Fouled Muskets Revisited

BY Dr. Lawrence Babits


Ammunition crates litter the Petersburg battlefield. (Library of Congress)

The last issues have presented very interesting information about fouled muskets that concentrated on documents, Gettysburg recoveries and arsenal comments. Another source that can provide additional information is the bullet. Thousands of bullets have been removed from battlefields by collectors but, beyond stating type, caliber and, rarely, the precise location, there has been little attention paid to using these artifacts to learn about the relationship of bullet production to fouled muskets.

Neither museum specimens nor battlefield finds lend themselves to accurate analysis. The main reason is that there is usually no information about the manufacturer and often no indication as to which unit fired, or dropped, the bullets. Some chronological control is present because the battle date is known but this does not reflect a bullet manufacturing date. Even a hundred bullets from a single battlefield would not be particularly useful, but several hundred bullets from a dated crate issued by a known arsenal to a particular unit could yield fouling related information. The opportunity to conduct this sort of study occurred when archaeologists working on the Maple Leaf recovered two ammunition crates.

The Maple Leaf was a Great Lakes steamboat hired by the U.S. Army as a transport. On April 1, 1864, the Maple Leaf struck a Confederate torpedo and sank in the Saint Johns River, near Jacksonville, Fla. The Maple Leaf was carrying the baggage of three infantry regiments (112th N.Y., 169th N.Y. and 13th Ind.), a brigade headquarters and sutler stores from their Folly Island, S.C., base to their new station in Florida (Holland, Manley and Towart 1993). Among artifacts retrieved by St Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. and East Carolina University during 1991 and 1992 were two ammunition crates from Watervliet and Frankford Arsenals.

An Oct. 1861 Watervliet crate had markings indicated it was issued at Fort Monroe, Va., to the 13th Ind. Inf., a regiment armed with Springfield rifles. The crate still held 283 bullets in a black slurry also containing corroded clusters of percussion caps. Although paper, string and powder was gone, percussion caps, grease in the cannelures (grooves) and lack of damage indicates the bullets were still packaged as issued when sinking occurred (Lewis 1956:179-180, 188; Gibbon 1970:369).

The 1863 Frankford Arsenal crate contained 733 .58 caliber balls. All had five grooves inside the conical base indicating these bullets were manufactured by "pressing and turning." They still retained grease in the grooves and showed no ramrod or rifling scars. The large number of percussion caps indicates these bullets were also still packaged as issued. Partially dissolved powder was noted in the lathe head scars inside the base cavity as well. Associated artifacts indicate these bullets were issued to the 112th N. Y. Inf.

The difference between the inside bore and the outside bullet diameters is called windage. The gap was necessary so the bullet could be pushed down the barrel during loading. Bore diameter had to be reasonably standardized so that balls fit in barrels they were made for:

"It is essential, not only to the snug fit of the ball, but to the accuracy of fire of the arm, that the bore should be as near the true calibre, as possible; it is, therefore, recommended that a reduction be made in the regulation limit allowed for the variation in the size of the bore.  The present variation is .01 inch above the true calibre, but it is thought that this may be safely reduced to .0025, or one-fourth of this amount" (Benton 1984:113) (emphasis added).

The reference to "true calibre” [sic] noted above shows that variations in bore diameter which could affect loading did exist and were allowed. If the 1/100 inch production tolerance were reduced to 0.0025 (25/10,000) inch, more balls would be “defective” (too large) even before fouling occurred. An excessively large bore, but still within acceptable tolerances could be .5825, but a corresponding smaller bore would only be .5775. While the large bore would allow loading and possibly affect accuracy, the smaller bore might not permit loading larger bullets that were “close enough for government work.”

There was also some feeling that .58 balls were not suited for .577 Enfields. Some ammunition was returned because crates were marked “.58 caliber.” Arsenal personnel responded by pointing out that the bullets were actually .570 so they could be used in both weapons (Thomas 1981:72). That said, the Frankford crate was marked “574. IN: DIAM.” Apparently notions of acceptable tolerances, windage and true bore size might be considered somewhat subjective.

During tests in 1855, after firing fifteen bullets:

"... the bore, however, became coated with the hard, dry residuum of the burnt powder, which it was necessary to remove, by softening with oil, or water, before the piece could be easily loaded again with the close fitting expanding ball" (Benton 1984:113).

If powder residue was not removed, windage was no longer sufficient to allow loading. Since soldiers were issued forty rounds as their basic load, the 1855 test indicated the barrel should be cleaned at least twice if firing all cartridges issued. Obviously, this was not possible during an engagement. Prolonged firing without cleaning resulted in muskets becoming inoperable, especially during the first two years of the war when numerous accounts mention jammed weapons.

