Revisited Myth # 39: During the Revolutionary War, people melted down their pewter mugs and plates to make bullets.

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Since we’re already on the subject of deadly pewter . . . what about pewter bullets?

Bullet molds were intended to make lead bullets, but “in a pinch,” says Colonial Williamsburg gunsmith Richard Sullivan, “you could use pewter even though it would be inferior to lead. But I know of no accounts of such a practice.” Neither did two other Williamsburg gunsmiths I asked. I’ve read a few secondary sources that mention this practice as having occurred during the Revolutionary War, but these have been old publications (like the book on Nathan Hale from 1915), where the statement isn’t documented, or family genealogies, where the author repeats family lore, again, without documentation. It’s easy to repeat stories,  harder to find one that points to proof in the form of a primary source.

With bullets, heavier is better. Pewter would work—heck, aluminum foil would work—but pewter is mostly tin with a small amount of another metal, sometimes lead but not always. Imagine the power of a tin bullet . . . it wouldn’t go as far as a lead one, would lose speed more quickly, and wouldn’t have the energy when it struck. In dire circumstances, melting down one’s pewter plates might have provided ammunition that was better than nothing, but the practice could hardly have been widespread. Even though it might have occurred on rare occasion, the statement makes it sound commonplace, and so should be judged a myth.  

However, one reader of this blog, John Simpson, pointed out some recent research that shows archaeologists have discovered examples of lead-tin alloy musket balls on the site of the Battle of Monmouth (NJ), at Rice’s Fort (PA), and at Fort Motte (SC). At Monmouth, musket balls of “lead hardened with tin” were uncovered. At Fort Motte (1781), Stacey Whitacre’s 2008 MA thesis studied “lead alloy (pewter?)” that are “probable rifle balls.” For those who want to delve further into the subject, Mr. Simpson kindly provided links to the thesis and details of the other finds in his comments below. 

 

 

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6 Responses to Revisited Myth # 39: During the Revolutionary War, people melted down their pewter mugs and plates to make bullets.

  1. Jake Pontillo says:

    I remember watching some TV program about the events at Lexington and Concord how the militia men waited at the tavern and cast bullets melting down the tavern’s pewter.. I wonder where they get these ideas? Militia would have assembled with a full load of paper wrapped cartridges in their cartridge boxes. AND I do not suppose the tavern keeper would have appreciated the guys melting down his pewter plates and mugs.

  2. John Simpson says:

    I need to point out that in wound ballistics energy really isn’t the be all and end all. A pewter bullet cast in .69 caliber is still going to drill a .69 caliber hole into someone. Based on the density of lead versus pewter a .69 caliber lead ball would weigh approximately 480 grains (a little over one ounce) compared to a pewter ball weighing 308 grains or 0.7 ounces. Keeping in mind that modern cartridges are launched with smokeless powder our current 7.62mm NATO M80 Ball round is .308 caliber and weighs in at 147 grains.

    One place “where they get these ideas” is from archeologists finding pewter bullets on Revolutionary War battlefields.

    One example is Battle of Monmouth referenced here
    http://southerncampaign.org/newsletter/v2n1.pdf
    where we find on page 14:

    Musket balls have been found at Monmouth that have a lower specific gravity than lead and therefore, do not exactly fit the diameter formula. These musket balls are rarely flattened from impact suggesting that they are harder than lead. They have very poor and flaky patina that blisters as shown on the musket ball in Figure 17. The overall color is grayish. Lead was in short supply in the colonies so other materials may have been used to produce musket balls. There is the story of the gilded lead statue of King George III that was pulled down in Bowling Green Park, New York City in 1776 and cast into 42,088 musket balls (CTSSAR 2002). Since lead is much too soft for a sculpture, most likely it was hardened with tin and this was probably a pewter statue.

    A second example is found in the thesis An Analysis of Lead Shot from Fort Motte, 2004-2012: Assessing Combat Behavior in Terms of Agency which is available here
    http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3536&context=etd
    documenting the finding of pewter/alloy bullets on a South Carolina Revolutionary War battlefield.

  3. John Simpson says:

    And if you didn’t find any details about the excavation at Rice’s Fort online you didn’t try very hard. It was on the National Geographic Channel in a show titled Diggers: Fortress of Roundness.

    (Unfortunately there’s a $1.99 fee to watch the whole video)

    The episode listing says:

    Tuesday Feb. 25, 2014 at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT
    The guys visit western Pennsylvania, hunting for two forts from the Revolutionary War, each holding a mystery that only they can solve. They’re here to find Rice’s Fort, which could be the site of the last battle of the Revolutionary War. Legend says that soldiers melted pewter utensils as emergency ammunition, but experts
    have never been able to prove these artifacts existed. Can KG and Ringy prove this centuries-old myth to be true? But first, the duo check out Wolff’s Fort. Archaeologists have a rough idea of where it may have been, but they need the duo to pinpoint the exact location. They find some serious “cologne” — or Colonial artifacts — on the way.

    I haven’t watched it myself but apparently they did.

    • Mike Sonleitner says:

      Just watched the Digger’s episode “Fortress of Roundness” and the boys found a pewter musket ball. So cool.

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