American Civil War Weapons: Facts & History

Instructor: Matt Lamb

Matt has tutored for six years now, in a variety of subjects including reading, essay writing, chemistry, and theology. He is finishing his M.A. in Political Science this August.

In this lesson, we will discuss weapons used during the Civil War. You will learn about how those weapons were used and how they work, such as small arms, long arms, knives, and cannons.


You may recognize modern-day weapons from news stories or from your own knowledge of weapons. Did you ever wonder if older versions of them were used during the Civil War? In this lesson, we will look at weapons of the Civil War, many of which might be recognizable as predecessors of modern-day weapons.

Small Arms

Before the Civil War, most small arms were single-shot, meaning the guns had to be reloaded each time through a muzzle. However, during the Civil War, semi-automatic weapons, which can repeatedly fire bullets, were developed. This helped the soldier because he did not have to shoot and then reload every time, allowing for quicker firing. Another name for single-shot is single action, because the shooter had to cock the hammer every time to fire, whereas double-action guns release the hammer simply by pulling the trigger.

Long Arms

Long arms refers to weapons such as rifles. While rifles are less commonly used in combat today, replaced by faster so-called assault rifles, they were the primary long-shooting gun of the time. Some common rifles included: Springfield muskets, Colt Revolving rifles, and Enfield rifles. The technology was similar to the small arms.


While not technically a weapon, guns are pointless without bullets. One of the major changes from the previous wars was the development of the Minie ball, a newly designed bullet. The Minie ball could travel farther and more accurately and cause more damage. This is because it was cyndrical, hollow, and expanded upon impact, causing more damaging wounds.


If you have watched movies set during the Civil War or even the Revolutionary War, you have probably seen re-enactments of cannon shots. Usually, one person loads the cannon with the cannon ball, another person may add powder, and a third might light a fuse. These were early versions of modern-day missile launchers or even tanks.

Cannons are an example of artillery, a type of weapon that fires longer range, compared to small arms, which shoot at close distances. There were many types of cannons used during the Civil War, including mortars, which were less accurate but could fire farther. As you can imagine, mortar cannons were useful for hitting large targets, such as walls or military camps. Parrott rifle cannons could fire faster and were easier to move since they were much lighter. Parrott cannons were not as powerful as mortar cannons but were more mobile, which was helpful for quick strikes.

Model of a Civil War cannon
Model of a Civil War cannon

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