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Monday, January 7, 2013

The Williams Patent Bullet

It's pretty much inevitable -- if you're metal detecting a Civil War site, you're going to come across a bullet quite different from the standard .58 calibre "three-ringer." These unusual, stubby bullets with a zinc disc at the base, are commonly referred to as "Williams Cleaner bullets."  That name, as it turns out, is something of a misnomer.  In this article we'll take a closer look at the fascinating history of these projectiles.
Williams Type III (left) and Type II Bullets
In the early 1850's after extensive testing, the United States government adopted a new, standard small arms bullet in .58 caliber.  The weapon that fired these bullets was the rifle musket —the Springfield Rifle Musket for the North and the Richmond Rifle for the South.  The rifle musket was revolutionary for the time because it wasn't a smoothbore weapon as most other armies had used to date.   Its rifled barrel imparted spin to the bullet which created a more stable, accurate flight.

But the fact that it was still a muzzle loading weapon created a problem.  In order to load the rifle musket, a bullet needed to be of a smaller diameter than the barrel otherwise it wouldn't fit.  For a .58 caliber rifle, the corresponding bullet diameter needed to be around .57".

Captain Claude MiniĆ© came up with a novel solution to this problem.   His bullet design relied on an iron cup at the base of a lead bullet to expand the bullet skirt and bring it into contact with the barrel's lands and grooves.  The US Ordnance considered the MiniĆ© ball but ultimately utilized a much simpler design suggested by James H. Burton, Master Armorer at Harpers Ferry.  Burton's solution did away with the iron cup and instead his all-lead bullet had a simple, conical hollow at its base.  Expanding gases within the rifle barrel compressed the thin lead skirt of Burton's bullet and eliminated windage.
Lt. Col. James H. Burton
Machines were constructed to mass produce what became the US Standard bullet and inventory levels were achieved that were deemed appropriate for the relatively peaceful period.  But soon, the onset of the US Civil War would pose significant new challenges for US armories in their attempt to arm and equip troops.

Foremost among these challenges was accommodating the huge spectrum of firearms with which troops were being outfitted. The Armory labored under the demand for bullets in a variety of calibers and was eventually forced to not only produce ammunition for non-regulation muzzle loaders, but also often had to purchase bullets from private contractors.

In the midst of this rush to equip troops, an American named Elijah Williams invented and patented a new projectile "wad" that was cheap, eliminated windage, and was suitable for a wide variety of not only small arms but even even artillery pieces.
Williams Type I: "Wad for Ordnance" patent drawing

"What I claim as my invention, " Williams stated in the patent application, "is a wad composed of two or more concavo-convex discs of metal, provided with slits ... and combined substantially as herein specified."

The full patent # 35,273 is online and can be viewed  here.

In the January, 1862 issue of Scientific American magazine, William's concept is further described:
 Wad for Ordnance. — Elijah D. Williams, of Philadelphia, Pa., is the inventor of a wad composed of two or more concavo-convex disks of metal, each having a series of radial or nearly radial openings so arranged with respect to similar openings in the other or others that the metal of one covers the openings in the other, such wad being constructed of such diameter relatively to that of the bore of the gun in which it is to be used that it will pass easily through the bore in loading, but that the explosive force employed in ramming the charge home, or both of these forces will act upon it to change its concavo-convex form to a plane or a form approximating nearer to a plane, by which it will be spread laterally, and caused to fill and close the bore between the powder and the projectile, in such a manner as to prevent all escape of gases and obtain the application of the entire explosive force of the powder to the projection of the projectile, and in such a manner that in rifled arms it will be caused to receive and impart to the projectile a rotary motion.
What's especially interesting about this patent is that William's "wad" wasn't designed to clean the bore at all, but rather, to eliminate windage and increase accuracy:
In ramming the projectile home its pressure against the wad tends to flatten it, and so cause its expansion laterally toward the walls of the gun, which tends to close the bore for the prevention of windage before firing; but when the gun is fired the pressure produced on the back of the was flattens and expands it laterally still more, making it fit the bore tightly and preventing windage; and also, if the wad be large enough, and the gun rifled, forcing its edges into the grooves, and so causing it to derive a rotary motion as it moves forward, which motion it imparts by friction to the projectile.
In other words, Williams wasn't trying to develop a bullet that cleaned the rifle bore, he was trying to invent a better bullet.

Field trials conducted by the US Ordnance Department in 1861 demonstrated that the Williams bullet was in fact significantly more accurate than the standard government ball in a variety of muskets. These tests were overseen by none other than Colonel Hiram Berdan, renowned for forming the US Sharpshooter regiments but also an accomplished inventor in his own right and of course, one of the best marksmen in the 19th century world.  Speaking of the tests, Berdan wrote, "The experiments were undoubtedly very carefully made and I have no hesitation in saying that the swaged grooved ball with the Williams Cap on the base is the most perfect projectile for Army use I have ever seen."

Subsequently, the US Government placed an order for three million "Williams patent bullets."