At the First Manassas, July 21, 1861, a 2nd R.I. Inf. soldier noted:

"I remember that my smooth bore gun became so foul that I was obliged to strike the ramrod against a fence to force the cartridge home, and soon exchanged it for another" (Rhodes 1985:26).

Rhodes was using a smooth bore musket, rather than a rifle, but powder residue built up enough to prevent balls going down the barrel. He may also be implying the ball and paper were loaded together by saying "cartridge." This aspect of the loading problem was addressed in 1863 when an ordnance officer pointed out that loading a round with the paper cartridge was the primary cause of fouled muskets.

On June 29, 1862, during the Seven Days, a 1st Ga. Inf. soldier wrote:

"The fighting continued until sometime in the afternoon, when our line was flanked on the left and had to beat a hasty retreat. It certainly was a hot place. During the fight I had a ball lodged in my gun, and stepping back to drive the rammer against the tree…" (Andrews 1992:45).

At Second Manassas, Aug. 27, 1862, a 5th N.J. Inf. soldier wrote:

"As our ammunition was nearly run out we were ordered to fall back. Our guns had become so fouled with burnt powder that we had to jam the rammer against a tree to drive the ball home" (Bellard 1975:138).

While Bellard reported loading problems were the result of powder residue fouling the barrel, Colonel Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wis. Inf. attributed the problem to "bad powder" at South Mountain where:

“Our cartridges were getting short and our guns were dirty with bad powder. ... A man in Company "A" exclaimed: "Captain Noyes, I am out of cartridges!" ... We were nearly out of ammunition and our guns so dirty that we could hardly use them” (Dawes 1890:83),

and again at Sharpsburg:

"We push on over the open fields half way to the little church. The powder is bad, and the guns have become very dirty. It takes hard pounding to get the bullets down, and our firing is becoming slow" (Dawes 1890:91).

Although Dawes attributed fouling to bad powder, by noting his men were running out of ammunition indicates fouling was the more likely cause due to residue buildup after prolonged firing. Even if they used only 40 rounds, this would have been more than enough to foul the muskets.

Some mass produced Union Army bullets were "pressed and turned" during manufacture:

"These machines took a lead slug and pressed it to form the nose and the cavity. The partially formed ball was then transported to an automatic lathe where a cutting tool formed the grooves and finished the bullet as it spun" (Thomas 1981:8, 14).

Frankford Arsenal used this process as early as 1862. The lathe head created scars inside the cavity during the turning operation. The Maple Leaf Frankford Arsenal   bullets have five grooves inside the conical base; other bullets with six grooves have also been tentatively identified as coming from Frankford indicating that at least two different lathe heads were used at the arsenal.

Other bullets were produced by “pressing,” a process summarized by Thomas:

"... the lead was first cast into round cylindrical bars, and then rolled to a length twenty-five inches. These bars were fed to the machine, which cut off a part sufficient for one ball and transfers it to a die, in which the ball was formed, with cavity and rings. The die was in two pieces, similar to a mold, and hinged at one end.  A punch formed the cavity in the base of the bullet and at the same time forced out in a thin belt around the ball in the direction of its axis (Thomas 1981:7).

This machine eliminated using a lathe to produce grooves. Since both processes were used early in the war, it should be possible to compare bullets for adherence to the government standards. An additional comparison could be made for bullets produced at various times during the war as production changed over the war.

At a university, students are always looking for paper topics. An ECU student measured 283 bullets from the 1861 Watervliet Arsenal crate shipped prior to Oct. 31, 1861 and issued at Fort Monroe, Va., to “Co B. 13,” the 13th Ind. Inf. In Table 1 the measured diameter across the mold seam shows that 281 (99%) bullets exceed the desired .574 caliber used in 1864. Only two balls were less than .574 inch. If the seams determined diameter, virtually every bullet was defective. If diameters were measured perpendicular to the seam (Table 2), they more closely approximate the ideal as 172 bullets (60%) clustered between .5710 and .5755 inch. The measurements demonstrate molded bullets were generally satisfactory if mold seams were ignored and the weapon's bore diameter was true or on the larger side.

Maple Leaf bullets from the Frankford Arsenal crate ranged from 0.5830 to 0.5620 inch in diameter (Table 3), but most (631 - 86%) were between 0.5650 and 0.5675.  All but three were under the “.574 inch” marked on the crate. Many defective Frankford bullets resulted because not all surplus metal cleared the mold. A thin “belt” of lead supposedly forced out sometimes remained in the mold and was applied to the next bullet. Approximately half the defective bullets, including defective balls which fit in the barrel, had a thin lead band peeling away from the nose. Whether this peeling was due to 125 years of immersion or would have been noticeable during loading is unknown.

