Side Arms, Standard Infantry

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Side Arms, Standard Infantry. In the national imagination, an armed infantryman stands for all America's warriors, past and present. From the musket‐wielding Minuteman in the Revolution to the M‐16‐toting “grunt” in the Vietnam War, the image is apt: Until the twentieth century, infantry was the primary combat arm, and even now, infantry continues to play a vital role in modern warfare. The evolution of weaponry reflects fundamental historical changes in America's military, both as an institution and as a war‐fighting entity.

A nation's weapons reveal much about its industry and technology, its commitment to preparedness, and how its military fights. After all, peacetime weapons development determines wartime fighting capabilities. When hostilities begin, a military draws from existing arsenals; new weapons, especially small arms, must often await the next war. Taking a weapon from blueprint to servicewide usage cannot be done overnight. Production lines need retooling; new weapons necessitate fresh tactics (for weapons generally dictate tactics, not vice versa); and end users (infantrymen) must fully accept the new arms. All this requires time, a precious commodity in war.

Arms procurement was much simpler in April 1775. Roused by William Dawes and Paul Revere, Massachusetts Minutemen at the onset of the Revolutionary War took personal weapons (mostly muskets and fowling pieces) from the mantle and assembled at Lexington Green and Concord Bridge. Such diverse weaponry created ammunition resupply problems, so when the Continental army was formed, the muzzle‐loading, smoothbore flintlock musket was its basic infantry weapon.

Smoothbore muskets remained standard American (and British, Prussian, and French) infantry side arms well into the nineteenth century. During the Revolutionary War, Continentals were armed with French and Dutch imports, British muskets gleaned from battlefields and left over from the Seven Years' War, and a few American manufactures modeled upon Britain's short land service musket, or “Brown Bess.” Typical of most contemporary muskets, the Revolutionary‐era “Bess” weighed about 13 pounds, featured a 42‐inch smoothbore (unrifled) barrel set on a wooden stock, used black powder, fired a .75‐caliber (3/4‐inch‐diameter) soft lead 1‐ounce ball (or round), and mounted a 17‐inch socket bayonet. Contemporary drill manuals dictated twenty separate steps to load and fire the Bess, including five just to replace the ramrod.

Mastering these exercises so that a soldier could continue reloading and firing as the enemy closed demanded endless drill and harsh discipline. European doctrine required that troops fire four unaimed rounds per minute—unaimed, because volume of fire, not accuracy, won eighteenth‐century battles, and because smoothbore muskets were notoriously inaccurate beyond 50 yards. (A 1779 English test pitted a Bess sharpshooter against a longbowman. At 100 yards, a musketeer with a Bess hit a 4‐foot‐square target 57 percent of the time; his opponent hit the same target with 74 percent of his arrows.) During the Revolution, however, chronic shortages of gunpowder forced Americans to change doctrine. Officers and noncommissioned officers called for aimed fire to conserve powder (hence Gen. Israel Putnam's Battle of Bunker Hill injunction “not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes”).

For skirmishing and sniping, American light infantry employed “Pennsylvania” or “Kentucky” long rifles. Rifles had spiraled grooves cut inside the barrel—rifling—which imparted spin to the musket ball for greater distance and accuracy. One of Daniel Morgan's frontier marksmen could pick off a British officer at 300 yards or more. Rifles, however, needed a full minute to load and could not accept bayonets, which made them unsuitable infantry weapons. Nevertheless, the image of a sharpshooting American rifleman exerted powerful influence on subsequent weapons development.

After the Revolutionary War, Congress established national armories in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Beginning in 1795 and 1801, respectively, these armories manufactured muskets based upon a .69‐caliber French 1777 design. Production and inventiveness initially suffered from a lack of precision machinery and ineffective management by political appointees; but by the 1840s, interchangeable parts production of the American‐designed Model 1841 musket began. Percussion caps (invented in 1805 but heretofore little used) now replaced flints, but the basic weapon remained a smoothbore musket. This soon changed.

