Elongated balls are conical lead projectiles with a hollow base that were used in muzzle-loading rifles during the nineteenth century. These projectiles were primarily produced in two calibers, .58 and .69 (calibers here based on inches). Developed in part by a French military officer, Captain Claude-Etienne Minié, in 1849, this type of small arms ammunition was adapted and manufactured widely in America during the Civil War by both Union and Confederate armories (O’Connell 1989; Thomas 1997; Thomas and Thomas 1996). Elongated balls were made by pressing lead into molds, a process called “swaging,” and by casting. Cartridges, including the ball and gun powder, were provided to soldiers in the field. Soldiers on the battlefield would open the paper cartridges with their teeth, pour the gunpower down rifle barrels, and load the bullets into the barrel using a ramrod.
Elongated balls are a major class of Civil War-era artifacts found on battlefields. A recent survey at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in northwest Arkansas produced small arms ammunition and artillery-related artifacts associated with the battle fought on December 7, 1862. Of the Civil War period artifacts recovered (n=341), elongated balls account for 36% of the assemblage, or 125 bullets including .58 caliber (n=66), .69 caliber (n=44), and .54 caliber (n=15). Elongated balls account for 51%, or just more than half of all the Civil War period small arms ammunition (n=243), indicating that rifled guns were a major type of weaponry used in the battle.
The major innovation or advantage of the elongated ball was its shape and size adapted for rifled guns, which were far superior in accuracy and distance than smooth-bore muskets. The hollow skirt or base of the ball would expand into incised grooves in the gun barrel upon firing, causing the projectile to spin, traveling up to 500 yards (McKee and Mason 1980). Rifling technology provided tactical advantages in combat, and charging soldiers could be met by a barrage of fire long before they reached opposing lines. This technology was new to the young and often inexperienced soldiers caught up in the battles and skirmishes, making the already grim prospect of war that much more distressing to the nineteenth century residents of the Ozarks.
Small arms ammunition such as the elongated ball tell an important story archeologically. They can be found in discrete concentrations at archeological sites, allowing regimental positions to be reconstructed. Landmarks or features observed on individual balls can offer information about the type of gun used and indicate if and how the bullet was impacted. At Prairie Grove Battlefield, elongated balls are found across the battlefield, evidence of both Union and Confederate armies charging,and forming defensive lines throughout the day between the town of Prairie Grove and the Illinois River (Shea 2009). The elongated balls found at Prairie Grove Battlefield represent a brief, but tumultuous time in both American history and in the history of the Ozarks.
Dimensions: .54, .58 & .69 caliber (inches)
Age Estimate: 1862; nineteenth century as an artifact class
Note: Special thanks to Dr. Carl Drexler for providing information about Civil War-period artifacts in Arkansas. Dr. Drexler is the Station Archeologist at the ARAS-SAU Magnolia station.
McKee, W. Reid, and M. E. Mason, Jr.
1980 Civil War Projectiles II: Small Arms & Field Artillery. Publisher’s Press, Inc., Orange, Virginia.
O’Connell, Robert L.
1989 Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression. Oxford University Press, New York.
Shea, William L.
2009 Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
Thomas, Dean S.
1997 Roundball to Rimfire: A History of Civil War Small Arms Ammunition: Part One. Thomas Publications, Gettysburg.
Thomas, James E., and Dean S. Thomas
1996 A Handbook of Civil War Bullets and Cartridges. Thomas Publications, Gettysburg.
Artifact of the Month Series
A first principle of archeology is that the significance of artifacts depends upon documented information about the context of their discovery. At what site was the artifact found? Can we figure out the age of the artifact? Where was it found in relation to site features (houses, trash deposits, activity areas, etc.) and the distribution of other artifacts? Only with knowledge of those facts can we assess further information about the manufacture and use of artifacts, and their role in other spheres of activity such as social organization, trade and exchange, and religious practice.
In this series, we feature select artifacts that are extraordinary both for the context of their discovery and for their unique qualities that contribute exceptionally important information about Arkansas culture and history. New artifacts will be added monthly. Find the list of artifacts here.