The ammunition used in the war
O. E. Hunt, Captain, United States Army
18-inch shells for the sea coast mortars
These missiles, filled with explosive, and trailing a fiery fuse, shrieked like lost souls in their flight, that covered nearly two and a half miles from the gaping mouths of the tremendous mortars looking like huge bullfrogs with their muzzle elevation of forty-five degrees.
The shells seen in this photograph show the larger hole where the time fuse was inserted, and the indentations which enabled the gunners to handle them with a sort of pincers carried by two men. The mortars were manned by the famous First Connecticut Heavy Artillery, prominent in many important engagements from the Peninsula to the Petersburg Campaign.
Companies served on the Bermuda Hundred lines in 1864, also at Fort Fisher. |
Until the middle of the nineteenth century there was but little improvement in cannon or gunpowder.
One reason for this was that bronze and iron were used for making guns, and these metals could not withstand the exceedingly great pressures of heavy charges of powder unless the cannon were cast so large as to be unmanageable.
No scientific treatment of the subject of gun-strains had been attempted previous to this time, because it was assumed that all the powder in a charge was converted instantaneously into gas.
Powder and ball for small arms were originally carried loose and separately.
, first made an improvement by providing separate receptacles for each powder charge; these were called cartridges (Latin carta
, or charta
) from their paper envelopes.
He subsequently combined the projectile with the powder in the paper wrapper, and this, until about 1865, formed the principal small-arms ammunition.
However, not all of the ammunition used in the Civil War
was prepared in this form, and from the fact that powder and ball were carried separately arose the danger of inadvertently loading the piece with more than one charge at a time.
Even in the use of the two in one package, inasmuch as there was usually nothing to prevent the reloading of the gun before the previous cartridge had been fired, there still remained this danger.
As a consequence, it was reported that nearly half of the muskets abandoned on the field of Gettysburg
were found to contain more than one load, and some of
them had three or four.
In the excitement, men were observed to load, make a motion mechanically as if to fire the piece, fail to notice that it had not been discharged, and then hasten to put another load on top of the first.
The state of the arts required the first breech-loading ammunition to be in a paper or cloth package.
However, as it was impossible to prevent the escape of the gas, the joint required for rapid loading was generally placed in front of the chamber, from which position the soldier suffered least from the discharge.
To facilitate loading, the mechanism of the gun was so arranged that, the paper or cloth cartridge having been broken or bitten open, the bullet acted as a stopper to hold the powder in place until the piece was closed.
The next improvement in ammunition was the introduction of the metallic cartridge-case.
This was invented in France
, and was first used by troops in our Civil War. It contained all the components of the ammunition in a case that protected them from the weather, and thus prevented the deterioration of the powder.
The principal purpose of the case, however, has been to act as a gas-check, to prevent the escape of the gases to the rear and to permit the use of an easily operated breech-mechanism.
Being rigid and of fixed dimensions, the metallic cartridge was first used extensively in magazine rifles.
There was, at first, a great objection, however, limiting the use of these rifles for military purposes, and that was the rapid consumption of ammunition, which soon exhausted the supply on the person of the soldier.
The caliber of the guns was large and the ammunition heavy; hence only a small amount could be carried.
A fulminate, or firing-composition, has always been required for the ignition of the powder, in whatever form it has been used.
For loose powder and for paper or cloth cartridges, a percussion-cap, fitted over a vent communicating with the powder in the breech of the gun, served the
Ammunition stored in the Washington arsenal--1864
An essential factor in the winning of pitched, open battles was a plentiful supply of ammunition.
At Gaines' Mill, in June, 1862, the Union soldiers found it difficult to cheer convincingly when they had shot away all their cartridges, and found themselves separated from their ammunition wagons by the fast-swelling Chickahominy.
The ammunition train always took precedence on the march. |
Schooners piled with cartridge-boxes — Hampton roads, December, 1864
By 1864, the problem of getting ammunition expeditiously to the front had been solved, and there were no more such shortages as at Gaines' Mill.