Marrying a rifle's accuracy and range with a smoothbore's speed in loading was achieved when French Capt. Claude Minié perfected the minié ball in the 1840s. The minié ball—in fact, a cylindro‐conoidal bullet—was muzzle‐loaded like a round ball, but its hollow base expanded when fired to fit the rifling of even a powder‐fouled barrel. Springfield and Harpers Ferry arsenals began producing .58‐caliber rifled weapons capable of firing this new ammunition in the mid‐1850s. Revised after Britain's Enfield rifle, Springfield Models 1861 and 1863 rifled muskets became standard Federal (and Confederate, from post‐battle harvests) infantry side arms during the Civil War. Unfortunately, tactics lagged behind technology.

Rifled muskets increased the average infantryman's effective killing range to 250–300 yards. But Confederate and Union generals raised in the smoothbore era and influenced by Napoleonic warfare persistently sent massed troops in frontal assaults across open fields. Battlefields became slaughterhouses. The battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Franklin, and the Wilderness were just a few examples where nineteenth‐century weaponry shattered eighteenth‐century tactics. That frontal assaults sometimes succeeded despite enormous casualties speaks more of soldierly courage and fortitude than any general's brilliance.

The bloodletting would have been infinitely worse if repeating rifles had become standard issue. In the 1850s, American gunsmiths Samuel Colt, Benjamin Tyler Henry, and Christopher Spencer began developing breech‐loading, repeating rifles. Colt's, Henry's (later Winchester), and Spencer's rifles used rim‐fire, copper‐clad cartridges (from .44 to .56), and in the Civil War were primarily carried by Union cavalrymen. Thus armed, 100 men replicated the firepower of a regiment. Why, then, were not all Federal troops in the Union army armed with repeaters, at least toward war's end?

Military institutionalization had paralleled industrialization, creating a weapons procurement bureaucracy that valued inertia and infighting over fresh ideas and inventiveness. Though field commanders clamored for added firepower, army ordnance bureaucrats believed in long‐range, deliberately aimed, ammunition‐conserving fire. Only President Abraham Lincoln's direct intervention forced the army to adopt the seven‐shot Spencer repeaters near war's end. Modified and improved, repeating rifles were sometimes employed as U.S. Cavalry weapons in post–Civil War campaigns in the Plains Indians Wars. (But not always; at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, George Armstrong Custer's men fought with single‐shot rifles.) The war between aimed fire and firepower advocates, however, had only begun.

After the Civil War, small‐arms technology evolved rapidly, but a penurious Congress and an intractable ordnance board balked at rearming an entire army. For instance, in 1866, rather than producing a new weapon utilizing the repeater's efficient breech‐loading mechanism, muzzle‐loading Springfields were converted to breechloaders with a “trap door” action so imperfect that it was capable of ripping the heads off fired cartridges, leaving the weapon hopelessly jammed. (Many of the rifles from Custer's command were recovered from the Little Bighorn in this condition.) When a new weapon was adopted in 1893, it satisfied no one, least of all soldiers in the field. This was the Krag‐Jorgensen, a poor Scandinavian version of the German Paul Mauser's advanced bolt action rifle. Its modern features included a five‐shot box magazine and a powerful, .30‐caliber smokeless powder round; but the Krag was a Mauser copy, not the real thing. Standard issue during the Spanish‐American War (1898), the Krag was unpopular among the troops. In 1903, the famous Springfield Model 1903 rifle replaced it.

The Springfield '03 resulted from servicewide modernizing reforms initiated by Secretary of War Elihu Root. Its adoption was a victory for aimed fire advocates since the bolt action rifle (.30/06) was accurate to well over 600 yards. But it so closely duplicated Mauser's latest rifle that patent infringement charges almost prevented its introduction. Although millions were eventually produced, arsenal production was slow. Many World War I “doughboys” trained with broomsticks, not rifles. The Springfield '03 remained America's basic field weapon until the late 1930s.

World War I trench warfare demonstrated the need for lightweight, semiautomatic/automatic (self‐loading) infantry weapons. Competitions were held featuring two notable weapons designers, J. D. Pederson and John M. Browning. Browning's designs dominated early twentieth‐century American automatic arms. His 1911 .45 automatic pistol (M1911A1) remained standard issue until replaced in the 1980s by a 9‐millimeter, fifteen‐shot Beretta (NATO designation M‐9). The Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, a lightweight .30/06‐caliber machine gun, earned kudos from soldiers from World War I to Korea. But after extensive testing, the winner was the little known Springfield Arsenal designer John C. Garand.

