Civil War Bullets

By Daniel Bernzweig

Bullets and Accessories of the American Civil War

Part 2 - Civil War Bullets

The Civil War was fought in the 19th century between the Confederacy, led by Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee, and the Union, under United States President Abraham Lincoln. There was an outbreak of open conflict in April 1861 after a clash took place between northern Union forces and southern Confederate forces at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The Civil War was fought from 1861 until 1865 and ended with the defeat of Confederate forces, one of the most prominent confrontations in American History. Over 300,000 people died as a result of the war. In 1775, colonists rebelled against British rule during the American Revolution. Independence from Britain was granted to the colonies in 1783.

One of the most overlooked aspects of modern military history is the bullets that armies used. Ask anyone about the Second World War, and they can probably list off a number of different tank types like the Panzer for the Germans and the Sherman for the Americans. Similarly, when it comes to the First World War, many people know that British soldiers generally carried Lee-Enfield rifles, and everyone knows how devastating mounted machine guns were on the battlefields of the Western Front. When it comes to the American Civil War, as we saw in the first part of this series, the Springfield rifle was ubiquitous. But ask anyone about the bullets used in these weapons and during these conflicts, and usually, we know very little about them. It’s a curious omission, for, without the bullets, the guns are pretty ineffective! And not all bullets are alike. Here we look at some of the most common and unusual bullets used during the American Civil War.

The Minie Ball

Claude Etienne Minie was a French Army officer with the Corps of Engineers who invented ammunition that would make rifles significantly more accurate and lethal. This French invention was then named after its inventor, the Minié ball. The bullet weighed less than an ounce, was cone-shaped, and shooting it increased accuracy by increasing muzzle velocity.

By far and away the most widely used civil war bullet type during the American Civil War was the Minié Ball. This bullet type was a new item invented by a French army officer by name of Claude Etienne Minie in 1846. This changed the musket ball forever and the finds that treasure hunters would uncover with their metal detector as well. For decades advanced militaries in Europe and the Americas had been reliant on a smoothbore musket and rifles, which had long barrels, making them cumbersome and slow to load, while many such rifles also could not be fitted with a bayonet. The problem of these muskets or early rifles is that the bullets in them, which were essentially just crude balls of metal or lead, did not fit snuggly in the gun and lost a great deal of accuracy as a consequence when they were fired as the bullet could move around slightly in the gun nozzle and could eject from the gun bore at a slight angle.

For decades individuals had been trying to solve this problem. Minié was the man who accomplished it. The specific civil war bullet rounds he designed, which are actually more conical shaped than ball-shaped, were manufactured with a small iron plug and lead skirting. The idea was that the lead skirting would swell slightly when the gunpowder ignited next to it. This would make the bullet expand and partially grip the edges of the rifles as it was fired through the bore, and then it was ejected in excellent condition. The result was a bullet that exited the gun bore in a much cleaner straight line and was much more accurate as a result, as well as traveling further.

According to Dean Thomas, today's primary authority on Civil War small arms ammunition, multiple types of bullets was used in the Civil War, each with its special factor. Projectiles specifically meant for amputation during battle include Schenkl's shell, which detonated lead minie balls at low velocity upon impact to produce blunt force trauma, or Whitworth .56 caliber projectiles, which had grooves cut into the outside of the projectile so it would expand on impact, maximizing damage by tearing flesh apart.

Both the Model 1861 Springfield Rifle and the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle, which, as we saw in Part 1 of this series on the material culture of the American Civil War, were the most widely employed rifles by the Union and Confederacy during the war, used Minié Ball bullets, as did most other rifle types being used during the war. There were some innovations in the original design, though. Even before the outbreak of the conflict James Burton, an armorer at the US Army’s arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia had improved on Minié’s original design by introducing a hollow base that could be mass-produced cheaply. Because of this the Minié Ball dominated the battlefields of the American Civil War. It is widely agreed that the prevalence of the new bullet type was the reason why the conflict was so bloody, with upwards of 750,000 soldiers killed as well as many a wounded soldier over the four years, making it one of the bloodiest conflicts fought by European or North American armies in centuries. Moreover, because the lead which was used to expand the Minié Ball slightly within the barrel of the gun also caused the bullet to splinter slightly when it hit a human target, the Minié Ball, a relic of the past, caused dreadful injuries to soldiers who were hit but not killed. Thus, the rate of amputation of limbs during the war was also extremely high. Examples of Minié balls used during the American Civil War. The grooves were added to provide aerodynamic stability and increase the accuracy of the bullets.

