Sherlock Holmes and An Afternoon with the Bullets

     A few weeks ago, at the Mansfield Civil War Show, I picked up a cache of Civil War-era .58 caliber bullets from a nearby dealer. Finding bullets at Civil War shows is a common occurrence; few dealers trade only in bullets, most using them as space fillers or a way to make a few bucks from those seeking a cheap souvenir of the show. For many of us, bullets are the entryway into the fascinating realm of collecting Civil war relics.

The container I saw was a space filler and was labeled “.58 caliber 3-ring Minies, Battle of Chickamauga.” Intrigued, I started to dig through the container and at first glance they all looked about the same: your standard 3-ring lead Minie bullet. No Williams cleaners, carbine slugs, round balls, or pistol bullets in the lot. The cavities all looked the same, all cones with no triangles, stars, or letters. All drops or fired bullets that hadn’t hit anything, all of them well encrusted with dirt and dried red clay. But were they really all the same? Only one way to find out and that was to purchase them and give them a thorough examination.

“These were dug at Chickamauga?” I asked rather skeptically.

“In the area, yes,” the dealer said. “I have a buddy who is a digger in northern Georgia. He picks these up all the time.”

Relieved that these hadn’t been dug at the park (that would be illegal), I asked the dealer if he’d consider selling the entire lot. He smiled, and said, “Sure, but they’re all the same. Not much variety in there. But be my guest.”

We dickered for a moment over the price and before two shakes of a lamb’s tail I was heading back to my table with 28 “identical” Minie bullets from northern Georgia.

I acquired a cache of 28 unidentified .58 caliber bullets at the Mansfield Civil War Show at the beginning of May and after giving them a good cleanup to get rid of the dirt and clay, started on the process of getting dimensional measurements to determine bullet types. It was a pleasant afternoon with the bullets even if I could only positively identify 39% of the cache. 

It took a couple of weeks before I had time to really examine the cache, and once I started, I was reminded of Sherlock Holmes chiding Watson of the importance of small, seemingly insignificant details. How would Holmes have examined this particular cache of bullets? He would light up his pipe, adjust his cap, and study the details.

I’ve been collecting Civil War bullets for a few years and along the way have picked up some tools to help identify types of bullets. The most important tool in the arsenal is James and Dean Thomas’ A Handbook of Civil War Bullets and Cartridges which was first published in 1996 with a revised edition issued in 2018 (I have the later edition). During the war, the contending armies utilized more than 1,200 varieties of ammunition. Thomas’ guide breaks it down by type of weapon (pistol, carbines, and rifle muskets) and caliber (anything from .22 caliber to .73 caliber). Each listing includes dimensions (length and diameter) and weight (in grains) for the bullet along with some commentary on where the bullets were manufactured if known. Each bullet is assigned a designating number (1-212) with sub-varieties labeled with letters (for example, 165-A, 165-B, etc.).

As useful as the guide has proven, I have found over time that I needed the information organized and sorted in a different way, particularly with the .54 caliber, .58 caliber, and .69 caliber musket ammunition. So, what I did was take all the dimensional data from the guide for each type and plug it into an Excel spreadsheet, one sheet per caliber. After the data was entered, I sorted each sheet by grain weight and then printed out each page. This gave me a quick guide organized by weight which I hoped would speed up the identification process.

In business with the tools of the trade: a grain scale and a set of digital calipers. Both tools allowed me to get precise measurements of the bullets' length, diameter, and weight. 

The next tool that I used is a Hornady G3-1500 Pocket Scale that I picked up in the ammunition section of Bass Pro Shops. While the scale’s primary purpose is to weigh gun powder or black powder for filling rounds, its perfectly suited to weigh up bullets as the scale has a 1,500-grain maximum capacity, and the largest bullet used in the Civil War weighed about 850 grains. The scale is incredibly easy to use, battery-powered, and is small enough that you could take it into the field.

To determine caliber size, I initially compared my incoming bullets with some known examples in my collection but it quickly became apparent that my eyes aren’t up to the challenge of seeing the differences between a .54 caliber bullet and a .58 caliber one consistently. Bass Pro Shops had a solution for that problem, too, in the form of a set of Hornady digital calipers that include an easy-to-read digital display giving measurements to the thousandth of an inch. The calipers are both battery-powered and easy to use, being stored in a stiff black plastic case such that these could accompany you to the field as well.

One of the Southern-produced number 168s weighs right on the published 488 grains on the grain scale.

