The Quest to Build a Better Bullet

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Just as we continue to try to perfect projectiles in the 21st century, the same was true back in the 19th century.

Buck-and-ball fired from a shotgun allowed the shooter to have multiple projectiles per shot at their disposal. In theory, this improved the likelihood of hitting your target, but it wasn’t always the case since the projectiles were fired from a smoothbore barrel that did nothing to keep a tight pattern.

Rifled muskets combined long barrels with rifling to produce a very accurate weapon. The likelihood of hitting your target with a .58-caliber (or larger) projectile fired from your Civil War-era weapon was much greater than that of the smoothbore muskets in the previous eras.

Despite the guns being more accurate, they were still cumbersome and time-consuming to reload. Consequently, a man’s effectiveness could only be measured by how fast he was able to reload. If someone could find a way to fire multiple well-aimed projectiles from each discharge of the weapon, then you could increase the effectiveness of each soldier.

Enter Ira and Reuben Shaler of New York and Connecticut, respectively. On August 12, 1862, they received a patent for an “Improvement in Compound Bullet in Small Arms.”


Their improvement called for a projectile “made up in two or more parts, which fit the bore of the barrel, and so constructed that the forward end of each of the parts in rear of the front one enters a cavity in the breech of the one forward of it, and is so formed in relation to it that it separates from it after leaving the barrel of the gun, and makes a slight deviation in its line of flight from that pursued by its predecessor, as hereinafter more fully set forth. Three is, perhaps, the most proper number of parts.”

Basically, what they had designed was a nesting-doll of sorts, except with bullets. The idea is that the different parts of the bullet would separate from one another (but only slightly) after having been fired, enabling one shooter to hit up to three targets.

Their patent mentions that they wanted to create a projectile that would “embody and realize the advantages of the wellknown [sic] ball and buckshot of the smooth-bore arm, without the disadvantages of wildness of direction, shortness of flight, and intensity of recoil…”

Even though it seemed like a good idea at the time, history has gone on to show us that their Shaler bullet wasn’t well-received. Some of this can be credited to their design itself; more can be credited to the timing of their design in relation to the creation of repeating rifles – something Ira and Reuben cannot be blamed for, since they couldn’t foretell the future.

While examples have been dug up on a variety of Civil War battlefields, the Shaler bullet was never standard issue for soldiers. Their design goes down in history as being just one of the many attempts to build a better bullet in the 19th century.


Logan Metesh is a firearms historian and consultant who runs High Caliber History LLC

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