In this photograph, the harbor of Hampton Roads swarms with ammunition schooners, transports, coal barges, and craft of every sort.
The decks of the schooners in the foreground are piled high with cartridge-boxes. |
In the first practicable form of metallic cartridge, the composition was placed in the rim which formed the base of the cartridge, and which enabled it to be withdrawn after discharge — the rim thus serving two purposes.
These rimfire cartridges answered very well until the powder charges became heavier, when it was discovered that the weakening of the metal by folding to make the rim caused it to sheer off at the edge of the chamber of the gun, and the copper, of which they were made, would expand and render it almost impossible to extract the shell.
And since the fulminate had to be placed entirely around the rim, a greater quantity was used than necessary for firing, and the distribution was imperfect, thus causing misfires.
A pin-fire cartridge was invented, but proved unsatisfactory.
A pin projected from the rim and was intended to be struck by the hammer of the gun; but, of course, any object striking it would cause an explosion, and it was dangerous.
Neither the pin-fire nor the rim-fire cartridges could be reloaded.
On June 25, 1864, the chief of ordnance
of the United States army reported that among the most important changes in firearms evolved from the experience of the war was the metallic cartridge-case.
Linen had been in use, but copper was much superior.
The case formed a perfect gas-check; it gave the benefit of allowing a fulminate to be used in the case itself, which was an advantage over the former method of using a cap; there was a gain of time in that the piece did not have to be recapped with each new load; there was greater ease of loading, and the ammunition was waterproof.
For the field-artillery of both services there were supplied solid shot, case, and shell with time-fuses and with percussionfuses.
Solid shot were designed for destroying the heavy walls of fortifications, or for some similar purpose, but were used also in the field.
The other forms of ammunition were used against troops.
Case was of two kinds-canister, which separated at the muzzle of the piece in consequence of the shock
Confederate ammunition — solid shot and a charge of grape
This view of the Confederate works at Yorktown, in 1862, shows an 11-incl Dahlgren smooth-bore naval gun. Several of these were taken from the Norfolk Navy-Yard.
On the ground is a solid shot and a charge of grape.
Grape-shot consisted of a number of small projectiles secured together by a series of iron plates containing holes in which the shot is held.
In addition to the common cast-iron shells not intended to pierce iron, forged steel shells were used.
In the days of smooth-bore guns, bar shot, chain shot, grape-shot, hot shot, shrapnel and canister were in use. Shrapnel are shaped like shell, but have thinner walls and are filled with lead or iron balls.
A small bursting-charge breaks up the case in the air and the balls scatter like shot from a shotgun.
In canister the balls, larger than those in shrapnel, are sunk in soft wood disks piled up to form a cylinder and the whole covered with a tin case; or, in small calibers, the balls are simply pushed in sawdust and enclosed in a cylindrical tin case.
Grape, shrapnel and canister were all three known as case-shot. |
of discharge, and shrapnel, which separated at a distance, due to the presence of a bursting charge which scattered the contents of the receptacle.
The shell was a hollow projectile, containing also a bursting charge, intended for destructive effect at a distance.
One of its principal purposes was in the destruction of walls of masonry and other solid construction.
By using percussionfuses the shell would penetrate, and then burst, opening out a breach; and by the addition of further shots in the same place, an opening could be made through which assaulting troops could pass.
The ammunition used by the Federal
siege-artillery was of prime importance in the conduct of the war. The siegeguns consisted of mortars, smooth-bore guns, and rifles.
All the ammunition received preliminary tests at the factories, and a great portion of it also by target practice in the defenses of Washington.
The records of this practice were the most complete ever compiled regarding artillery ammunition, and covered all features of the firing; therefore, when it was issued to the troops in the field, they were informed of the proper results to be expected, as far as the target practice could be simulated to field firing.
Experiments were also made at Washington
with the Confederate
ammunition that had been captured, and certain of the features of that ammunition received very favorable notice from the Federal
The mortars were designed to throw a shell containing a bursting charge, and carrying either a time-fuse or a percussion-fuse.
