May 18

A Brief History of Ammunition, Part I

IMG_4528-001From left to right: .451 round ball, .58 Minie Ball, .22 LR, .22 WMR, 9×18 Makarov, .38 S&W, .38 Special, 7.62×38 Nagant, .410 Bore, 20 Gauge, 7.62x54r, 7.62×39

In the previous article, we discussed the development of black powder. While this substance was used to power firearms for nearly a millennium, it was eventually replaced by modern smokeless ammunition (those darn Frenchmen!). However, that’s not all there is to the story. Within the saga of black powder and smokeless, there’s a story of the projectiles they powered, and how they shaped the world’s history. Quite seriously, the development of new kinds of ammunition has sparked wars and made them much bloodier than they would have otherwise been. Let’s begin!

Early History

We know that the Chinese were the first to develop what we would today call firearms. One of the earliest accounts of their usage in warfare recounts that a military officer named Ti Ling marched an army of foot soldiers equipped with hand-cannons against the Mongols. Ti Ling was victorious. But what were Ti Ling’s soldiers firing?

Lead shot. Specifically, round balls: the technology that would be synonymous with black powder well into the present day. Granted, Chinese “fire-lances”, a direct ancestor of what we could call firearms, were sometimes loaded with shrapnel to increase their effectiveness, but I would not consider this ammunition, as the shrapnel was more of a supporting role, rather than the purpose of the “fire-lance”.

So, why lead? Why round balls? What is “shot”?

Lead is an abundant metal with a low melting point, somewhere around 620 F. This temperature is so low that lead could be (and frequently was) melted over a campfire. Once it is heated to a liquid, the lead is poured into a “mold”, with cavities measured to the diameter of the barrel they’ll be firing out of (called the “bore”). Lead returns to a solid form very quickly once removed from heat, and so great numbers of lead ammunition can be turned out by an individual in a short amount of time. I have personally found that spending about an hour or so casting bullets will provide me with enough projectiles for an afternoon of shooting.

Pure lead is also a rather soft metal. You can deform it yourself by striking it, or dropping it from a height. Even just putting enough pressure on it can cause the surface to deform. This is key to early black powder firearms, as the lead is softer than the metal of the barrel, and will conform to the shape of the barrel it is fired from (assuming the right dimensions are met). These two characteristics made lead the ideal choice for early projectiles.

Why round balls?

This is for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s easy to cast lead into a round shape. The technology is simple (by modern standards) and allows plenty of room for error. If the ball were slightly deformed or damaged, it could still be loaded and fired without much, if any hassle. The second reason is simply because the concept of shaped projectiles hadn’t come about yet – early firearms were smoothbores, and intended to be fired in volleys. Accuracy was not the first priority: volume was. Therefore, the round ball fit the bill for the time.


.69 caliber round balls. They’ll get the job done.

What is “shot”?

Shot refers to several small projectiles in a single charge. We still use this today in modern shotguns: birdshot and buckshot fire from (usually) smooth-bore barrels, and are still highly effective. One pull of the trigger sends out multiple small round balls, as opposed to one large one. This creates a “pattern” or “spread” that will blanket an area with bullets. It’s a very old concept, and one that George Washington himself was quite fond of during the Revolutionary War, with a slight twist. This was known as the “buck and ball” load, and was very effective at short distances frequently encountered during the American Revolution. One would load the powder charge as normal, then their round ball, and then load between three to six smaller round balls (shot) on top. When fired, the largest round ball would push the shot out of the barrel, creating a wide pattern that increased the likelihood of striking targets over a short distance.

These two styles of ammunition would reign supreme for centuries, with only a slight modification. In time, most militaries began to develop paper cartridges for their armaments. This technology was in definite use by the 17th Century. A pre-packaged charge of powder and lead was wrapped and tied off. The soldier would tear off the top of the cartridge, pour the powder into the barrel (and also prime the pan during the era of flintlocks), then use a ramrod to push both the projectile AND the paper down on top of the powder charge. When fired, the paper would act as a sabot around the ball, increasing both accuracy and power by generating more pressure than simply loading the ball directly onto the powder provided. Often, these paper cartridges were loaded with undersized shot (for example, using a .69 caliber ball in a .75 caliber barrel was very common) to make room for the paper in the barrel.

IMG_20151215_240703636The author’s modern reproductions, utilizing glue rather than string to bind the ends.


Paper charges in action. This loading procedure was standard for hundreds of years.

Aside from these developments, little changed until the adoption of rifled barrels.

Rifling and the Minié Ball

Though rifling was developed near the end of the 15th Century, it was not widely adopted until the 19th (though it had seen successful use during the American Revolution by Colonial snipers targeting officers). A rifled barrel has grooves cut throughout the inside in a spiraling configuration, imparting a spin on the projectile as it leaves the barrel. This spin stabilizes the bullet in flight and allows for greater accuracy. It also provides grooves for the lead to fill and cling to, increasing muzzle velocity. Though the benefits of stabilizing a projectile via spinning was well known in the field of archery, it did not receive widespread adoption by any military force due to how quickly black powder would foul the grooves, rendering the firearm useless. However, this began to change during the 1800’s, as accuracy gained importance over volley tactics, and thought was turned toward the individual, rather than the masses. Nowhere was this technology more exemplified than on the battlefields of the American Civil War.

A French captain by the name of Claude-Étienne Minié had developed a reliable spinning cartridge by 1846, though he had first designed the concept in the mid 1820’s. For this, he was awarded 20,000 Francs and installed as an instructor at the Vincennes Military Academy, and even later worked in the U.S. for the Remington Arms Company. The minie-ball was a conical shaped bullet with exterior grooves for lubrication alongside its bottom edge. It had a hollowed base, which allowed powder to be pushed into it when rammed down the barrel. When fired, the gas would deform the base of the bullet, allowing it to engage firmly with the rifling of the barrel. This resulted in tremendous accuracy, increased velocity, and also allowed each shot to partially clean any debris left in the barrel as the minie-ball passed by.

This technology changed the world.

The minie-ball was devastating in combat. While round balls tended to become lodged inside the body via an unpredictable and unreliable path, a rifle firing the minie-ball would cut its way through tissue, doing tremendous damage and often exiting the body. When colliding with bone, the minie-ball would often shatter it, resulting in terrible wounds that could not be fixed. Amputation was very common.

This new found power, combined with the stinging accuracy of the new projectile, led to a tremendous death toll among both Union and Confederate troops. This technology also saw success across the globe, from Crimea to Japan. Round balls were out; conical bullets were here to stay.

Minie-styled projectiles not only made conflict deadlier, it actually caused a rebellion. Well, partially. In 1856, the British sought to equip their Indian troops (called Sepoys) with this technology. However, tension had developed between the British and the Indians, who feared there was a conspiracy to Christianize them. The new rifles (1853 Pattern Enfields) used a minie-design which was lubricated with pig fat. This was a great offense to the Indians, as their religious beliefs viewed any part of the pig as unclean. Large amounts of Sepoys rose up in rebellion against British rule (though the East India Company was managing them at the time), which resulted in the Sepoy Mutiny: a conflict which killed thousands. After about two years of fighting, the British regained control.

IMG_20151222_105010390This musket was used against the British in the Sepoy Mutiny.

However, the minie-ball itself had a short reign. It was quickly ousted in 1866 when a Prussian army, equipped with the new Dreyse Needle Gun defeated an Austrian army equipped with the older minie-ball muzzleloaders. A new era had quickly dawned: the contained cartridge.

For the rest of the history, 1866 to 2016, check out part two!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>