Arms for Brady’s Sharpshooters
By Wayne Abernathy
The Brady’s Sharpshooters, as far as can be ascertained from the historical record, may have been armed with any of three types of rifles during the course of the war.
The Target Rifle. Perhaps the weapon most commonly associated with Brady’s Sharpshooters would be the target rifle, carried by the men of the Company from 1861 through the spring of 1864. These were custom-made rifles, designed for accuracy in competition. Although there was significant variety in these arms, perhaps no two exactly alike, the most common target rifle brought by the men of Brady’s Sharpshooters into the Federal service was probably a version of what was sometimes called the American rifle, having some or all of the following characteristics:
—heavy, reinforced octagonal barrels;
—blued or browned metal, rather than shiny bright finish;
—shorter barrel length than a military musket (e.g. a Springfield or Enfield);
—smaller calibre bore than a military musket (the Springfield, for example, was .58 calibre), some being as small as .45 calibre, or even smaller;
—sharp drop to the gunstock;
—half stocks instead of full stocks;
—scopes, often as long as the barrel itself.
Furthermore, it is important to note that the Brady’s Sharpshooters did not employ the super heavy rifles borne by some other Federal sharpshooter units. The recruiting posters for the Company declared that rifles would be limited to not more than 16 pounds in weight, certainly heavier than the nine or ten pounds of the standard military musket, but light enough to be carried in the field.
Probably the closest modern reproduction model is the plains rifle. The Lyman Great Plains Rifle is a fair representation. Navy Arms used to produce a fine looking plains rifle, but it does not seem to be offered by them at the present time. The Lyman has a blued barrel, and the Navy Arms a browned barrel (some say a more authentic look). The Lyman is less expensive than the Navy Arms, and is available from several sources. The Navy Arms rifle might occasionally be found at a gun shop.
A Hawkins rifle might make an acceptable substitute, particularly if equipped with a scope. The plains and Hawkins rifles were related in design and history. Note, however, that there is a strong prejudice against Hawkins rifles in reenacting, probably attributable to earlier days of the hobby when they were likely seen as a cheap but inaccurate alternative for reenactors thinking of portraying line infantry, for whom such an arm would be inappropriate and unsafe. There is also a wide variety of Hawkins reproductions on the market, varying significantly in quality, look, and price. Be cautious if you look down this road.
Sharps Model 1859 Infantry Rifle. The Brady’s Sharpshooters traded their target rifles for Sharps rifles in late spring 1864, in time for the Overland Campaign. It is unlikely that the men were issued versions with double set triggers, as very few double-set rifles were provided to the Federal armies, and almost all of these were issued to the Berdan’s Sharpshooters. When looking for a Sharps reproduction, then, it would be best to steer away from the double-set trigger versions.
Several Civil War Sharps reproduction rifles are available on the market. Be careful to get the Model 1859 version; the Sharps rifle continued in Federal service after the war in later models that would be anachronistic for Civil War reenacting. Look also for the full length rifle, not the cavalry issue carbine; a longer rifle and a full stock are keys that will help you distinguish the two. Also note that, being privately manufactured for the Army by contract, the Sharps rifles all came with blued barrels, not bright steel.
Model 1855, 1861, 1863 Springfield Rifle and the Enfield Rifle. No record has been located showing that the men of the Brady’s Sharpshooters were provided standard issue rifles. The 16th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, to which the Brady’s Sharpshooters were attached, was issued Springfield rifles, along with a few Enfield rifles (about 4% of the rifles issued to the regiment). Since the regiment was organized in 1861, it is fair to conclude that these would have been the model 1855 and model 1861 Springfields. It is not unreasonable to assume that some of the men of the Brady’s Sharpshooters might have, at least on some occasions, or for certain reasons, taken up the same rifle as the men with whom they were surrounded. For example, were a Brady’s Sharpshooter to lose his rifle or if it were to become inoperative, it would be likely that he would take up the standard arm of the regiment. Given the precision nature of the target rifle, and therefore vulnerability to damage, it is not hard to imagine that such a need might have been common.
There are a variety of sources for reproduction Springfield rifles. Again, the 1855 and 1861 versions would be likely to be the most appropriate, and of these, the 1861 are more easy to find on the market. An 1863 model could be appropriate for a later war impression. It is not totally unreasonable to carry a Civil War era Enfield, since about 4% of the rifles issued to the 16th Michigan were Enfields, and these weapons were very common among Federal armies throughout the war. Enfield reproductions are equally commonly found on the market.
Sources for additional information:
James Gordon Genco, Arming Michigan’s Regiments, 1862-1864 (1982).
William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns (August 1982).
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