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Bullets for the Union

Bullets for the Union : Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

US Civil War

Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

Civil War bullets are perhaps the most common item collected from the era; the two armies expended bullets by the millions during the four years’ conflict and spent or deformed bullets of all shapes and sizes have made fascinating and affordable collectibles since the guns went silent in 1865. 

I recently acquired a display piece featuring 35 different types of small arms ammunition used during the Civil War, including everything from a small .28 caliber ball up to a .69 caliber three-ring Minie and it triggered some questions: how did the Federal army obtain its small arms ammunition during the war? Where did the lead come from to make the bullets, and where and how was the ammunition manufactured? This post seeks to answer those questions.

A typical .58 caliber 3-ring Minie bullet

 “Whenever the blasts of war blow in the ears of men who trade in the implements of destruction, they are apt to experience more joy than the true warrior, for then comes the harvest of gain.” ~ Philadelphia Inquirer, February 20, 1861

Let’s start with the lead.

As the heaviest stable element on the periodic table, lead has been in widespread use since antiquity due to the ease of extraction and purification, as well as useful properties such as ductility, low melting point, and corrosion resistance. Those three factors conspired to make lead an easy metal to work and cast into bullets. Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. had a few regions where lead was actively being mined, the most important being the region around southwestern Wisconsin (Mineral Point), western Illinois (Galena), and eastern Iowa (Dubuque). In the mid-1850s, this rich area produced roughly 90% of the lead mined in the United States, but with the rising interest in gold mining in the far western states, the lead mines had been slowing down until the outbreak of war kicked them into full production again.

By 1857, the area was producing 36 million pounds of lead per year and primarily was shipping the material east via either the Great Lakes ports of Milwaukee and Chicago, or via rail. “The lead mining business of Dubuque has been much improved and increased by the rebellion,” the Chicago Tribune reported in December 1861. The price of lead had increased from $20 per thousand pounds in May to $32 per thousand by December.

“This price has not only stimulated the mining business and induced more persons to engage in it but has to some extent promoted other branches of the business.”

The surging demand and high price prompted other lead mines to open including one on Shawangunk Mountain near Port Jervis, New York which was termed “the richest lead-bearing lode ever discovered in this country or perhaps any other.” Shafts were dug into the mountain where the ore, primarily galena, was extracted; the ore was then picked, washed, then run through a smelter to refine the ore into usable lead.

FILE – In this March 30 , 2007 file photo shows the Kennebec Arsenal, a National Historic Landmark, in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Small arms ammunition was manufactured at any one of a number of arsenals located throughout the North. At the outbreak of the war, the following fifteen Federal arsenals and armories were operational in states that remained loyal to the Union. Or in the case of Monroe Arsenal, remained under Federal control:

Kennebec Arsenal                             Augusta, Maine

Watertown Arsenal                            Watertown, Massachusetts

Springfield Armory                            Springfield, Massachusetts

Watervliet Arsenal                             West Troy, New York

New York Arsenal                             New York, New York

Arsenal & Ordnance Depot                Rome, New York

Allegheny Arsenal                             Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Frankford Arsenal                             Bridesburg, Pennsylvania

Pikesville Arsenal                              Pikesville, Maryland

Monroe Arsenal                                 Point Comfort, Virginia

Washington Arsenal                          Washington, D.C.

Detroit Arsenal                                  Detroit, Michigan

St. Louis Arsenal                               St. Louis, Missouri

Arsenal & Ordnance Depot                Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory

Benicia Arsenal                                 Benicia, California

 Several additional Federal arsenals were opened to meet the increasing need for ammunition as the war progressed, and it is worth noting that several northern states, including Ohio, also opened arsenals to manufacture ammunition for the Union army. The arsenals that were solely operated by the Federal government are as follows:

Champlain Arsenal                            Vergennes, Vermont      

Louisville Ordnance Depot                Louisville, Kentucky

Nashville Ordnance Depot                 Nashville, Tennessee     

Rock Island Arsenal                           Rock Island, Illinois       

It is interesting to note that with the exception of the Champlain Arsenal (which had been closed in 1855 only to re-open in 1861), the three new arsenals were all located in the western theater; the Rock Island Arsenal in particular lay close to the source of lead and being located on the Mississippi River, offered quick and economical transport to the Federal armies serving west of the Appalachians.   

