“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

Allen Guelzo wrote a book about the battle of Gettysburg “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” , in which he says some confused things about smoothbores and rifles. One of my regular readers noticed and mentioned this some time ago.

“Rifling bestowed greater range and accuracy on a musket, but it did so at the price of forming a trajectory for the bullet which “dropped” rather than went straight to a target. To hit a target thus required exact knowledge of the speed and distance of a target, something which in battle was rarely available.”

Which has left Wiki thinking  that rifle bullets had curvy paths while musket balls flew straight.  Not so!

Here’s a decent discussion ( by RogueOne).  The key point is that a spin-stabilized bullet can be pointy yet not tumble: so it has a smaller cross-section and experiences less wind resistance.  So it goes farther.

All the time that the bullet is flying, it’s dropping, under gravity.  If it goes twice as far as a musket ball, that takes twice as long – and it drops four times as far.  D = 1/2 g t^2 – one of the secrets of the Occident, known to but a few.

Guelzo suggests that people couldn’t really take advantage of the rifle’s greater range: but they could.  The Springfield was sighted for 100, 300, and 500 yards – and when 15,0o0 Rebels are coming at you, you have a decent chance of hitting somebody at the greater distances possible with a rifle. Well-trained sharpshooters could even be decently accurate  at those ranges, as Sedgwick found.

Charges didn’t work as well as they had with muskets.

Modern rifles have considerably higher muzzle velocities. Assume that one has four times the muzzle velocity of an 1861 Springfield: then it will take 1/4 the time to reach the same target, and will drop 1/16th as far. A flatter trajectory.  How do we do it?  Velocity !






This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

59 Responses to “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

  1. James Thompson says:

    Most Newtonian, and also very entertaining.

  2. JayMan says:

    Is this not very basic physics? I know that I shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t know it, though.

  3. Lior says:

    Yeah, but if gravity and lower velocity makes it harder to shoot straight than why do stormtrooper with laserguns and no gravity always miss?

    • Jason says:

      Effects of nearby black holes? </ tongue-in-cheek >

    • engleberg says:

      Star Wars was a Civil War western, the stormtroopers are union sailors or whitejackets, sailors don’t handle small arms all day like ground pounders. And since Hector great with shield work, the head villain can take a punch; but since Teucer’s prayer to Apollo was better, villains have less luck with missile fire.

  4. Gord Marsden says:

    The Magnus effect which would be induced randomly on a musket ball would make them inaccurate, the drag would also slow them down more than a shaped bullet, rifling was discovered by repeated cleaning of a gun and the spin of the cleaning rod as it was forced through. Te look down a clean bore would have shown spiral scratches .

  5. Bonner Tal says:

    But how much does rifling reduce muzzle velocity? Using some fraction of the propellant to induce spin must have an effect, right? But I guess that effect is swamped by not having to use a ball.

  6. Ken says:

    “Rifling bestowed greater range and accuracy on a musket, but it did so at the price of forming a trajectory for the bullet which “dropped” rather than went straight to a target. To hit a target thus required exact knowledge of the speed and distance of a target, something which in battle was rarely available.”

    That’s astonishingly ignorant.

    Also: rifle sights are zeroed in such a way that they provide a parabolic trajectory. The M16A1 assault rifle was typically zeroed for 25 meters – a trajectory that would take the bullet above the line of aim and bring it back down to the point of aim at approximately 250 meters.

  7. RCB says:

    The term “flat-shooting cartridge” is used a lot by hunters and shooters. For the most part it means a cartridge with high muzzle velocity. To a lesser degree they are also talking about bullets with higher ballistic coefficient, the effect of which is to reduce drag and maintain higher velocity at long distances.

  8. Friendly Fred says:

    Why is it that when two 18th century armies were facing each other with guys standing shoulder-to-shoulder firing at other guys standing shoulder-to-shoulder only a short distance away the death-and-wounds rate wasn’t close to 100% on the side that got fired at first?

    • Part of that would be as above. Bullets burying themselves in the ground at their feet or flying over their heads.

    • gcochran9 says:

      They missed a lot, and reloading took a while.

    • BB753 says:

      On the contrary, they were quite effective compared to modern rifles used in suppressive fire tactics.

      • Stephen Saintonge says:

        Those muskets didn’t have sights, and many infantrymen went into action the first time without having ever fired their weapon.

        Apparently, they tended to tip the musket up till the muzzle was in line with the enemy’s chest, which throws the ball high. Veterans learned to “aim” at the enemies feet, keeping the bore more nearly horizontal.

      • Stephen Saintonge says:

        What an enthusiast can do after lots of practice, on a range with no one firing at him has little relationship to what a badly trained and frightened recruit can do on the battlefield.

        And suppressive fire is, by definition, not supposed to hit, just to keep the enemies pinned down.

