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Old 12-15-2013, 12:38 PM
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Default Identifying bullets and cartridge cases

As many of us find bullets, cartridge cases and even full cartridges from time to time I thought to write down some things that will hopefully help you to get an identification.

First some questions and answers:

Q: I found a musket ball. How old it is?
A: Impossible to tell. Lead musketballs have been around hundreds of years. You really can't tell whether it's 100 or 200 years old..or 50.

Q: I found a 3-ringer bullet. Is it civil war?
A: Maybe. Did you dig it from known battle- or campsite? Minie ball came in use before US civil war and continued to be in use after US civil war. So you can say you dug an US civil war era bullet. As with musket ball, it is impossible to give any definite year.

Q: I found a bullet! Which gun fired it?
A: Give us some dimensions and don't get your hopes high. Say you found a .30 cal rifle bullet. There are hundreds of different cartridges that are .30 cal and lots and lots of different guns that fire some kind of .30 cal round.

Q: I found an empty cartridge case/live cartridge. What calibre it is? Who made it? And when?
A: Now we are talking. Check the following examples:

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Here's a pic that shows some important dimensions. This is a .308 cartridge btw. Case length is a must. And if your case is not deformed too badly, we need diameter at cartridge mouth, diameter at base of the case and if the case is rimmed, like .22lr, then we want rim diameter. If it's a complete cartridge give us the bullet diameter too..the diagram above shows you where to take the measure. could give us this:

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The Headstamp! 308 win made by Federal Cartridge co. Note that this headstamp is almost certainly from cartridge made for civilian use. How can you tell? Well, military cartridges tend to have the year of manufacture stamped in them . This is generally not the case with cartridges originally sold for civilians.
Some makers added all sorts of interesting info into the some cases it's possible to identify the factory or maker of the metal used in the casing. Also with civilian cartridges the style of the headstamp can often give an age bracket of when the cartridge was made.

Please give us some pictures! But keep in mind that...

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Pics like this aren't really useful. It's still a .308 but there's really no way to tell it.

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Now this is a bit better. but it really just gives us some kind of ballpark guesstimates.

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Size:  40.0 KB we have a tape measure. Also note that the pic was cropped a bit to give us more of the object and less of the background. From this some fairly educated guesses can be made. However, there are/were couple thousand different cartridge types and sometimes the differences are very very small...

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So pics like this are very nice. Try to get a bit better measurement than I did as the cartridge base and calipers aren't properly aligned

If you can't take/post pics make a drawing of the headstamp and post it..or describe it as best as you can. You can also just write down those measurements, just make a clear list of what measurement was taken at what point of the case.

Total length of a complete cartridge is not that important. Nice to have but full rounds tend to have a maximum length and depending of bullet or type or weapon the round was meant to the total length can be less.

With lead balls diameter is the important thing, weight less so. With cylindrical lead bullets diameter is number one, length and weight less so. Same with jacketed bullets. Say for a .308 there is really no fixed bullet weight or length. Ok, some NATO standard round has those, but new standards are applied now and then and early 'ball' ammo is likely different than modern one.

So to put it short: Give us measurements and headstamps! With those resident gurus can often give you pretty good identifications.


PS: If you have any corrections, comments or suggestions about this post, please pm me

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Last edited by Voriax; 12-18-2013 at 10:00 AM.
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Old 02-04-2014, 07:41 PM
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Here is a cool info graphic for civil war bullets.

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Old 02-04-2014, 07:43 PM
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Also why would someone chew on these bullets??? "Chewed by human teeth" lol

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Old 02-05-2014, 08:55 PM
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When Civil War field medics were operating, sometimes they made the individual 'Bite the Bullet' because of the pain.

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Old 02-05-2014, 09:10 PM
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Originally Posted by Foxmulder View post
Also why would someone chew on these bullets??? "Chewed by human teeth" lol

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It's not uncommon to find bullets at Civil War sites that have been chewed by animals (squirrels, hogs, groundhogs, etc). We have found about a dozen this year at two CW sites we have worked. Most CW historians discount the "pain bullet" theory. In my experience, the teeth marks on our finds are obviously NOT human, but animal... the teeth marks are too small.

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Old 06-25-2014, 08:04 PM
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This is pretty helpful

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Old 10-30-2014, 09:39 AM
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Shotgun shell identification.
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Old 01-19-2017, 05:22 PM
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One thing I'd like to add is military cartridges have crimped primers, and civilian/commercial ammo does not. It's a round crimp on the very edge of primer pocket.

In this example, the crimped primer round on the left is Lake City 5.56x45mm from 2011 (probably M855A1), and the little circle/cross on the top specifies this cartridge has been loaded to NATO specs. The one on the right is Remington-made .223 Rem. (R-P is "Remington-Peters.")
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artillery shell

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