Considering Buck and Ball

on April 16, 2013 in American Civil War, Biscuits and Bullets

(Credit: NPS)

One of the minor technical notes that appears in Stonewall Goes West is the use of buck and ball ammunition. Fired exclusively from smoothbore muskets, the savage effectiveness of this ammunition load at close range will come as a surprise to many a casual Civil War buff, due largely to the numerous myths surrounding the Minie ball-firing rifled muskets that were the primary infantry weapon of the war.

Buck and ball consisted of a standard, full bore ball with a few pieces of buckshot added in for good measure. Widely used for at least a century prior to the Civil War, buck and ball mitigated the single largest deficit of the smoothbore musket — it’s lack of accuracy beyond a few dozen yards — by turning the musket into a shotgun. Following shotgun logic, a soldier doesn’t have to aim well or even see the target clearly to score a hit, an important point on battlefields shrouded in black powder smoke. The ammunition could wreak great havoc when employed at short range, as it did most famously in the hands of the Irish Brigade at Antietam and Gettysburg (and at Second Kettle Run in my story).

One exercise I thought of to convey what facing down a line of infantry firing buck and ball at close quarters really meant comes from my fondness for Patrick O’Brian novels, namely converting the matter into “weight of metal.” A Civil War buck and ball load usually consisted of one .69 caliber ball plus four .32 caliber pieces of buckshot, for a combined weight of 673.2 grains (1.5 oz). By contrast, the .58 caliber Minie ball weighs 469 grains. Put 300 men in a line of battle firing three shots a minute, and the buck and ball-firing smoothbores have flung 84.4 lbs of lead at the enemy, while the boys with rifled muskets have flung back only 60.3 lbs of lead.

The Minie ball had greater stopping power, and inflicted infamously more ghastly wounds than anything coming out of a smoothbore. Yet at close range, the buck and ball will score many more hits. This is what happened whenever anyone got within 50 paces of the Irish Brigade: they ate facefuls of an ammunition load that was the black powder version of a deer slug plus four bits of .0 buckshot.

Taking the exercise further, compare the buck and ball-firing regiment to 12-pounder Napoleons firing canister, specifically the best known 1.5 inch-wide canister shot. Each shot weighed .43 lbs, and each canister held 27 of those shot balls, so each one flung 11.6 lbs of metal at the enemy (not counting fragments of the canister case). The typical rate of fire for a Napoleon was about two rounds a minute, so to equal the weight of metal of a regiment of 300 men firing buck and ball, you need 3 1/2 12-pounders. At close quarters, a single regiment of men armed with smoothbores is potentially as murderous as the typical Confederate artillery battery!

Leave a Reply