During the War Between the States, our first units of special forces were formed. Founded by Col. Hiram Berdan, the First and Second U.S. Sharpshooters were assembled primarily for scout and sniper applications against the Confederacy.

These were the first United States soldiers to wear green uniforms in place of the continental blue. Unlike the regular infantry whose uniforms were designed to attract attention, Berdan’s men needed to blend in with the landscape. Even the buttons on their coats were made out of black Goodyear rubber instead of brass so as to not betray them by sunlight reflection. Regular infantry were armed with the 1861 Springfield musket, while these “sharpshooters” were supplied with the 1859 Sharps breechloading rifle made in Hartford, Connecticut.

These rifles used .52-caliber bullets in paper cartridges, which were inserted into the breech and as the shooter closed the action, the breech block neatly sliced off the rear of the paper cartridge, exposing the powder to the chamber. After priming with a percussion cap, one was ready to fire. While not nearly as quick of a reload as the later self-contained metallic cartridges, these were a major improvement over any muzzleloading design. This firepower proved to be a force multiplier should they need to engage multiple targets as they were nearly always outnumbered and behind enemy lines.

In 1861, training and qualifications were held. All men in the outfit had to be able to place 10 consecutive shots, all fired from the offhand position into a bullseye 200 yards away. Their group could measure no larger than 10 inches wide, or to say it another way, their hits could land no farther than five inches away from dead center of a 10-inch bullseye or they did not make the cut.

Now I’m not sure I know many modern day riflemen who could do that even with our contemporary equipment, much less blackpowder rifles with open sights. In my experience we have come to rely upon our bench rests and bipods just a little too much these days. If you’re up for a challenge, this is definitely worthy. See if you can keep 10 shots in 10 inches at 200 yards firing offhand.

Any way we can improve our marksmanship skills is a worthy endeavor. You may never need to employ your skills as Berdan’s sharpshooters did, but you never know what kind of opportunity you’ll get in the woods. Are you going to be qualified enough to make those tough shots? Practice up. Could you make the cut in the Berdan challenge?

Are you a history buff? Write to us at shootingthebreezebme@gmail.com!

Dale Valade is a local country gent with a love for the outdoors, handloading, hunting and shooting.

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