Advancements in Bullets
Although Minie's invention was equal to or surpassed the capabilities of other bullets, the projectile still had some downfalls. The Minie ball needed more powder charge than other bullets, and sometimes the cup would tear through the top of the projectile, leaving the bulk of the bullet in the gun barrel.3 The Minie ball was tested by Col. Benjamin Hugar at Harper's Ferry in 1853, but was deemed unsatisfactory, because the cup continued to go through the top of the bullet.5
After the Minie ball’s failure during testing, Master Armor at Harper's Ferry, James H. Burton, came up with several bullet ideas. During the trials from 1853 to 1855, Burton made and examined six types of bullets that were all variants of the Minie ball or the “tige” bullet.5c The process was very much one of trial and error. Different reasons caused most of those bullets to be unsatisfactory, at least compared to each other. For example, Burton decided that elongated bullets of .69 caliber should not be made; because they were too large and heavy for a soldier to carry, and the powder charge might cause too much of a recoil when firing.5
In the last phase of those trials, which took place between 1854 and 1855, elongated bullets were tested with .54 caliber rifles. The Minie bullet was examined again at this level and failed. Springfield and Harper's Ferry Armories tested and showed that the cup/ plug was not needed, and so the bullet was modified. The gas admitted from the powder explosion alone would expand the bullet.2 Burton then decided to hollow out the projectile's bottom in the shape of a cylinder with the top of the cylinder smaller than the bottom. That shape strayed from the strictly cone shape of the Minie ball. Burton made his bullet’s bottom edges by the grooves thin enough so that the gas would cause them to broaden.6 Its base blocked escaping gas and was lubricated,7 cleaning the barrel as the projectile spun in the rifling. The design of the Burton bullet, also called the Harper's Ferry bullet, was established by "both theory and trial and error."8 That bullet was tested with 310 grains of powder, which was successful up to 200 yards, and 400 grains, which was accurate up to 450 yards. The base cylinder had three grooves on the outside that were greased to keep the bore clean.9
Burton’s bullet went on to be tested at the Springfield Armory, and the reviewers recommended a caliber of or between .54 and .6 along with a cone-shaped cavity so the bullet would be less likely to bust.10 After Springfield's test, Colonel of Ordnance Henry Knox Craig recommended .58 caliber bullet to the Secretary of War Jefferson Davis who approved the bullet on July 5, 1855.10 Thus the Burton bullet would be used for the United States' rifles and would be used during the Civil War.
a A Frenchman that Minie worked with named Delvigne was the first to put a groove in the cylinder-part of his own cylindro-conical bullet. Minie created the first ball that had a wedge in 1849.11
b Ball is used generally; his projectile was not round.
c The tige system had the bottom of a bullet resting on a rod at the part of the barrel by the breech. When the marksman would use the ramrod to pact the bullet in, the bullets' size would increase to allow the bullet to follow the rifling when fired. Tige bullets were elongated with flat bases.12
1 Dean S. Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire: A History of Civil War Small Arms Ammunition, Part One (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1997), 2,4.
2 Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, 4.
3 Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, 3.
4 Felicia Johnson Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley: A Regional Study of the Economic Development of the Small Arms Industry, 1798-1870 (George Banta Publishing Company: Menasha, Wisconsin, 1948), 25.
5 Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, 5.
6 Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, 8; Carl L. Davis, Arming the Union: Small Arms in the Civil War (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1973), 149.
7 Carl L. Davis, Arming the Union: Small Arms in the Civil War (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1973), 149.
8 Davis, Arming the Union, 149.
9 Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, 8.
10 Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, 10.
11 Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, 2-3.
12 Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, 2.
The air that works against the spin of the bullet as it ravels through the rifling. In order to fit balls inside smoothbores, windage was required. For rifles, it was just the opposite.
By changing the shape of bullets, the accuracy of the gun could be drastically changed. The advancements in bullets would be greatly improved by the start of the Civil War, allowing for an increased advantage to the soldiers that used them. The evolution from ball to elongated bullet helped to make rifling practical, because the latter helped to block windage and put a spin on the bullet, promoting accuracy and longer range.
As rifling become more and more popular, inventors sought to diminish the amount of windage. Originally, men were using round balls, like the ones used in smoothbores. Then starting in 1828 France, inventors began to both change the inside of the barrel nearest to the breech and modify the shape and size of the bullet.1a With breechloading, the ball was made slightly larger than the diameter of the bore. The explosion pushed the ball into the rifling, compacting and stretching the projectile.2 That process provided a block to windage.
The bullet that played a large role in the Civil War was inspired by Frenchman Captain Claude Minie’s bullet. Minie tested the different types of balls that were molded by his predecessors, and then came up with one of his own design. His famous projectile was cylindro conical and had three grooves in the cylinder. When loading, the bullet was small enough to just drop in past the rifling. That ability made the loading process quicker and easier, and the ball kept its shape during that procedure (the ramrod did not crush the bullet's top). The inside of his ballb was hollow at the base up to where the bullet started to make the coned tip, and that cavity had a "sheet iron cup."3 When fired, the explosion's force drove the cup towards the top of the bullet, which pushed the sides of the projectile out, forcing the grooves to catch on the rifling. As the bullet caught the rifling, the bullet spun and continued to do so as it traveled through the air, creating a more accurate and longer flying projectile.4
ARTIFACT: NATIONAL FIREARMS MUSEUM | PHOTO: ALLISON AND BRITTANY VENTURELLA
These pictures feature a type of Minie bullet.