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|Dear Civil War scholars, I initially brought this up on the Shiloh Discussion Board, and thought I'd get the views from the fine folks here on this subject.
The Western Sharpshooters (Birge's WSS/WSS-14th MO Vols/66th IL Vet Vol Inf [WSS]) were intended as the Western Theater counterpart of "Berdan's" 1st and 2nd U.S.V.S.S. The were raised at Benton Barrack (St. Louis), entering service on Nov 23, 1861. 4 x Missouri Companies, 3 x Illinois Cos, 2 x Ohio Cos, 1 x Michigan Co. Members from 7 other states. [Later one Missouri majority company would be replaced with an Ohio sharpshooter company.] The WSS's mission was as a permanently assigned skirmishing regiment. They also carried out the sniper mission in fixed/siege situations.
The unit is not well known, due to numerous named changes: Nov 23, 1861 entered de facto direct U.S. service as "Birge's Western Sharpshooters"; April 14, 1682 re-designated as "Western Sharpshooters-14th Missouri Volunteers"; Dec 1862 redesignated as "66th Illinois Volunteer Infantry (Western Sharpshooters)".
Service: counter-guerrilla ops northern Missouri; Ft Donelson; Shiloh; Corinth Campaign; Iuka; 2nd Corinth; counter-guerrilla ops northern Mississippi; Atlanta Campaign; March to the Sea; Carolinas Campaign; Grand Review-Washington; Mustered out of service at Louisville, July 7, 1865
Fought in over 50 actions and 16 major battles. Played major rolls in: Ft Donelson; Shiloh; 2nd Corinth; Snake Creak Gap (Rocky Face); Rasaca; Battle of Atlanta (Dalton) Aug 22, 1864; Ft McAllister (Savannah); among many others.
The WSS were armed with unique weapons: hand-made, octagonal barrel, half-stock Plains Rifles. St Louis Master Gunmaker, Horace (H.E.) Dimick contracted with MG John Fremont (commander of the Western Department) to "provide" 1,000 Plains Rifles for the WSS. [St. Louis was at the time the center of western gunsmithing at the time. Dimick was a competitor of St. Louis' Hawkin Brothers.]
Dimick was was a successful entrepreneur, and employed 26 gunsmiths in his "Western Emporium" in St. Louis. Despite this large number of craftsmen, the Plains Rifles were a hand-built works of art built to high tolerances, and Dimick knew that his shop would not produce all the rifles. Horace Dimick served as purchasing agent scouring Western (and even Eastern] gun-smiths (or completed rifles) which could meet his requirements.
Dimick's shop produced 150 of the rifles, which featured his distinctive trigger guard, hammer, curved butt stock, and pewter fore-stock cap. Dimick's signature rifle, called the "American Deer and Target Rifle", was usually about .40 caliber.
Because the WSS weapons came from so many different gunsmiths, and often were purchased off the shelf, there was no uniform caliber. The WSS weapons ranged from around .30 caliber to .69 caliber.
To manage the ammunition issue created by the different barrel diameters, Dimick provided a matching bullet mold with each rifle. Each sharpshooter was responsible for casting his own bullets. To ensure that the sharpshooters didn't get their personal molds mixed up, each mold was stamped with a serial number and that matching number was stamped on the muzzle of the matched rifle. So a sharpshooter with a .41 caliber rifle, would have a matching .41 caliber bullet mold, both stamped with a matching serial number.
Like the rifles, the ammunition was unique. Dimick was an inventor with fire-arms patents. He he shot competitively, and conducted experiments to establish (in his opinion) the best bullet form for long rang shooting. He selected a sharply pointed minie-ball type bullet popularly known as the "Swiss Chasseur". Every one of the bullet molds Dimick provided produced the "Swiss Chasseur" bullet.
The bullet molds were scissor-type, and had an extra insert to create a cup with a center nipple in the base of the bullets. Later in the war, many of the sharpshooters lost this separate piece and the bullets produced either had an empty cup or flat base.
Although Dimick produced only 15% of the WSS weapons, members of the unit called all of their Plains Rifles "Dimick Rifles". While (initially) a number of critics mocked the idea of a regiment armed with "squirrel rifles", the Dimick supplied weapons proved exceptionally effective. Unit members could hit a man-sized target at 600 to 1,000 yards. At Ft Donelson, Gen Smith specifically commended the WSS effectiveness in suppressing the artillery of Porter's and Grave's Batteries.
At Shiloh, the WSS [Birge's Western Sharpshooters at the time] fought in the tangles around the Tilghman Branch ravine, frustrating Confederate cavalry and skirmishers.
The St. Louis Plains Rifle was the ultimate evolution of the American single-shot, muzzle-loading, craftsman built rifle. As the war went on, members of the sharpshooters realized that the typical range of engagement was 100-200 yards, far inside the Dimick's effective range. They also realized that volume of fire was a key to victory in the war.
Beginning in the autumn of 1863 members of the unit began arming themselves with the advanced 16-shot, lever-action, Henry Repeating Rifle at an average cost of $42 a man (over 3 months pay for a private). [By agreement with the government, the Army provided free Henry ammunition for any soldier who purchased the repeating rifle.] By early 1864 members of the [renamed] 66th Illinois (Western Sharpshooters) had purchased over 250 Henry's, the second largest private purchase in the war (only the men of the 7th IL bought more Henrys).
Senior commanders realized the firepower the Henrys provided (in the hands of competent marksmen) and increasingly used the WSS as shock-troops, in addition to their primary skirmishing mission. They were used to break through Confederate lines (as they did on 9 May at Resaca) or turn back Confederate attacks (as they did during the 22 July, 1864 Battle of Atlanta [Dalton]).
Thanks for reading about this elite regiment and their unique weapons.