I recently attended the Third Annual Conference of the American Revolution Mohawk Valley Conference in Fort Plain, New York where I met an eighty-seven-year-old gentleman named Skip Barshied. Previously he had sent me a letter telling me of the large number of artifacts that he collected at the site of Fort Paris in Stone Arabia, New York. He has exclusive permission from the property owner to metal detect the site and has been doing so for decades. Skip does not own a computer, but sent me a photograph of what appeared to be a large quantity of human-chewed musket balls. I have seen a great deal of private collections, but THAT got my attention. According to Skip, the fort was built in 1777 and used until 1781. It is listed on the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center website as:
A strong palisade with a blockhouse on the western side, enclosing the 1737 house, farm, outbuildings, and trading post of Isaac Paris, with barracks for 100.
Skip indicated that the fort was attacked during the Battle of Stone Arabia in 1780 by Sir John Johnson’s Loyalists and British regulars. Skip’s collection includes many battle-related items such as impacted musket balls, grapeshot, hand grenade fragments and more, but he also has many artifacts related to daily life within the fort like lead pencils, whizzers, ceramic sherds, and much more.
These items are important in interpreting the activities of the people in the fort. However, as I mentioned earlier, there were twenty-six musket balls that appear to be chewed by humans. I have never seen that many associated with a single site. Some had deep impressions made by molars, but most appeared to have numerous canine and incisor teeth impressions.
Why did soldiers chew on musket balls? Lead is cool, sweet and was soft enough to bite on without breaking your teeth; in the eighteenth century they did not know about lead poisoning. There are several reasons musket balls were chewed. The first is the most assumed reason: biting the bullet to bear pain. Deep molar impressions indicate that the person was bearing down on the lead ball very hard. This is usually associated with dealing with pain. Jeptha Root Simms recorded this first-hand account from a Revolutionary War soldier:
Near West Point he saw a sergeant, a corporal, and two privates stripped and flogged one cold morning, each receiving one hundred lashes upon his bare back. … The latter did not utter one word of complaint; but each taking a leaden bullet in his mouth, bit upon it as the punishment was inflicted.
The second reason is to alleviate thirst. Thomas Mellen, a soldier at the Battle of Walloomsac (Bennington), stated:
… I soon started for a brook I saw a few rods behind, for I had drank nothing all day, and should have died of thirst if I had not chewed a bullet all the time.
Typically one would not use molars to bear down on the ball, but would lightly chew on it with canine and incisor teeth.
A final reason was to increase lethality or at least to be used as a psychological weapon. Lt. John Waller of the British Marines wrote to his brother soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill:
The army is in great spirits, and full of rage and ferocity at the rebellious rascals, who both poisoned and chewed the musket balls, in order to make them the more fatal.
I did not see any evidence of Skip’s chewed musket balls having been fired, so most likely fall into the first two categories. Were the molar-chewed lead balls associated with punishment of soldiers to maintain discipline or with treatment of wounds inflicted during the battle? When dealing with the latter, everyone assumes the soldier was biting a bullet during an amputation, but that is not the case. Typically during an amputation, the patient is lying down. Taking a small lead ball in one’s mouth during such trauma could very likely create a choking hazard, especially if the patient passes out. Usually surgeons would give the patient a strip of leather or a piece of wood that could not be swallowed to bite on.
The incisor-chewed musket balls are most likely associated with thirst or just boredom. The latter reason created a huge world market for chewing gum, which is certainly much safer than chewing on a lead ball.
Please note that the site is still private property today and the owners only allow Skip to search for artifacts. All others will be dealt with as trespassers.
 Daniel M. Sivilich, Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 108-109.
 Jeptha R. Simms, The Frontiersman of New York (Albany, NY: G. C. Riggs, 1882), 1:590.
 Caleb Stark and John Stark, Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark, with Notices of Several Other Officers of the Revolution (Concord, NH: G. Parker Lyon, 1860), 67.
 Sivilich, Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification, 109-110.
 J. L. Bell, “Both poisoned and chewed the musket balls,” http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2012/06/both-poisoned-and-chewed-musket-balls.html, accessed January 15, 2013.