This Day in History: American Sharp Shooter Hiram Berdan is Born

Hiram Berdan
Hiram Berdan (left) and Truman “California Joe” Head. (Courtesy of New York Public Library)

USA – -( The term “sharpshooter” is commonly used to refer to someone who is a proficient marksman, able to hit what they’re aiming at with ease and precision. While the term takes its name from the rifle invented by Christian Sharps, it was Hiram Berdan who made sharpshooters a force to be reckoned with during the Civil War.

Born on September 6, 1824, Hiram Berdan was a mechanical engineer by trade and also one hell of a marksman.

From 1846 to 1860, he was considered to be the best rifle shooter in the United States. This prominence gained him the attention of General Winfield Scott and President Abraham Lincoln when the Civil War began in 1861.

Hiram Berdan (Library of Congress)

Scott and Lincoln desired to raise sharpshooter regiments for specialized duty. In order to qualify for placement in one of the companies, prospective soldiers had to prove that they were excellent marksmen by placing ten shots on a 10-inch target at 200 yards with iron sights.

When it came time to place an officer in charge of the regiments, Berdan was a natural choice. So, on November 30, 1861, he became Colonel of the 1st and 2nd U. S. Sharpshooters. The sharpshooter regiments were present at some of the most important battles during the war, including Yorktown, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg.

Tyrone Powers, an embedded journalist with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, wrote an article for Augusta, Georgia’s Daily Constitutionalist on June 1, 1864, that detailed just how good Berdan’s troops really were:

“The casualties among our officers in the encounters with Grant have been unusually heavy, … In the Yankee service … the sharpshooter is required to be a thorough marksman, and a marksman with the army weapon, which is entirely a different affair from being a dead shot with a sporting rifle.

To attain this efficiency these fellows are diligently exercised in shooting at marks, … and our severe loss in officers at every battle proves this training not to have been thrown away. One of the most noted corps of Yankee sharpshooters is Berdan’s, the same which annoyed us so incessantly while in the trenches of Yorktown…

[I]t is painfully evident that Grant had an organized body of men at his command whose function is to pick off our officers at every opportunity…”

While the troops under his command were quite effective in picking off high profile targets, Berdan himself was not seen as much of a leader. Multiple times during the war, he was accused of cowardice and incompetence in the field. As a result, he resigned on January 2, 1864.

US Sharpshooter uniform (National Museum of American History)

Despite a somewhat clouded record of military performance, President Andrew Johnson nominated Hiram in 1868 to be promoted to Brevet Brigadier General and Brevet Major General. Congress confirmed the former and denied the latter.

In the final year of the war and for decades after it, Berdan had returned to his job as an engineer and an inventor. While he had successfully patented some items in the US before the Civil War, the bulk of his work was patented later in his life in Europe. He created a variety of items related to firearms and weapons of war, including multiple improvements on metallic cartridges, a rangefinder, and a shrapnel fuse.

Many of these inventions were purchased by foreign governments, and Berdan profited handsomely from them. His most successful creation was the Berdan rifle, which was purchased by Russia and used as their standard issue rifle from 1870 until 1891 when they switched to the Mosin-Nagant. He also created a primer named after himself, and it is still in use today in some centerfire ammunition.

Unfortunately, Hiram Berdan died suddenly on March 31, 1893, when he was 68 years old. Berdan was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and his headstone notes that he was both a Brevet Brigadier and Brevet Major General, despite not being officially confirmed as a Major General. He is buried in Section 2 and is in quite good company; the section is the final resting place of eight recipients of the Medal of Honor.

About Logan MeteshLogan Metesh

Logan Metesh is a historian with a focus on firearms history and development. He runs High Caliber History LLC and has more than a decade of experience working for the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, and the NRA Museums. His ability to present history and research in an engaging manner has made him a sought after consultant, writer, and museum professional. The ease with which he can recall obscure historical facts and figures makes him very good at Jeopardy!, but exceptionally bad at geometry.