On February 12, 1862 Williams filed a second patent for "An Improvement in Elongated Bullets."  This bullet was referred to then as the "Williams improved patent bullet"  and today is known as the Type II Williams bullet.  Its patent #37,145 can be viewed here.
Williams Type II Bullet Patent Diagram
The Type II bullet differed from the original design in that it featured a pin cast of hardened lead (an alloy of lead and antimony) with a single, smooth zinc disc instead of two notched discs, attached to the pin.  Otherwise, the principle was the same as for the Type I bullet.
Type II Williams bullet without zinc disc showing hardened lead "pin"
Both the Washington and Springfield arsenals evaluated the "improved Williams bullet" and issued positive reports regarding its accuracy and, for the first time, noted its ability to keep the bore of the rifle clean.  On August 26, 1862 the US Ordnance placed an order for 1 million Type II bullets from Williams.

Always working to improve his product and of course, secure more business, Williams proposed a third and final bullet design to the government.  He claimed that this third design substantially decreased the weight of the Type II bullet, something Williams calculated would save the government millions of dollars in material costs/year.  This "light .58 calibre bullet" came to be known as the Williams Type III projectile and was first produced in 1863.  Hundreds of millions were ultimately manufactured.

Williams described the advantages of the Type III bullet as:
1st Its capability of being reduced in weight at least twenty per cent [sic] below the regulation standard ...;
2d Its very great superiority in accuracy over any other bullet used or known;
3 The adaptability of a single size to guns of a varying calibre ...;
4th Its certainty to prevent the fouling of the gun.  
[Round Ball to Rimfire Part 1, page 226 citing letter from Williams to P.H. Watson, US Secretary of War]

Again, it's worth noting that the bore-cleaning properties of the bullet are the last-mentioned of the claimed advantages of the projectile's design with the key benefit being its accuracy.  And this was the bullet's own inventor and salesman describing its properties.

The US Government found these claims interesting, especially that of reduced cost, and decided to conduct its own extensive tests of the Type III bullet to see if it justified increasing the number given to troops or even replacing the standard ammunition entirely.

Surprisingly, those tests failed to substantiate any of William's claims, including the bore-cleaning property of the projectile.  In fact, they found that the bullet cost more to produce than the standard one and frequently broke apart in flight, destroying its accuracy.  And in a final, damning letter, "the Military Division of the Mississippi ... reported the impression in that army that the Williams bullet is injurious to the grooves of rifled arms, for which reason a request has been made that no more of this ammunition be sent to the Army of the Cumberland."  [(Emphasis added) Round Ball to Rimfire Part 1, page 234 citing letter from Gen. G.D. Ramsay to Secretary Stanton].

So here was a strong indictment of the Williams bullet from both the Ordnance board and Sherman's army.  The communication of these findings had an almost instant effect -- the US Chief of Ordnance ordered that no more Type III cartridges be produced and that those already on hand should be used only in case of emergency.
Williams Cleaner Type III and a Type III plunger
Here in the Triangle area of North Carolina, scene to the final acts of the Civil War, the Type III Williams bullet is ubiquitous.  On many occasions, I have found a single Type III bullet in an area where, after persistent searching, no other relic could be discovered.  At other times, I've found dense concentrations of Williams Type III bullets and almost nothing else.

Although there apparently is no record of an official color for the Williams Type III bullet cartridge,  existing specimens today employ blue or buff colored wrappers.  Different colored cartridge wrappers would have made it easy for those 90,000 Union Soldiers under Sherman to quickly identify and dispose of the Williams bullets they'd been issued.

It's easy to imagine an infantry soldier, on a long march and with the end of the war imminent or already announced, peering into his laden cartridge box and ridding himself of the "cleaner" bullets which added to his already considerable load.  The isolated Williams bullets I've found have most often been by the side of an old road and were probably just tossed out as the soldiers marched past.  The concentrations of Williams bullets were located near streams or in camp sites and one can imagine the soldiers talking about "those damn Williams bullets" and tossing them dismissively en masse from their cartridge boxes.

An amusing aftermath to the war was a refutation by Horace Hayden, of charges that Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg used explosive or poisoned bullets.

He was responding to a passage in The Pictorial History of the Civil War in the United States of America, by Benson J. Lossing:

Many, mostly young men, were maimed in every conceivable way, by every kind of weapon and missile, the most fiendish of which was an explosive and a poisoned bullet, represented in the engraving a little more than half the size of the originals, procured from the battlefield there by the writer. These were sent by the Confederates. Whether any were ever used by the Nationals, the writer is not informed. One was made to explode in the body of the man, and the other to leave a deadly poison in him, whether the bullet lodged in or passed through him.
Figure A represents the explosive bullet. The perpendicular stem, with a piece of thin copper hollowed, and a head over it of bullet metal, fitted a cavity in the bullet proper below it, as seen in the engraving. In the bottom of the cavity was fulminating powder. When the bullet struck, the momentum would cause the copper in the outer disc to flatten, and allow the point of the stem to strike and explode the fulminating powder, when the bullet would be rent into fragments which would lacerate the victim.
Hayden pointed out, with reference to Elijah Williams patent #37,145, that the claimed explosive bullet was in fact, a Williams Type II projectile -- not explosive, not poison, and not even Southern. 

For more reading on the fascinating history of the Williams bullets, Dean S. Thomas' Round Ball to Rimfire Part 1, A History of Civil War Small Arms Ammunition, is the the undisputed authority from which I've quoted above.  It's a remarkably well-researched and written book and strongly recommended.

Less-recommended due to some out of date information and errors but also great reading is Civil War Projectiles II Small Arms and Field Artillery by W. Reid McKee and M.E. Mason, Jr.


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