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April 08, 2004

Ammunition, Part the 3rd

Welcome to Ammunition, part the 3rd. Yes, this one comes with another JDM Warning™ - excessive words, not enough pictures. Hey, when you guys pay for my bandwidth you can gripe about the lack of pictures.

We left off in Ammunition, Part the 2nd with the shift from flintlock to percussion ignition of the powder charge. I mentioned how governments liked it because it was a cheap and easy replacement to do with flintlocks, so you didn't have to completely rearm, you could retrofit. Cheaper and quicker. Here's an example, with a US M1842 (Springfield) conversion.

Note from a collector's perspective - many of these rifles were back-dated to flintlocks because the original flintlocks were so scarce (having been converted, eh?). They don't hold the same value as a true original configuration, so take a good hard look at one of these offered in a flintlock form. The parts usually don't match in overall age patina, especially ones made with more modern parts made from different steels than the originals. You can see in the picture - where there is brass, that is a filler for the old flintlock pan. Oh, yes, I did say rifle. Many of these were rifled when they were converted to percussion as well. Not a deep rifling, not really a very useful rifling, but they were rifled.

The simple expedient of putting fulminate of mercury in a copper (later brass) cap that fit on a nipple simplified the soldier's drill and the gun-makers workload - meaning more rifles could be made, and effectively more shots fired in a given amount of time by a given body of troops.

Here is an example of modern large rifle caps. Not very dissimilar from the originals. A little more stable/less sensitive (don't want it too stable or it won't work well as an ignition system) and a little less sensitive to environmental conditions. Plus the ignition compounds are safer, both for the producer and the consumer.

When you ally the percussion cap with paper cartridges, rifled barrels and the Minie' ball, you produce a virtual revolution in the armament of the individual soldier. The soldier now has a weapon which has a near equal reach to artillery on flat ground - making the life of the artilleryman suddenly very much more dangerous. The added range and accuracy give a murderous advantage to the defense which can only be overcome with numbers, as the Army of the Potomac found out numerous times to it's lasting regret, and as the Army of Northern Virginia, especially Pickett's Division, found out on the third day at Gettysburg.

So, what's a paper cartridge? Glad you asked. Here is a paper cartridge and a fired Minie' ball.

The paper cartridge is another innovation designed to reduce the number of steps required to load, thereby speeding up the loading process and upping the number of shots the soldier can get off in a given time.

(continued in the extended post)

For example - you are armed with a flintlock. Mean People Who Suck are standing over there, shooting at you. You want to shoot them. Here's what you do, in general terms:

1. Half Cock the gun.
2. Ground the butt of the gun, holding it muzzle up perpendicular to the ground.
3. Grab your powder measure, whether it be a wooden bottle, horn, or other implement. Pour in the powder.
4. Open ball pouch, retrieve ball. (and, in some cases, patch)
5. Drop ball in barrel. If using a patch, put patch over muzzle first.
6. If not using patch, put wad in muzzle. This step can be skipped - but you better keep the weapon pointed up!
7. Get Ramrod.
8. Ram.
9. Remove ramrod.
10. Replace Ramrod.
11. Pick up weapon.
12. Open Frizzen.
13. Get priming powder measure.
14. Prime.
15. Replace (or let go of, if it's on a lanyard) priming powder measure.
16. Close frizzen.
17. Check flint. (This step can also be skipped now and again)
18. On order, go to full cock.
19. On order, fire.

In the age of paper cartridges, minie balls, and priming caps it goes something like this:

1. Half cock the rifle.
2. Ground the butt of the gun, holding the muzzle perpendicular to the ground.
3. Open cartridge pouch, get cartridge.
4. Tear cartridge open with your teeth, pour powder into barrel.
5. Drop bullet (with paper wrapping still on it) down barrel. (There's some disagreement about leaving the paper on it). I've fired both ways, no difference in accuracy, but you do get more burning embers - so have a care if it's dry).
6. Get Ramrod.
7. Ram.
8. Replace Ramrod.
9. Pick up rifle.
10. Open cap pouch, cap the nipple.
11. On order, go to full cock.
12. On order, fire.

In practical aspects, the rates of fire are about the same, 2-3 aimed shots per minute. The big difference is level of training required of the soldier, reliability, and accuracy.

In good weather, flintlocks could have a 20-30% misfire rate. Percussion less than 10%. In bad weather, flintlocks could be useless (except as unwieldy pikes), while percussion weapons, as long as the soldiers handled the cartridges properly between the cartridge box and barrel, would only have a failure rate of about 20%. There is no realistic comparison in accuracy - 100 men firing at 100 men with average smooth-bore muskets would get 3-5 hits at 100 yards. That same group firing rifles could have up to %25 hits in the right conditions at that range. Hence the power of the defense during the Civil War. And since a rifle is easily accurate out to 300 yards in the hands of a trained man, the danger zone is correspondingly large - especially if they defender are up high, firing down, such as at Maryes Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

So, how do you shoot round ball from a rifle? You use a patch, a swatch of cotton cloth. You put the patch over the muzzle, and you put the ball on top of that. The patch material should be thick enough that you now have to exert some real force to get the ball in the barrel. The patch is actually what engages the rifling and imparts spin to the ball. Some care had to be taken however, that you got a good, uniform ram and didn't distort the ball too much or it would be unstable anyway! And, as we later discovered, a round ball is not the most aerodynamic shape. But that's a later post...