The time-fuse was ignited by the propelling charge, before leaving the gun. At times this fuse was uncertain in its action, as it would become extinguished during flight or on striking, and the bursting charge, which was intended to cause the damage, would not explode.
The percussion-fuse was not ignited by the propelling charge in the mortar, but contained a fulminate that was ignited by a plunger of some description which moved when the shell was fired or when it
struck, thereby communicating the flame to the bursting charge.
Of course, these were not always sure.
Whether the one or the other form of fuse was used, depended on the purpose of the firing.
If against troops, it was desirable to cause the shell to burst in their midst, and not to allow it to penetrate the ground.
If desired for the destruction of earthworks or magazines, it had to be exploded after the penetration.
In the former case the time-fuse, and in the latter the percussion-fuse was used.
At Fort Scott
, near Washington
, in October, 1863, an experiment was tried to test the value of spherical case-shot when fired from mortars.
The 10-inch shell was filled with 12-pound canister-shot, and the bursting charge was loose.
The capacity of the shell was thirty-eight of that size balls, but twenty-seven only were used.
They were inserted through the fuse-hole, and two and a half pounds of bursting powder placed on top of them.
The shell weighed ninety pounds and each of the balls forty-three hundredths of a pound, making a total weight of about one hundred and four pounds. A charge of one pound six ounces of mortarpowder gave a range of eight hundred yards with a time of flight of thirteen seconds.
The experiments showed that the fragments scattered a great deal and the balls had ample power to kill.
They penetrated the ground from three to seven inches in a turf where, when thrown by a man with his whole strength, they entered less than one inch. A little calculation showed that the velocity must have been over two hundred feet per second, and as the projectiles weighed nearly half a pound each, there was easily sufficient force to disable a man or a beast.
The practicability of the shot having been fully determined, a field-trial was given which proved conclusive.
The projectile was used in the battle of the Petersburg
mine, where General Hunt
's orders for the artillery were to use every exertion to quiet the batteries of the foe bearing on
the point of assault.
A battery of 10-inch mortars was placed near the subsequent location of Fort Rice
, and directed its fire, at a range of eight hundred yards, upon a salient battery of the Confederates
, from which much trouble was anticipated.
Not a shot was fired from the Confederate battery after its range was obtained, and from information received afterward from a Southern officer, it was found that the men could not remain at their guns after the showers of balls began falling, every thirty seconds, around them.
The ordinary mortar-shell was the one used largely in all the operations.
, the Confederates
had an 8-inch mortar with which they did rather indifferent shooting, but the moral effect on the Federal
soldiers of the screeching shells was great.
Accordingly, the Federals
thereafter paid close attention to the training of men for the use of a similar type of mortar, and at Petersburg
there was a good opportunity to reply in kind.
The Confederate gunners, now feeling the effect of the fire from the other side, and having for a time no bombproofs in which to take shelter, were appalled by the sudden opening of the Federal
The lines were so near together that the soldiers were under the necessity of keeping their works closely guarded to prevent their being taken by assault, and the moral effect was very depressing.
One case is related of a Confederate soldier having been blown entirely over the parapet of the work by the explosion of one of the Federal
8-inch mortar-shells, and his body lay out of reach of his friends, who were compelled to keep under cover by the Federal
As soon as the Confederates
could place mortars in position at Petersburg
, they opened on the besiegers, and thereafter the fire was severe.
The Federal expenditure of mortar ammunition was over forty thousand rounds, and that of the Confederates
was estimated to have been not much less.
The incident of the so-called “Petersburg Express,” when the Federals
mounted a 13-inch sea-coast mortar on a railroad
The Laboratory for small ammunition at Richmond
This photograph was taken the day the new flag of the Confederate States of America was thrown to the breeze on top of Libby prison.
The entire supply of gunpowder in the Confederacy at the beginning of the conflict was scarcely sufficient for one month of active operations.
Not a pound was being made throughout its limits.
