I recall, way back in high school, someone came to describe the American Civil War, show local artifacts, that sort of thing. I remember them mentioning that muzzle-loaded weapons had been found with as many as twenty (I think? memory hazy) balls loaded into them. I took it that this represented some sort of wider phenomenon than a couple of odd weapons found. At the time, for whatever reason, I took away one of these mental pictures:

(1) Terrified by the horror of the situation, the owner of the weapon compulsively loaded it too many times. Perhaps it wouldn't fire, and it's all they could think to do.

(2) Alternatively, they used the excuse of 'needing to load their weapon' to avoid the fray, perhaps because their weapon was inoperational for whatever reason.

I thought back to this this morning, and wondered if there might be other scenarios:

(3) In scrounging for weapons, a soldier would pick up a found weapon and load it. This doesn't make a lot of sense, because I assume this weapon would explode if already loaded.

(4) Maybe, for whatever reason, this weapon was not meant to be fired at that time, but to carry the balls and powder.

Anyway, it's a bit of a riddle to me. Is it a common artifact? Maybe someone has some insight on it?

  • was this local artifacts, and if so which area where you in, it would help for a specific location of these incidents.
    – Himarm
    Jan 23, 2015 at 17:50
  • I lived in Birmingham, Alabama, at the time. It was from somewhere in Alabama, I believe.
    – dwn
    Jan 23, 2015 at 17:52
  • thanks that will narrow it down for people searching, especially if it was only a local thing.
    – Himarm
    Jan 23, 2015 at 17:58

6 Answers 6


#1 happened often.

Soldiers were drilled to load, aim and fire in a fixed rhythm to maintain volley fire. In a well-drilled unit, this was muscle memory. If a soldier's musket did not fire, they may not notice with all the other guns going off simultaneously. The order to load would come, and they would dutifully pour more powder in and ram another ball down. The result would be something like this...


> spark source  = powder  | wad  * ball  - barrel

When fired, the spark from the primer would fall on the same inert gunpowder as before. The new powder would be blocked by the ball and wad. Click.

As volley fire continues, there will be more smoke and more very, very loud noises going off in the soldier's ear further befuddling them, but the drill will continue. Load, aim, fire, click. Load, aim, fire, click. Load, aim, fire, click.

At some point they'll notice they can't ram the ball down nearly as far as they should, but they may also think the barrel has been fouled by black powder residue and simply ram harder.

This scene from Glory shows an officer simulating battle conditions to rattle a soldier and impress upon his men the importance of drill.

#2 is covered by User58220 and sounds plausible to me.

#3 does not make sense, it would have to happen 20 times.

#4 is a very problematic way to store balls. They could get stuck in many, many ways. Balls were generally slightly smaller than the barrel, but this was in no way guaranteed. Lead is soft and manufacturing techniques were not very good. The balls could easily be misshapen in manufacturing or handling. Barrels became fouled by black powder residue from firing and the balls may no longer fit so loosely. While traveling, jarring the gun might cause a ball to jam in the barrel.

To ready your gun, you would first have to remove all the balls from the barrel and be sure you got them all out. There might be days between loading the barrel and readying it to fire. "Now did I put 18 balls in there or 19?" If a single ball gets stuck, you cannot fire the weapon and must disassemble it for cleaning.

Then you have to put them all those extra balls somewhere while you fire and march. If you put them on the ground, you'll lose them or march away from them. You need a bag or pocket, which is where you would have carried them in the first place.

Furthermore, militaries would not be carrying ball and powder separately. They used paper cartridges to increase their rate of fire. The powder and ball would be wrapped in a convenient package. The paper would be torn, powder poured down the barrel, then the wrapper for wadding, and finally the ball. Here is an excellent video showing the making and use of paper cartridges in the American Revolutionary War era.

Tubular magazines do exist, but they came much later and for breech loading repeating rifles.

In contrast, a bag has none of these problems.

