Myth # 114: You had to have two opposing teeth to join the army in early America, so you could tear off the end of the cartridge.

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John Hill, Supervisor of Military Programs for Colonial Williamsburg, lays this one to rest. “I have heard many reenactors note the need for two opposing teeth as part of their musket-firing interpretations.  Such a requirement isn’t mentioned in any of the drill manuals of the period.  I don’t recall seeing anything requiring two opposing teeth in any of the recruitment documents or officers’ guides.  It seems possible that a toothless soldier could have partially torn the musket cartridge in advance and then “gummed” it open or maybe even torn it open by hand. Tearing the cartridge in advance is seen as a safety hazard today, but I doubt if it would have been in the 18th century.” Perhaps this started as a joke in the reenactment community and was taken seriously by some. 

Do Civil War sites hear this one too?

Another (minor) consideration: As far as dental health was concerned, things were not as bad as people are led to believe. There was much less sugar in the diet in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely because sugar was a luxury item and very expensive. Less sugar = fewer cavities = fewer rotten teeth.

30 Responses to Myth # 114: You had to have two opposing teeth to join the army in early America, so you could tear off the end of the cartridge.

  1. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    That one was a new one to me. It’s so odd what people will believe these days. And along the lines of “everyone” having rotten teeth, I grow tired of the assumption that “everyone was shorter” in those days. I think you may have already addressed that one though.

  2. Megan says:

    If you haven’t covered the “everyone was shorter” myth, I wish you would! I get tired of people saying that too, and then I have to find a way to nicely tell them they’re wrong without having actual research to back me up…. some people were certainly as tall as we are today!

    • Mary Miley says:

      See myths 108 and 8. Also #8 Revisited, when I learned some new information that was intriguing.

  3. Dudley Toelke says:

    I can assure you that you have to have at least two opposing teeth to tear a cartridge. The paper used for cartridges in the early 19th century was intended for durability to hold the ball and powder and would NOT have been pre-torn. Safety was a matter of accomplishing the mission, even then; the are a lot of sparks flying around when firing in close ranks. Firing commands are quite specific, as far as loading procedure, include “tear cartridge”. Having done so many times, you can not “gum” a cartridge” open. All of that said, it would be good to have primary source documentation for the assertion. I will try to find some.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Mr. Hill did not say the cartridges would have been pre-torn, he said theoretically, someone could have “pre-torn” them.

      • oldud says:

        I have researched the inspection of recruits in the early 19th century and the only orders for oral inspection was for the regimental surgeon. However, having physical experience with tearing cartridges, they could not have been “gummed”. And as to pre-torn cartridges, if the offender would not have been caught by his sergeant, his line buddies would have known and corrected the error; exploding cartridge pouches don’t add to the efficiency of the unit and well being of those in the burst radius of it.

    • Roger Fuller says:

      There was not one single type of paper used for cartridge-making in the world in the black-powder era. Anything from newsprint paper to the equivalent of bond paper to waxed paper was used, and everything else in between.

      I’ve seen original cartridges still extant, found in cartridge pouches. The paper is easily torn. You could even rip paper with your fingers, if you had to.

      However, as to whether “Two/four opposing teeth” was a condition to joining the army- any army, remember, anybody who has no teeth at a military age is probably somebody who’s not very healthy to begin with.

      This is a lovely reenactor myth, that many of our fellow reenactors have got attached to saying, but until somebody comes forward with credible multiple primary sources from different ears saying “you needed two/four opposing teeth in order to bite open cartridges, to go in the army”, I’m going to chalk this one up to “reenactor logic”. It’s right up there with the three-sided bayonet myths.

  4. Keith says:

    I had heard tihis said for the British army during the Nepolianic wars by severeal british historians interviewed for telivision programs. The continental army may not have been so picky. I also know a renactor with no upper front teeth and he manages quite well. Also, a good deal of tooth loose was from scuvy not caries.

    • oldud says:

      Once again, it depends on the paper he is using for blanks. I’ve even seen a fool that tried to get through a safety inspection with powder rolled in cigarette papers. Easy to tear but a hazard to himself and others.

  5. Mom Wendel says:

    There is a certificate of exemption for Rufus Downs of Ramsey, Minnesota, stating he was not eligible to serve or be drafted into the army during the Civil War. The reason for his disqualification was “by reason of not having teeth in his upper jaw.” The certificate is in the Anoka County Historical Society museum.

  6. Brian Zawodniak says:

    Is that a woman in uniform firing a musket? If so, that is so not historically-accurate unless that unit historically had a woman hide her gender.

    • Mary Miley says:

      I can’t answer that question because I can’t see the person’s face. However, I will say that Colonial Williamsburg has had to bend to modern employment requirements and allow girls to serve in the Fife and Drum Corps and hire women to work as costumed carriage drivers, so it is possible. In these cases, they are supposed to conceal their hair and wear men’s clothing.

      • Will says:

        Women did not serve in the military during these time periods out in the open. When they did see combat, it was in disguise as a man. If they were found out by superiors, they were removed from service. There are about 400 documented cases of women serving in combat in the American Civil War, and there were well over 3 million men serving between both armies. The ratio of women serving to men is very small…..

  7. Brian Zawodniak says:

    Also, pre-tearing a cartridge would have the powder leak out! Using your hands to tear a cartridge takes time away from the whole process of loading thus making one slower. Where is the musket in all of this hand tearing? Gumming your cartridge? Boy….