The comparatively small amount captured at the Norfolk navy-yard, with that on hand from other sources, was promptly distributed to the army gathering on the Potomac, to Richmond, Yorktown, Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans.
Scarcely any remained for the force assembling under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston in Kentucky.
In the face of these difficulties, Colonel (later General) George W. Rains was given carte blanche to take charge of the manufacture of gunpowder.
He established immense works in Augusta, Georgia.
So extensive were they that at no time after their completion were they worked to their full capacity.
They were never run at night.
They satisfied in little more than two days the urgent call of General Ripley at Charleston for cannon-powder, to replace the twenty-two thousand pounds consumed during the action with the iron-clad fleet.
The Richmond laboratory made 72,000,000 cartridges in three and a half years, nearly as much as the others in the Confederate States combined. |
platform car, was very impressive for the Confederates
The car was moved within easy range of the Confederate
works, and halted at a curve in the track, so that, by moving it a few feet either way, the direction of fire could be changed.
Much apprehension was excited in the defenders' works by the huge missiles, and observers reported that one of the shells, on explosion, threw a Confederate field-gun and carriage above the parapet of the works.
The range was about thirty-six hundred yards.
Although the first really successful application of rifled cannon to warfare occurred in the Italian
campaign of Napoleon III, in 1859, the problem of a projectile that would satisfactorily take the rifling of the gun had not been solved, and up to the outbreak of the Civil War
the employment of such guns was, on this account, an uncertain undertaking.
During the years from 1861 to 1865, there was continual trouble in finding a projectile that would take the rifling successfully without injury to the gun, but developments were such during the war that, at its close, the problem consisted principally in deciding between the various types of projectiles.
Both belligerents devoted much time to the solution of these difficulties.
Many inventions had temporary vogue, and then gradually were laid aside, so that even experienced ordnance officers could not, at the close of the conflict, tell exactly what the prevailing opinion as to types was at any particular date.
In the Federal
service, experience caused the rejection of a number of varieties of rifled projectiles.
For the siege of Petersburg
there were used those of Parrott
, and Hotchkiss
The first was fired by the Parrott guns, and the others by the ordnance guns.
Case-shot and shell were used with all the systems, and solid shot in the Parrott and Hotchkiss.
The guns were also supplied with canister not designed to take the rifled motion.
Observations made throughout the war by the Federal
Removing powder from Confederate torpedoes 1864
In this photograph is one of the stations established for extracting powder from the torpedoes dredged up by the Federal gunboats in the James.
When the activities of the Army of the Potomac centered about the James and the Appomattox in 1864 and 1865, it became the paramount duty of the cooperating navy to render the torpedo-infested streams safe for the passage of transports and supply vessels.
The powder in these channels helped to guard Richmond from the Union gunboats.
In the foreground sit two old salts discussing ways and means of rendering one of the deadly infernal machines harmless, while all about in this quiet nook lie remains of the dreaded submarine menaces that were constantly being placed in the channel by the Confederates. |
artillery officers, supplemented by data collected elsewhere, showed that the penetrations of the elongated rifled projectiles were variable, depending largely on the direction maintained by the axis of the projectile.
When the axis remained coincident with the trajectory or nearly so, the penetration exceeded that of the round shot of the same weight by about one-fourth, even at the shortest ranges, though greater charges were used for the guns firing the latter shot.
Whenever the axis of the projectile was turned, as the slightest obstruction would cause it to do, the penetration was greatly reduced.
There was a noticeable tendency to curve upward after entering an earth embankment.
The percussion shells, which were designed to explode on impact, attained usually about three-fourths of their entire penetration before bursting, and time-fuses, prepared to burn a certain number of seconds after leaving the gun, frequently became extinguished on entering the dirt.
With ordinary clay-loam, parapets and magazines required at least a thickness of sixteen feet to resist the 6.4-inch projectile (100-pounder) and twelve feet to resist smaller calibers.
In new earth not well settled, those thicknesses had to be increased.
