Shotgun Ballistics in the 19th Century

Shotgun ballistics for these old weapons could be difficult

Antique shotguns; photo by Joppo,

Making Your Own Ammunition

Laura Ingalls Wilder described how Pa made his own bullets in Little House in the Big Woods. Isolated in the Wisconsin wilderness of the 1870s, the Ingalls family lived in a log cabin and had to make many things themselves.

Castling ladle for making ammumition

Casting ladle from a 1911 German hunting catalogue

After dinner, Pa moved over to the family hearth with his two daughters at his side. He started by melting lead in a ladle held in the glowing coals, and when it melted, he poured the molten lead carefully into the bullet-mold. After a minute, he popped the mold open. A shining hot bullet dropped out onto the hearth. It was too hot to touch, although the girls sometimes gave in to temptation and then had to shove their fingers into their mouths to cool them off. Once the bullet cooled, Pa shaved off any lumps left by the mold. The finished bullets went into his bullet pouch, and leftover shavings were set aside for making more bullets. Pa was now ready to go hunting the next day.


An early 20th c. German bullet-mold

Pa used a rifle, writes Laura. Named after the “rifling,” or spiraling groves on the inside of the barrel, a rifle throws its bullets into a spin and gives them greater accuracy, not unlike football or tennis players putting a spin on their balls. Rifles were a boon to hunters and soldiers.

Rifles vs. Shotguns

Rifles also leave clues on their bullets that help criminal investigators. Those groves leave behind unique “ballistic fingerprints” on each bullet. Law enforcement uses them to identify weapons used in crimes.

Shotguns are different. Their bores are smooth, not rifled, and they shoot a spray of pellets instead of single bullets. Modern shotguns use cartridges containing both shot and powder. Cartridge shells, once spewed from the barrel, can leave telltale clues pointing to the individual shotgun used.

Cartridges offered additional information for shotgun ballistics

A 1897 German cartridge

Cartridges were invented during Pa’s lifetime. But early in the 19th century, hunters had to load their shotguns by ramrodding powder, wadding, shot, and a thin cover down the barrel. Many people made their own shot, using the same procedure Pa used to make his bullets or by dropping molten lead into water. And if a criminal used one of those loads, law enforcement had a much more difficult time tracing them back to a weapon.

Early Shotgun Ballistics

Modern forensic science was born in the 19th century, just during the time that cartridges came into vogue and the frontloading shotgun began to fade into obscurity. But Austria’s father of forensic science, Hanns Gross, did address shotgun ballistics in 1899.

Bullet and pellet-mold.

This mold makes both bullets and shot pellets.

One clue all shotguns left behind was the spray pattern. Distribution of the shot and wadding could give investigators clues about where and in what direction the perpetrator shot. It can even help determine whether it was a crime or accident: “We can determine the cone of dispersion, and hence see whether the victim was in the middle or on the edge of the cone; this is most important when the issue of intention or accident comes in.”

The mixture of shot was once piece of evidence in shotgun ballistics.

A mix of buckshot, foxshot, and birdshot, together with wadding, with a U.S. penny for size comparison.

Another important clue was the size of the shot. “If all the pellets are the same, then there is not much evidence to be obtained. But if (providing they all came from the same discharge) the pellets are of mixed sizes, e.g. foxshot and rabbitshot, and if a suspect denies committing the crime, but the same mixture in a similar proportion are found on his person, the investigator has gained at least one piece of evidence.”

That evidence could be very individual, because like Pa, many people in the early 19th century made their own ammunition.

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (3rd ed., Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s 1899) p. 410.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (New York: Harper Collins 1932).

August Stukenbrok Einbeck, Moderne Waffen, Munition, Jagdartikel (catalogue, ca. 1911).

A special thanks to Markus Beck, weapons dealer in Kirchheim a.N. in Germany, for information about antique German weapons

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The Hankey, Yellow Fever, and Nautical Signal Flags

A ship carried yellow fever to America

A ship carried yellow fever to America in 1793. Morguefile photos.

How a Breach of Maritime Custom Changed United States Boundaries

Who would have thought that one ship could have altered American history and redrawn United States boundaries? Or that hoisting a simple yellow signal flag might changed all that?

Water barrels hosted mosquitoes carrying the yellow fever virus.

Wooden water barrels offered the perfect environment for transporting mosquitoes. Morguefile photos.

History professor Billy G. Smith’s new book, Ship of Death (2013), shows how the Hankey, a ship that crisscrossed the Atlantic in 1792-93, played a pivotal role in American history. Or rather, its tiny stowaways did: the ship’s wooden water barrels harbored mosquitoes carrying yellow fever.