Civil War Weapons and Ammunition

  • A conical bullet
  • Lead bullets
  • Rifled muskets (carbines)
  • Rifle bullets
  • Small arms like edged weapons
  • A cannon
  • Rifled musket
  • A ringtail sharp (a kind of knife used during the civil war.)
  • Smoothbore rifle musket and musket balls

All of these weapons are typical finds that can be unearthed with a relic hunting metal detector. Both a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier would use weapons and ammunition similar to these. The Crimean War was fought just before the civil war and used conical bullets in smoothbore muskets. Conical bullets were easier to load and more accurate but slightly larger in diameter, so soldiers had to cram three or four into a single cartridge.

Civil War Bullet Materials

Civil War bullets were made out of soft lead and were not designed to go through a person's body. These bullets did not always make it through a person and sometimes got stuck inside them. For example, if an arm was shot by one of these bullets, they may have been able to keep their arm because it would not be destroyed by the bullet.

The South, or Confederate Army, and North, Union or United States Army, were armed with old-fashioned weapons such as muzzleloaders and muskets. However, many of the soldiers in combat on both sides were not equipped with firearms - some had Bowie knives - but most carried swords or bayonets. While a lead bullet for rifles and pistols could be purchased at general stores or homespun by those that made their ammunition, thousands of soldiers on both sides used Civil War bullets dug up from battlefields as spare ammunition during battle.

Smaller Lead Balls and Paper Cartridges

Some sidearm revolvers used smaller lead balls. These were more nondescript than the Minie Ball but were generally used with revolvers manufactured by Colt and other revolvers imported by the Confederacy from Europe. These, as with the Minié Ball, were deployed using a paper cartridge. This was a system whereby the bullet was placed in a paper cylinder along with the gunpowder and in some cases, depending on the gun involved, other elements such as a primer or lubricating agent. These paper cartridges were developed during the seventeenth century to eliminate the need for soldiers to measure out gunpowder and load the gun separately with it every time they needed to fire, a process that was painfully slow on the field of battle.

Paper cartridges were predominantly used by both sides throughout the war, although the first modern metal cartridges had been invented in Europe some years earlier and, as they were refined, would eventually replace paper cartridges as the primary type of ammunition used by the US Army shortly after the American Civil War ended.

Gunpowder

For bullets to be effective, the Union army and the Confederacy needed enormous supplies of gunpowder throughout the war for their rifles to fire. As with the manufacture of weapons and all other war materials, neither side had the ability to produce enough gunpowder at the outbreak of hostilities in the spring of 1861. However, both sides quickly developed ways to manufacture enough. The north, as in most other things, benefited from having major industrial centers and companies which stepped into the breach. Principal amongst these was DuPont, a company that had been established in Wilmington, Delaware, back in 1802 specifically to manufacture gunpowder. It was already the largest supplier of gunpowder to the US Army in the years leading up to the war, but it escalated its production in the first years of the war so that across the conflict, DuPont is believed to have supplied the Union with at least one-third and possibly as much as half of its gunpowder. The remainder was produced by companies such as the Oriental Powder Company in Maine.

