Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Military Buckshot in the Mid-Eighteenth Century

Reenactors portray Maryland troops

Dear Reader,

Today, we are going to examine a particular type of ammunition used by eighteenth-century soldiers: buckshot. For those unfamiliar with the term, buckshot consists of smaller projectiles, which spread out after leaving the barrel of the weapon. It is often used in a shotgun today. In the eighteenth-century, German language speakers called this specialty ammunition Cartatschen-Patronen, which gives us the modern German term, Kartätschen-Patronen, a catch-all term for submunitions including grape-shot (Traubhagel).

It appears that while this type of ammunition was common amongst American, British, and French irregular forces, and it was utilized by American, Austrian, British, French and Russian regular troops as well. In the eighteenth-century, buckshot was used to help compensate for the smoothbore weapons in common use at the time. By firing more projectiles at the target, troops generated a larger wall of lead with which to damage enemy forces. Far from being an exclusively American innovation, this weapon was employed by multiple European regular armies. This post will examine the use of buckshot in the mid-eighteenth century. I want to thank Dr. Grzegorz  Podruczny for his advice and help with source material.

Most troops discussed in this post were not firing only buckshot, but rather a combination of both buckshot and musket ball ammunition. In English, this is called "buck and ball", (sometimes, "buck 'n' ball") ammunition.[1] Usually, this consisted of a regular cartridge with 2-3 buckshot attached to it. This would provide the best of both worlds: the larger ball could be effective at long ranges, while at 100 yards or less, the buckshot would begin to wound and mangle enemy soldiers. If you are wondering what one of these cartridges might look like, check out the artistic reconstruction below. With the round itself examined, let us look first at the use of buckshot in the Seven Years' War, and then during the American War of Independence.

A Provincial in Winter

This type of specialist round was employed by both sides in the French and Indian War. British officers believed that their French and Native Americans enemies exclusively used this type of ammunition. In October of 1757, a British officer recalled, "The enemy never fire a single ball, for they always load with six or seven smaller ones (which are called buck-shot) besides their usual musket-ball."[2] The same officer referred to being under buckshot fire as, "a dreadful shower."[3] By 1760, both the British and their provincial allies had followed suit. Describing a small engagement in Canada, John Knox reported that New England provincials, "advanced, very spiritedly, to the enemy, who were endeavoring to steal upon them; gave them a regular discharge of a brace of balls, besides buckshot from each piece, and sent them flying."[4] By the end of the war, it seems that both the British and Americans had begun to employ buckshot with increasing regularity. 

Austrian Reenactors 

At the start of the Seven Years' War Austrian infantrymen carried a total of 48 rounds of ammunition. Of those, twelve were buckshot rounds. It is unclear if these twelve rounds were buck and ball rounds (as pictured above) or specialized buckshot rounds designed to be loaded in addition to the regular round, as in the Russian practice (described below). Regardless, the Austrian army formalized ideas on use buckshot in their 1759 field manual. The Militär Feld-Regulament of 1759 indicated when facing enemy infantry, Austrian troops should use their buckshot rounds beginning at 100 yards, should definitely use them if enemy infantry attempted a bayonet attack. When facing enemy cavalry, the manual instructs the soldiers to reserve their buckshot fire until the charging horsemen have closed to 10 yards.[5]

Russian Infantrymen/Artillerymen of the Seven Years' War

The Russian army of the Seven Years' War also used buckshot to terrible effect at battles such as Zorndorf, Paltzig, and Kunersdorf. Indeed, the use of buckshot may help explain the incredible high casualties at battles like Zorndorf.  A Prussian recalled the battle of Zorndorf:
On our side, therefore, there were relatively little dead, but a great number of wounded. However, most of the wounded were able to convalesce with their regiments...every Russian infantryman loads a musket ball and an equal pack of buckshot. There are between 7-9 of these in a linen packet in the form of grapeshot. As a result of this, the Russians load quite slowly, as a Jäger loads his rifle. In the time it takes the Russians to load their weapons, the Prussians have fired three times. I address this only in passing. We have found signs of this buckshot in many of the wounded, because they bled freely, almost to death. I cannot say whether their balls are poisoned, but you have observed that the Russians even use heated shot to harm their enemies.[6]
Buckshot from archeology on the Kunersdorf battlefield. (Many thanks to Dr.
Grzegorz Podruczny for the image!)