  8. Lindsey says:

    Yes, people make this claim at ACW battlefields, often that draft dodgers knocked out their own teeth to be unfit for service. They often add that the “draft board” would just put you in the artillery.

    They neglect to remember that the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s Kentucky Brigade (the so-called Orphans) included a man with a “deformed mouth” who could not speak and had no teeth. No was an infantry private.

  9. Dale Kidd says:

    I can’t speak for the American Army, but this definitely WAS a documented condition of enlistment in the British Army during the Georgian era.

  10. People are a bit eager to dismiss this as a “myth”, but the exercise is quite clear: the cartridge is opened by tearing it with the teeth. Any old soldier losing his teeth over time surely would not be kicked out immediately, -nor were woman, after discovery,- but I can’t imagine the old and teethless being accepted as new recruits.

  11. Also, saying something like pre-tearing and gumming a cartridge “might be possible” is also not a valid argument.

  12. Craig Schomp says:

    Perhaps you think it is a myth because the search term was wrong? Try “4F”… http://directionsindentistry.net/4f-unfit-for-service-because-of-teeth/

    • Roger Fuller says:

      I dunno….an unsourced website on the Internet is not sufficient proof. This isn’t how historical research is supposed to work. It’s a secondary source at best. Anybody can put something on the Internet. Whether it’s true is another matter. It needs either a source from a period document or a picture of an original document confirming this assertion, preferably multiple sources, to give more credence to the assertion. If I passed this in for a grad school class, I’d get an F. Or in this case, “4-F”.

  13. Roger Fuller says:

    Hi, Mary, I’ll try it again.

    “There was not one single type of paper used for cartridge-making in the world in the black-powder era. Anything from newsprint paper to the equivalent of bond paper to waxed paper was used, and everything else in between.

    I’ve seen original cartridges still extant, found in cartridge pouches. The paper is easily torn. You could even rip paper with your fingers, if you had to.

    However, as to whether “Two/four opposing teeth” was a condition to joining the army- any army, remember, anybody who has no teeth at a military age is probably somebody who’s not very healthy to begin with.

    This is a lovely reenactor myth, that many of our fellow reenactors have got attached to saying, but until somebody comes forward with credible multiple primary sources from different ears saying “you needed two/four opposing teeth in order to bite open cartridges, to go in the army”, I’m going to chalk this one up to “reenactor logic”. It’s right up there with the three-sided bayonet myths.

    • Daisiemae says:

      I heard a reenactor today say that people often knocked out their front teeth in order to avoid serving in the army! I simply cannot believe that.

      The same reenactor told the old “bite the bullet” myth and he was saying something about being stabbed with a 3-sided bayonet, but I couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying. What is the 3-sided bayonet myth?

      • Mary Miley says:

        Re: a 3-sided bayonet–such things did exist. I’ve seen them. I’m no expert on historic arms, so I can’t comment further. I don’t know what the myth is.

        As for knocking out one’s own teeth to avoid military service, I find that hard to believe if only because so many people had missing teeth. (We don’t see it too often today, what with implants and dentures, but travel to a third-world country and you’ll notice a big difference. When I was in India, for instance, it seemed that almost all adults were missing a tooth or three. In 18th- and 19th-century America, it was probably the same.) If many (or most) adults were missing teeth, I doubt that missing one’s teeth would make one ineligible for the army.

        Perhaps a military historian could better respond to this one?

  14. Jake Pontillo says:

    The standard military Bayonet was triangular in cross section. A wound via such a weapon would be difficult to suture. Also It is not absolutely necessary to tear open a cartridge with the teeth. One can be ripped easily with the fingers.

    • Roger Fuller says:

      As anyone who has ever sewn up wounds can tell you, you just use more stitches. Ever seen somebody who went through a car windshield? They look far worse than an some body with an even-sided wound, and those poor victims get stitched up successfully, too.

      The “three-sided bayonet as especially cruel weapon of war” myth seems to have come from the late 1950’s or so, at least as Dave Jurgella recalled it for me years ago, who related that, in the dawn of Civil War reenactment, when reenactors were asked, why does the bayonet have three sides, they had no answer. Not knowing they answer, reenactors guessed at it, so as not to come off looking ignorant of the subject. (But, really, the honest thing to do is say, I don’t know. Get the person’s contact info, research it, and get back to them with whatever info you find. You learn new stuff that way, I find!) The guess got added to by further guesses (AKA reenactor logic), and became holy writ.

      The reality is that the three-sided socket bayonet was a compromise between metal used and bending strength. Four sides are too heavy, two sides might snap, but three sides meant the blade might bend but not break, if slammed against a hard object. The flutes along the sides are not “blood gutters”, but fullers that impart bending and twisting strength, such as the inner surfaces of a railroad rail or I-beam do.

      Unfortunately, old myths die hard, since reenactors get very attached to them. For instance, the Geneva Convention, which supposedly banned such weapons, had nothing to do with weapons. It was mostly about prisoner exchanges and prisoner treatment in war. The Hague Conventions didn’t ban them, either, since they we long out of service by about thirty years, when the first convention took place. But again, it makes a potent myth that folks like to tell credulous crowds at reenactments who ooh and gasp when they hear these myths.

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