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.