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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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Emory Hackman

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