Table of Contents
- 1 Introduction
- 2 PAS object type(s) to be used
- 3 Terms to use in the description
- 4 Recording the dimensions
- 5 Date and function
- 6 Bullet moulds and manufacturing
- 7 Firing damage
- 8 Non-spherical small arms shot
- 9 Protocol for recording shot
- 10 Shot from artillery (cannon balls)
- 11 Examples
- 12 Key references
This guide covers a variety of types of shot or ammunition, including cannon balls, musket balls and bullets. It has drawn heavily on a guide for FLOs produced by Amy Downes (FLO South and West Yorkshire) and on a guide to recording battlefield assemblages produced by Glenn Foard (Foard 2009 – download the pdf here).
Most of the shot recorded by the PAS is from small arms, and so this guide concentrates on these. A short separate section on artillery shot (cannon balls) can be found below.
PAS object type(s) to be used
The mda thesaurus has a variety of object types under the broad term ‘ammunition’. The best one for our purposes is SHOT, so please use this in the Object Type field for all types of projectile, whether from small arms or artillery.
Although most ammunition from small arms is under 25mm in diameter and under 60g in weight, there is a continuum of sizes right up to large cannon balls of perhaps 4 to 6 inches (100-150mm) in diameter and several kilos in weight.
Because there are so many terms for shot, some associated items are also hard to name and to search for. To keep all of the moulds for casting shot retrievable, please use BULLET MOULD for these rather than just ‘mould’.
Terms to use in the description
The nomenclature of ammunition is difficult. Both ‘shot’ and ‘bullet’ were used interchangeably in the 17th century. Shot is a collective term (as in ‘a ton of shot’) but is harder to use for a single object; ‘this shot is 12mm in diameter’ sounds odd. As a result, PAS recorders can use both terms in the Description field, but please use SHOT in the object term field.
The terms ‘musket ball’ and ‘cannon ball’ are both easily understood, but not much used by modern experts. Feel free to use both terms in the Description field, where they will help in searching.
Recording the dimensions
The weight is vital, as this gives you the size of the shot (the bore or the calibre) and therefore a good chance at identifying the weapon that it came from.
The maximum diameter of spherical shot should represent the intended size of the bullet, but may be less reliable than the weight. It can also be useful to record a minimum diameter, which can help to assess the damage caused to the bullet either through impact or (for multi-ball loads or case shot) through flattening while firing.
Air bubbles, uncleaned sprues and mis-matched mould halves can all add or remove metal. In addition, the shot may have lost weight through corrosion or damage, particularly impact damage.
Date and function
Lead shot was introduced for both for small arms and larger weapons in the mid 15th century, although its use in artillery was superseded in the 16th century by iron (and occasional stone). Most of the shot in the Mary Rose (sank 1545) is large cast iron shot, representing some of the earliest cast iron in Britain; but there is also smaller lead shot in this wreck, along with the famous longbows.
The use of lead shot in smaller firearms rose steadily through the 16th and early 17th centuries. The upsurge in violence in the mid 17th century, with the pitched battles of the English Civil War, resulted in a steep increase in the use of shot. During the English Civil War, lead shot was used by both infantry and cavalry. Shot was supplied in barrels by the ton to the main armies, and bullets were fired in tens of thousands on the battlefields.
After the Civil War, most significant military action was carried out overseas, so most shot found in England and Wales is likely to date to the mid 17th century.
Bullets for rifled weapons were introduced in the 19th century, and these tend to be long, with one rounded end; this type can be called a ‘conical’ bullet. Conical bullets are found in great numbers on rifle ranges, set up from the 1860s to train the Rifle Volunteers. Their metal cartridges can also be found at the firing positions (the bullets, of course, usually end up at the target). These rifle ranges are beginning to receive more study (e.g. the Bromyard Downs survey).
Most research on shot has focused on their use in warfare. Because lead is relatively stable, and the bullet is such a small object, most bullets that were fired or lost on a battlefield have survived almost exactly where they fell. The bullet is usually the only artefact present in sufficient numbers to allow the recovery of a significant physical record of military action. Their calibre and exact character, including the damage sustained in use, can offer a wide range of information about 17th-century battles and other military actions.
Small amounts of lead shot are also found scattered around fields in what seems to be a random manner. It seems probable that firearms were used in the exploitation of wild food resources, but to what extent and by whom seems to be under-researched for the early post-medieval period. The Game Act 1671 restricted the use of hunting and shooting equipment, so it should not be assumed that game shooting for gentry began only in the 19th century.
In addition, training and practice for 17th- and 18th-century militias will have resulted in the loss of some shot; and there may have been some secondary uses for lead shot, perhaps as weights or ballast.
The weight of lead shot was crucial to its effectiveness as ammunition. Lead alloy (in the sense we use for the PAS database) was therefore not used for shot.
Bore and calibre – small arms
In the 17th century, shot size was expressed using either the word ‘calibre’ or ‘bore’, both of which were a measure of how many bullets were made from each pound of lead. 12 bore or 12 calibre, for example, means 12 balls to the pound.