A .69 caliber paper-wrapped buck & ball cartridge. A particularly deadly ammunition, especially at short range, the round consisted of a .69 caliber soft lead round ball topped by three small diameter “buck shot,” any one of which could disable or kill its victim. As the war progressed, the U.S. Army moved more towards rifle bullets and away from this type of ammunition. 
What did a Federal arsenal or armory look like in operation?

We are fortunate in that an enterprising reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer asked the same question in April 1861 and made a trip to the Frankford Arsenal at Bridesburg, Pennsylvania. The following is his description of the establishment:

The grounds attached to the Arsenal have an area of about 55 acres and are bounded on the north and west by public roads, on the south by Frankford Creek, and are enclosed by a substantial stone wall surmounted by a neat iron fence. The buildings within the enclosure are numerous, consisting of quarters for the commander and lieutenant, the barracks for the married soldiers, and barracks for single men.

In addition, there are the East and West Arsenals (two large three-story brick buildings), North and South storehouses, guard room and hospital, niter storehouse, manufactory, powder magazine, and buildings in which fulminates are manufactured and worked, and numerous other structures, large and small, that are usually found at United States arsenals. The East Arsenal is used for the reception of small arms, of which there are at present about 18,000 while the West Arsenal is reserved for miscellaneous military stores. The buildings are kept in excellent order and the arms, by the aid of an application of a superior quality of sperm whale oil are preserved for years in their pristine brightness.

Allegheny Arsenal in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. An explosion at this arsenal on September 17, 1862 killed 78 workers at the arsenal, most of them young women. Gunpowder leaking from wooden barrels somehow was ignited and caused widespread destruction. The laboratory was completely destroyed but work at the arsenal continued through the rest of the war. 

The North and South storehouses are filled with military supplies and the materials from which various articles are manufactured at the Arsenal. In the magazine is stored about 50,000 pounds of powder, about 40,000 pounds of which is musket and rifle powder. In the niter storehouse is stored about two million pounds of saltpeter, the greater portion of which has been carefully fused. This building is a one-story brick structure 180 feet in length and 80 feet in width and was erected in 1852.  No less than 500,000 pounds of sulfur are usually kept on hand in the different buildings.

The manufactory, a one-story brick structure, is in dimensions 180 feet by 60 feet, and presents to the eye of the visitor more objects of interest than any other potion of the Arsenal. Here some 30 or 40 men and boys are daily engaged, with the aid of the most improved machinery, in the manufacture of percussion caps, primers and friction tubes for small arms and artillery, or metallic cartridges of all kinds, of implements, scales, and gauges for inspecting, proving, and measuring and of work generally for military purposes where nicety and accuracy are requisite. In the rear of the manufactory, and at a safe distance therefrom, are several buildings used for the preparation of fulminates. Ample protection against fire is ensured by two excellent stationary and one ordinary fire engine, each of which has sufficient power to force water to almost any portion of the enclosure.

Here are the old style muskets changed in appearance and power by the substitution of a percussion for a flintlock, and by the addition of a Minie sight enabling them to carry with accuracy a distance of 1,000 yards, where formerly they would not hit a mark more than 250 yards distant. Although the force employed is small, an immense amount of work is turned out each week.

Heretofore, 75,000 metallic cartridges for the Maynard carbine have been made each week, but the work upon them has now been suspended and the attention of the employees has been directed to the manufacture of those of the Burnside and Morse patent. In the same period of time, 125,000 musket and pistol percussion caps have been made, and 40,000 friction tubes, a novel invention intended to the supply the necessity of using caps upon pieces of artillery. A large portion of the machinery used was constructed at the Arsenal and will bear comparison with any in the country.

An 1816 Springfield musket; originally a flintlock, thousands of these weapons were converted to percussion before and during the Civil War at arsenals like Frankford or by private contractors. 

The Frankford Arsenal is the principal depot in the United States for the storage of horse equipment and, indeed, of military stores for all branches of the service. The grounds are carefully attended to and are ornamented by piles of cannon balls, and by dismounted pieces of artillery, many of which are trophies captured from the British army in the War of 1812.

