J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

How Could Six Shots Hit Eleven People?

Last month a gentleman asked me to give a short speech about the Boston Massacre at a private event. Could I cover the whole event in about fifteen minutes?

Cover the whole event? Hey, I could do fifteen minutes just on how many balls were in the British soldiers’ guns, I said. This was all by email, so I didn’t get to hear him say, “Oh, God, no!”

I was just making a point, not really offering to discourse at length on that one detail. But you folks aren’t so lucky.

On King Street that 5th of March, there were eight soldiers, each with one musket that he could fire only once before reloading. Witnesses testified that Pvt. Edward Montgomery shot into the air, and that the soldier on the other end of the line (probably Cpl. William Wemys) didn’t fire. So that leaves six shots into the crowd.

Yet there were eleven people killed and wounded. Even considering that a musket ball fired at point-blank range would go right through someone’s body, that’s a lot of damage for six balls. Furthermore, Crispus Attucks had twin wounds on his chest, as Dr. Benjamin Church described in his autopsy report.

The most likely explanation is that the soldiers each had two balls in their muskets. Those guns worked more like shotguns than like modern rifles. When gunpowder ignited inside the tubes, it pushed out whatever had been tamped down in there—one ball, two balls, buckshot, nothing but powder (called “snapping” the gun).

In fact, we have evidence of soldiers elsewhere in Boston that night being ordered to put two balls into their muskets. On 17 March, future American artillery captain Edward Crafts (younger brother of coroner Thomas Crafts) told the town’s investigation that the day after the Massacre he’d talked with a “Corporal McCan”—probably Hugh McCann of the 29th Regiment.

McCann reportedly told Crafts that on the night of the 5th:

his orders were, when the party came from the guard-house by the fortification [on the Boston Neck], if any person or persons assaulted them, to fire upon them, every man being loaded with a brace of balls.
”Brace” is an antique synonym for “pair,” usually used these days in the context of hunting. Folks of the late eighteenth century seem to have liked the alliteration of “a brace of balls,” since it shows up in other newspaper stories.

So those eleven people on King Street were probably felled by twelve balls.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Attucks autopsy would have been more valuable if any projectiles had been recovered.I am not aware that any balls were recovered by autopsy of any of the victims.Loading of two .69 balls would be unusual,but loading of "buck and ball",or one .69 cal.ball and two or more smaller,.32 cal.,etc. projectiles perhaps more common for a guard round.Thus,up to three balls per cartridge could be accomplished.One question is however,the distance between the soldiers and civilians at the time of discharge.At close range the balls would not spread much and often enter side by side.
Additional shooters from behind,etc.emplies premeditation of the incident,and offers no good reason to murder Bostonians in a time of high tension.If the "Massacre" was merely a "snow-balling", then history would have been drastically altered.

J. L. Bell said...

There are, in fact, two musket balls preserved from the Massacre. They went into the arm of a gentleman I’ll discuss later this week and into the house behind him. But I don’t know if anyone has attempted to analyze their weight.

The two balls which went into Attucks’s chest came out his back, and might well have hit people standing behind him. He was in the front of the crowd, close enough at one point to grab a soldier’s bayonet, so those balls would still have had plenty of momentum.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article and I like the way it was "published"!

Anonymous said...

For a bit more accuracy, the words "point blank", should not be used to convey the most powerful range. I am a pistol safety instructor and bullets move the fastest at about 6 - 18 inches from the barrel. One of Newtons laws in effect here. It does take some time to gain maximum acceleration.

Larry Cebula said...

I believe the shots were fired from Ye Olde Grassie Knolle.

Anonymous said...

.69? Weren't brown besses .72 caliber? IIRC .69 was a caliber in use by France, also later by continentals.
BTW
Comparing internal or exterior ballistics of 20 or 21st C arms w rifling to 18 C black powder smoothbore muskets firing soft Pb projectiles may not be straightforward