Revisited 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.

This is not a myth. (Revised 4/25/2017)

John Hill, Supervisor of Military Programs for Colonial Williamsburg, says, “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.” 

Hill is probably correct about drill manuals from the Revolutionary War, however, a recent (2008) book does provide some documentation for the Civil War. (Thanks to Steven Poole for bringing this to my attention.) A History of Dentistry in the U.S. Army to World War II, by John M. Hyson, DDS, Joseph W.A. Whitehorse, PhD, and John T. Greenwood, PhD., page 29: Many potential enlistees were rejected during the [Civil] war because of dental deficiencies. As part of the physical examination given to drafted men or their substitutes (the 1863 conscription act allowed a drafted man to hire someone else to perform his military service), the surgeon was to determine “whether he has a sufficient number of teeth in good condition to masticate his food properly, and to tear his cartridge quickly and with ease.” Revised regulations were even more specific, stating that “total loss of all the front teeth, the eye-teeth, and first molars, even if only of one jaw” was cause for rejection.” (The footnote attributes these to “Disqualification for military service in the Civil War on account of loss of teeth,” authored by Edward Bumgardner (DDS), published in 1894 in a journal called “Dental Cosmos.”)

Other European countries had similar dental requirements. On page 23: In the French army, the manual for the recruiting service, the Aide Memoire, listed the following dental causes for the rejection of an applicant: Loss of the whole or part of either jaw-bone, deformities of either jaw-bone interfering with mastication, speech, or the tearing of the cartridge; Anchylosis of the jaws; Loss of the incisor and canine teeth of both jaws.” The British army regulations mention the “loss of many teeth or teeth generally unsound,” and “extensive deficiency, particularly of the front teeth” as reasons for rejecting a recruit, but without any direct mention of why. In the book’s introduction (page v), Deputy Surgeon General Joseph Webb, a major general in the U.S. Army, writes, “The need for military dental care was first recognized, interestingly enough, in the eighteenth century when it was critical for the European and American musketeer to possess strong front teeth to pull the cap off wooden gunpowder tubes before bringing the charge to the musket’s muzzle. Arms manuals of the day showed that little had changed 250 years later as America became caught up in civil war. At that time, infantrymen needed enough strong teeth to tear open the paper cartridge that contained musket ball and powder.”

P.S.  It is likely that, during time of great need, such details were overlooked in the rush to build up armies. 

 

 

Previous Comments:

Melissa Nesbitt says:
May 12, 2013 at 10:29 am (Edit)
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.

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Megan says:
May 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm (Edit)
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!

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Mary Miley says:
May 12, 2013 at 5:06 pm (Edit)
See myths 108 and 8. Also #8 Revisited, when I learned some new information that was intriguing.

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Dudley Toelke says:
May 12, 2013 at 3:18 pm (Edit)
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.

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Mary Miley says:
May 12, 2013 at 5:08 pm (Edit)
Mr. Hill did not say the cartridges would have been pre-torn, he said theoretically, someone could have “pre-torn” them.

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oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:43 am (Edit)
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:
August 9, 2013 at 9:04 am (Edit)
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.

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Mary Miley says:
August 9, 2013 at 11:33 am (Edit)
Roger, For some strange reason, your comment isn’t making its way to my blog page. And I want it there–it’s a good bit of information! Would you mind cutting and pasting it and trying again? I can’t imagine what’s wrong . . . Thanks. Mary Miley Theobald Writer and Historian

5 Countryside Court Richmond, VA 23229 (804) 288-2770 http://www.marymileytheobald.com

Blogs: http://www.marymiley.wordpress.com http://www.historymyths.wordpress.com http://www.stuffafterdeath.wordpress.com

Keith says:
May 14, 2013 at 9:09 am (Edit)
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.

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oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:50 am (Edit)
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.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:26 pm (Edit)
What British historians, and what sources did they mention?

Mom Wendel says:
May 15, 2013 at 9:45 pm (Edit)
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.

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Mary Miley says:
May 16, 2013 at 7:48 am (Edit)
Interesting! But does that pertain to cartridges?

