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Pistons & Bullets Part 2; Bullet Trajectory, How Far Can a Bullet Travel Before it Falls, Minie Ball During the American Civil & Crimean War

Earlier we explored round ball and black powder and compared the bullet to a piston. Early firearms were smoothbore weapons firing a sub-caliber bullet. The bullet was smaller to accommodate the fouling that would build up in the bore. Wadding was placed over the powder, the bullet dropped in and rammed with a over-wadding covering the bullet to prevent it from rolling out of the barrel. The wadding was to seal the barrel and prevent gas loss around the bullet. Wadding is never completely efficient, and gas loss lowers the potential velocity, in turn leading to lower energy. Without rifling, the bullet would rattle down the barrel and depart the tangent to the bore. This limited these muskets to an accurate range of only about 40 yards, and perhaps less due to fouling.

Bullet Trajectory

The accuracy problem is one of the reasons that European armies of that time period fought in ranks. It promoted a high fire weight, ensuring more hits and there were other considerations to rank firing as well. When grooved rifling was introduced the accuracy increased out to about 300 yards. The spiral grooves in the barrel imparted spin to the bullet and stabilizing it. A patch was used to surround a round ball in a rifled weapon to seal against gas loss. The powder-patch-ball cap and powder regimen did not translate to high fire rate with reloads sometimes taking over a couple of minutes. But one problem persisted; the round ball is not considered an efficient aerodynamic shape. It is just not that “slippery” in the air and this limits range.

How Far Can a Bullet Travel Before it Falls

As a bullet, ball or otherwise, leaves the muzzle of the barrel, it is subject to gravity. No matter what the bullet will fall to earth. What determines range is the shape of the bullet and the velocity at the muzzle. A faster, more aerodynamic shape will travel farther in a given time, compared to the basic lead ball. Velocity, bullet weight and shape will determine range and energy delivery. A “slippery” bullet will slow due to air resistance less than a non-aerodynamic shape, and will as a consequence travel farther before dropping to the ground.

Minie Ball Bullet During the American Civil & Crimean War

Just prior to the civil war the Minié bullet was developed. This is an elongated lead cylindrical projectile with a round or truncated (cutoff, producing a flat nose) nose. They are hollow based allowing the high pressure gases to expand the base or ‘skirt’ of the bullet to engage the rifling and seal the barrel. The dilemma with cylindrical projects is loading them via the muzzle it that you have to accommodate the fouling from black powder combustion and still be able to ram a bullet under combat conditions. This in turn led to the Minié ball design. Slightly under caliber the Minié’s expanding skirt allowed for relatively rapid reloading under combat and dispensed with the patch, but allowed the bore to seal. With the limited velocities available with black powder propellant as can be recalled from previous articles, the only way to increase a weapons power is to propel a more massive, i.e. heavier projectile. A conical shape allows us to pack more bullet weight into a given bore. Claude-Etienne Minié, a French officer, invented this projectile and was not only present in the American Civil War but made its appearance in Crimean War as well. Heavier and with more, but not much more admittedly, aerodynamic shape the Minié experienced faster loading, added weight and thus delivering more energy, a heavier bullet that will carry through the air better. A improvement in range, energy and accuracy.

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