What is a Skirmish?
Here is an overview of what Skirmishing is like. In the New England Region, we have a good schedule of matches, and strong participation at the National Skirmishes in Virginia. Since the regional matches are held at locations around the New England - Eastern New York area, an interested person could join any regional unit, as people from different teams sometimes practice and ride to matches together. Regional skirmishes are hosted by one (or more) of the teams, and can be quite different to reflect the local conditions, host team or other themes. At the final skirmish of the season, the Commander's Skirmish, competing teams are formed by drawing names from a hat, so your team may even include people from outside the region.
Though the N-SSA was the first to become involved in Civil War history, we show our respect for the Civil War not by reenacting, but competitive black powder shooting among teams representing Civil War units. Many of the shooters in the N-SSA shoot original firearms and carry original swords. Some of the cannon used in competition are original, though they may have been sleeved with high strength liners for safety. Because the accuracy of the shooting is most important, one must find a mould which produces a bullet which will shoot well out of his or her musket, and the right powder charge to produce the desired accuracy. All of the shooting is done offhand, and original firearms come to the shoulder very well and are very enjoyable to shoot. Because of the comparative slowness of the round (the average musket minie ball is 58 caliber, weighing around 500 grains at approximately 950 feet per second) proper technique is mandatory. Any jerking the trigger, or failure to follow through will be a miss, for the usual target is a standard clay pigeon at 50 yards. Many people think the Civil War era firearms were inaccurate, however, a good shooter will be able to hit a clay at 100 yards most of the time.
There are many veteran shooters willing to pass knowledge on to newcomers. The newcomer does not have to invest completely to begin shooting. A new recruit would be allowed on the line with period shirt, wool trousers of the Civil War pattern and a cap for the team matches, and can acquire his full outfit as they begin shooting. Leather gear (the belt, cap box and ammo box) can sometime be borrowed, sometimes firearms are available, and many of the veteran shooters will lend moulds and expertise on the casting of bullets. There are many reproduction firearms available; however, only N-SSA approved ones may be used, and many times the veteran shooters will be able to keep a new recruit from purchasing less than desirable or non-approved items. The best situation is when the new recruit can be matched with equipment which has been used by an experienced shooter who is willing to part with it. We must say that good reproduction equipment is expensive, and as might be expected, original firearms command quite a ransom (but also hold their value).
Regional skirmishes consist of individual competition followed by the company matches. Company matches are all timed events, with teams on the line trying to clear their targets in the quickest time. Though a remembrance of the soldiers on both sides who fought in the Civil War, it is the most enjoyable discipline of competitive shooting many of us have found.
At a typical Regional skirmish, the Individuals start about 9:30 Saturday morning. These are 5 shots on paper targets, at your own discretion: you enter the matches you choose, and re-enter as you like. These are informal; you are not required to wear a uniform. The usual categories are: Musket at 50 and 100 yard; Carbine at 50 and 100 yard; Repeating Rifle at 50 and 100 yard; Revolver at 25 (and sometimes 50) yards; Smoothbore at 25 and 50 yards and aggregates. There may also be some unusual event, like a silhouette at 200 yds, or playing cards at 50. Some shooters take this competition seriously, some use it to "get the kinks out" or see how their firearm is shooting, some may just spend the time socializing or seeing what may be for sale.
The Region also supports young skirmishers with the "Doc" Chambers Young Skirmisher Award, awarded annually to the best young shooter. Eligible at age 15 to compete, this is a perfect shooting sport for family participation. We have been having BB gun shoots, if there is interest at the Regional skirmishes, for the smaller skirmishers at noon on Saturday.
The company Carbine event will be held on Saturday afternoon, followed by a Revolver, Repeater, smoothbore, or Mortar or Cannon event, if scheduled. The company matches are the focal point of N-SSA competition, and are a lot of fun to shoot. Most of the targets are breakables; clay pigeons, bathroom tiles, flower pots, styrofoam coffee cups, soda cans - maybe freezer pops. With a firing line of 50 shooters, all the smoke and noise, occasional jeering and the pressure of trying to clean the targets on your team's frame, it is a very different taste of competitive shooting. There are 8 shooters on a Musket team, 5 on a Carbine team and 3 on a Revolver, Repeater or Smoothbore team on the line to shoot.
