United States Weapons
The weapons of the U.S. soldiers in the Mexican-American War included muskets and rifles, pistols, Colt revolvers, bayonets and swords, and artillery pieces. The high quality and reliability of the U.S. weapons, and the mobility of the Flying Artillery, gave the U.S. soldiers a distinct advantage over their Mexican counterparts.
The .69-caliber, smoothbore flintlock musket was standard issue for the U.S. soldier. It had an effective range of about 100 yards. About ten different models were used during the war, the most famous being the 1822 model. Some troops also carried the Hall breech-loading flintlock rifle or the Model 1841 percussion musket (also called the “Mississippi rifle”). Relatively few men carried percussion rifles. Many officers carried double-barreled shotguns for close combat. Dragoons also occasionally were armed with breech-loading Hall carbines with a shorter barrel.
Standard sidearms were flintlock or percussion smoothbore pistols that were inaccurate beyond a range of 10 or 15 yards. Other troops, most notably officers and Texas Rangers, carried the more expensive Colt revolver. The Hartford Courant reported that “each arm is calculated to hold six charges, which may be fired in as many seconds, and again reloaded as quickly as an ordinary fire arm. The regiment of the United States Mounted Rifles, for whom a thousand of these arms have been made…can fire a volley of six thousand balls into an enemy’s ranks, without loading, and afterwards load and fire at the rate of six thousand charges per minute.” The Colt, of course, was effective only in close quarters, such as colliding cavalry charges or hand-to-hand combat. Other weapons included swords, bayonets, and Bowie knives.
The biggest U.S. weapons advantage was its artillery. U.S. guns fired cannonballs, shells (explosive charge with fuse), spherical case (container with lead balls and explosives), and canister (tin can filled with 27 lead balls packed in sawdust). Canister was effective up to about 300 yards. The artillery consisted of long-barreled cannon, howitzers (short-barreled, lightweight guns), and mortars of various weights, cast from iron or bronze. The highly trained and disciplined Flying Artillery units could fire every 10 or 15 seconds, more than five times faster than Mexican artillery. Used mostly to inflict casualties, the Flying Artillery moved rapidly to where it was most needed on the battlefield, and usually created gaping holes in the enemy lines.
The weapons of the Mexican soldiers were typically smoothbore flintlock muskets, pistols, sabers and shorter swords, lances, and antiquated cannon. Mexican weaponry was older and less reliable than U.S. weapons, especially the older, heavier cannon and its ammunition.
Mexico, which did not own an operating armory, purchased its weapons from European dealers. Most infantrymen were outfitted with older .753-caliber, smoothbore flintlock muskets from the 1830s. The British Tower-type smoothbore musket, which the British government no longer favored, was purchased in large quantities at discount prices. Called the “Brown Bess,” its range was less than 100 yards. A lesser number of 1838-style British Baker rifles were also used, but, because they were expensive and of better quality, they were saved for the elite troops and sharpshooters. After the Battle of Cerro Gordo, George Ballentine commented that “we found the road strewed with the muskets and bayonets which the Mexicans had thrown away in their hasty retreat. All of these muskets were of British manufacture and had the Tower mark on their locks. They were old and worn out, having evidently been condemned as unserviceable in the British army and then sold to the Mexicans at a low price…. After examining a few of them I came to the conclusion that for efficient service one of our muskets was equal to at least three of them.”
The variable quality and style of muskets created a host of problems for the Mexican soldiers, especially in matching ammunition. During the Battle of Churubusco in August 1847, the Mexican soldiers were infuriated by the fact that their lead balls were too large and frequently jammed in the musket barrel. Because of inferior powder, they were also forced to overcharge their rifles, and the resulting kick made them fire high. The British Paget flintlock carbine, and the escopeta, an old-fashioned, Napoleonic variety of blunderbuss, were also used by cavalrymen.
Cavalrymen were equipped with lances, sabers, and carbines. In the hands of an experienced horseman the lance was a formidable weapon. In addition to the four cutting edges of the eight-inch blade, a flag at the tip was meant to frighten the enemy’s horse. Lancers were some of the most highly regarded units in the Mexican army, and their attacks had great shock value.
