The Power of the Minié Bullet

In this documentary about the Invalid Corps, one of the things that has come up over and over are the devastating injuries received by the soldiers and the significant loss of life.

Looking at the numbers, an estimated 620,000 men died. That breaks down to about 2% of the population. One in four men who went to war, never came home. There’s likely not a family, nor a household that went untouched by the war. More than 476,000 soldiers were wounded leading to almost 40,000 amputations.

One of the reasons for this was the 1849 invention of the Minié bullet, or as Americans called it, the “minie ball”. Rather than the round ball-shaped bullets of the past, the minie ball was a .58 caliber conical bullet made of soft lead with, three ridges in the side, and a hollow base. It weighed about 1 oz. and had a 1/2 inch circumference.

In the 1850s, James Burton, a master armorer at the U.S. Arsenal in Harpers Ferry improved on Minié’s design. He made the bullet longer, thinned the walls of its base and did away with the iron plug, leaving a heavy, all-lead bullet that expanded to fit the rifling in guns better and could be easily and cheaply mass-produced.

What made the minie ball so harmful was its very design. A solid ball, when fired, passes through the human body but the minie ball flattens and expands, doing much more damage, shattering bones and tearing flesh; creating much larger, much more complex wounds. Both Union and Confederate soldiers used the minie ball in their muzzle-loading rifles.

I wanted to find a way to illustrate exactly how damaging these are to the human body. Below is part of a 1970s video from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. It is a series of ballistics experiments conducted by shooting bones embedded in gelatin blocks.

Warning: Even though the video shows the firing of a Minié ball through gel and bone, it isn’t hard to imagine what it would do to a human body and some may find it a bit gruesome.

You can find the full video that includes several different pistols, rifles, and types of ammunition on YouTube

Posted on: June 26, 2017