Earthen parapets of the proper dimensions could not be injured greatly by rifled shells of any caliber less than 6.4 inches, and not permanently by those if the garrison were active in repairing the damage.
The moral effect of the shells as they went shrieking over the heads of the troops was frequently great.
In describing an engagement, a Confederate private soldier said that the reports of cannon were incessant and deafening; that at times it seemed as if a hundred guns would explode simultaneously, and then run off at intervals into splendid file-firing.
No language could describe its awful grandeur.
Ten thousand muskets fired in volleys mingled in a great roar of a mighty cataract, and it seemed almost as if the earth were being destroyed by violence.
The shells howled like demons as they sailed over the heads of the troops lying close to their improvised
The day after the explosion that reached Grant's quarters: danger ever present with millions of pounds of powder
On the 9th of August, 1864, the quiet of noon at City Point was shattered by a deafening roar.
Shot and shell were hurled high in the air. Fragments fell around the headquarters of General Grant.
Only one member of his staff was wounded, however--Colonel Babcock. “The lieutenantgeneral himself,” wrote Major-General Rufus Ingalls in his official report, “seems proof against the accidents of flood and field.”
A barge laden with ordnance stores had blown up, killing and wounding some 250 employees and soldiers, throwing down over 600 feet of warehouses, and tearing up 180 feet of wharf.
Seventy men were killed and 130 wounded, according to contemporary report.
This view was taken the next day. |
shelter, and caused the men to crouch into the smallest possible space and wish for the little red cap of the fairy story, which would make the wearer invisible.
But it was the Hotchkiss shell that made the infernal noise which caused the bravest to duck his head.
Though no more destructive than the others, its mere sound worked on the men's nerves, and the moral effect was powerful.
The tremendous scream of the missile was caused by a ragged edge of lead which remained on the shell as it left the gun. When the light was favorable, and with the observer standing behind the gun, a peculiar phenomenon was often observed.
The projectile seemed to gather the atmosphere as it sped along, just as our globe carries its atmosphere through space, and this apparently accounted for the statement that sometimes men were killed by the wind of a cannon-ball.
Hand-grenades were sometimes used with great effect when the troops were close.
The grenade was ignited by the act of throwing, and had the peculiar value that, due to the arrangement of the fuse, the enemy could not utilize the same missile to throw back.
It could be thrown about one hundred feet, but as the fragments scattered nearly two hundred yards, the assailant had to seek cover himself to prevent injury from his own grenade.
The variety of rifled projectiles used by the Confederates
was very great.
This was due to the fact that their ordnance had to be procured from whatever source possible, and the differences in ammunition were, of course, greater than those of the guns.
About seventy different kinds of projectiles were in use at one time.
One of these devices was a cupped copper plate, fastened to the shell by a screw, and held firm by radial grooves.
It was used principally for the larger calibers, and took the rifling very well.
However, one objection to it was that the copper plates often became detached and were liable to cause damage to troops in front of the guns.
Confederate torpedoes, shot and shell collected in the Charleston arsenal
Conical-ended torpedoes, as well as several different kinds of shot and shell, make up the heterogeneous collection in the yard of the Charleston Arsenal.
The breech and several pieces of the huge Blakely gun used in the defense of the city also appear.
In two years, the powder and ordnance works at Augusta turned out among other things 110 field-guns, mostly bronze 12-pounder Napoleons, 174 gun-carriages, 115 caissons, 343 limbers to field artillery, 21 battery wagons, 31 traveling forges, 10,535 powder-boxes, 11,811 boxes for small-arm ammunition, 73,521 horseshoes, 12,630 pounds of nitric acid, 2,227 ounces of fulminate of mercury, 2,455 complete saddles, 2,535 single sets of artillery harness, 2,477 signal rockets, 85,800 rounds of fixed ammunition, 136,642 artillery cartridge-bags, 200,113 time-fuses, 476,207 pounds of artillery projectiles, 4,580,000 buckshot, 4,626,000 lead balls, 1,000,000 percussion caps, and 10,760,000 cartridges for small-arms.
