Evolution of Ammunition

     The primary small arms used by both sides of the Civil War were single shot black powder weapons. The term black powder was coined in the US in the late nineteenth century and refers to the chemical propellant, pictured here, used in the firearms of the day. It was the only chemical propellant in use through the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries. As science progressed so did weapon technology. This can be seen in the changes in small arms. Eventually cased ammunition would be developed. This was a revolutionary change in small arms technology. Prior to cased ammunition the individual components of a single shot had to be loaded either down the barrel in the case of rifles or into a cylinder in the case of pistols. This process is slow and cumbersome when not under the pressure of enemy fire and gets even more difficult when in combat so much so that it would be simpler to fire the single shot from a rifle and then continue the attack using a bayonet. Another major complication with black powder is moisture. If the powder gets wet it will not work. Cased ammunition is the solution to the problems of black powder. A cased shot is all of the components of the regular black powder shot contained in a brass shell. In early cased ammunition the base of the shell is coated in fulminated mercury[1]. The hammer of the cased ammunition weapon strikes the base of the shell causing the impact sensitive mercury compound to explode setting off the black powder charge inside the shell. In the later years of the war new small arms would appear in the hands of northern soldiers. These weapons used the new cased ammunition and were able to hold multiple shots. The southern soldier would refer to these rifles as “That damn Yankee rifle you could load on Sunday and shoot all week.”

[1] Ness, Leland S., and Anthony G. Williams. Jane's Ammunition Handbook 2011-2012. Coulsdon: IHS Jane's, 2011.