Gun Test: Enfield P53/61 Musketoon

By Paul Scarlata • Photos by Steve Woods

Corporal Horry Colleton sat on his horse as still as he could and did not let any of the emotions raging inside him show on his face. He calmly waited his turn to dismount and add his Enfield musketoon and two Colt Navy revolvers to the growing pile of weapons in front of the platoon of Yankee soldiers. While it galled him that this was the end result of four years of whipping these “blue bellies,” he felt no disgrace, for the 6th Virginia Cavalry had shown these Yanks what real cavalrymen were like.

Trooper for trooper, they’d never been outfought. It was only the North’s unlimited number of men and supplies that had finally forced General Lee to ask for terms of surrender. He guessed that they should consider themselves lucky in that they 

were going to be allowed to at least keep their horses. Horry almost laughed out loud when he saw the scowling Union captain grudgingly return Lieutenant Drayton’s revolver. It had belonged to the lieutenant’s older brother, who had been killed outside of Petersburg the past winter, and it meant a lot to the 18-year-old officer. As they formed columns one last time and rode off, Horry thought to himself, “One thing’s for sure: These damn Yankees know they’ve been in a fight!”

Enfield Pattern 1853 Confederate Cavalry

Rifled .577 brought greater power and speed to the Confederate cavalry during the Civil War!

New Guns, New Tactics

The American Civil War is generally acknowledged as the first “modern war.” While at the start of hostilities most military commanders, both North and South, still adhered to what were basically 18th century tactics, new weapons quickly changed the face of warfare. As far as the average infantryman was concerned, the most revolutionary of these arms was the rifled musket.

While the rifled musket aped the appearance of its smoothbore predecessors, its rifled barrel provided far superior accuracy. No longer did the foot soldier carry a weapon that could not be counted upon to hit a man-sized target past 50 yards—the new rifled muskets were accurate out to 300 yards and beyond.

Up until this time the rifle had been the weapon of small units of specialists who used its long-range accuracy to harass artillery crews, pick off the enemy’s officers and act as skirmishers and scouts. But while the rifled musket gave the average solider previously unheard of range and accuracy, it still retained the old smoothbore weapon’s greatest attribute—it could be reloaded rapidly.

This was because the rifled musket fired a new projectile, commonly known as the “Minié ball” after the French officer Captain Charles Claude Minié, who first proposed and experimented with the concept of hollow-based rifle bullets.

.557 Enfield Cartridge Ordnance Works

.577 Enfield cartridges were made by the Tyler, Texas, Ordnance Works

The so-called Minié ball was a cylindro-conoidal lead projectile that had a hollow base fitted with a wooden, clay or metal plug. It was undersized so it could be loaded down the rifle’s barrel easily, but the force of the exploding gunpowder would drive the plug into the bullet’s hollow base, causing it to expand and engage the rifling. Later experiments showed that the plugs were not necessary, as the force of the exploding gunpowder expanded the skirt of the bullet sufficiently to grip the rifling. So while the new rifled musket could be loaded as fast as the old smoothbore, it had three or four times the effective range of its predecessor.

In addition, percussion-cap ignition made the weapon even faster to reload and more reliable, especially in windy or wet weather. While breech-loading, metallic-cartridge and repeating long arms were to make their appearance during the Civil War, the muzzle-loading rifled musket was to remain the basic weapon of the vast majority of infantrymen, and the weapon that inflicted the horrendous casualties suffered by both sides.

At the outbreak of the war, the standard arms of the U.S. Army were the Model 1855 and 1858 rifled muskets, but the rapid expansion of the Army quickly outstripped the ability of the Springfield Arsenal to supply sufficient arms. Southern forces captured the other national arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and moved its equipment to the Virginia Manufactory of Arms in Richmond, where it was used to produce weapons for Confederate forces.

While some newly raised Confederate units had Model 1855 rifles, most were equipped with a miscellany of older models, including smoothbore and even some flintlock muskets. Shortly after the war began, the Union adopted the Model 1861 rifled musket, which was produced at the Springfield Arsenal and by a number of commercial subcontractors.

