Whitworth Rifle

The Whitworth breech loading 12-pdr., a British-made gun, was especially designed for long-range use. Tests in England showed that it had a range of 2,600 yards at 5 degrees elevation; at 10 degrees, 4,500 yards; at 20 degrees, 7,000; and at 35 degrees, an astonishing 10,000 yards.

The Whitworth is most associated with the Confederacy, for most of these guns went south. A battery of six 2.75-in. Whitworths, complete with carriages, ammunition, and machinery for making more projectiles was donated to the U.S. government in 1861 by a group of American expatriates. Although these weapons did see limited service on the I'eninsul.i, they were soon installed in the fixed defenses of Washington, never to be fired in anger. Southern forces received the rest of (he Whitworths sent to America, and they did use these weapons. The downside, of course, for wide use, was their cost. A single 70-pdr. Whitworth cost £700. This compares to the cost of $515.34, or about £103 at the 1860s exchange rate, for a U.S. Army Contract 12-pdr. Napoleon muzzleloader,

I'he Whitworth also required special ammunition. Two Whitworths shipped to South Australia in 1867 were accompanied by a variety of ordnance: "The projectiles adapted to it consist of solid shot, common and shrapnell shell, rifled spheres and case shot. All the projectiles are made of hard metal and with the exception of the case-shot are rifled by machinery and fit the grooving of the gun," As supplies brought

A captured Whitworth rifle, imported by the Confederates from England. These guns were essentially too accurate at too long a range to be wholly effective, given the target acquisition and spotting methods of the period. (Library of Congress)

through the blockade did not always reach their destination, the Richmond Arsenal went to work to replicate Whitworth's ammunition. In May, 1863, one of its officials reported that: "The Whitworth shells, fabricated at Richmond, are a decided success; they did admirable execution."

Even with this, the Confederate users found the range and accuracy to be astonishing. Capt. Ilardaway opened fire with his battery's 12-pdr. Whitworth on enemy ships at a range of three miles with notable accuracy in December, 1K62. At Fredericksburg, as Federals massed for their assault in December, 1862, a Union officer later reported that: "About noon on Sunday they planted a Whitworth gun in the bend of the Massaponax, which annoyed us considerably, throwing its bolts over the whole of the plain. It was so well posted as to be entirely screened from our batteries across the river, and at such a distance, and so hid by trees, as to be hardly discernible by the naked eye. After considerable difficulty, we succeeded in getting the range, which was found to be 2,700 yards with Hall's three guns, and soon silenced it It did not reopen from that point,"

The trick was finding a proper spot lor such a long-ranged, accurate weapon. None could be found, for example, in the heavily wooded Chancellorsville campaign until late in the action, when, as a Confederate artillery officer reported:

'The enemy's stragglers were discovered making into the road at a point about 1.5 miles from the river, where the head of a hollow curved around toward Falmouth and kept them out of view until they reached this main ridge. The Whitworth gun of Hardaway's [Hurt's] battery was trained on this point with happy effect. The road was soon cleared ol stragglers when an enormous wagon park was discovered about 'i miles distant, where we were told the roads to Aquia Creek and United States Ford branched. Wagons were evidently being concentrated here from

United States Ford and Falmouth, while fires of infantry stragglers could be seen occupying every copse around the wagon camp. The range was speedily obtained with Whitworth shell, which operated beautifully, and the utmost consternation seemed to seize upon the teamsters and camp followers. Wagons were seen hurrying off in every direction from the park, while we plied them with solid bolts as long as we thought it would pay. The ammunition being very expensive, we soon desisted."

The Whitworth's main problem for the Confed

Whitworth Long Range

erates, besides the cost of its ammunition and difficulty of finding a proper place to site it, was the delicacy of its breechloading system in an age when soldiers were not used to mechanical objects. E, P. Alexander, the Chief of Artillery, First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, recalled that: "The muzzle-loading 6-pdr, and six breech-loading 12-pdr. Whitworths were distributed through the army and often rendered valuable service by their range and accuracy. They tired solid shot almost exclusively, but they were perfectly reliable and their projectiles never failed to fly in the most beautiful trajectory imaginable. Their breech-loading arrangements, however, often worked with difficulty and every one of the six was at some time disabled by breaking of some of its parts, but all were repaired and kept in service. As a general field piece, the efficiency was impaired by its weight and the very cumbrous English carriage on which it was mounted." Indeed, the Whitworth in the Vicksburg garrison burst on the first day of the siege, its cartridge apparently loaded incorrectly.

Confederate ordnance officers also found the Whitworth carriages not only "cumbrous," but also incapable of handling the stress of service. One of the Whitworths in Lee's army broke its axle on the first clay, was repaired, and then the same axle broke again under the shock of firing. By 1864 the Richmond Arsenal was producing stronger but lighter carriages for Confederate Whitworths.

Austrian officer Fit/Gerald Ross summed up the Confederate Whitworth experience in July, lSti!5: "There are a few Whitworth guns, which are very accurate and of great range, but require much care. The breech has sometimes been blown off or disabled through carelessness in loading. This was especially the case with breech-loading guns. 1 understand that the Whitworth guns which are now sent out are muzzle-loading. Their field-ammunition the Confederates consider to he far superior to that of the Yankees. Spherical case (shell filled with musket-balls) is the most successful projectile they use."

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  • kalimac
    Where is the whitworth gun at gettysburg?
    8 years ago
  • Jess
    How much is a civil war whitworth rifle worth ?
    5 years ago

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