It seems to me with equal numbers of troops on each side, the side with repeaters would have a huge, almost insurmountable advantage.

Is it true that such battles did occur and if so, did the side with repeaters tend to win overwhelmingly (this would have been the Union, I am pretty sure) or, for example, were there technical problems with repeaters in those early days that tended to offset the advantage?

I definitely have read of Confederate troops complain or admire grudgingly Union troops having weapons that "you could fire all week and reload on Sunday" (or something to that effect) - I think such battles occurred and yet the South did win many battles against the North. I also read that even at Little Bighorn, a decade after the end of the Civil War, repeaters still were jamming -- even today, the added complexity of automatic weapons increases the odds of jamming although with modern manufacturing this is more rare. I also think perhaps even today there are single-shot rifles (sniper rifles) probably to simplify the action of the weapon as much as possible although of course they use cartridges whereas in the Civil War, the reloading required significant time. (This was shown in the movie Glory and incidentally this had Union troops practicing with single-shot muzzle-loading rifles.)


2 Answers 2



The CSA never had a force equipped with either weapon. Therefor they could not have fought against the few Federal units equipped with breech-loaders/repeaters. When CSA troops came up against repeaters/breech-loaders the Union troops inevitably punched far above their weight.

Only a few Union units (generally at their commander's expense) were equipped with breech-loaders. Even fewer (the 21st Ohio infantry come to mind) were equipped with repeating rifles of any kind (even the 21st Ohio had a few companies that weren't issued them). The Confederate army never equipped any unit with breech-loaders or repeaters. There are some instances of individual Confederates purchasing or capturing such weapons, but generally speaking they were only used until the captured supply of ammunition was expended.

The Confederate industrial base simply wasn't up to manufacturing cartridges in sufficient quantity to make them feasible weapons. Additionally the CSA had logistical problems that would only have been exacerbated by weapons that fired off even more rounds than the "standard" muzzle-loader.

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Yes and No.

You may need to specify what you're talking about - virtually all weapons in the civil war used cartridges, be them paper cartridges for rifle-muskets and percussion carbines, or metallic cartridges for rimfire or centerfire-shooting breech-loaders. There are multiple significant instances of repeating rifles, always Union, facing confederates with the typical smoothbore and rifled percussion muskets and decimating them, from small-but-famous battles like Hoover's Gap in 1863, where a tiny number of a few hundred held off several thousands and inflicted many casualties, to the battle of Franklin, one of the most significant battles of the war, where nearly 10,000 mounted infantry and cavalry with the Spencer repeating rifle helped to turn the tide against the Confederates.

For reasons like these the other original response here is simply wrong, as the Spencer rifle & carbine for instance numbered at 106,667 total rifles produced from 1861-66, with the company producing them going kaputt due to a lack of demand with the market so cluttered with surplus, and even the most conservative estimates of the amount of the previous figure are at around 48-55,000 carbines alone produced, along with the definitely finished orders of 12,000 rifles. Keep in mind all sources believe that the number of Spencers bought personally exceeds the 106,667 figure indefinitely.

In addition, to name the major battles - Chattanooga, Nashville, Franklin, Five Forks, Selma, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Shelbyville, Trevilian Station - not all saw large or decisive use, but most of these significant and infamous battles I have mentioned did indeed. It is worth noting that the Spencer is the most common breech loader of the war. This contradicts the information of other answers, which repeat a common misconception, severely underplaying the usage of any breech-loaders.

The Tarpley carbine, Morse and Richmond variant of the sharps were Confederate breech-loaders - which did indeed exist - and there are numerous photographs that exist of Confederates with the Maynard carbine, which proved popular with them, its metallic cartridge being reloadable up to 100 or more times. They did not have breech loaders at all in the same numbers as the Union, though, often making use of captured supplies or guns. They certain had units that used breech loading weapons, mainly cavalry. The Spencer rifle for the Union did play key roles in a number of the most major battles of the war and this is often understated, as we have seen, and the total number of breech loaders in the civil war is believed, from capandball.com using actual figures and data to be 427,000+, which in a war of approximately 3 and a half million men at arms is a high figure.

In short, I think some cavalry skirmishes did take place between breech-loading users on both sides in the civil war, major battles and decisive usage was however usually one-sided. No repeaters were used by the US Army in the battle of Little Bighorn, use was by the Indians who were very successful with them. The Spencer and Henry always worked well, there were no limited or marginalizing technical issues with them either. Wherever you heard this was misleading, as to begin with Custer and his men were using the Springfield trapdoor carbines at the Little Bighorn.

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    Nov 17, 2023 at 22:03

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