Union and Confederate agents were dispatched to Europe to procure arms, where they desperately bought up just about anything that would produce clouds of white smoke while launching projectiles in the enemy’s direction. The shoulder-fired weapon that was to become the second most widely used by the North, and the most popular with Southern troopers, was soon on its way from Europe in the holds of numerous ships and blockade runners.

Related Stories: Gun Test: Navy Arms 1873

Born in 1853

The Enfield Pattern 1853 (P53) rifled musket was developed at the Enfield Arsenal in the early 1850s to replace the Pattern 1842 smoothbore musket and the Pattern 1851 rifled musket. It is considered by many as the finest example of the rifled musket genre and, while in British service only a little over 13 years, it was to become one of the most influential muzzle-loading military rifles ever developed.

The P53 first saw service in the Crimean War (1854-1856), the Great Indian Mutiny (1857) and the New Zealand Land Wars (1845-1872). It was also used by the Spanish and Portuguese armies in addition to being sold to several Latin American, African and Asian nations.

The P53 was first issued to native soldiers (Sepoys) in India in 1856. When Hindu soldiers discovered that the cartridges were greased with beef tallow, which was offensive and forbidden to them, they refused to use them. Rumors also spread that the waterproofing included lard, which was forbidden to Muslim troops. While the British instituted production of ungreased cartridges to placate the Sepoys, it proved too late, and this incident was one of the many causes of the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857.

There were four basic models: the “three band” P53 musket with a 39-inch barrel, the “two band” Pattern 1858 short musket with a 33-inch barrel, the Pattern 1853/1861 artillery musketoon with a 24-inch barrel, and the Pattern 1856 cavalry carbine with a 21-inch barrel and a swivel-retained ramrod. The various P53 and P58 muskets used a socket-style bayonet with a 21.75-inch triangular blade, although the latter (and the P53/61 musketoon) was also issued with the Pattern 1856 saber-style bayonet, a fearsome, 23.5-inch curved blade.

Bayounet attachments for the Enfield P53

Bayonet attachments for the Enfield P53

The Enfield became the most common, and popular, rifle carried by Southern troops. No less an authority than General Robert E. Lee is quoted as saying that a Confederate soldier could consider himself properly equipped if he had “an Enfield rifle, 60 cartridges and a bayonet.”

In the Union Army, the P53/58 was second only to the Springfield Model 1861 rifled musket in total numbers issued. To meet this demand, besides the Enfield Arsenal, they were produced under contract by a half-dozen British gun-makers and by firms in Belgium, Spain and the United States.

The Enfield’s cartridge was a paper tube into which a lubricated 530-grain, .577 caliber Minié ball was placed with the nose of the projectile facing into the tube. A second paper tube containing a charge of approximately 68 grains of black powder was placed inside the first, above the bullet, and the ends were twisted and sealed. The entire cartridge was usually coated with a beeswax and tallow solution to waterproof them. The muzzle velocity was approximately 900 fps with an extreme range of 2,000 yards.

To load the Enfield, the soldier first placed the rifle’s hammer at half-cock, then removed a cartridge from his pouch and tore off the twisted end with his teeth (which is why one physical requirement for enlistment was that the recruit have “several” opposing teeth on his upper and lower jaws) and poured the powder charge down the barrel. Then the Minié ball, still encased in the cartridge paper, was placed in the muzzle and rammed down with the ramrod, the paper serving as a wad to keep the undersized Minié ball in place. A percussion cap was placed on the rifle’s nipple, the hammer pulled back to full-cock and the trigger pulled.

The P53/61 musketoon was a favorite among Southern cavalrymen, as it gave them a light, handy weapon with range and accuracy similar to the standard rifle. In an infantry-type engagement, they were at little or no disadvantage to opposing troops, while, if fighting on foot against Union cavalry, who at the beginning of the war were armed with only sabers and revolvers, they had a distinct advantage in terms of range and firepower.