There seem to have been several attempts at standardising the bores of different firearms during the 16th and 17th centuries, none of which fully succeeded; a useful short summary is given by Courtney (1988, 3).
In most cases we cannot precisely assign 17th-century shot to specific weapons. This is mainly because there was a huge variety of firearms in use, and shot for them was often imperfectly manufactured, in many cases by the soldiers themselves.
Despite this, Glenn Foard has suggested broad ranges of weight for several calibres of weapon in the 17th century, based on weights of hundreds of bullets (Foard 2009, 9 – download the pdf here). Foard’s PhD thesis has more detail, using documentary sources as well as the bullets themselves (Foard 2008, 112; download the pdf from Ethos here).
Foard also points out (2008, 114) that firearm tolerances were high, and that a slightly smaller calibre of bullet could be used just as effectively as the correct calibre.
During the 18th century, firearms were far more standardised, so a wide variety of shot size and weight on a single site indicates a Civil War date. The British army in the 18th century used just three main uniform sizes (below).
Bullet moulds and manufacturing
During the 17th century it seems that in addition to mass production, soldiers routinely made their own shot in the field using small moulds. These are recorded on the PAS database as BULLET MOULD and we have several different types.
About half are sub-triangular, with a hemispherical recess in which a single ball could be cast. These are all made from copper alloy, but can have iron corrosion on the exterior. The interior is often slightly grooved; see NARC-11387D (pictured under Photographing Shot below) for a very clear example of a bullet cast in one of these moulds, with grooving at right angles to the casting flash.
Another quarter of the bullet moulds are of hinged type, with a pair of handles that can be squeezed together; these can be made from iron, or from copper alloy.
The rest of the moulds are all more or less rectangular, but otherwise very heterogeneous. Two are made from stone; LON-763F17 has grooves on the outside to hold an external binding, and LIN-E62987 has recesses for two sizes of shot. YORYM-B89745 is itself made from lead, and looks as home-made as the bullets were.
In contrast, SUSS-DBC125, a copper-alloy mould with 17 recesses, is the only one recorded on the PAS database which looks as if it might have been anything to do with the industrial production of shot.
The shot tower, which mass-produced perfectly smooth small shot, was not invented until the late 18th century, and it is hard to imagine the individual production of all the tons of 17th-century shot.
When recording a bullet mould, please note the diameter of the recess for the bullet as well as the overall dimensions of the mould. Check that a gate (the hole through which the molten lead would have been poured) is present. If there is no gate, the mould may have been used for something else, such as sweets.
Evidence of manufacturing that might be visible on the shot itself includes casting flashes, sprues, and cavities. Casting flashes are the ridges or seams between the two halves of the mould, caused by blocks that are mis-aligned or do not fully meet. The presence of casting flashes on several bullets in an assemblage suggests a 17th-century date. Be careful not to mix these up with ‘belted’ bullets, though (see below under Non-Spherical Shot).
Sprues are the remains of the lead running through the gate. They could apparently be left in situ to attach a paper cartridge (Harding 2012) or cut off with nippers or a knife. One nip leaves two facets on the base of the sprue, two nips leaves four; a knife leaves one facet. Each cast ball should have a single sprue; if you have two sprues, you may be dealing with a dumb-bell bullet (see below under Non-Spherical Shot).
Lead shrinks on cooling, and if the molten lead was very hot a cavity in the finished ball can result; this is normally at or near the sprue.
Impact damage is said to be common, but in practice can be hard to distinguish from post-depositional damage. The exception is the entirely flattened ball that has hit a hard surface; there are not many of these recorded on the PAS database, but see PUBLIC-D58CE6 for some examples. Localised flattening or other slight damage is more common, as on SWYOR-640B25, SWYOR-5A4E5E and NLM-DEEB5A (all pictured below).
Several facets on a single piece of shot can be caused by the use of case shot. This was fired by artillery (large field guns) but consisted of many small projectiles, usually mostly balls of musket size, either loose or contained in a wooden ‘case’ or canvas bag. Examples might include SWYOR-409A87 and NLM-1365FF.
A flattened band around the centre of a bullet is known as ‘set-up’. It is caused by the friction of the ball against the muzzle of the gun as it is fired. Set-up bands can also be caused by loading two or three balls into the gun at once; the balls will expand widthways as they are pushed into each other, creating a set-up band and flattening of the surfaces in contact. Set-up bands are fairly common on PAS records. NLM-D9ED9F shows both a set-up band and multi-ball load flattening, which can be distinguished from impact flattening because it will always be at right angles to the set-up band.
The explosive gases in the barrel of the gun can also cause ‘gas erosion’ or ‘gas cutting’ as they partially escape past a loose-fitting ball. The erosion is seen as facets or shallow grooves which taper the back of the ball to give a conical shape.