As the Hankey visited port after port in the Caribbean and Philadelphia, it left a raging pandemic in its wake. Philadelphia’s epidemic forced George Washington to flee the nation’s first capital. And the decimation of French troops in the Caribbean probably induced Napoleon to give up a huge chunk of land on the American continent: The United States might have the Hankey, and its captain’s failure to hoist the “yellow jack” – the customary warning of disease on board – to thank for the Louisiana Purchase.

An Ill-Fated Voyage Sparks a Yellow Fever Pandemic

Mosquitoes carry yellow fever.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes can transmit yellow fever. Morguefile photos.

The story started with a group of idealistic British who decided to set up a colony free of slavery on the west coast of Africa. They settled the island of Bolama, cutting down trees for building material and to create farmland. They also brought down several of the trees’ inhabitants: monkeys, a mosquito living in tree canopies and specializing in those monkeys, and a virus inhabiting both. Having lost their habitat, mosquitoes then bit the ground-dwelling humans, infecting them with yellow fever. The virus passed to another species of mosquito, Aedes aegypti, that prefers human blood.

Yellow fever in Buenos Aires

Yellow fever strikes Buenos Aires. “Juan Manuel Blanes Episodio de la Fiebre Amarilla” by Obra de Juan Manuel Blanes (1830-1901) – Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales, Montevideo. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Yellow fever decimated the colonists. Some survivors sailed on the Hankey to America on a circuitous route back home, but many of the passengers and crew succumbed to yellow fever en route. Billy Smith found the long-lost log of the Hankey in the British National Archives in Kew, England, and compared the Hankey’s arrival dates at various New World ports with the epidemics that broke out only days afterwards: Barbados, Grenada, Saint Domingue (Haiti), and Philadelphia. The Hankey, writes Smith, “created the first major pandemic of yellow fever in the Western Hemisiphere.” It “killed hundreds of thousands of people around the Atlantic Ocean” and lasted two decades.

Matthew Somerville Morgan, "Yellow Jack Monster" (1873). Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Matthew Somerville Morgan, “Yellow Jack Monster” (1873). Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

In Philadelphia alone, the yellow plague killed 5,000 in 1793. One third of the city’s 50,000 inhabitants fled the city. George Washington took extended leave in Mount Vernon, and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson stopped going to work. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton remained, but so many other government officials fled that the nation’s nascent government ground to a screeching halt.

Word of the Hankey’s contagion had reached England before it arrived there in late 1793. After disembarking the passengers, the English burnt the Hankey to the waterline and sunk it in the Thames estuary, preventing a major outbreak on the British Isles. Of the original Bolama colonists, only a handful had survived.

Yellow Fever and the Louisiana Purchase

Beyond death and personal suffering, the Hankey’s wake turned political. By far the greatest impact of her voyage was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. After Napoleon Bonaparte lost thousands of troops in Saint-Domingue, not only to the Haitian Revolution but to yellow fever, he gave up on America and offered Thomas Jefferson the Louisiana Territory. “From Saint-Dominique to Philadelphia, the voyage of the Hankey did more than spread death; it redrew the map of the United States, reconfiguring the political and geographic landscape of the early American republic,” writes Smith.

Yellow fever induced Napoleon to sell the Louisiana Territory in 1803.

United States government, from the Atlas of the United States; public domain.

What if Captain Cox had Hoisted the Yellow Jack?

A captain should have flown the yellow jack if yellow fever was on board.

The “yellow jack” was a square yellow signnal flag indicating disease on board.

It’s fun to engage in some alternate history and ask if any of this would have happened if John Cox, the Hankey’s captain, had complied with maritime custom. He should have flown a yellow flag. The “yellow jack” was the international signal for disease on board. Had Cox hoisted it, the Hankey would have been quarantined and the pandemic possibly prevented.

Philadelphia's waterfront in the 1770s. Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt, "Vuë de Philadelphie," 1770s. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain.

Philadelphia’s waterfront in the 1770s. Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt, “Vuë de Philadelphie,” 1770s. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division; public domain.

Did Captain Cox commit a crime? I’ve taken a brief look at that question, but haven’t come up with anything conclusive. King George III did enact a statute in 1806 requiring all ships with infectious diseases on board to fly a signal if they were within four leagues of the British Isles. It’s unclear to what extent that British admiralty law incorporated maritime custom as customary law, and I haven’t found period regulations from the United States mandating a ship to fly the yellow jack.