The final tool I used was a lighted five-power magnifying glass, something that I’d used extensively with my coin and stamp collections over the years. As my eyesight is starting to soften with age (too many years staring at the bright screen of a microfilm machine), the magnifying glass was very helpful in examining details in the bullet base such as letters or shapes.

Armed with data and the right tools to decipher these bullets, I set up shop outside on a pleasant May afternoon (the afternoon sun on the back patio brightens things up) ready to crack the code on the cache. Prior to getting started, I went through the calibration procedures for both the scale and the calipers to ensure my quality of data would be solid. It only took a moment and I was ready to dive in.

I took each individual bullet in turn and the first thing I did was check the ring pattern on the outside. Did any of them have a wider lip on the bottom, or an excessively thin lip? No dice there; they all looked about the same. Next, I checked the base cavities. What shape was it? Some bullets have cone cavities, or plug cavities, while others have teat or solid bases. Were there any letters, numbers, or shapes impressed into the cavity? Did the cavity still contain the wood or clay plug? The answer in every case was the same: cone cavities absent any other identifying marks. Maybe my dealer friend was right: these bullets were all the same.

That meant I needed scientific data on each bullet. Turning on the scale and calipers, I started to weigh and measure each bullet, wrote the figures down, then placed the bullet atop the figures. It didn’t take long to figure out that these bullets weren’t “identical” at all outside of the fact that they were all around .58 caliber. The smallest one measured .563” in diameter while the largest measured .578”. There was quite a bit of variation in the lengths as well, although all of them measured around an inch in length with the shortest measuring 0.94” and the longest coming in at 1.09.” As you might expect, there was quite a difference in grain weights with the smallest bullet coming in at 451 grains and the heaviest weighing 525 grains.

The Hornady digital calipers proved quite easy to use but you do need to watch where you pick them up as the blades can be rather sharp. Precise measurements out to the thousandths of an inch make identifying the caliber of your bullets a cinch. A highly recommended little tool. 

At first glance, the data all made sense based on the information from the Handbook. I noted 33 different types of .58 caliber bullets and the numbers cited above all fit comfortably within the known ranges on these bullets:

Diameter: 0.550”-0.578”

Length: 0.937”-1.15”

Weight: 378-578

Now it was time to match up my data with the information for the Handbook. Should be a cinch, right? Well, no. Out of the 28 bullets in my cache, only two of them matched up exactly with the guide, a pair of Southern-made number 168s. Each was exactly 0.574” in diameter, 1.02” in length, and weighed exactly 488 grains. Comparing them with the photos in the guide, they matched. So, two down, 26 to go and I’m off to a roaring start!

Nine more of the remaining bullets were quite close to the published figures (within a hundredth of an inch or a few grains), so I added a 149-A, a 149-D, 165-A, four 165-Bs, 165-C, and a 173-A to my pile of identified bullets. That takes down 11, leaving 17 more that I could not immediately identify. I re-weighed and checked each again with the calipers, but the data didn’t change, and it clearly didn’t match the published figures.

So, had I come across a slew of new bullets that the guidebook didn’t have? That would be exciting news but the truth was that I had come face to face with the 19th century version of a very real problem that I have dealt with every day during my 27 years in the manufacturing industry: production variability.

Civil War bullets were produced by the hundreds of millions during the war by a whole host of domestic manufacturers, and those supplies were supplemented (primarily in the Confederacy) by bullets procured from European sources. They were produced on hundreds of different machines that were by no means identical. The Industrial Revolution was still in its infancy and variations within a production run were remarkably common, even with such humdrum items as lead bullets.

The cache of 28 unidentified .58 caliber bullets sits atop the display case at right center along with some of the other acquisitions from the Mansfield show. These remarkable little pieces of history have much to teach and are fascinating objects of study. 

Hand-made bullets produced with bullet molds varied even more significantly in their dimensions, and the precise tolerances we expect in today’s industry with production equipment was still in the future during the Civil War. Swaging machines used to make the bullets in the North would gradually shift in their tolerances through the course of a production shift, and the story was also true in the South. The result was bullets that passed muster but had some dimensional variations. Not enough to impede their use in the field, but enough to confound the efforts of a 21st century collector to classify each bullet with simply scientific data alone.

It was a fun exercise despite my abysmal 39% success rate. Maybe with a more detailed guide I would be able to pin down a few more of these bullets (I’m open to suggestions) but the key learning for me was that the production variability that we struggle with in industry today dates from time immemorial, and my little collection of 28 bullets had that life lesson to teach. As for the 17 bullets that I could not identify, they went back into the storage case as a future challenge to dive into one more time when it’s a pleasant afternoon and I am ready again to try cracking the code…

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