    • Woof says:

      They tended to be drunk out of their minds, and not exactly the best and brightest of their societies. Malnutrition, fetal alcohol syndrome, one too many blows to the head while growing up, scaring from childhood illnesses, most of these troops would not be allowed in the army today. It also explains in part the sadistically brutal punishments. The army at least fed, shod and clothed them

  9. Texan99 says:

    What people don’t know about Newtonian laws of motion can be seen in any Hollywood movie in which our hero jumps out of a plane on takeoff (he invariably falls in water with all lateral speed cancelled), or any space opera with the possible exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of our favorites is “Gravity,” in which our heroine wants to catch up with someone in the same orbit but further along, and speeds up to do so, as if they were on a racetrack on Earth.

    • RCB says:

      My favorite: damsel falls from a tall building. At the last moment, some flying superhero suddenly catches her, mid-flight, instantly changing her trajectory without doing any harm.

      • random observer says:

        I dimly recall reading a parody of that exact scene in the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve. The piece questions why Superman’s arms didn’t just slice Lois into three pieces which would continue falling.

    • Dividualist says:

      Well yeah but that is really not intuitive on the movie screen. AFAIK there are two ways to do it, either speed up towards the target but also fire thrusters downward, towards the Earth, because otherwise it would put you in a higher orbit and actually slow you down related to the target, this might even look OK on screen, or fire thrusters downward, go on a lower orbit with a higher orbital speed, catch up, and then fire thrusters upwards to go back on the higher orbit, catch up, and slow down.

  10. Theoretically, Guelzo also had editors. I looked him up, he’s a Great Courses lecturer.

    Seems like a great example of CP Snow’s Two Cultures. Except, of course, the inhabitants of (ahem) one of those two cultures often know a good deal about the other, while the reverse is true less often. As to the third culture Snow added later, social science, it knows little of either of the other two, except what it thinks it learned from NPR.

    • dearieme says:

      A friend of mine: you can study Science and learn about the triumphs of the human intellect. You can study the Arts and learn about the triumphs of the human intuition. Or you can study Social Science.

  11. Scott Harrington says:

    Smoothbore musket – analogy is bowling with the kid bumpers up. Bullet follows erratic path down the barrel (wadding helps a little and helps trap some of the gases behind the round) and range is limited.

    Rifled musket – analogy is a spiral thrown football (American) which gives a rotational spin to the round perpendicular to the flight path and travels further with some more punch – think long pass to the end zone vs. throwing a shotput. Expansion of the concave base of the bullet would allow the bullet to slide down the barrel easier but engage the rifling when fired.

    Ken’s drawing above illustrates best the path of both the incoming bullet and the space that the soldiers needed to swiftly cross (under the curve – safe ground) when attacking. Gun powder (oft misnamed as black powder) creates quite a lot of smoke, fouls the piece quickly, and is difficult to be precise on combustion rate. (trivia – properly compacted gunpowder expands 500 times it’s original size rapidly / it is an explosive in that state.) Special rounds with zinc washers at the base served the purpose of removing lead and unburnt power fouling from the musket.

    Interesting conjecture comparing the two. At the First Battle of Bull Run, Stonewall Jackson closed to the enemy so that his .69 caliber buck and ball rounds (smoothbore) were more effective than the .58 caliber Minie bullet (rifled).

    Very little target shooting amongst the infantry regiments, using the wall of lead philosophy. There were trigonometric designed hand held range finders called stadia to assist officers, but seem not to be used much.

    I have lost the link but there was an actual formula by a European mathematician that calculated the probability of a hit on the battlefield dependent on height and width of the target (poor soldier.)

    One of the statements on Civil War accuracy – [“It takes a man’s weight in lead for every soldier killed in battle.” A well known saying during the war, meaning that much ammunition had to be produced for each of the enemy killed. It reflected the belief that most shots hit trees, horses or nothing. From “The Language of the Civil War” by John D. Wright page 159-160.] The trouble was it could be the first shot that would get you – damn that thing called statistics!

  12. Gord Marsden says:

    mass firings of rifled barrels at a further range would have been as effective. and not so dangerous getting fired back at . interesting tanks have gone back to smooth bore with sabot style guided shells . best of both worlds , accuracy and range , and essentially modern wading

  13. sam57l0 says:

    Regardless of whether you’re shooting muskets or rifles, someone not aimed at could still be hit by a bullet. We call that “Bad, BAD, Luck.”

  14. Halvorson says:

    The Rogue One guy explains that “Rifles have significantly flatter trajectories than smooth bore muskets, as long as they have the same weight bullet at the same velocity.”, so isn’t it relevant that Civil War era rifles had much lower initial muzzle velocities than old Brown Bess did?

    • gcochran9 says:

      It would be, if ’twere true. But it isn’t.

      • arch1 says:

        Wouldn’t a musket ball decelerate more quickly than a same-mass spin-stabilized bullet due to its larger cross-section? If so, then it would take more time (during which it would fall farther) to reach any given distance.

