The Enfield .577 caliber rifled musket was the second most common weapon used in the American Civil War, largely because it was used by both sides. It was a British-made weapon with a large bore, firing cone-shaped bullets almost twice the bore size of the ones that U.S. soldiers used in World War I and World War II. These larger, slower bullets were typical of the mid-1800s. Though they were slower than modern bullets, they were deadly if they hit vital parts of the body. Worse, they were designed to make terrible wounds, and a hit to a bone usually resulted in amputation of the limb because bones were shattered rather than cleanly broken.
The Enfield itself was favored by some over the American-made Springfield. One reason was that the Enfield had a better gunsight, which made its use for skirmishers and anyone else using aimed fire more accurate. This did not make it a weapon for snipers, it was for any trained marksman who wanted to fire at distant targets, rather than at a closer mass of men. The Enfield sights were easier to adjust for distant targets than those on the American Springfield.
When the Civil War began, there were not enough “modern” weapons to equip entire armies. There were no large weapon factories in the Confederacy. So, the Confederates quickly began buying rifled muskets from England.
In addition, the governor of the state of Massachusetts placed an order for 25,000 Enfields to equip volunteer units. The 2nd Massachusetts was one of the regiments equipped with these Enfields.
These orders continued to be placed by both sides. As a result, the Enfield factories delivered an estimated 900,000 weapons to Union and Confederate troops, and at the end of the war they still had a manufactured stockpile, which was suddenly not needed.
A supply of Enfields ended up in Nepal, either from this surplus or from a batch manufactured in that nation. In a case of governmental over-efficiency, they were coated in grease and put into very deep storage, so that if the Royal Nepalese Army needed extra rifled muskets, they would be available. Eventually, in the late 20th century, someone noticed that the Royal Nepalese Army probably didn’t need mid-19th century weapons any more, and sold them as surplus.
The weapon on display in this exhibit is one of those weapons, obtained and restored by a collector whose ancestor served in the 13th Massachusetts, one of the units that had received Enfields from the governor’s original order. While Thomas Ellsworth would have carried such a weapon during his time as an enlisted man in the 2nd Massachusetts, his would not have had Nepalese markings.
By Nick Smith
Mr. Smith is a co-curator of the exhibition When Johnny Came Marching West: How the Civil War Shaped Pasadena.