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, June 18, 2012

“Both poisoned and chewed the musket balls”

Lt. John Waller of the British Marines wrote to his brother soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill:
We had of our corps one major, 2 captains, and 3 lieutenants killed; 4 captains, and 3 lieutenants wounded: 2 serjeants, and 21 rank and file killed; and 3 serjeants and 79 privates wounded: and I suppose, upon the whole, we lost, killed and wounded, from 800 to 1000 men. We killed a number of the rebels, but the cover they fought under made their loss less considerable than it would otherwise have been. The army is in great spirits, and full of rage and ferocity at the rebellious rascals, who both poisoned and chewed the musket balls, in order to make them the more fatal. Many officers have died of their wounds, and others very ill: ’tis astonishing what a number of officers were hit on this occasion; but the officers were particularly aimed at.
Poisoning a musket ball was thought to stop a wound from healing. Chewing a ball supposedly roughed up its surface so that it produced a rough wound that also wouldn’t heal easily. Poisoning and chewing a ball—well, that seems like a way to poison yourself.

This wasn’t an isolated complaint. Throughout the eighteenth century British officers complained about their enemies poisoning and/or masticating musket balls. Indeed, back in the 1670s the English poet Samuel Butler had launched such an accusation against Oliver Cromwell’s English army in Hudibras:
’Twas ill for us we had to do
With so dishon’rable a foe:
For though the law of arms doth bar
The use of venom’d shot in war,
Yet by the nauseous smell and noisom
Their case-shot savour strong of poison,
And doubtless have been chew’d with teeth
Of some that had a stinking breath…
Since the discovery of germs as the real factor in those deadly wounds, I don’t know if anyone’s bothered to test musket balls to see if poison could survive being fired across a battlefield.

There does appear to be evidence of British soldiers chewing or roughing up musket balls. The photo above shows a set dated to the English Civil War in the 1640s, on sale through TimeLine Originals. Another bunch is on display at Fort Ticonderoga. But I wonder if British officers ever ordered that tactic or acknowledged that their own men used it.


Daud said...

You'd think that if people wanted to cause ragged wounds they could have spared their poor teeth buy using a rough mold in the first place.

I also feel like the basic profile of the ball is still the same when you chew it up- how could little grooves on it possibly make a difference?

I think these guys where kidding themselves.

Aunt Niki's Blog said...

Perhaps it's just me, but.... I would think they would chew the ball THEN poison it.

Just sayin...

War Minister Crittumbo said...

Dip it in dung then shoot it.

J said...

It was common in medieval times to "poison" weapons with dung. But the weapons then were melee items or missiles like arrows. Infected wounds were a common result that ended in miserable death. A very early form of biological warfare. Perhaps this old notion passed on to firearms. But certainly no infectious agents would survive firing or if there was enough dung to survive firing it would quickly clog up early firearms.

Shay said...

I suppose this was an early version of "Dum-dum" rounds. But I'd take a knife to the soft lead, rather than my teeth.

18th century dentistry being what it was, y'know.

nightsmusic said...

Came here from Two Nerdy History Girls...weren't the balls made of lead? So they would have poisoned themselves as much as the enemy. Of course, they wouldn't have understood that at the time but...

nightsmusic said...

Came here from Two Nerdy History Girls...weren't the balls shown made of lead? So they would have poisoned themselves as much as the enemy. Of course, they wouldn't have understood that at the time but...

Unknown said...

It's possible for trace amounts of bacteria to survive the blast in an 18th century rifle. They were un accurate smooth bore and the black powder doesn't burn as well as modern power so I think it would have worked sometimes