Besides government plants, private firms got involved in weapons production. For example, Davis and Bozeman of Coosa County, Alabama, made 58-caliber rifles. J.&F. Garrett Co. of Greensboro, North Carolina, produced the 52-caliber Tarpley carbine, the only breech-loading gun patented, manufactured and offered for general sale in the Confederacy.
Private industry made its biggest contribution to weapons production by making pistols. When the war began, the Confederacy had no revolver manufacturers within its borders. But wartime entrepreneurs appeared like Spiller and Burr, Griswold and Gunnison, and Leech & Rigdon.
Many entrepreneurs found that making weapons for the South was a difficult business indeed. Consider the story of Charles Rigdon, for example, a Southern sympathizer who lived in St. Louis. He moved to Memphis when the war started and formed a partnership with Thomas Leech to make swords.
Advancing Union armies forced the pair to move to Columbus, Mississippi, and then to Greensboro, Georgia, where they made 36-caliber revolvers, which were copies of Colt’s pistols.
The partnership eventually collapsed. Leech kept making revolvers in Greensboro. Rigdon opened a new pistol firm in Augusta, Georgia — Rigdon, Ansley & Co. — that operated until the war’s end. Interestingly enough, Samuel Colt sued the company for illegal use of his revolver patents.
One non-issue weapon that came from private manufacturers was the shotgun. Often brought from home, shotguns were popular among certain Confederate cavalry units, particularly in the Western Theater.
Shotguns had limited range, limited tactical value and took a long time to load. But at close quarters they were devastating. The 8th Texas Cavalry, better known as Terry’s Texas Rangers, were particularly fond of scatterguns.
During the Southern retreat from the Battle of Shiloh, this unit used these weapons effectively. Ordered to charge Union infantry pursuing the Southern army, the Texans swept forward, halted about twenty steps from the Federal line and fired their shotguns.
Each barrel was loaded with fifteen to twenty buckshot. The Federal pursuit fell apart and a retreat ensued. The Texans then put their shotguns aside and pursued the enemy on horseback, firing their revolvers.
Much of the success of Southern weapon production came from the use of slave labor. African-Americans worked in armories and played a key role in the armament industry’s labor force. For instance, the Georgia pistol firm of Columbus Fire Arms Manufacturing Co. hired forty-three blacks in 1862 and aggressively tried to find more during the rest of the war.
For blacks, working in weapons production was a mixed bag. It often meant separation from loved ones, hard work, long hours and daily rations of bacon and cornmeal. However, the work gave them valuable skills and provided an unprecedented degree of freedom.
Although the Confederacy ultimately lost the war, it did not do so due to a lack of weapons and ammunition. Granted, the Southern ordnance system had flaws. Armies in the East tended to be better supplied than those in the West.
Units in either theater, even late in the war, might carry a hodgepodge of weapons, mostly rifled muskets but sometimes smoothbores, and this variety made ammunition re-supply a headache. Some of the Southern-made rifles and pistols did not meet the standards of Northern or British factories, but on balance Gorgas did a remarkable job.
One anecdote makes the point. When Lee surrendered at Appomattox in 1865, his army was small, sick, ill-clad and poorly fed. However, most men were armed and, on average, each carried seventy-five rounds of ammunition.
Today, Confederate guns are scarce and costly. But the interested student of Civil War firearms can see one of the world’s best collections of Southern weapons at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.
The society owns an extraordinary collection of rifles, pistols, swords, belt-plates and buttons given to it in 1948 by Richard D. Steuart, a Baltimore newspaperman who had two grandfathers and nine uncles who served the Confederate cause. For many years, the collection was displayed to feature the weapons themselves as artifacts and objects of interest.
In 1993, the Virginia Historical Society decided to display its collection in an innovative way. The weapons were moved into a gallery decorated with life-sized murals of Civil War battle scenes. The new display uses the guns to tell the story of how the South armed itself. For the neophyte or life-long scholar of the conflict, the new display is entertaining and informative — you can see Johnny Reb and his guns.
This article is an excerpt from the Gun Digest Book of Classic Combat Rifles.