Women found employment at the arsenals and ordnance depots during the Civil War assembling rounds of small arms ammunition. The woman in the foreground is spooling string from a bobbin to tie up paper cartridges while under the supervision of an ordnance officer. 

The manufacture of small arms ammunition at this time was a manual affair; the process to produce a .69 caliber or .58 caliber paper-wrapped cartridge (the most commonly used types during the war) was similar. The production process started with lead ingots or shot being brought into the arsenal, melted, then poured into molds for the various calibers and types of ammunition.

There were countless varieties of molds used even for the same caliber of bullet; I’ve seen it mentioned that over 1,100 varieties of Civil War bullets exist! Bullets were also swaged or stamped in a press from one inch thick lead wire. The bullets were then brought into an assembly area; the workers poured the requisite amount of black powder into a paper tube, inserted the bullet atop the black powder, then tied the round closed with a small piece of string. 

After assembly, the completed cartridges were packed into white pine boxes for shipment.

The caliber and number of cartridges being painted on both ends of the box. Different colors of paint were used to designate different types of ammunition. A manufacture location and date were also painted on the inside cover; ammunition degraded over time so knowing when it was manufactured was an important detail to the ordnance sergeants in the field. Musket, rifle, and carbine ammunition was generally shipped in boxes of 1,000 cartridges, or five rows of 200 cartridges apiece; pistol cartridges went out in smaller boxes of 600 rounds. Individual bundles of ten cartridges were then issued to the soldiers in the field.

These men working at the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts carefully measure out black powder into paper tubes which were used in small arms ammunition. 

To give some sense of the scope of this small arms manufacturing operation, a brief examination of the 1862 production at the Columbus Arsenal in Ohio is illustrative.

During the year, the state-operated arsenal employed nearly 200 men and women to produce 16,042,000 rounds of musket and rifle ammunition broken down as follows:

.70-72 caliber buck & ball         663,000 cartridges

.69 caliber buck & ball             594,000 cartridges

.70-71 caliber Minie bullets      852,500 cartridges

.69 caliber Minie bullets           3,590,500 cartridges

.57-58 caliber Minie bullets      6,414,000 cartridges

.54 caliber Minie bullets           3,928,000 cartridges

To produce the above stocks of ammunition, the Arsenal used 178,475 pounds of musket powder, 1,231,427 pounds of lead, several thousand pounds of paper and string, and shipped the cartridges out in 16,386 packing boxes, all at a cost of about 90 cents per 1,000 cartridges.

A completed .58 caliber Minie paper-wrapped cartridge. 

An interesting contrast in the differences in how the Union and Confederate armies expended their ammunition in the field was noted by Captain Samuel Fiske of the 14th Connecticut. In the Federal army, soldiers “have been taught to load and fire as rapidly as possible; three or four times a minute; they go into the business with all fury, every man vying with his neighbor as to the number of cartridges he can ram into his piece and spit out of it.

The smoke arises in a minute or two, so you can see nothing where to aim. By and by, the guns get heated and won’t go off and the cartridges begin to give out. Meanwhile the Rebels, lying quietly a hundred or two hundred yards in front, crouching on the ground or behind trees, answer our fire very leisurely as they get a chance for a good aim, hitting about as many as we do and waiting for the mild tornado of our ammunition to pass over their heads. When our burst of fighting is pretty much over, they have only commenced. If I had charge of a regiment, I’d put every man in the guardhouse who could be proved to have fired more than 20 rounds in any one battle. I wouldn’t let them carry more than their cartridge box full of 40 rounds.”

A .54 caliber ammunition box lid dated June 1862 from the state arsenal at Columbus, Ohio. 

Written by Dan Masters

Originally published on Dan’s AWESOME Civil War Blog! We highly recommend you add it to your bookmarked browsers!


Lord, Francis A. Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia. New York: Castle Books, 1963

“Lead Mining in Dubuque,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), December 12, 1861, pg. 2

“Profitable Lead Mine,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), April 15, 1863, pg. 3

“Federal Arms,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania), January 4, 1861, pg. 3

“The Frankford Arsenal and What Can Be Seen There,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania), April 16, 1861, pg. 2

Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine, Vol. XL (1858), pg. 244

Report of the Governor of the State of Ohio for the Year 1862. Columbus

US Civil War