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 Min-ie ball (min-ee) n. A conical rifle bullet used in the 19th century and designed with a hollow base that expanded when fired.

What caused so much of the pain, suffering, and agony that was the American Civil War? Some 90% of all battle wounds were caused by the small arms projectile known as the Minie Ball. Of those wounded by small arms projectiles, 15% or 234,400 men died as a result of its use.

The ball got its name from its inventor, Captain Claude Minie of the French Army. It was conical in shape and made of soft lead, with two or three grease grooves around its body. The cylinder-conical ball usually had a cavity. Upon firing, the hot gases produced by the burning black powder charge expanded into the hollow base of the ball, forcing the soft lead into the rifling grooves inside the barrel of the musket. These grooves, which spiraled as they traveled the length of the barrel, imparted a spin to the ball, making its range an incredible 1500 yards, with extreme accuracy at 350 yards or less.

The majority of Civil War cartridges consisted of the Minie ball and 60 grains of black powder enclosed in a paper cylinder. The paper cylinder full of powder was placed behind the bullet, both were wrapped in paper, tied off at the bullet end, and folded or twisted closed at the powder end. To load this cartridge, the soldier would bite off the folded end, pour the powder into the barrel, and squeeze the ball from the paper wrapping. He would then ram the ball with the ramrod to seat it on top of the powder. By placing a percussion cap on the nipple under the hammer, the musket was ready to fire.

The Minie ball was made primarily in .54, .58, and .69 caliber sizes which weighed from 1 to 1 1/2 ounces. .50, .52, and .54 caliber conical projectiles were used in various breechloading carbines. Most pistols were .36 or .44 caliber. At 600 yards, a .58 caliber Minie ball fired from a Springfield or Enfield rifled musket could penetrate six 1 inch pine boards. When it hit the human body, destruction of tissues, cartilage, vein, and bone was massive. The soft lead flattened and broke apart as it hit flesh. If a man was hit in the arm or leg, the bullet shattered the bone from 6 to 10 inches and necessity for amputation was certain. If hit in the torso, a man was usually left to die.

Doctors at the time of the Civil War knew little about mending a hole in the body that the slow moving Minie ball had made. The entrance wound was the size of a man's thumb, but the exit wound was the size of a man's fist. Human flesh has a peculiar way of "evacuating" itself from the path of a foreign object, thus literally tearing itself apart as the bullet passed though it.

In addition to this bullet, a number of other projectiles were patented and used during the war: Williams "cleaner", Shaler "sectional", and the deadly Gardiner explosive were but a few of the many projectiles devised to kill and maim men in the Civil War.

Canister Shot

R.C. Main had called this weapon a Canister ball in his book, but in searching for the definition and description of the weapon Canister Shot was the name we found.

Canister shot is a tinned-iron can (hence, canister)full of lead or iron balls that have been packed in sawdust. Unlike solid shot, when canister is fired, the effect is much like that of a shotgun blast: a wide dispersion spray of small lead or iron balls.

Canister is most effective for short-range, anti-personnel decimation. A peculiarity of canister shot was the color of the smoke that attended the firing of canister. Since canister is packed in sawdust, the resulting smoke is most often a bright yellow, and its clouds of smoke are even thicker than those from black powder charges.

Canister shot, like case shot and grape shot, was chosen for use based on the distance of the enemy from the piece, and the efficacy of ammunition required for that distance. When the enemy was located at a medium range from the guns(defined as approximately 100 to 400 yards from the artillery emplacement), canister shot was the ammunition of choice. Canister shot would break apart as a result of the explosive force of the propelling charge, scattering its load of shot after the fashion of a shotgun blast.

Since no projectile was being fired that could be positively affected by a rifled tube, canister shot was most appropriate for use with smooth bore pieces which had no risk of rifling being damaged.

Page created by Janice Main, based on an idea by Jeremy D