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Missouri Mule

Dimick Rifle of Birge's Western Sharpshooters (aka 14th MO)

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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. Their mission was permanently assigned skirmishing regiment. They also carried out the sniper mission in fixed/siege situations.

Fought at Ft Donelson as part of Lauman's brigade, and participated in Smith assault on the Confederate right on the Afternoon of 15 Feb. They were assigned on both flanks of the column of regiments to suppress artillery and prevent the rest of the assault force from being flanked.

At Shiloh on 6 April, they fought (as "Birge's Western Sharpshooters") on the extreme Federal right along Tighlman Branch (Creek) and held the Snake Creek Bridge to ensure that Wallace's Division could join the Federal Army. They fought Terry's Texas Rangers (8th TX Cav) at about 14:30 and (Brewer's) Alabama and Mississippi (Cav) Battalion at about 16:30 [eventually turning back both CSA Cav units].

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 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". Although 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.



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Really interesting post!

I was glad when you got to the part about them realizing that most engagement occured closer than 300 yard.  I was thinking that putting long-range sharpshooters in the woods might not have been the best use of these troops!

Thanks again for posting.  I really enjoyed it.

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An excellent post! I am working up a newspaper article on the four Hollis brothers of the WSS and your information on the Dimick just made my life easier.


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The 66th had a distinctive uniform, gray frock coat and pants-- a cartridge box made of bearskin, gray sugarloaf hats in which was placed as many as three squirrel tails.

Tom Arliskas

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