On a recent visit to Monocacy National Battlefield in Maryland, I noted a small group of bullets on display at park headquarters. The selection was diverse, and included both .58 and .69 minie balls, conical .36 and .44 caliber revolver slugs, several "picket" or "sugar loaf" bullets asociated with mid- nineteenth century hunting or target rifles and a couple of buckshot. One projectile appeared to be from a British made Whitworth sniper rifle, a weapon most often associated with Confederate sharpshooters. According to site superintendent Susan K. Moore, the bullets were uncovered near the visitor center during preparations to open the park. The center is located in an area known as Gambrill's Mills at the time of the July 9, 1864 battle of Monocacy.
The little collection bears mute testimony to the history of Gambrill's Mills. Unfortunately, we don't know the in situ or exact location of their discovery. Bullets, cartridge cases, and percussion caps, which we may collectively term "ammunition residue," whether fired or simply dropped, can be very useful in recreating the mosaic of a battle. Little, however, has been done in this area of Civil War studies since Dean S. Thomas's pioneering study, Ready... Aim ... Fire! Small Arms Ammunition in the Battle of Gettysburg . More recently, examinations of bullets and cartridge cases excavated at the Little Big Horn have produced pretty conclusive evidence of who was shooting what at whom, and where they were shooting it from.
Identification of dug bullets should be undertaken by someone conversant with Civil War ammunition. A few years back a local archeologist asked my assistance in identifying a number of heavily oxidized minie balls he had uncovered on a New Jersey pre-Columbian Indian site. Although my expertise is limited, I quickly eliminated the theory raised by others that the area might have been a Civil War training camp. First, it was the wrong general area, second, target practice was not on the training schedule for New Jersey troops and third, the bullets had been cast in a Lyman .575213 bullet mould - easily recognizable as a modern style. A few subsequent queries established that the site was used as a range by muzzle loading shooters in the early 1960's.
Speaking of bullets and cartridges, I recently viewed an interesting new videotape, "A Visit with Jim Tillinghast." (Cartridge Videos ,Dept CWN, P.O. Box 10, Marion CT 06444, $39.95 plus $3.50 shipping.) This tape, the first of a series, records a visit host Dick Fraser paid to Tillinghast, one of the foremost cartridge collectors and dealers in the country. As an introduction to cartridge collecting, it covers a lot of territory, including reference books, information on how to begin a collection and a survey of turn of the century shotgun shell box art.
Particularly interesting to a student of arms and tactics however, was the discussion and display of unusual Civil War ammunition. Along with a number of variations on the Burnside cartridge, Tillinghast detailed a series of "patent" .44 revolver
The Monocacy buckshot may well have started the fateful day of July 9, 1864 in the cartridge box of a soldier of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery. The 9th was armed with smoothbore muskets firing "buck and ball" ammunition, and retreated across the Gambrill property at the end of the battle. The Whitworth slug may have been fired by a Confederate sniper across the Monocacy at Federal artillery positions or high ranking officers on the high ground behind the mills. The small caliber picket bullets, on the other hand, may have nothing to do with the battle at all. They don't appear to have rifling marks on them, and could have been dropped by a sportsman anytime between 1840 and 1870. It is unlikely a soldier in either army would have carried a weapon firing such projectiles by 1864 cartridges issued during the Civil War, including those made of skin, paper, and in the case of Colt's, tinfoil. The "Hazard's patent" combustible cartridge was made with a compressed, molded powder charge attached to the bullet. The whole round was then coated with collodion.
Even more unusual was the Johnston & Dow "waterproof and combustible" musket cartridge. Printed instructions on the original package advised the soldier issued these rounds, which were composed of a preformed 60 grain powder charge attached to a .574 bullet, to line his cartridge box with paper and insert the somewhat fragile cartridge in the box bullet end down. A handwritten note on the packet displayed noted that this ammunition was "issued to the 10th Maine - September, 1862."
There were several types of combustible ammunition issued experimently during the Civil War, including a prototype nitrocellulose (smokeless powder) load. I have a more than passing interest in this type of ammunition since I recently discovered that the First New Jersey Brigade used combustible musket rounds at Gaines' Mill in 1862.
There is more than enough material and variety to fill several videotapes on Civil War ammunition alone. Perhaps Mr. Fraser will produce them in the near future. There was some interesting information in the shooting press for those of use who like to craft our own ammuniton and shoot original and reproduction guns.
Recently Handloader Magazine staff writer Dave Scovill reviewed the Uberti reproduction Model 1873 Winchester, essentially an improved (side gate loading) Henry with a steel (originals were iron) frame. Any of his conclusions would be equally valid when discussing Uberti's Henry. Scovill, who handloaded 200 grain cast bullets sized to .428 inch and 200 grain Remington factory jacketed bullets in his '73, found that rounds in the magazine had their bullets pushed back into the cartridge cases. He believed the condition was caused by the recoil of the gun and the pressure of the magazine spring. Considering the mild kick of the .44-40, the recoil spring was probably the chief culprit. Scovill traced his problem to the .425 expander plug in his RCBS sizing die. The die expanded the case too much for the thin necked .44-40, even with the help of a heavy crimp, to get a good grip on the bullet. Scovill mailed several fired cartridge cases to RCBS and ordered a sizing die made specifically for his rifle. The new die was fitted with a .423 die plug, which is now standard in RCBS .44-40 dies. Henry shooters who are having a similar problem may order custom sizers or retrofit their old dies with new sizing plugs available form RCBS. Scovill was shooting smokeless powder, and the problem he encountered is less likely with a case filled with black powder and wads up to the bullet base. Firm case neck tension is important for complete combustion in blackpowder cartridges, however, and a tighter bullet will probably increase accuracy. Henrys, although not common, were certainly used in the Civil War. Winchester 1873's were most certainly not.
You wouldn't think so if you saw the picture I saw the other day, however. While passing the shop of a photographic entrepreneur who operates out of our local shopping mall, a "Civil War" photo on display caught my eye. The photographer stocks a wide variety of costumes that patrons don before posing for a "period " sepia stained image. The vision of authenticity that caught my eye featured two lads in polyester "Confederate" uniforms framing a blonde "belle." One of the Rebs was holding a pot metal replica of a '73 with a Pancho Villa bandolier stuffed with dummy .30-06 ammo across his chest! There's no problem with this "art" being passed off as an original image in the next century.
It doesn't always take strict authenticy to get the feel of something, however. After shaking my head at the photographer's display, I visited a video store a few doors away and bought a copy of The Lighthorsemen. Although it is a film about Australian World War I soldiers in Palestine rather than a Civil War flick, The Lighthorsemen is noteworthy for including what is probably the best cavalry charge ever filmed. If you give your imagination free rein and dress the horsemen in blue or gray, you'll get a good idea of what it must have been like at Brandy Station.
I'm writing this piece on a damn cold day in December, daydreaming about the first skirmish of the 1992 season. Some don't daydream, but do! Those hardy souls, including some from my own team, will be traveling down to Fort Shenandoah next month for the Snowball Skirmish. I salute them -- and I'll throw another log on the fire in their memory.
return to homepage
go to Tony Beck index
go to Joe Bilby index
go to Tom Kelley index