The P53/61 became the preferred shoulder-fired weapon of the fast-moving, hard-fighting Confederate cavalry and partisan units led by such famous officers as General Nathan Bedford Forrest, General J.E.B. Stuart and Colonel John Singleton Mosby. It was only after Union cavalry troopers began receiving large numbers of breech-loading and repeating carbines that they were able to best the Southern horsemen.

Blockade runners continued to bring Enfields into Southern ports until January 1865, and they remained Johnny Reb’s primary weapon until the end of the war. They also saw wide use by Billy Yank and were the rifles issued to the first official African-American unit of the Union Army, the
54th Massachusetts.

After the Civil War, U.S. infantry garrisoning western forts continued to be issued rifled muskets, including the P53, until they were re-armed with metallic-cartridge-firing Springfield Trapdoor rifles in the late 1860s.

The P53 continued to see service around the world after our fraternal bloodletting, including the Boshin War (Japan, 1868-1869), the War of the Triple Alliance (South America, 1864-1870), the Fenian raids (U.S./Canada, 1866-1871), the Red River Rebellion (Canada, 1869), the Second Schleswig War (Denmark, 1864) and the War of the Pacific (South America, 1879-1883).

Enfield p53/62 target

“While the Enfield’s tiny sights were a bit of a trial for my eyes, when the smoke cleared, I was pleased to see five shots in four holes.”

Dixie Replica

Dixie Gun Works imports a series of reproduction weapons from the 18th and 19th centuries that Pedersoli produces in Italy to specifications as close to the originals as possible. Because they’re made with modern materials and production methods, they are structurally superior to the originals.

Dixie kindly shipped me one of its Enfield Pattern 1853/1861 musketoons and a supply of .58 caliber Minié balls. Hodgdon chipped in with a quantity of its Triple Seven blackpowder substitute propellant, while CCI sent along a supply of Four Wing musket percussion caps. Since I’ve had little experience with blackpowder weapons, I called my good friend, Butch Simpson, for help.

Becky (my fiancée and photographer), Butch and I met at my gun club on a humid May morning. While seeing all the paraphernalia that was required proved a bit daunting, a quick tutorial from Butch on the intricacies of muzzle-loading firearms caused my doubts to disappear. Walking down the range, I placed a target on the 50-yard backstop and another pair at 75 yards. In order to ameliorate the negative effects of recoil, I decided to fire the musketoon from my Caldwell Lead Sled.

We loaded the musketoon with 50 grains of Triple Seven and rammed a lubricated Minié ball down on top of it. Placing a percussion cap on the nipple, I took a 6 o’clock hold on the 50-yard target and carefully pulled the trigger. This produced a loud boom, the musketoon pushed back against my shoulder, and I was wreathed in clouds of white smoke. Peering through the spotting scope, Butch told me I was shooting about a foot high, and he suggested we increase the powder charge to 60 grains. The next shot impacted dead center in the bullseye.

I then switched to the 75-yard targets and fired five rounds at each. All impacted in the center of the targets, producing groups in the 6-inch range, which was more than acceptable accuracy from such a weapon. Then I fired five round off-hand at a target on the 50-yard backstop. While the Enfield’s tiny sights were a bit of a trial for my eyes, when the smoke cleared, I was pleased to see five shots in four holes.

The Enfield Pattern 1853 series of weapons served with distinction around the world for more than two decades and are considered by many the nadir of development of the rifled musket. A belief that history would seem to prove. For more information, visit dixiegunworks.com or call 800-238-6785. 

Specifications Enfield Pattern 1853/61 Musketoon :

Caliber: .577 • Barrel: 24 inches
OA Length: 40.25 inches • Weight: 7.5 pounds (empty)
Stock: Walnut • Sights: Inverted V-blade front, adjustable rear
Action: Percussion • Finish: Blued • Capacity: Single-shot • MSRP: $995

This article originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.