Mexican artillerymen fired the antiquated Griveaubal cannon of different calibers, for which there was limited ammunition. Mexican cannoneers, especially in the beginning of the war, favored the use of solid shot in trying to knock out opposing batteries (in comparison, the U.S. artillery strategy was to destroy groups of soldiers). Toward the end of the war, during U.S. General Winfield Scott’s march to Mexico City and Colonel Alexander Doniphan’s march to Chihuahua, some cannons were cast in local foundries. Although the artillerists were well trained, the cannon were often defective. Uneven or inferior gunpowder overshot projectiles or made them fall dangerously short. The artillery was drawn by civilian carts and drivers, or often hauled by mules—the Mexican army did not have professional teamsters.
1. Gregory J. W. Urwin, The United States Infantry, An Illustrated History: 1775-1918, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., New York, New York, 1991, Page 66. Although the U.S. Army had officially adopted the percussion system by the time of the Mexican War, resistance from General Winfield Scott meant that most of his regular infantrymen began the march to Mexico City with flintlock muskets. In the general’s preparations for the invasion of Vera Cruz, Scott requested that his soldiers be armed with flintlocks in order to standardize logistics. He was concerned about the supply of percussion caps over perilous routes. Flints, unlike percussion caps, could always be located, manufactured, or captured. However, by the end of the war, the U.S. Army had issued more than twice as many percussion caps as flints, a clear sign of the military’s transition to percussion weapons. (For example, Company A, 4th U.S. Artillery reported on June 30, 1847 that it was equipped with 87 percussion muskets and only 14 old-style flintlocks.)
2. Firearm experts continue to disagree on whether or not the Model 1816 Type II musket, manufactured between 1822 and 1831, should be officially referred to as the Model 1822. Although the Model 1816 flintlock musket was one of the most common weapons of the Mexican War, no other regulation firearm has been the subject of as much controversy concerning its proper designation. Early authorities have, in addition to the Model 1816 designation, referred to this particular musket as either Model 1821, 1822 or 1831.” The U.S. Musket, Model 1816, is one of the arms that has badly confused the student, because the proper interpretation has not been placed on Wadsworth’s letters. The failure to use the correspondence which portrays the build-up, adoption, and improvements made to this model, together with later ordnance records referring to it as the model of 1822, has all tended to confuse the experts. Duplication of these weapons proved unsatisfactory and the Springfield Armory further confused production by adding improvements after the prototypes were released. Negotiations with contractors continued until 1822, when the final design was decided. Thirty prototype muskets marked “MODEL 1822″ were provided to various contractors. The hundreds of thousands of weapons produced became typed as the Model 1822 thereafter. Firearm authority Arcadi Gluckman in his 1959 milestone book entitled, “Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles And Carbines” refers to this flintlock weapon as the Model 1816, citing an 1816 document which authorized the original prototypes made in 1817. Gluckman ignored the 1841 Ordnance Manual and the nomenclature it set forth for this weapon, “Model 1822.” Unfortunately, the controversy remains unresolved with experts firmly entrenched on both sides of the issue.
3. Joseph G. Bilby, Civil War Firearms, Combined Publishing, Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, 1996, Pages 19 and 32. Single ball loads for the .69 caliber Model 1816 fired undersized .64 caliber projectiles to facilitate quick loading, at the expense of accuracy. The cartridge paper around the ball helped to fill up the “windage” or clearance between the diameter of the undersized ball and the .69 caliber barrel, providing some benefits of a patch. Page 20. In the 1840′s the caliber of the American musket ball was increased to .65 and the gun’s powder charge was reduced from 130 to 110 grains. Although accuracy improved somewhat, most military men continued to rely on multiple projectiles to improve combat hit ratios. Pages 18,19 and 20. By the time of the American Revolution it was common practice to load smaller buckshot along with a musket ball in paper cartridges used in .69 and .75 caliber muskets. The number of buckshot per cartridge varied. In October 1777, General George Washington recommended that his men deliver their first volley with a load of “one musket ball and four or eight buckshot, according to the strength of their pieces.” Single-ball, buck and ball, and straight buckshot loads of from twelve to fifteen pellets remained part of the American military ammunition inventory after the Revolutionary War. Due to limited effective range of straight buckshot loads, they were largely used as guard cartridges, while buck and ball became the military’s favored musket load. Between 1835 and 1840, three times as many buck and ball cartridges, loaded with a standard musket ball and three buckshot, were issued by the U.S. Ordnance Department as were single ball loads.