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.