Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide


May 24, 2016
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Book review: Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide by Daniel M. Sivilich (Oklahoma Press, 2016)


The title of this book makes it sound like a highly technical tract interesting only to those doing very sophisticated analysis or hoping to attach significance to a relatively featureless object. How much can be said about a metal sphere, besides the material and the size? The staid title hides the fact that it is a rich source of information about the lives of soldiers who used round-ball ammunition during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It sounds like a volume of charts, diagrams, and procedures for weighing, measuring and cataloging artifacts, and although it includes some of that, it has much more to offer. The thousands of pictures of excavated artifacts, and the stories and studies accompanying them, provide a wealth of unexpected insights on how people in a military environment passed their time, not just fighting and training but also seeking food, entertainment, and other activities.

Small-caliber projectiles are among the most frequently-found artifacts at military sites. They are found, though, in many forms. In addition to the expected spherical shape of ball ammunition, there are impacted balls (those that were fired and hit something) and spent balls (those that were fired and eventually ran out of energy without hitting something). Each of these poses challenges because they are misshapen, often difficult to recognize. Careful analysis of material and weight is critical to identifying these bullets, and proper identification allows these artifacts to contribute to the overall understanding of the site: where bullets landed is an important clue to where they began their flight. Their condition when they landed reveals something about what, if anything, they hit.

Several chapters of this book are devoted to the different ways that spherical lead projectiles were misshapen: imprecise casting; impressions made by ramrods, multiple projectiles, and fabric patches during loading; and the wide range of deformation caused by impacts. If you’ve wondered how a ball that struck a fence rail different from one that hit a tree, or how to distinguish a ricocheted ball from a spent one, this book will explain it with words and pictures. The author and his colleagues have studied countless projectiles, mostly from the American Revolution but including some from other eras, taking into account their proximity to other artifacts as well as their overall historical context, to derive an enormous amount of information from these seemingly innocuous objects. All are illustrated with detailed color pictures that include a scale.

Far more interesting than the bullets that were loaded and fired are the bullets that were repurposed. These are the ones that reveal the diversity of activities in the military environment, and the resourcefulness of soldiers and military civilians. Musket balls and other small-caliber projectiles were plentiful, and clever soldiers, wives, artificers, and even children found an array of uses for them. Soft lead musket balls were pounded and carved into a wide variety of things: fishing sinkers, toy buzzers, dice, pencils, game pieces; many examples of each are depicted in clear, detailed color photographs. Also presented are a number of balls carefully shaped into unidentified objects with unknown purposes, parts of stories that have yet to be reconstructed. These are the objects that make this book most remarkable and attractive to those interested in the lives of soldiers.

While more likely to be used as a reference than to be read from start to finish, the book is well organized into readable chapters starting with basics about the history of guns and projectiles, and quickly moving to the study of different types of projectiles. While an easy read, some aspects of the text are distracting. For example, the author unaccountably uses the phrase “get the lead out” to refer to shooting; in discussing a musket ball found embedded in a tree that appears to have been subsequently hit by two other balls, the author suggests that “one can only speculate that a British officer was behind a tree and American soldiers took most deliberate aim at him.” These curious passages are rare, however, and most of the narrative adequately explains the subject matter without being overbearingly technical or dry.

Many of the artifacts presented – and there are hundreds – were found at important Revolutionary War sites, making them all the more compelling. Studying dozens upon dozens of bullets recovered from the fields where the Battle of Monmouth was fought, and seeing by their deformation and imprints what sort of objects they struck, brings an amazing human element to the battle.

Musket balls that have been loaded, then extracted using ball pullers. Musket balls that show evidence of having been loaded along with buck shot. Impressions made by fabric patches, ramrods, and impact with all sorts of materials. Musket balls with teeth marks. Countless projectiles used for countless purposes, that have survived to reveal the range of experiences that artifacts, and the people who used them, lived and endured.

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