After measurement, the oversize balls were subjectively tested by inserting them in an original 1863 .58 caliber Springfield musket. There is no indication how many rounds were fired prior to acquisition but the rifling is well worn and over two thousand rounds have been fired through it since 1961. The bullets were also tried in a new reproduction barrel. Both barrels were clean and oiled with no fouling. Thirty-three of the 733 (4.5%) musket balls were so oversized as to be defective.

Defective bullets can be related to battlefield conditions. Infantrymen carried forty rounds in their cartridge boxes, but if advancing to meet the enemy they were issued extra rounds (Bellard 1975: 180, 210; Lord 1982:14). An infantryman with sixty rounds would have at least two, and probably three, defective bullets if the Maple Leaf sample is reliable.

It should be clear from early war fouled musket references that the 0.025 inch gap between ball and barrel interior did not provide adequate windage once fouling built up, especially if the ball was oversized and the barrel undersized. Compared with the 1861 Watervliet sample, the 1863 Frankford bullets are much better. All but one Watervliet bullet must be considered as potentially difficult to load. With their excessive diameter, they may have been held out of service until the Maple Leaf sank.

One implication from studying the Maple Leaf bullets is that the Federal government did something about jammed muskets. The early war bullets are irregular and overly large. The later war bullets are about 1/100 inch less than specifications called for. The circa 1/100th inch arsenal reduction of bullet diameter to roughly .560/565 was an important one because it allowed more rounds to be used in fouled barrels. This interpretation seems supported by what seems to be fewer late war references to jammed/fouled muskets.

It would seem the Union Army arsenals not only produced an overwhelming supply of ammunition, but improved their product as the war went on. The Maple Leaf bullets suggest Union bullets were more closely standardized later in the war and that they were, on average, about one hundredth of an inch smaller in diameter than specifications called for. The reduction in actual caliber can only be accounted for as an effort to make loading easier without reducing accuracy.

A comparable Confederate sample comes from the Modern Greece, a blockade runner sunk off Fort Fisher, N.C., in 1862. A random sample of 100 Enfield bullets was measured (Table 4). The Enfield bullets had a 5% "failure" rate in that five bullets were oversize and would not fit into a barrel after sustained firing. Enfield quality control was virtually the same as Frankford Arsenal’s.

It is surprising Enfield balls were so large because the 1864 packing instructions noted ball diameter as .55 inch but boxwood plugs in the base cavity indicate at least an 1855 manufacturing date (Thomas 1981:40). These earlier bullets may have been less carefully controlled or the Modern Greece sample may represent dumping ammunition known to exceed acceptable standards. Knowing some probably would be used in the .58 American rifle muskets may have also been a factor (Bright 1977:50, 173; Roads 1964:305).

Confederate arsenals were also requested to solve the fouling and ball size problem. In late 1863, Macon Arsenal apparently received a request for .54 caliber bullets to use in .58 caliber weapons (Michael P. Musick, personal communication). Rather than request retooling with attendant delays, Confederate combat officers simply requested smaller Mississippi Rifle balls which already existed.

Fewer references to fouled muskets as the war went on could mean the problem was solved or that soldiers no longer took note of fouled weapons. Most references to fouled muskets, in an admittedly cursory survey, are derived from early war (1861-1863) contexts. Arsenals apparently reduced bullet diameter during 1863. It is likely other complaints were made and with two major battles, Chickamauga and Gettysburg, involving large scale, sustained firing that summer, a change to smaller bullets may have been made in the fall of 1863.

Unfired bullets found on battlefield firing lines or skirmish positions should be not be considered as “drops.” It is probable that close inspection and measurement will show a great many were oversized and rejected when they did not immediately fit into the muzzle. Given prior experience with jammed muskets, a soldier would immediately reject an oversized bullet, even in a firefight, because it would jam. Only if he did not realize it were oversized, would it be pushed into the barrel and then have to be pounded down.

Table 1: 1861 Watervliet Arsenal – Diameter Across Mold Seam

Caliber   Number   Percentage
.5865 (1) █ 0.4%
.5850 (1) █ 0.4%
.5845 (1) █ 0.4%
.5840 (1) █ 0.4%
.5835 (3) ███ 1.1%
.5830 (4) ████ 1.4%
.5825 (7) ███████ 2.5%
.5820 (20) ████████████████████ 7.1%
.5815 (11) ███████████ 3.9%
.5810 (30) ██████████████████████████████ 10.6%
.5805 (50) █████████████████████████████████████████████████▌17.7%
.5800 (32) ████████████████████████████████ 11.3%
.5795 (43) ███████████████████████████████████████████ 15.2%
.5790 (30) ██████████████████████████████ 10.6%
.5785 (20) ████████████████████ 7.1%
.5780 (13) █████████████ 4.6%
.5775 (3) ███ 1.1%
.5770 (2) ██ 0.7%
.5760 (3) ███ 1.1%
.5755 (2) ██ 0.7%
.5750 (4) ████ 1.4%
.5730 (1) █ 0.4%
Total (283)  