Whether they were incorporated into statute or not, one this is clear: Nautical signal flags played a critical role in period commerce. One captain’s breach of maritime custom may have changed history beyond his imagination.

Literature on point:

Billy G. Smith, Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press 2013)

John Raithby, The Statutes Relating to the Admiralty, Shipping, and Navigation of the United Kingdom (London: Eyre & Strahan 1823)

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Cadaver Dogs in the 19th Century

A beagle tracks a scent. Soloviova Liudmyla, shutterstock.

A beagle tracks a scent. Soloviova Liudmyla, shutterstock.

A landscape of odors….

Compared to canines, humans smell in black and white. We live in a world of sight and sound, words and letters. If you wrote a novel for dogs, you’d have to use smells – it would be a scratch-and-sniff book. Dogs find their literature on the ground, on trees, and under bushes; a stroll in the woods is to browse through a library. They “see” the world as an aromatic landscape colored with scents we can’t even imagine.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

The nose knows. MorgueFile free photo.

It’s precisely that facility that makes dogs so useful to law enforcement. Their olfactory perception complements a detective’s visual perception and can offer critical clues in a criminal investigation.

Cadaver dogs begin their careers

Father of the murder bag.

Hanns Gross, father of forensic science in Austria. Public domain.

Systematic training for cadaver dogs began in the 1970s. Modern human remains detection dogs learn to distinguish the odors of human decomposition from those of animal decomposition and track them through varied terrains. But that doesn’t mean that no one ever used dogs for finding dead bodies before the 1970s. One of the first recorded instances of a court purposely using a dog to search for a murder victim occurred during the investigation of the Bavarian Ripper in 1809.

Hanns Gross, an Austrian criminologist and the father of modern forensic science, wrote about the need for cadaver dog searches as early as 1899:

Hanns Gross recommended this breed as a cadaver dog

Johann Elias Ridinger, Leithund, 18th c.; public domain

“Undertaking outdoor [searches] is difficult under any circumstances. Systematic searching is almost always impossible due to the size of the territory; success is due to chance. Only in one circumstance is outside assistance advisable: searching for a human body. For that purpose, a good tracking dog can be used. Not every bloodhound or Leithund [a 19th c. German breed similar to the Weimaraner] can be used, however; only a few dogs possess the right facilities for the task. But if the investigating magistrate needs help in such a case, it won’t suffice if he just orders: “Get me a tracking dog.” He most certainly won’t obtain any help in this manner. He must, as discussed above, prepare for war during peacetime. This is all the more necessary because you often find such dogs in completely unexpected places, and can’t find one on the spot when you need one.”

A watchdog breaks the case

Gross managed to find a good dog and described how it found a body quickly enough to exculpate the suspect:

William Henry Jackson, "Seek Dead," 1902; public domain. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

William Henry Jackson, “Seek Dead,” 1902; public domain. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

“A tanner in my district had a garden-variety watchdog that didn’t have a bit of hunting dog in him, but (I think it merely due to his voraciousness) could find every single piece of carrion within a huge perimeter. For that reason, the local hunters borrowed him to find all the game they shot that their hunting dogs couldn’t find. The tanner’s dog found everything that was animal and dead. He would come to a standstill for wounded deer as well as a long-dead cat, but he found both. Once, when we needed to search for a missing cretin, presumed to have been murdered by his brother-in-law, this dog found the cretin’s body deep in the woods. At that point it was still possible to determine that the cretin had died as a result of an epileptic seizure, but a few days later, it might not have been possible to make a postmortem finding that no violence had occurred, and the suspicion would have followed the brother-in-law for the rest of his life.”

A landscape of scent. Morguefile photos.

A landscape of scent. Morguefile photos.

The dogs in this case and the Bavarian Ripper investigation proved their worth. One discovered the bodies, providing the crucial piece of evidence to convict a murderer, and the other found the body quickly for investigators to prove there was no murder, and exonerated an innocent suspect. Hats off to cadaver dogs and their forerunners in the 19th century!

What are some of the unusual things your dog has found with its nose?

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (3rd ed., Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s 1899) pp. 122-124 (translation mine).

Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows (New York: Touchstone 2013)

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Paper Bullets: Counterfeit Confederate Currency in the Civil War

Counterfeit Confederate Currency included these five dollar bills.

Confederate Five Dollar Bill; public domain.

Technically, it wasn’t a crime.