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:40 am (Edit)
I have changed my mind on cartridges. Failing to find explicit orders to recruiting officers and sergeants to specifically look for opposing teeth in recruits, I can not say it is not a myth. Having all of my teeth and never having “gummed” a cartridge, I can not attest to whether or not it could be done. However, I am now very interested in this detail of musketry and intend to learn more about paper cartridges than I knew before.

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Mary Miley says:
May 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Good luck! Let us know the results.

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Brian Zawodniak says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:12 pm (Edit)
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.

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Mary Miley says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:22 pm (Edit)
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.

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Will says:
August 6, 2013 at 5:35 pm (Edit)
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…..

Brian Zawodniak says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:14 pm (Edit)
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….

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Lindsey says:
August 6, 2013 at 9:20 pm (Edit)
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.

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Dale Kidd says:
August 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm (Edit)
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.

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Mary Miley says:
August 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm (Edit)
Can you cite a source for that? (Without going to a great deal of trouble . . . )

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Marc Schaftenaar says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm (Edit)
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.

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Marc Schaftenaar says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm (Edit)
Also, saying something like pre-tearing and gumming a cartridge “might be possible” is also not a valid argument.

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Craig Schomp says:
August 8, 2013 at 11:25 am (Edit)
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/

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Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 8:52 am (Edit)
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”.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 6:53 pm (Edit)
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.

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Daisiemae says:
December 3, 2015 at 9:55 pm (Edit)
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?

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Mary Miley says:
December 6, 2015 at 10:35 pm (Edit)
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?

Jake Pontillo says:
August 1, 2016 at 4:07 pm (Edit)
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.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 4, 2016 at 10:07 am (Edit)
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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oldud says:
August 4, 2016 at 10:42 am (Edit)
The triangle has an excellent strength – weight ratio.

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:40 am (Edit)
I have changed my mind on cartridges. Failing to find explicit orders to recruiting officers and sergeants to specifically look for opposing teeth in recruits, I can not say it is not a myth. Having all of my teeth and never having “gummed” a cartridge, I can not attest to whether or not it could be done. However, I am now very interested in this detail of musketry and intend to learn more about paper cartridges than I knew before.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
May 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Good luck! Let us know the results.

Reply

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5 Responses to Revisited 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. I note that Dale Kidd didn’t come back to you with sources! Fascinating.

  2. Suzanne Thompson says:

    Hi Mary,

    My mom forwards your emails to me. This one about teeth reminded me of something in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Wayback Machine column yesterday (3/19/17) from 1942. It was a struggle, but I managed to find that column on-line. Here is the paragraph: 1942

    March 19: Brigadier General Joseph O. Donovan, State Selective Service Director, yesterday announced new dental standards for the military. The old standard: a minimum of six masticating teeth and six incisor teeth, three masticating opposing three masticating and three incisor opposing three incisors. The new dental standard: “Merely the ability to eat army chow.” Many Selective Service registrants who were deferred under the old standards will now be able to qualify for full military service.

    and the link: http://www.sfchronicle.com/entertainment/article/1967-Health-director-lectures-hippies-11007036.php

    Of course, this has nothing to do with tearing cartridges, but it does indicate that prior to the 3/18/1942 change the US Army did have rules about how many teeth recruits had.

  3. Yes, we have heard this folderol in the Civil War reenacting world as well–I first heard it around 1984 or 85..

  4. Steven Poole says:

    On page 29 of the book “A History of Dentistry in the US Army to World War II” (John M. Hyson, Jr., DDS, Joseph W.A. Whitehorne, PhD, and John T. Greenwood, PhD: 2008), we read:

    Many potential enlistees were rejected during the war because of dental deficiencies. As part of the physical examination given to drafted men or their substitutes (the 1863 conscription act allowed a drafted man to hire someone else to perform his military service), the surgeon was to determine “whether he has a sufficient number of teeth in good condition to masticate his food properly, and to tear his cartridge quickly and with ease.” Revised regulations were even more specific, stating that “total loss of all the front teeth, the eye-teeth, and first molars,
    even if only of one jaw” was cause for rejection.

    The footnote for these quotes attributes them to an article titled “Disqualification for military service in the Civil War on account of loss of teeth,” authored by Edward Bumgardner (DDS). that was published in 1894 in a journal called “Dental Cosmos.”

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