Table 2: 1861 Watervliet Arsenal – Diameter Perpendicular to Mold Seam

Caliber   Number   Percentage
.5815 (1) █ 0.4%
.5805 (1) █ 0.4%
.5795 (3) ███ 1.1%
.5790 (7) ███████ 2.5%
.5785 (6) ██████ 2.1%
.5780 (9) █████████ 3.2%
.5775 (22) ██████████████████████ 7.8%
.5770 (19) ███████████████████ 6.7%
.5765 (13) █████████████ 4.6%
.5760 (11) ███████████ 3.9%
.5755 (10) ██████████ 3.5%
.5750 (15) ███████████████ 5.3%
.5745 (13) █████████████ 4.6%
.5740 (15) ███████████████ 5.3%
.5735 (30) █████████████████████████████▌10.6%
.5730 (21) █████████████████████ 7.4%
.5725 (22) ██████████████████████ 7.8%
.5720 (19) ███████████████████ 6.7%
.5715 (13) █████████████ 4.6%
.5710 (14) ██████████████ 4.9%
.5705 (3) ███ 1.1%
.5700 (3) ███ 1.1%
.5695 (4) ████ 1.4%
.5690 (4) ████ 1.4%
.5685 (2) ██ 0.7%
.5680 (2) ██ 0.7%
.5630 (1)
Total (283)  

Table 3: 1863 Frankford Arsenal – Bullet Diameter

Caliber   Number   Percentage
.5830 (1) | 0.1%
.5815 (1) | 0.1%
.5790 (1) | 0.1%
.5735 (1) | 0.1%
.5725 (4) █ 0.6%
.5720 (1) | 0.1%
.5715 (3) ▌0.4%
.5710 (2) ▌0.3%
.5705 (2) ▌0.3%
.5700 (2) ▌0.3%
.5695 (3) ▌0.4%
.5690 (3) ▌0.4%
.5685 (20) █████ 2.7%
.5680 (19) █████ 2.6%
.5675 (51) █████████████ 7.0%
.5670 (70) █████████████████▌9.6%
.5665 (127) ████████████████████████████████ 17.3%
.5660 (205) █████████████████████████████████████████████████▌27.0%
.5655 (93) ███████████████████████ 12.7%
.5650 (85) █████████████████████ 11.6%
.5645 (17) ████ 2.3%
.5640 (8) ██ 1.1%
.5635 (1) | 0.1%
.5630 (2) ▌0.3%
.5625 (1) | 0.1%
.5620 (1) | 0.1%
Total (733)  

Table 4: Enfield Ball Diameters from the Modern Greece

Caliber   Diameter   Number   Percentage
.5790 1.47 mm (1) █ 1%
.5750 1.46 mm (4) ████ 4%
.5710 1.45 mm (9) █████████ 9%
.5670 1.44 mm (28) ████████████████████████████ 28%
.5630 1.43 mm (34) █████████████████████████████████▌34%
.5590 1.42 mm (16) ████████████████ 16%
.5550 1.41 mm (7) ███████ 7%
Total   (100)  


Richard Mannesto, Michael Musick, Annalies Corbin, SJAEI, ECU Maritime students
    An earlier paper in the Military Collector and Historian contains similar information and is acknowledged as a source. References Cited

Andrews, W. H. 1992. Footprints of a Regiment. Longstreet Press, Atlanta.

Bellard, Alfred. 1975. Gone for a Soldier, edited by David H. Donald, Little, Brown and Co, Boston.

Benton, J. G. 1984. "Experiments with Small Arms made at the Springfield Armory 1855," Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. Reprinted by Dean S. Thomas, Arendtsville, PA 1984.

Bright, Leslie S. 1977. The Blockade Runner Modern Greece. North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh.

Dawes, Rufus R. 1890. The Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers. E. R. Alderman & Sons, Marietta, OH.

Gibbon, John. 1970. The Artillerist's Manual. Benchmark Press, Glendale, NY.

Holland, Keith V., Lee B. Manley and James Towart. 1993. The Maple Leaf. Saint John's Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. Jacksonville, FL.

Lewis, Berkeley. 1956. Small Arms Ammunition in the United States Service 1776-1865. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 129,

Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Lord, Francis. 1982. Civil War Collector's Encyclopedia. Castle Books, Secaucus, NJ.

Rhodes, Robert H. 1875. All for the Union The Civil War Diary of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. Orion Books, NY.

Roads, C. H. 1964. The British Soldier's Firearm 1850-1864. Herbert Jenkins, London.

Thomas, Dean S. 1981. Ready ... Aim ... Fire! Small Arms Ammunition at the Battle of Gettysburg. Osborn Printing Company, Biglersville, PA.