The Philadelphia shopkeeper was just looking for a way to make money, and as long as the United States hadn’t recognized the Confederate States of America, he could legally produce them. And they may have had done more damage to the Confederacy than Yankee bullets.

Counterfeit Confederate Currency as Souvenirs

Sam Upham originally sold his replicas of Confederate bills as curios, “mementos of the Rebellion.” He stamped the bottom edge of each bill with a notice: “Fac-simile Confederate Note – Sold Wholesale and Retail by S.C. Upham, 403 Chestnut St. Philadelphia.”

Upham produced counterfeit Confederate currency

Samual C. Upham. This photo, by Gilbert & Bacon, Philadelphia, appears in Upham’s book “Notes of a voyage of California” and is available via the Library of Congress. Public domain.

Fake $5 notes, black-and-red handiworks depicting five goddesses, Agriculture, Commerce, Industry, Justice, and Liberty, went for a penny apiece. They sold like “hotcakes.” Upham then upgraded to $10 bills, selling a pack of 100 for $2 and advertising them in the newspapers.

That’s when dishonest cotton smugglers took notice. They snapped up Upham’s bogus scrip in bulk, trimmed off his disclaimer at the bottom, and passed them off as real Greybacks in the South, where they purchased cotton with Upham’s kickoffs and smuggled it back through the battle lines to sell in the North. As Upham started making money, he started printing higher denominations, and even more counterfeit Confederate currency floated south.

Federal agents heard rumors about Upham’s counterfeiting business and paid him a visit. But as far as they were concerned, he wasn’t doing anything illegal as long as he wasn’t forging Greenbacks.

Counterfeit Confederate Currency and Inflation

As the war continued, inflation devoured the value of the Confederate banknotes. At one point, each Greenback was worth 1,200 Greybacks. Upham claimed his knockoffs waged a fiscal war with the Confederacy and did more to help win the war than bullets ever did. Confederate Senator Henry Foote agreed, in part. He told the rebel Congress that Upham did more damage to the Confederacy than General McClellan ever did. Confederate Secretary of the Treasury, Christopher Memminger, took note of Upham’s scheme and suspected an organized Yankee scheme behind it.

Counterfeit Confederate Currency included these 100 dollar bills.

Confederate Hundred Dollar Bill, public domain.

A modern economic analysis corroborates some of Upham’s boasts. Upham printed about 15 million forged banknotes, amounting to 1-2.5% of the Confederate money supply. “The … evidence indicates that Upham’s counterfeiting business had a significant impact on the Confederate price level,” writes economist Marc. D. Weidenmier. “Counterfeiting fueled the Confederate inflation via a large increase in the money stock….”

Upham wasn’t the only counterfeiter in the war. Winthrop Hilton also produced bogus Confederate scrip in New York, but his scheme backfired. Federal agents thought he was producing the real thing and jailed him for printing authentic Confederate bills north of the border. They thought he was cooperating with the Rebels. Entrepreneurs in Havana, Cuba, printed phony Confederate bills and smuggled them into Florida.

Did the Rebels Strike Back?

Memminger was aware of countefeit Confederate currency

Christopher G. Memminger, Confederate States Secretary of the Treasury. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.

If the Rebels were aware of Yankee counterfeiting schemes, did they ever try to strike back by counterfeiting Greenbacks? I haven’t seen this question discussed anywhere. It’s possible that Greenbacks were simply harder to replicate. The Confederacy used lithographic printing, whereas the United States employed high quality engravers. The former process is cheaper, but easier to fake. Lithographic technology might have become one of the swords on which the Confederate currency fell.

Using bogus money as paper bullets was nothing new. Britain tried to undermine the American economy during the Revolutionary War by mass-producing counterfeits. In New York Tory newspapers, it advertised “any Number of counterfeit Congress-Notes, for the Price of the Paper per Ream.” During WWII, Nazis put prisoners to work creating counterfeit Allied money. They hoped to weaken the enemy economy.

When you sweep all the price charts and currency rates aside, one thing remains as clear as cannon fire on a windless night: Battlefields were not the only arena on which the Civil War was fought. Ordinary people made a difference.

Can you think of other ways people fight wars off the battlefield?

Literature on point:

Tobin T. Buhk, True Crime in the Civil War (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books 2012).

Jack Lynch, The Golden Age of Counterfeiting, Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Summer 2007) (quote about British counterfeits)

Marc D. Weidenmier, Bogus Money Matters: Sam Upham and his Confederate Counterfeiting Business, Business and Economic History 28(2):313-324 1999 (quote pp. 320, 321).

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