Conversely, the Confederacy did not have major companies or an industrial base to fall back on to supply it with gunpowder. To alleviate the situation Colonel George Washington Rains, a Confederate officer, inventor, and engineer, began overseeing the establishment of gunpowder works in the town of Augusta in the state of Georgia in the autumn of 1861. It was fully functioning by April 1862. Rains had built an enormous operation, which was the second largest gunpowder work in the world when it was finished. Spread out in many buildings and refineries over several kilometers, the Confederacy could produce upwards of three and a half tons of gunpowder per day. In total, some 2.75 million pounds of it were produced here over the next three years and the Augusta works catered for nearly all of the Confederacy’s powder needs during the American Civil War once it was up and running.

Explosive Bullets

One brutal type of American Civil War bullets that were used were the so-called explosive bullets. These were first manufactured by the Union, but once the Confederates got wind of the new bullet type, they began using them too. Ordnance records of the time indicate that tens of thousands of these bullets were issued every year in the war, and they were not a novelty but fairly widely used. For instance, the great Union general and future US President, Ulysses S. Grant, noted in his memoirs that the Confederates used explosive bullets widely in the defense of Vicksburg in Mississippi in the summer of 1863. The explosive bullets were relatively conventional bullet types, except they were fitted with an extra tube of powder that was designed to explode when the bullet made an impact.

A subsequent design released in 1863 actually contained a tiny bottle or flask made of copper which was cast into the middle of the bullets, and this was filled with a priming compound and surrounded by a slow-burning powder that acted as a fuse. Because of the size of the bullets, they could only be used in rifles or muskets. They were not designed for use as a conventional bullet but rather were intended to be used for firing at ammunition wagons and other targets which were highly combustible.

The idea was that a single bullet if fired off at an ammunition wagon or powder depot, would then create a small explosion out of the bullet on impact, which in turn would result in a much greater explosion if a large amount of powder was set off in this way. However, as they proliferated more during the war, both sides began using these as conventional bullets, which produced little tactical benefits but resulted in appalling injuries to soldiers who were first shot and then had the bullet lodged in them explode.

The explosive bullets had an unusual history after the war. When the major European powers learned of the new bullet type, they decided that the use of such bullets, given that they invariably were used on people rather than ammunition wagons, was entirely inhumane. Accordingly, the Saint Petersburg Declaration was signed in the capital of Russia by them in 1868, banning the use of the new projectile, one of the earliest examples of an international agreement restricting certain weapon types and the first major amendment to the First Geneva Convention of 1864.

Civil War Artifacts

Some civil war artifacts found during World War I and World War II were turned over to the US Army for research purposes. These artifacts included several bullets. Conservators studied the bullets and found out that their features differed from those used in World War I and World War II. These differences could be credited to the materials used, which included soft lead, cordite, and other substances.

Many of the bullets could not be identified because they had undergone too much damage. The collection included Confederate and Union Minié balls, coins, Civil War buttons, and various other bullets from the time period. A collection of Civil War Era weapons and ammunition is displayed in the Smithsonian and multiple New Jersey Civil War Museums. The Washington Post lists the most endangered Civil War artifacts, including a C.S.A. revolver and a U.S. box plate.

Many of the weapons left from the time period have been kept as historical specimens because they have been deemed too fragile to be fired or handled otherwise by people who are not knowledgeable about firearms from that time period. In some cases, the gun barrel of certain guns was cut off after being rusted in place, allowing further damage if it is necessary to separate them from any other pieces attached to them during the rusting process.

Civil War Medicine

Civil war medicine was hard on soldiers. Wounds were often dirty, even before the bullet was removed. Bullets also tended to hit more than one artery or organ, so there was not always time for doctors to get the bullet out of the body before the bleeding started.

There are also records saying that Confederate states troops used iron instead of lead in their bullets. One theory is Confederate troops did this because they had many melted-down church bells and other church artifacts they could use for ammunition. Another is that they wanted to make their fights unfair by using nonstandard materials against their enemies.

Civil war surgeons were under-equipped and under-staffed, having to rely on interns or poorly equipped volunteers. Supplies were scarce, especially anesthetics and other useful chemicals for medicine. Some soldiers died of infected wounds, but many more died of infections caused by the crude condition of hygiene in battlefield hospitals.

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