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The lead minie ball

During the Civil War the North and South used a great variety of small arms ammunition, but the type most used was the minie ball. Prior to the development of the minie ball, rifles were not used in combat due to the difficulty in loading. The ammunition used by rifles was the same diameter as the barrel in order for the bullet to engage the groves of the rifled barrel. As a result the ball had to be forced into the barrel. The minie ball, originally designed by Captain Claude-Etienne Minie of France and improved on by manufacturers in the United States, changed warfare. Since the minie ball was smaller than the diameter of the barrel, it could be loaded quickly by dropping the bullet down the barrel. This conical lead bullet had two or three grooves and a conical cavity in its base. The gases, formed by the burning of powder once the firearm was fired, expanded the base of the bullet so that it engaged the rifling in the barrel. Thus, rifles could be loaded quickly and yet fired accurately.

These two minie balls from opposing sides met head-on during fierce fighting at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862.

Division of the History of Technology, Armed Forces History
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Behring Center
Gift of M. Lewis Crosby


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