General History of Civil War Guns
History of Ammunition
For centuries bullets were made of lead. The phrase
"heavy as lead" comes from the fact lead is the heaviest element on the
chemical charts that isn't radioactive. Lead is also soft--you can lightly
indent it with your fingernail. The heavier weight of lead made the gun
and bullet more powerful.
The first cartridges were made of paper and linen (see
Making Paper Cartridges). Nearly all Civil War
ammunition was issued as paper cartridges. The paper was impregnated to
make it combustible. The first successful metallic copper cartridge was
invented just before the American Civil War and saw limited use, but it
required too much transportation for widespread use during the Civil War.
The conversion to self-contained metallic ammunition was made in 1866, the
year after the Civil War.
Around 1890, lead bullets began to be made with a copper
or copper alloy covering called a jacket. The increased heat of the then
new smokeless powder caused the surface of the soft lead bullets to melt
in the gun. The molten bullets left lead adhering to the inside of the gun
barrel, making the gun less accurate. The solution was to clad the easy to
melt lead in a harder jacket.
Soon, all military bullets, fast and slow, were copper
jacketed for humanitarian reasons for wounded soldiers. But hunting
bullets still have an exposed soft lead point to increase the damage to
game. Is this inhumane to hunt with soft nose bullets? Sometimes, but more
often the greater damage hastens the death of the mortally wounded animal
thereby reducing the pain.
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