General Rains, who was in charge of these works, was able to supply these records for 1863 and 1864 only. |
Another device consisted of making the projectiles of wrought iron, with the base cup-shaped like the lead bullet for the small arms.
There were also systems resembling the Federal Parrott
projectiles, and a type that had a sabot like the Schenkl of the Federal
service, except that most of the sabots were made of lead.
, and Blakely
types were very effective.
Lieutenant-Colonel J. W. Mallet
, who was in charge of the Confederate States
Central Laboratory at Macon, Georgia
, devised a shell having a polyhedral cavity, instead of a conical or spherical one, in order to provide for a definite number of pieces when it burst.
In explanation of his improvement, Colonel Mallet
said that it obviously was not a matter of indifference into what number of pieces the shell might separate on bursting; that if the pieces were very small the destructive effect of each would be insignificant, while, on the other hand, if the pieces were large and few in number, the chance of objects in the neighborhood being hit would be slight.
With the size of the fragments known, in order to produce a certain effect, it was clearly desirable that the shell should burst into as many pieces of that size as possible, and the fragments should be projected as equally as possible in all directions about the center of explosion.
As ordinary shells then made were either spherical or elongated, it was almost impossible to tell along which lines the case would break, since the interior surface was symmetrical and parallel to the exterior.
To effect the desired object, Colonel Mallet
proposed to cast shells with the polyhedral cavity, so that there would be certain lines of least resistance, along which the shell would be certain to separate.
Prior to the invention of this device, the efforts to cause the shell to burst into equal parts had been confined to the “shrapnel shell” and the “segment shell.”
In both of these types the walls of the case were thin, and enclosed a definite number of pieces of metal which would scatter as the shell
Solid shot, mortar shells and grape in Richmond ruins
In this photograph piles of solid shot, mortar-shells, and boxes of ammunition are seen lying amidst the ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works.
The foreground is covered with a miscellaneous collection of grape and debris.
The shot held together by two, three, four, and in some cases five plates, are grape.
All these missiles, made to be hurled in the faces of the advancing Union armies, now lie on the ground, helter-skelter, at their mercy.
They will never cleave the Virginia air, shrieking their messages of death.
The war is over, and every true American, South and North, is proud that it was fought so well, glad to be a citizen of the reunited nation, and more than happy that no more lives are to be sacrificed to the preservation of those principles of brotherhood and unity which make it the greatest Republic in the world and that such a scene as this will never be repeated. |
It was a matter of indifference as to how large or how small the pieces of the case became.
In the use of this new form of shell for the 6-, 12-, 24-, and 32-pounders, the cavities were completely filled with powder.
Musket or rifle powder always gave the best results with the 6-pounder, and fine-grained cannon powder was suitable for the others.
The Federal artillery paid the Confederate
service the compliment of appreciating the improvements in shells, and in 1867, General Henry L. Abbot
, of the Corps
of Engineers, in a report on siege-ordnance used during the war, stated that there were two improvements in mortar-shells introduced by the Confederates
which, in his judgment, should be adopted into the United States
He did not state who was responsible for the innovations in the Confederate
service, but the reference was to the shells perfected by Colonel Mallet
and to the providing of certain mortar-shells with ears, to permit greater ease of handling.
Many failures of the Confederate artillery were attributed by their officers to defective ammunition, yet they unanimously pronounced the service of their Ordnance Department, which supplied it, to be the best possible under the circumstances.
To illustrate the difficulties under which the department labored, it may be remembered that all the operations had to be organized from the foundation.
Waste had to be prevented, and a system of accounting established.
The raw troops had no conception of the value of ammunition, and frequently it was lost or damaged through neglect.
Although the Confederate armies were never in condition to use ammunition as lavishly as the Federals
, the supply never failed in great emergencies, and no disaster has been attributed to its scarcity; and, in fact, whatever scarcity there was must be attributed principally to the inability of the army to carry it, and not to the inability of the Ordnance Department to supply it in sufficient quantities.