Most mass-produced military arms of the smooth-bore era were not conducive to rifling, the manufacturing standards were too loose. Those military rifles produced were produced for specialist soldiers, who, due to the relatively low rate of fire, needed to be protected, either by fortifications or other, more conventionally armed soldiers.

Two things combined to make a sea-change in this arena - mass production of standardized parts with finer tolerances, and the invention of the Minie' ball.

The revolution in mass production was a meld of the work of John Hall and Eli Whitney. John J. Hall, rifle maker, and Eli Whitney, maker of anything, including guns, great contributions to economic progress was not Whitney's cotton gin - that just paid the bills. What made the the big change was the concept, and tools to support it, of mass production - made possible by standardized production methods and tolerances leading to interchangeable parts, first demonstrated at the US Arsenal at Harpers Ferry (worth a visit).

I've mentioned this before, but there is a reason, buried in history, that British mechanics are called fitters. Even up through WWII, Brit industry still didn't produce the same part to the same spec, hence the need to 'fit' the parts. This was true of smalls arms parts or starter motors. It made for highly skilled and talented mechanics and armorers, but is tough to sustain under wartime conditions. That's one reason Brit firearms from WWII and back have so many serial numbered parts, matched to the receiver number - a legacy of when the arms were assembled in what looked like an assembly line but was in fact a fitting line - craftsmen took parts from bins and fitted them together - and the parts were not always interchangeable with the rifle next to them in the rack.

This lead to the relatively cheap production of high-quality rifled arms. Then along comes Claude Minie'. "His "cylindo-conoidal" lead bullet would expand in the barrel to grip the rifling. With a diameter of 0.57", around 25% more could be carried by soldiers than the old 0.75" diameter cartridges. Effective at 600 yards, with the same rate of fire as the old musket, it changed the nature of two centuries of warfare." (The above description comes from here, a cool site about the Woolwich (pronounced Wool-ich) arsenal in England).

Minie' did not invent the concept of the easy-to-use muzzle-loading rifle bullet - he took the original idea and made it cheap and practical. The original designs were called "pillar" bullets that had separate bottoms with a 'pillar' protruding from them which was driven into the bullet by the gases upon firing. This causes the base of the bullet to expand into the rifling, and away we went. Minie' dispensed with that - as this picture shows, the base of the bullet is hollow - lead is soft - the pillar isn't needed, the gases will do all the work for you. He also designed the grooves, or cannelures - which served to hold lubrication for the bullet. The lube both greased the passage of the bullet and served to emulsify the firing residue - making cleaning easier, and with the use of special 'cleaner' bullets, could reduce fouling in the bore during combat, which will eventually lead to slowing reloading time, as you have to exert much more force to seat the bullet.


Let's take a break here and talk about how much of this firearms talk has made it into the culture (Sarah Brady shudders). "Lock, stock, and barrel." The major components of a musket. The lock, containing the mechanism for the hammer, and on flintlocks, matchlocks, etc - the pan. The barrel, which is the whole point of the thing, and the stock, which holds it all together. "Don't go off half-cocked." Referring to the way flintlocks and percussion weapons are loaded - the half-cock position is essentially the safety. Going off half-cocked meant you'd have to stop and cock before you could fire. "Flash in the pan." Refers to the unfortunate habit of flintlocks, especially after several shots, to flash off the powder in the pan, but not fire the charge in the barrel, due to fouling of the touch-hole (a term left over from the very beginning, where fire was brought to the barrel). That's why Sergeants were such 'pricks' - they carried extra pricks (tools to ream the touch-holes). And last, but not least for today's musings - "Bite the Bullet". That comes from at least the Civil War. In a time of still-crude medicine and little to no anaesthesia, troops were given a Minie' ball to bite on as they were hacked operated on. To me, these are some of the more poignant finds on Civil War battlefields. Like this one.

So, let's wrap up percussion weapons, shall we?

Here's are shots of a reproduction Enfield 3-Band Musket in .577 caliber. Enfield - where the rifle was designed. 3-Band meaning 3 bands holding the barrel and stock together - a long rifle. These rifles were used by both sides in the Civil War and highly prized as excellent weapons.

This is the rifle at full-cock. For capping, it would be at half-cock, which as I said is the 'safe' position.

Here it is capped.

And here it is, hammer home at rest, after firing (since I didn't want to clean it - I didn't fire the cap, sorry!)

When next I take up the subject, we'll go from paper cartridge to the black powder metallic cartridge - with a stop for the needle-guns and their linen cartridges.

John | Permalink | Comments (5) | Ammunition
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