Clearly, then, the Russians used a different sort of buck and ball ammunition, one where two distinct cartridges were loaded into the weapon. It is interesting that the Prussian soldier compares the additional time loading this ammunition to that of a Jägers' rifled weapon. After the Seven Years' War, Russian army would continue to use buckshot ammunition until the end of the Napoleonic Wars.[7] The British and fledgling American army would use this type of ammunition in the American War of Independence.

Reenactors portray American soldiers in the War of Independence
This ammunition was widely used by militiamen in the American War of Independence. When not using rifled weapons, militia troops increased their firepower and effectiveness through buck and ball ammunition.[8] Both Continental and militia troops used buck and ball ammunition at the Battle of Camden.[9] George Washington, possibly as a result of his experience in the French and Indian War, was a proponent of buck and ball ammunition. On October 6th, 1777, Washington circulated general orders that mandated, "Buckshot are to be put into all the cartridges that shall hereafter be made."[10] This decision came directly after the Battle of Germantown. Archaeology and documentary sources indicate that this order was indeed followed. The American predilection for buckshot continued into the War of 1812 era.

Soldier's Musket recovered from British shipwreck in St. Augustine, FL. 

The British, too, used buck and ball cartridges during the American War of Independence.[11] The musket above was photographed in a shipwreck near St. Augustine, Florida. Multiple American sources report suffering buckshot wounds when engaged with British regulars, particularly in the Southern Campaign of 1781. At the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, it is possible that both the Brigade of Guards and the 33rd Regiment were using this type of ammunition.[12] Although the British army never employed buck and ball as the standard ammunition, it appears that by the late war its use was quite common.

Thus, it would seem that buckshot was commonly used on many of the battlefields of the mid-eighteenth century. Rather than being a distinct practice unique to American backwoodsmen, the ammunition was used French troops in colonial Canada, and Austrian and Russians troops in Europe during the Seven Years' War. The American contribution to the use of buckshot ammunition was mandating its use, something that the British failed to do. It is an interesting coincidence that the two superpowers of the twentieth century, Russia and America, heavily employed buckshot during the eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries. 

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Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


[1] Babits, Brenckle, and Howard, "Rifle Shot and Buck'n'Ball in the 1781 Southern Campaign," Paper presented to the 2005 Nathanial Greene Symposium.
[2] Knox, An Historical Journal, Vol 1, 54.
[3] Ibid, 91.
[4] Ibid, Vol 2, 280.
[5]Anon, Militär Feld-Regulament, articles 15, 18, and 19. (Manuscript is unpaginated).
[6]Anon, Besondere Merkwürdigkeiten und Anekdoten aus Neudam in der Neumark, 29.
[7] Leo Bockeria, et al, "Russian war surgery in 1812," International Journal of Surgery, Vol 10, Issue, 10, 2012.
[8] Lawrence Babits, Devil of a Whipping, 13.
[9] Legg, et al, "Understanding Camden: The Revolutionary War Battle of Camden As Revealed Through Historical, Archaeological, and Private Collections Analysis," University of South Carolina Scholarly Commons, 2005.
[10] John Fitzpatrick (Eds), The Writings of George Washington, Vol 9, 313.
[11] Lawrence Babits, Devil of Whipping, 165n8.
[12] Lawrence Babits, Long, Obstinate, and Bloody, 166.


  1. Very interesting article- that x-ray of the musket really sells it.
    Thanks very much!

  2. It was used during the ACW too by troops using muskets. The Irish Brigade was especially partial to the practice.

  3. Very interesting article. You wrote that Austrian Infantryman carried 25% of that load, do you have any informations about how it looked in other armies during the 7YW? thank you.

  4. We used to shoot buck'n'ball at targets. Our weapons .69 cal, used a regular ball, plus three #1 buck. Experience taught us that 00 and 0 buck were too big, and difficult to load, but #1 worked well.

  5. I wonder to what extent this counteracted the tendency of soldiers to avoid aiming or firing at the enemy with intent to kill?