Garand's superb rifle was adopted in 1936 and carried into battle by millions of G.I.'s during World War II. Designated the M‐1 rifle, the Garand was a gas‐operated, magazine‐fed weapon. Propellant gases forced back the bolt, ejected the empty cartridge, and recocked the hammer. The M‐1 weighed 9.5 pounds and fired .30/06 rounds in eight‐shot clips. The Garand was the only battleworthy semiautomatic produced by any major combatant during World War II, but other nations began eschewing long‐range, aimed fire for the increased, if less accurate, firepower of shoulder‐fired machine pistols, or submachine guns. These weapons included German Schmeisser “burp” guns capable of firing 450 to 550 rounds per minute, the American Thompson submachine gun, and Britain's Sten gun. All had a major influence on the next generation of infantry arms, the assault rifles.

The first and most influential post–World War II assault rifle was the Soviet Union's Avtomat Kalashnikova 47 or AK‐47. Invented in 1947 by Mikhail Kalashnikov, the gas‐operated AK‐47 (7.62mm, later 5.45mm) weighed 10.6 pounds (later 8.3 pounds), and was capable of semiautomatic or automatic fire at a rate of 600 rounds per minute. Cheap and durable, millions of Kalashnikovs were manufactured and distributed to revolutionary movements worldwide.

America's response was, as usual, a compromise. The semiautomatic M‐1 was converted into an automatic, the M‐14. The M‐14 was a good weapon, but in automatic fire, its 7.62mm round made the recoil too powerful and unstable. Following the Korean War (1950–53), experiments began with a .22 (or 5.56mm) cartridge with high muzzle velocity (over 3,000 feet per second). To fire this small but powerful round, the army chose a weapon developed by Eugene M. Stoner of Fairchild Aircraft's ArmaLite Division, the AR‐15. This 7.6‐pound weapon with its plastic stock was capable of semi‐ and fully automatic fire (700–900 rounds per minute). The U.S. Air Force purchased the AR‐15 in 1961, but the army, after extensive testing and controversial modifications, delayed adopting it until 1967 as the M‐16 rifle (technically, the M‐16‐A1).

The AR‐15 was an excellent weapon, the American equivalent (or better) of the Soviet AK‐47 and perfect for the mixed terrain of Vietnam; the M‐16 was not its equal. Like the AK‐47, the AR‐15 could take incredible pun ishment (dirt, rain, poor care) and still keep firing; moreover, Stoner's innovative rifling made it lethal at long range. Infighting between army bureaucrats and a progressive Department of Defense, however, delayed adoption and forced uncalled‐for changes. Perfectly clean and with an M‐79 grenade launcher attached, the M‐16 was a fine combat weapon; in the mud and dust, jungles and mountains, and rivers and rice paddies of Vietnam, it proved unreliable.

After the Vietnam War, a new, heavier round was developed, and a remodeled M‐16 (the M‐16‐A2) became standard issue in 1980. This would be the weapon American infantrymen carried in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and as peacekeeping troops during the Bosnian crisis. Development of laser‐type infantry weapons may eventually revolutionize U.S. military arms, but one certainty exists: as long as the current costly, time‐consuming procurement process continues, the choice is sure to be controversial.
[See also Army Combat Branches: Infantry; Army Combat Branches: Cavalry; Machine Guns; Procurement: Government Arsenals; Procurement; Ordnance and Arms Industry; Weaponry, Army.]


Harold L. Peterson , The Book of the Continental Soldier, 1968.
Russell F. Weigley , History of the United States Army, 1967; rev. ed. 1984.
Trevor N. Dupuy , The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare, 1980.
Edward C. Ezell , The Great Rifle Controversy: Search for the Ultimate Infantry Weapon from World War II Through Vietnam and Beyond, 1984.
William H. Hallahan , Misfire: The History of How America's Small Arms Have Failed Our Military, 1994.
Edward C. Ezell , Small Arms of the World: A Basic Manual; 12th rev. ed., 1983.

John Morgan Dederer