      • Halvorson says:

        Brent Noseworthy’s book reports the velocity of a Brown Bess to be 1500 fps compared to 1115 for an 1858 Enfield Rifle, 1050 for a Minie rifiled musket, or 2000 for the later Krag-Jorgenson. This basically corresponds to what I’n seeing on Wiki and Google.

          • Halvorson says:

            I don’t know enough about the different models of the musket to explain how variations can affect fps, but the best sources I keep coming across suggest that 17th and 18th century muskets fired at about 1500 fps, which would at least make them more accurate than rifles of the Civil War era at close ranges.


            Click to access Scott_etal_2017.pdf

            • gcochran9 says:

              A. I don’t think so.
              B. At close range, not much difference.

              • Stephen Saintonge says:

                At 1050 fps, a bullet fired horizontally would drop about 16 inches. At 1500 feet, about six inches. Not a lot of difference.

                For standing opponents, a rifle sighted for “one-half second” will do at battlefield ranges. For a 1050 fps bullet, a rifle sighted to 175 yards, and aimed at the point where the neck meets the chest will still hit him somewhere out to about 280 yards.

            • Samuel says:


              If true, does that mean Guelzo’s excerpted explanation makes sense? “Rifling bestowed greater range and accuracy on a musket, but it did so at the price of forming a trajectory for the bullet which “dropped” rather than went straight to a target.”

    • Anonymous says:

      Smoothbore weapons are superior though. Why else would all modern tank cannons be smoothbore ?

      • gcochran9 says:

        Tank guns “fire a very long, thin kinetic-energy projectile, too long in relation to its diameter to develop the necessary spin rate through rifling ” instead, fin-stabilized.

      • BAP says:

        You need at most 1:7 lenght ratio to stabilize a projectile and those rods have 1:20+ ratios.

        Earlier shaped charges (before they became irrelevant due to them stalling with HMX from the 50s vs constantly improving ceramics) needed smoot bores because spin tends to lower the effectiveness of the copper jet.

        Plus a rifling in a 1500 – 1900 m/s enviroment wouldn’t last long. Even non-rifled barels will last about 50 shots when fired at full power.

        Only the British stayed with tank rifling due to the use of HESH rounds but these too became irrelevant in 1990 or so due to Dyneema anti-spall liners.

  15. Citizen AllenM says:

    The advances in technology forced by the civil war are a great example of how war research can push a country: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Dixon
    1500 yards was impossible thirty years before 1874.

    Consider how that war progressed from a Waterloo style jaunt (first Battle of Bull Run) to a full preview of the first world war (Siege of Petersburg VA) in just four years.

  16. Xenophon Hendrix says:

    This is relevant and fun: Shooting 12 Gauge Slugs at 200 and 300 Yards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gvC2o00O_M

    So is this: Shotgun Slugs: Smoothbore vs. Rifled Barrel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8p_0LIx2LHI

    Note that the presenter is normally an excellent shot.

  17. It appears to be a grain of truth in what he says, although it appears only to affects ranges > 300 m where smoothbores already lose all accuracy. And sights, of course, always adjusted for use at intended range.

    I found this in Russian, it has a Swedish interwiki, so it seems legit

    • Stephen Saintonge says:

      There’s a famous quote from someone I can’t remember the name of, that at 200 yards you just can’t hit a man-sized target with a smoothbore musket, except by aiming well off to the side. In that case, you might eventually tag it by accident.

      A British test concluded that a volley directed at a body of men at any distance over 150 yards would probably be wasted, and at over two hundred yards was sure to be wasted. And Scharnhorst conducted tests for the Prussian Army that led him to conclude that 120 yards was extreme range for a musket volley. Anything over that, leave them to riflemen.

  18. One of the things that also led to low-“hit the target” rates in battle is that there is conjecture/research (sometimes not that different) that few soldiers actually aim their rifles at the enemy, instead preferring to shoot wildly and inefficiently due to either moral weakness (not wanting to kill anyone) or incompetence.

      • Samuel says:

        If you take “aim” to mean put a body in the sights, do you really think it’s nonsense “that few soldiers actually aim their rifles at the enemy”? Especially in the Civil War era, where Guelzo, if you believe him, compares amount of shots against wounds and goes on about smoke.

        I remember meaning the passage above but, not being a lovable geek like all you all, my mind opted to make it make sense by assuming that he only meant: soldiers trained on smooth-bore became even more inaccurate when handed rifled muskets without proper training. That doesn’t make sense either, so thanks for the discussion.

  19. Young says:

    All bullets drop at the same rate. A Brown Bess round and an M 16 round fired on a lavel plane should hit the ground at about the same time a finger-dropped bullet dropped from the same height as the muzzels reaches the ground. The M 16 will go farther than the Brown Bess because it is going faster. The dropped bullet will go nowhere but straight down. But all 3 should hit the ground at the same time if fired from a level stand.. Galileo; not Newton.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s