Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Minie Ball

Amputation was the most common surgery during the Civil War. Most amputations owed their unfortunate necessity to the minie ball.

The smoothbore musket had been the standard American infantry weapon throughout the 1850s. It fired a round ball and was reliable at close range in an era when the main military tactic was the massed infantry attack.
Civil War battlefields hosted a new generation of rifled weapons. Grooves inside the barrel of the gun gave the ammunition greater velocity, penetration and long-range accuracy. The ammunition of choice was the new, deadly minie ball.

Designed in France by Captain Claude-Etienne Minie, the ball was adapted by American manufacturers and was the most common ammunition used in the Civil War. The minie ball changed the face of warfare and of battlefield wounds.

The American version of the bullet was a large ellipsoid made of lead with a hollow cavity at its base. The cavity expanded when the powder was ignited, to fill the grooves of a rifled musket barrel. The grooves, or rifling inside the gun barrel caused the bullet to revolve as it left the muzzle.

The 0.58-caliber conical minie ball tore an enormous wound on impact, in part because the soft lead deformed, enlarging its dimensions. The ball was so heavy that head and abdominal wounds were almost always fatal; wounds to the extremities ripped through the tissues and shattered the bones.

As the missiles broke through the skin, they usually carried dirt, skin and fabric into the body. The wounds almost always became infected.

The minie ball caused massive tissue destruction and crushed the bones. This type of battlefield wound had never been seen before in America. Huge numbers of casualties and a lack of time, equipment, supplies and surgical experience made amputation the most rapid and effective technique to save the largest number of lives. Despite the frightening destructive power of the minie ball, an astonishing 75% of the Civil War amputees survived their surgeries.


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