By Ronald S. Coddington
Americans followed the sport of target shooting with rapt attention in the 19th century. One of the most memorable matches occurred in Covington, Ky., in April 1848. The event spotlighted two of the country’s leading marksmen: Hiram C. Berdan and Horace E. Dimick. When the shooting ended, the upstart Berdan, 23, beat the veteran Dimick, 39.
A rematch of sorts occurred in 1861.
Berdan, now 35, recruited sharpshooters for the Union army, forming two regiments armed with Sharps rifles. He commanded them as colonel. Berdan’s Sharpshooters went on to become a household name in the East. Following his death in 1893 after a notable career as an engineer and weapon-focused inventor, Berdan’s name recognition remains high to students of the Civil War, and is synonymous with accuracy, precision and quality.
Dimick, 52 years old when the war began, hailed from Vermont. Amiable and social by nature, he moved to Lexington, Ky., about 1839, and went into the cabinet and upholstery business. Gun smithing proved his true calling, and by the mid-1840s his work caught the attention of civilians and the military. In 1849, a year after the Berdan contest, Dimick settled in St. Louis and opened a gun store. His own brand of long arm, variously known as the Dimick Target Rifle, American Deer and Target Rifle, or Plains Rifle, with its graceful lines and deep butt, became popular with hunters. According to one report, it possessed “extraordinary shooting qualities; varying from the mark in the hands of a good shot, not more, on an average, than six inches in a quarter of a mile range.”
In 1861, Dimick demonstrated his rifle at the headquarters of Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, who had authorized the organization of a regiment on par with Berdan’s elite sharpshooters. The meeting proved a success. The government contracted with Dimick to provide his rifle to Col. John W. Birge’s Western Sharp-Shooters. Organizers intended the rifles as part of the soldier’s distinctive look, which included hunter’s dress, bearskin bullet pouches, powder flasks, and squirrel-tailed caps. In the end, the men received standard military uniforms and Dimicks. About 200 men opted for Henry repeating rifles, and purchased them out of their own pockets.
Composed of volunteers recruited from seven Midwest states, the regiment ultimately became known as the 66th Illinois Infantry, from which state the majority of the men enlisted. The marksmen began their service at Benton Barracks in St. Louis in November 1861, and went on to fight at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, the battles for Atlanta, the March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign.
Dimick’s rifles remained in service into the Atlanta Campaign, when they became unserviceable due to use and exposure. Springfield muskets and Henrys replaced them. Dimicks did not survive the war, but they did contribute to fulfilling the promise of an 1861 recruitment ad promoting “the Regiment of the West.”
Dimick spent the rest of his days in St. Louis. In May 1873, his store went into bankruptcy. Dimick died three months later at age 64. His wife and two children survived him.
Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.
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