I was asked at a event event whether or not junior officers may have used a rifle or musket during battle. I haven't seen any evidence in several archive records I've searched.

My speculation is that it's possible, as many of the junior company officers (1st or 2nd Lieutenants) may have been either recent cadet grads or senior cadets of a military academy.

Also, I could see the possibility that a cadet could also be used for sharpshooting, especially early on in the war.

Any thoughts?

  • Presumably, you're asking if it was common practice for junior officers to use a rifle or musket, not simply if any junior officer ever used one once? To make things clearer you may wish to add a reference to the American civil war in the question rather than just as a tag.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Nov 8, 2015 at 21:26
  • Thanks, my apologies... Yes, I'm new to this posting to forums. I'm looking common practice of this
    – Robert
    Commented Nov 8, 2015 at 21:29
  • They used knives.
    – Ricky
    Commented Nov 8, 2015 at 22:16
  • 3
    Where does the "used for sharpshooting" part comes from? Junior (or non-junior) officers would not have to be specially good shooters -specially when compared with seasoned veterans-, and using them specifically -instead other soldiers- as sharpshoters would only endanger them and risk leaving their men without command.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Nov 8, 2015 at 22:17

4 Answers 4


The US Military Academy in 1860 was essentially an engineering school. There was little to no training in small arms so a newly created officer would be no more likely to shoot skillfully as anyone else.

Also, West Point was tiny. There were only 45 graduates in 1861. The 34 in the class of 1862 was rushed ahead and graduated later in that same year. This isn't going to fill up the spots required at all, much less fill up a sharpshooter unit. In the end, most officers were made from regular, well schooled and thought of men from other walks of life, who learned on the go from the West Pointers and Regular Army men about them. There is a story of Maj. General WT Sherman at Vicksburg himself taking up an ax and training a regiment to make fascines and sap rollers (tools for seige work) and by the end of the session, the officers and men were doing the job skillfully.

It was not part of an officer's job to take a musket and shoot, and actually it was frowned upon. That said, I do recall quite a few claims that officers did sometimes take a crack at the other side in battles. One that comes to mind is "Co. Aytch: A Side Show of the Big Show" where the author Sam Watkins mentions that one of his officers did take shots in most battles for kicks.


In his diary and again in his memoirs (Infantry Attacks), a certain Lt. Erwin Rommel notes during the 1915 attack on Verdun "although the most extreme command measures were necessary, although the men were properly dug into fox holes by nightfall."

So just what is a junior officer's "most extreme command measure" you might ask? Presumably something along the lines of holding a pistol to the head of the soldier accompanied by words to the effect "Dig now; or I squeeze the trigger now." Possibly accompanied by much profanity to assist the soldier's hearing, and add emphasis.

In the aftermath, after grumbling at twilight about the lucky adjacent company that was sheltered in a wood and didn't have to dig in, Rommel's company woke up the following morning with one dead and two wounded. The lucky adjacent company in the wood had ceased to exist as a fighting unit; the French knew well the devastating effects of tree burst artillery fire.

This is why officers in line units are never issued a rifle - the time spent using one is always time spent not managing the survival of the whole unit. In this way it must always be an officer's explicit decision to pick up another man's rifle, and join the fighting line, when that is necessary to improve the unit's survival chance; but it is never to happen accidentally.

  • Good points all... Couple of notes:
    – Robert
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 18:03

Officers were usually too busy commanding to shots at the enemy.

There are a few exceptions, as always. General George Crook, for example, was sort of a one man army. As a lieutenant he reportedly shot six Pitt River warriors, as lieutenant colonel and brevet (honorary) general he reportedly shot a Paiute and an Apache, as a brigadier general he reportedly shot a Sioux or Cheyenne.

But that was just a minor little sideline to his tactical, strategic, and negotiating skills that resulted in the surrender of many thousands of hostiles.


Unable to save edits to my comments so, here's what I'm going with for my answer: Good points all... Couple of notes: during the US Civil War, especially early in the war, the significant majority of both armies were hardly 'seasoned' and definitely not veterans. Most in the north were from cities and I'd be willing to bet never used a rifle at all. In the south, as an agricultural society, at least the soldiers could use a rifle as this was the only way to put meat on the table.

Both sides did develop sharpshooter units later on, but these usually consisted of soldiers pulled from other units. I do know of sharpshooter units on both sides: the Berdans on union side, 1st South Carolina Sharpshooters on the confederate side, but am unable to find any evidence of the officers also being actively involved in sharpshooting in any battles. Again, thanks all for your answers...

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