Usually two relays are formed, so that one team is on the firing line, with other the team on the position providing the Timer and Safety for the event. There is a timer assigned to keep track of the elapsed time for the event, and a safety to make sure there are no problems or safety violations. Everyone is given a time to "snap caps"; make sure the firearm is clear and to get ready to shoot, then the command to load is given. When the staring horn is sounded, the team shoulders and fires away, reloading and firing until their targets have been cleared, when the team's captain calls time. There is a penalty for early or late shots, or targets remaining. The safety then clears the shooters (makes sure each firearm is safe) so they may leave the firing line. Each team's time is reported to the Scorer, and the the cumulative time of all events determines the winner. With all the confusion of the firing line, the variables in black powder firearms, etc., the shooter who can make 50-75% hits on his shots has had a good day. There are shooters capable of much better results, but the mere mortals among us try to shoot in that range. The matches are very safely run.
After the shooting is finished on Saturday, many shooters get together to relax, have something to eat and then socialize. Camping is available at all the Regional sites, some Skirmishing families with children make it a family excursion. Many enjoy the evening campfires for socializing or historical discussion.
Sunday morning begins with the "Dress Parade" for the playing of anthems (from both sides, as we do this to honor all those who fought, though many times "Dixie" is substituted for The Confederate National Anthem), the announcement of the medal winners from Saturday and any other matters of interest. The company Musket match has always been the focal point of the N-SSA as the event which typifies the Civil War spirit, and the shooting is usually done by noon. We pitch in to help the host team clean up, and it's time to go back to the real world.
The N-SSA home range, Fort Shenandoah, is located in Winchester, Virginia. Each spring and fall National Skirmishes are held, Wednesday through Sunday. Because of the scope of the undertaking, many teams make up the host group. The property includes a camping area for all teams, a Revolver range and the main range, the Rawls-Peterkin Range, which is about one-fifth of a mile wide. Many of us feel like this is a vacation in 1863, for it is a very relaxing and enjoyable time. There is also Sutlers Row, where one can purchase all manner of original and reproduction firearms, parts, clothing, shooting gear and Civil War collectibles from merchants. It is also a time to renew acquaintances, as we make friends from all over the country.
At the Nationals, there are also competitions in Civil War period dress. Civilian men, women and children are judged in several categories. Individual soldiers compete for the Robert L. Miller Award as the most authentic solder in the Spring, while units compete for the Best Uniformed Union and Best Uniformed Confederate Organizations at the Fall National. The N-SSA has a wealth of knowledge of the history, uniforms, arms and equipment of the Civil War. (Another competition held at the Nationals is the Senior Skirmisher Award, for highest Musket Aggregate.) Individuals are held on the first few days, but they are no-reentry events, and you must sign up well in advance of the Nationals to compete (necessary due to the number of competitors who will attend). However, the shooter gets to decide how to shoot his/her own targets in the available range time. All targets will be 10 shots (with unlimited sighters). Revolver company matches are held on Friday, with Repeating Rifle, Smoothbore and Mortar held Friday afternoon. Saturday morning is the Carbine competition with Cannon in the afternoon. Sunday morning is the Musket match, so by early afternoon the trek homeward is underway. Musket and Carbine teams are 8 shooters, while Revolver, Smoothbore and Repeating Rifle are 4 shooters. Also different from the Regional Skirmishes is the fact that instead of having 10 teams on the firing line, there could be over 60.
It is definitely a thrill to be on the cannon team, the ultimate shooting sport. The gun is set, the loader receives the bag of powder, it is rammed home followed by the projectile. The gun is sighted (yes, they do have sights, but the rear sight is removed before the shot, so they don't usually show in Civil War photos) and fired on command of the gunner. Smoothbore and rifled guns shoot at two targets at 200 yards, bullseye and counterbattery (a silhouette of another cannon), with the scoring rings being larger on smoothbore targets. Howitzers shoot at a bullseye target at 100 yards. 12 shots are fired, with 10 being counted for record. Mortar is best described as aerial Bocce. A stake at 100 yds is the target; you shoot 7 balls at it, and the closest 5 are measured, with the smallest total distance from the stake the winner.
We always welcome new members and families. If you're interested check out the How To Join page at our national site. You can also contact us directly in the New England region through our Contact page.