The Ordnance Department


Brigadier General George D. Ramsay, served as Chief of Ordnance from 1863 to 1864


At the beginning of the war, Ripley as well as other Ordnance personnel believed that breechloaders should only be used by Cavalry due to their convenience when reloading on a horse.
6 He also argued that the ability to fire a breechloader quicker than a muzzleloader would make the soldiers worse marksmen as well as waste ammunition, causing more problems for the Ordnance Department.7 Furthermore, breechloaders were generally seen as more delicate, because they had more complicated mechanisms than muzzleloaders’ parts.8 That popular idea faded due to the use of beloved breechloaders, such as the Sharps and the Spencer. Another general belief shared my military personnel was that breechloaders offered little to no tactical advantage over muzzleloaders in an infantry battle.9 All of those conservative views challenged the progressive carbine models on their path of being contracted.

Ripley wanted a standardization of arms and calibers in order to supply the troops more easily, quickly, and thoroughly.10  The new carbines equipped with improved technology had varying calibers. Different calibers caused problems, because the Ordnance Department had to obtain the cartridges from private manufacturers instead of fabricating their own in the federal armories.11 Ripley really only supported one type of breechloader, the Sharps Carbine.12 However, due to the demanding need to arm cavalry and arms manufacturers’ inability to quickly create a massive amount of product, multiple brands and types of carbines were adopted for Union military use.13 Between April 12  and December 31, 1861, out of all the 14,380 carbines bought by the government, less than half (only 6,645) were breechloaders.14 Those figures demonstrate not only Ripley’s dislike of breechloaders, but the limited capability for mass production from those manufacturers at the beginning of the war.

Although Ripley was biased against some advancements, he did attempt to set in place a system to arm the Union soldiers: the three-year regulars were armed first and the rest would be armed second. That meant that the three-year regulars received the better quality arms.15  His idea was to provide an incentive for the troops to join for the full three years.16 However, Ripley’s idea failed due to the immense political pressure from states to arm each of their volunteers with the best weapon. Ripley’s idea did not mesh well with the commanding officers, the progressively-minded President Lincoln, and Secretary of War Cameron.15 Yet, in the failure of the incentive system, the advocacy of Ripley's opponents helped to secure the growth of new arms technology.


The Chiefs of Ordnance During the Civil War

After Ripley retired on September 15, 1863, George D. Ramsay became the new Chief of Ordnance. Although conservative, Ramsey supported breechloaders that used metallic cartridges and viewed them as superior to muzzleloaders. During his time as Chief, he supported the Spencer Carbine.17 However, Ramsey was mostly just a figurehead and retired on September 12, 1864. Following Ramsay, Alexander B. Dyer, former and successful Commandant of Springfield Armory, served as Chief of Ordnance until his death on May 20, 1874. On October 22, 1864, Chief Dyer declared that breechloaders should be looked into as a positive solution to the cavalry's problem of loading a gun on horseback.18

Ultimately, three men served as the Chief of Ordnance during the Civil War. Each one brought to the office a slightly different attitude about arms innovation, especially their views of breech-loading and repeating carbines. The first Chief of Ordnance, serving for most of the war, was highly opposed to innovations in carbines. Then, throughout the war, the Chiefs as well as other officers became more and more open to the breech-loading and repeating carbines, allowing them to be widely adopted for cavalry use during the Civil War. Despite the conservative (those opposed to the new technological developments) sentiment against breech-loading carbines that continued during the course of the war, the government bought 430,000 breechloaders but only  350,000 were delivered before the war ended.1

The turnover in leadership at the start of the Civil War brought in a new, more-conservative Chief of Ordnance on April 23 1861, James W. Ripley, at a time when breech-loading as well as other arms advancements were increasing in popularity.2 Ripley believed the latest Springfield muzzle-loading smoothbore was an extremely reliable arm, in part because those arms were about the only guns that he could supply to the troops at the start of the war.3  However, he did support rifling; in fact, under his leadership the Springfield Armory fabricated the Model 1855 Springfield Rifle.4

Due to the U.S. military’s adoption of the rifled musket in 1855, much of the Ordinances’ ammunition and muskets were outdated. Not only were some muskets in need of rifling, others also needed a flintlock to percussion conversion.5 Furthermore, since the suspension of the contracting system in the 1830s-40s, the government was not at the center of arms advancements, rather private manufacturers drove that innovation process. The lack of enough rifles and rifled muskets as well as other artillery and short arm shortages inspired the government to reinstate the contracting system with private companies, many of which struggled to complete the orders. That  proved to become a blessing and a headache to the Chiefs of Ordnance.



Brevet Major General Alexander Byrdie Dyer, served as Chief of Ordnance from 1864 to 1874


Brevet Brigadier General James Ripley, served as Chief of Ordnance from 1861 to 1863

1 Carl L. Davis, Arming the Union:  Small Arms in the Civil War (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1973), 95.
2 Robert V. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War (Indianapolis/New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1956), 42; Dean S. Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire:  A History of Civil War Small Arms Ammunition, Part One (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1997), 30.
3 Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, 42.
4 Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, 43.
5 Davis, Arming the Union, 11.
6 Davis, Arming the Union, 118, 122.
7 Davis, Arming the Union, 123.
8 Davis, Arming the Union, 130.
9 Davis, Arming the Union, 132.
10 Davis, Arming the Union, 78.
11 Davis, Arming the Union, 79.
12Davis, Arming the Union, ix.
13 Davis, Arming the Union, 86.
14 Davis, Arming the Union, 124.
15 Paul A. C. Koistinen, Beating Plowshares Into Swords:  The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1606¬1865 (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1996), 161.
16 Davis, Arming the Union, 167.
17 Davis, Arming the Union, 139 -140.
18 Dean S. Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire:  A History of Civil War Small Arms Ammunition, Part One (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1997), 37 .

The Ordnance