Finally, muskets, cannon and pistols were sometimes "double-shotted" by loading two balls and extra powder, or more often a ball and some buckshot. Loading this way was a slow process, and put extra strain on the barrel. It was typically only done for the first shot and at very close range. This would only work with a smoothbore weapon and not with a rifle.

  • Buck and ball was a standard load for a unrifled musket. It was never standard practice to double shot a rifled musket.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 27, 2015 at 0:43

According to The Big Book of Gun Trivia, of the 24000 loaded muskets recovered after the Battle of Gettysburg, a quarter were properly loaded, half were double loaded, and the last quarter were multiple (>2) loaded. A further 11000 were unloaded.

Research (http://www.policyscience.net/ws/marshall.pdf among others) has shown that combat soldiers in past wars were very reluctant to deliberately fire on the enemy. Repeatedly going through the process of loading and attempting to fire is one way a Civil War combatant could avoid killing without standing out from those around him...

  • This is very interesting - would not have expected this, esp. in a group setting. I accepted the other answer because it was very detailed, so I felt that, combined with a reference to this historical information, would be most helpful to anyone stumbling onto this
    – dwn
    Jan 23, 2015 at 21:30
  • The linked PDF is interesting, and I'm familiar with the findings in WW2 era research. But I'd want to see more before applying them directly to the Civil War era. Civil War casualty figures don't SEEM to support the assertion that soldiers were all that reluctant to fire on the enemy.
    – JimZipCode
    Apr 18, 2015 at 23:32
  • The fact that three-quarters of loaded muskets recovered from Gettysburg were overloaded seems like pretty strong support to me. Going through the motions of loading would be the obvious way to avoid having to fire. Oct 12, 2016 at 8:55

My great-grandfather (76th Pennsylvania) was an excellent shot. Told my grandfather he wasn't mad at anybody, he always fired in the air.One time he fired and he did see a man fall. When he told this story a tear fell from his eye.

  • Wow! thanks for the personal account, James
    – dwn
    Mar 15, 2017 at 5:43

I'm not sure if this has been touched on; the first few responses did not.

In order to kill another human, you have to view them as lesser, inferior, or as an object. This is to say that for a soldier to kill another person, they need first to be brainwashed, then convinced the aforementioned views apply to the enemy.

While the brainwashing of an adolescents' mind constantly happens at a social level, brainwashing someone of mature mind is more difficult, especially when considering your countrymen as enemies.

The battles of the civil war were often fought between people of familiarity. For the majority of these soldiers, the side they fought on was chosen by proximity, rather than moral standing.

I believe these factors led to some soldiers not wanting to kill the enemy, and while following the volley orders, they loaded their rifle, but never pulled the trigger.

I can't remember the details, but I learned 20(?)-40(?) percent of soldiers who served in either World War admitted to intentionally fire above the enemy. If the separation of enemies in the World Wars still was not enough to convince soldiers to kill one another, then it follows the soldiers in the Civil War had even more reason to not want to kill the enemy.

In conclusion, I feel multiple rounds found in muzzle loaded rifles are a result of the good nature in humans.

  • 2
    With regard to "you have to view them as lesser, inferior, or as an object.", I would think that if someone was a lethal threat to you (or your friends), it wouldn't be necessary to view them as inferior or as an object in order to use lethal force to protect yourself. You could argue that on a battlefield that identifying an individual enemy soldier as a personal threat is less easy and therefore self-preservation wouldn't apply but as a blanket statement I don't think that your sentence is true.
    – Steve Bird
    Aug 5, 2016 at 9:19
  • 1
    Where would we find evidence to support these hypothesis?
    – MCW
    Aug 5, 2016 at 11:10
  • The reluctance of soldiers to fire upon the enemy has been cited (with a link to a PDF file) by @DJohnM in his answer.
    – JMVanPelt
    Aug 5, 2016 at 14:21
  • Something sort of along these lines came to my mind as well. It wasn't so much the notion that the person intentionally misfired but that the gun didn't fire in time and the person feared peer pressure; if they broke the rhythm and didn't appear to load and fire ahead, then the person behind them might consider them a traitor and butt them in the head or something. I could certainly see the reasonable inborn dislike for human killing as something that could play into this.
    – dwn
    Aug 6, 2016 at 12:54