Related to firing damage is damage from the use of a worm, or wormer. A wormer consists either of a single tine forming a corkscrew, or two tines that spiral around each other in a double helix, fixed on to the end of a ramrod and used to remove shot from the gun barrel. Worm scars on bullets can be large rounded holes with screw threads, or two angled holes off-centre. They need careful photography and there are as yet no certain examples on the PAS database.
There are also no wormers recorded on the PAS database yet, but an iron example is illustrated in Courtney (1988), 3.
Multiple dents on one side of a bullet are sometimes suggested as ramrod marks, but no ramrod marks have yet been identified with confidence on Civil War bullets in England, and it may be that the wooden ramrods of the time are not hard enough to leave a mark (Foard 2009, 23). In theory, the marks should be overlapping curved indentations on one side of the ball.
Bite marks on bullets are often mentioned but rarely convincingly photographed. Foard 2009, 22 comments that definite bite marks are rare, but also that bullets were routinely held in the mouth ready for loading. Corroded lead has a sweet taste, and so it is possible that animal gnawing may also have taken place post-deposition. Most PAS records that mention bite or tooth marks are simply very battered objects, damaged in ploughsoil.
The phrase ‘bite the bullet’, meaning to accept inevitable pain or hardship, is often thought to be from the use of bullets to bite on during battlefield surgery, but in fact the available evidence suggests that this technique was used more to help endure punishment beatings without making a noise.
Non-spherical small arms shot
There seems to be a lack of accepted terminology for non-spherical shot. In theory they can all be called ‘slugs’ (a slug is any elongated, non-spherical bullet) but in practice they fall into one of a few main types.
The purpose of these different kinds of shot is still uncertain.
Although a ‘slug’ is in theory any elongated, non-spherical bullet, in practice the word is used only for largely cylindrical bullets of the pre-rifle age. Slugs can be cast in this shape, or trimmed or hammered down from pre-cast balls. They can have flat ends, or rounded ends, or both. The dividing line between a ball with set-up band, and a slug, is vague.
The diameter (or width) and weight of a slug are more important than their length. Slugs are perhaps not easy to recognise unless they are found in groups with other shot (e.g. DENO-E8E8B6, BERK-1AFF88, NLM-C96C4C).
A slug cast with two expanded ends and a distinct waist is is normally called a ‘capstan’ bullet (or sometimes ‘bobbin’ shot). They may not have been as common in the past as cylindrical slugs but, as they are easy to recognise, we have several records on the PAS database.
Dumb-bell shot consists of two distinct spheres, usually joined by a bar. On incomplete examples, the bar can be mistaken for a casting sprue. Again, they may not have been as common in the past as cylindrical slugs but because they are easy to recognise we have many recorded on the PAS database.
A spherical ball with a wide raised ‘belt’ around its circumference is a 19th-century type, used with a two-grooved rifle (Foard 2009, 12-13). There are good examples of belted bullets on the PAS database at DEV-9635B4 and DEV-961764.
Protocol for recording shot
As with pottery and lithics, much of the value of lead shot records comes from assemblages. An amorphous lump of lead on its own is difficult to interpret; with a group of pistol, carbine and musket balls it is far easier to see it as a piece of ammunition.
Another principle for recording shot is that if the individual bullets of an assemblage are precisely located, sophisticated analysis is possible, with a reconstruction of actual field conditions at the time of firing.
A PAS record can clearly only accommodate one findspot and therefore it is difficult to both keep an assemblage together and record detailed findspots. It seems at present that FLOs are prioritising either one aspect or the other. For known battlefield sites, it is arguable that detecting should only be done together with the Battlefields Trust, who can advise and help to get the maximum information out of the site.
Laura Burnett has been experimenting with different ways of graphing the weights of shot assemblages, so that even if there is no detailed findspot information, at least the range of weapons is established. See SOM-9746EB, SOM-9CB017 and SOM-901737 for examples.
For relatively featureless, smooth spherical balls, one view will suffice. If there is any diagnostic feature (such as a sprue, casting flash or impact damage) then at least two views are necessary. A well-preserved bullet with lots of detail needs the standard views of all sides. Correct projection of all views is essential (so a top view above, a left-hand view at the left, etc) because the way that the different views should be combined is rarely reconstructable from the images alone.
Shot from artillery (cannon balls)
Most of the cannon balls in the Mary Rose are of iron, and represent some of the earliest cast iron in Britain; a few are made from stone. Stone balls were still in use in small numbers up to the English Civil War (mid 17th century). The smallest artillery pieces might use lead shot, and there were also composite pieces, iron with a lead jacket or lead with stones (e.g. NCL-EE9FE0).
Cast iron roundshot is rarely found on battlefields, even though records suggest that it was the normal long-range ammunition; cannon may have been so hard to transport that they only arrived after the battle was over. Siege warfare used cannon, as speed was of less importance. A major use of cannon was also aboard ship, where of course there would be no transport problems.
Alternative identifications for iron and stone balls
There are several problems with identifying cannon balls found away from known military sites. Spherical stone balls were also used in garden statuary from the 17th century onwards. Iron balls were also used in various industrial milling operations, such as crushing chalk for whiting.