectory. Sights are calibrated for horizontal flight. Any elevation or depression will cause you to shoot high if you use the sights. Ask any bowhunter who shoots out of a tree stand.

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Everyone here has missed the mark...pun intended. It had nothing at all to do with kick, or trajectory. It had everything to do with the fact that your natural instinct is to aim center mass...the chest. Soldiers...and criminals...have been known to soak up many rounds in the chest and keep on firing. Then again, one round might get lucky and find the heart, or an artery. It is a roll of the dice, but the odds are not in the shooter's favor.

Here's a clue. Ever here the term "gut shot" and how it meant the situation was dire? The place you want to aim is the lower part of the body. Groin to belly button. The idea is to put the person down in one shot. One shot to the belly or groin will take a soldier out of commission, and as a side benefit, a shot that misses a little high or a little low, still has a chance. Remember Black Hawk Down, and the soldier who was shot in the leg and died? Leg wounds in video games are treated as trivial, but in real life, a gun shot to the leg can be fatal.

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    I think your answer needs some references to back up your assertions, especially on the medical side. – Steve Bird Aug 8 '16 at 6:34
  • @SteveBird: Recall that on October 14, 1912, Teddy Roosevelt went on to give a 60 to 90 minute speech with a would be assassin's bullet lodged in his chest. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 3 at 11:58
  • A wound anywhere can be fatal (the closest thing to a "safe" place to shoot someone is in the ass). The reason a gut shot is so dangerous is that it causes Peritonitis, which is almost invariably fatal without treatment. Thing is, it's not quickly fatal. Wounding someone in a way that guarantees their death sometime in the next week isn't very useful in battle. – Mark Jul 15 at 23:06
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Bullets (and shells) of the guns of the day, had a tendency to "fly high." That meant that many of them missed the enemy. This was because of sights and "recoils" that caused bullets' actual trajectories to be higher than their "official" ones.

The purpose of "aiming low," was to compensate for this fact and 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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One issue which hasn't been mentioned is trajectory and correcting for terrain. If the target is above or below the shooter, this causes the round to hit higher on the target because the bullet is traveling at a slightly different angle with respect to gravity. This angle reduces the gravity drop of the round and makes the round impact higher. So, when correcting for shooting uphill and downhill, the soldier should always aim low.

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    You said "This angle reduces the gravity drop of the round", how does that work exactly? The gravity drop is determined by the force of gravity and the flight time of the bullet. Since the force of gravity at a given location is effectively constant, the only variable is the flight time. So the only way that changing the angle will reduce the drop is if it reduces the flight time, i.e. it makes the bullet travel faster. Aiming up isn't going to do that. – KillingTime Aug 16 '16 at 19:59
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    @killingTime: The reason is actually pretty simple: most people estimate their aim based on the visible distance--but the trajectory depends only on the horizontal distance. The horizontal distance is shorter (whether the slope is up or down), so if you go by the visible distance, you're always over-compensating (i.e., aiming too high). – Jerry Coffin Mar 3 '17 at 23:57
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.58 caliber black powder bullets do NOT shoot flat. If the sights are set for 3oo yds the bullets peak trajectory is 43" above the line of sight at 175 yds. (modern 5.56 mm only rises 3 inches when zeroed for 300 meters.)

If a soldier fires standing from the shoulder the rifle muzzle is already about 60 inches above the ground. If he aimed horizontally the bullet will rise to a point 104 inches (8'8") above the ground. Avg height for union army soldier was 5'8". If you aim between his feet and knees the bullet can rise 43" and you still have a chance to hit him in the chest.

Check out Cadmus Wilcox book Rifles and Rifle Practice. Professional officers knew about ballistic trajectory.

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    That rise of 43" over 175 yds equates to ~1100 fps muzzle velocity - which actually sounds a bit fast for black powder, which explodes slightly sub-sonic. However your rise of just 3" equates to 4200 fps muzzle velocity, which is insane even for a high powered rifle. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 3 at 23:51
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Seven decades of ignorance is not bliss. For most of this time, I thought that at least one factor involved in the aiming of small arms at knee level was a "negotiated protocol" among warring nations. However, I could not find any such protocol in a brief "search" of Geneva protocols, and I did not know what other "treaty" or "truce" protocols to search. I can imagine that my aiming method protocol was not highlighted or ingrained very much. Now I am wondering if my aiming method protocol between combat adversaries ever even existed.

I get the concept that wounding an enemy may take two or more enemy off the field of battle, at least for a while. I get that the knee level shot might kill the enemy anyway. I get the ballistic/trajectory factors. However, those concepts have little or nothing to do with making an established protocol effort that allows the ex-enemy (as well as our own ex-fighters) to return alive - albeit temporarily or permanently disabled - to families and, perhaps, to continue somehow to make a livelihood.

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    This is essentially another question and, really, should be asked as such (perhaps with a link to the original). It's not a good idea to include your email address in public postings. – Steve Bird Jul 14 at 15:44

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