23 Nov 2015



Skull from Civil War battle. Fatal wound inflicted by exploding 12 pound artillery shell. National Museum of Health and Medicine.

3 Feedbacks on "Ouch!"


Either that guy was REALLY big or the projectile was smaller than a 12 pounder. I regularly serve on a gun crew and shoot a couple 3 inch rifled guns and a 6 lb. cannon (all Civil War original including carriages, caissons and limbers).


Read carefully what is written below the picture. It precises “exploding”.

Of course, if this poor guy had gotten a 12-pounder shell right in his head, we, regular readers of this blog all know that there couldn’t be any photo of his skull today, because there couldn’t be any skull at all. Just a headless skeleton at best, or the remains of a pair of shoes at worst.

If you know that well artillery of the Civil War, then you should easily understand that the author is meaning a 12-pounder shrapnel. So an iron or lead ball whose diameter was either:
1.46 to 1.49” in the case of a 12-pounder Gun;
or 1.05 to 1.08” in the case of a 12-pounder Field Howitzer;
or a .69 lead musket lead ball in the case of a 12-pounder Mountain Howitzer.

In all three cases, those balls were placed in tiers and padded with sawdust in a projectile called “canister shot”. Those canister shots turned a howitzer into a huge shotgun of a sort, thus explaining why this skull on this photo has a so large hole, and how the projectile that did it could have enough power to pierce it through and through so neatly.

Let’s read that extract from Wikipedia with the title “Field artillery in the American Civil War”, which further explains at some point that:

“Case (or ‘spherical case’ for smoothbores) were anti-personnel projectiles carrying a smaller burst charge than shell, but designed to be more effective against exposed troops. While shell produced only a few large fragments, case was loaded with lead or iron balls and was designed to burst above and before the enemy line, showering down many more small but destructive projectiles on the enemy. The effect was analogous to a weaker version of canister. With case the lethality of the balls and fragments came from the velocity of the bursting projectile itself—the small burst charge only fragmented the case and dispersed the shrapnel. The spherical case used in a 12-pounder Napoleon contained 78 balls. The name shrapnel derives from its inventor, Henry Shrapnel.

The primary limitations to case effectiveness came in judging the range, setting the fuse accordingly, and the reliability and variability of the fuse itself.


Canister shot was the deadliest type of ammunition, consisting of a thin metal container loaded with layers of lead or iron balls packed in sawdust. Upon exiting the muzzle, the container disintegrated, and the balls fanned out as the equivalent of a shotgun blast. The effective range of canister was only 400 yards (370 m), but within that range dozens of enemy infantrymen could be mowed down. Even more devastating was “double canister”, generally used only in dire circumstances at extremely close range, where two containers of balls were fired simultaneously.


Grapeshot, which originated as a naval round for cutting enemy rigging or clearing packed decks of personnel, was the predecessor of, and a variation on, canister, in which a smaller number of larger metal balls were arranged on stacked iron plates with a threaded bolt running down the center to hold them as a unit inside the barrel. It was used at a time when some cannons burst when loaded with too much gunpowder, but as cannons got stronger, grapeshot was replaced by canister. A grapeshot round (or ‘stand’) used in a 12-pounder Napoleon contained 9 balls, contrasted against the 27 smaller balls in a canister round. By the time of the Civil War, grapeshot was obsolete and largely replaced by canister. The period Ordnance and Gunnery work states that grape was excluded from ‘field and mountain services.’ Few, if any, rounds were issued to field artillery batteries.”

So, given the size of the entry and exit holes in this skull, I would hazard the guess of a .69 musket lead bullet fired at a relatively close range; which, in that case, would logically come from a canister shot fired by a M1841 12-pounder Mountain Howitzer with a short bronze-made tube (aka “Bulldog”, aka “The Gun that Booms Twice”), which was in use in the United States Army from 1837 to about 1870.

T. Shaw

Grape shot; canister; solid shot. The man didn’t feel a thing; didn’t know what hit him. One doesn’t hear the one that hits one, either.

The last full measure of devotion.


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