The US Sharpshooters

In 1861, after the shelling of Fort Sumter in South Carolina President Lincoln requested the remaining Union States send troops to help squash the southern rebellion. Hiram Berdan, an engineer, inventor and noted marksman believed that he could raise a regiment of the best rifle shots from each of the loyal states. There is some fairly reliable evidence that he got the idea from Casper Trepp, a Swiss born veteran of the Crimean War where sharpshooters fought as skirmishers and as special detail troops. These were the ideas that Hiram Berdan promoted. Where Hiram Berdan was fairly well known, Casper Trepp was not. On the 14th of June 1861, Colonel Berdan finally received authorization to raise a fighting regiment of Sharpshooters.

To join the sharpshooters you had to tryout. Applicants had to fire 20 shots at a 10 foot target at a range of 200 yards, the first ten at rest and the second ten standing. Then a piece of 50"; string was measured from the center to each hole with a knot being tied at the center of the 1st hole then the knot was placed at the center and measured to the next hole until each hole had been measured. If the applicant had any string left he was allowed to join if not he could join another unit just not the sharpshooters.

On the 24th of September 1861 the 1st Regiment (10 Companies) had been formed and had arrived in Washington to begin its camp of instruction. On the 28th of September 1861 Colonel Berdan received authorization to raise a second regiment of Sharpshooters due to the number of volunteers that passed the shooting tests.


The 1st U.S. Sharpshooters was raised as follows:

The sharpshooters were armed with the Sharps, a light (eight pounds, eight ounces), breech-loading, single-shot, .52 caliber rifle, combined a high rate of fire with excellent long-range accuracy. By releasing a catch a soldier could pull down the trigger guard, which dropped the breech and allowed him to insert a combustible cased linen cartridge. Returning the trigger guard closed the breech and sheared open the cartridge. A trained rifleman could put ten 370-grain slugs a minute down the 30-inch barrel in the same time it took a soldier with a muzzle loader to get off three, and the breech-loading feature allowed him to easily reload while prone an awkward operation with a muzzle-loader. Sighted to eight hundred yards, the Sharps were quite accurate and could reliably hit a man-sized target at half that range with some record shots at well over a thousand yards. The Sharps rifles used Colonel Hiram Berdan's 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooter regiments sported a double "set" trigger. Pulling the rear trigger would "set" the front one, which would then fire the weapon at the slightest touch.

Even though the sharpshooters were recruited from the various northern states after the war started they were given the designation of US as a regular army unit rather than a state militia. The units hardly ever fought as a regiment, usually one or two companies were assigned to different army corps to act as scouts. When in combat rather than shoot at confederate infantry unit's the sharpshooters had a number of targets to shoot at such as Officers, Artillery Gunners, Messengers, Drummers and Buglers (since that was the way officers communicated with their troops).