This apparently refers to a Gettysburg study. The story is that after the battle of Gettysburg, the ordnance department collected all the abandoned rifles from the battlefield and examined them. In some cases rifles were found with multiple loadings, ie, ball, wadding, powder, ball wadding powder, ball wadding power, etc, one after the other in the barrel.

The reason for this is that once a misfire occurs you are screwed because now the ball is stuck in the barrel and you have to clear it--a timeconsuming operation. So what would happen is that soldier would simply reload his weapon and fire the cap which makes it APPEAR as though he is shooting, even though he is not.

Note that some modern authors have claimed this is evidence that soldiers were relunctant to kill people and just pretended to fire to avoid harming anyone. I find it far more likely that reloadings were a consequence of misfires and jams, not altruism.

Old Answer

Here I am assuming (A) the guns are old muskets, and (B) they were found in a random place. Based on further info this is probably not the case.

Possibly what you are seeing is the guns being used to simply store the balls. Typical ball bags of the period held 20-30 balls. If you wanted to carry more ammo than that, an easy way to do it was was to just drop the balls into the bore and plug it with a rag. This is even better than using a bag because the musket is hung on your back and so the weight of the balls is distributed across your back, whereas a ball bag has all the weight in one place, so it is more annoying to carry.

(this is probably not applicable to the case here, because the OP is almost certainly relating the Gettysburg ordnance study)

  • 1
    This is even better than using a bag... But when you want to fire the weapon, you need somewhere to put the other 20 balls or so. Unless they where hunting/fighting from a fixed position and they could leave the balls somewhere in the ground, how would they handle them? Anyway, it is the answer which seems more pausible.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 23, 2015 at 18:22
  • You would only have the balls in the muzzle if you were carrying them. Once you arrive and want to prepare to fight, you take them out and put them somewhere. Also, remember that balls were valuable. Personally I would be carrying as many balls as I could just to sell them to other soldiers, if nothing else, but that is because I have a strong back :-) Jan 23, 2015 at 18:30
  • 1
    now the balls obviously are "soft" enough to be able to mold into the size needed when being rammed down, my question is after that lowest ball has just gone through a whole march with the other balls on top of it jostling and bumping is their a chance that the lowest ball will start to descend/get stuck into the bore?
    – Himarm
    Jan 23, 2015 at 19:37
  • 3
    I have a problem with this answer and would like to see a citation. While a civilian might carry balls and powder separate, militaries needed rapid fire and used paper cartridges with the ball, powder and wad in one package. And it seems an awfully inconvenient and dangerous way to store balls, what if they got stuck? What if they didn't all come out? Just get another bag!
    – Schwern
    Jan 23, 2015 at 20:21
  • 1
    Lead is soft. If you jar the gun while traveling you've just potentially packed 20 lead balls into the barrel. Do you have any citation?
    – Schwern
    Jan 23, 2015 at 20:37

Muzzle-loading weapons were apparently frequently loaded with multiple shot. You can read this in the old literature, for example in Robinson Crusoe (17 century), where the procedure is described in detail. Multiple shot scattered increasing the probability of a hit.

  • Cannon, yes. Muskets, no.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 27, 2015 at 0:41
  • Rifle and muskets. Look in Robinson Crusoe. Defoe probably knew what he wrote.
    – Alex
    Jan 27, 2015 at 0:59
  • The common multiple loading was buck and ball: one musket ball and three (or six) buckshot pellets.
    – Mark
    Jan 27, 2015 at 23:30
  • Buck and ball was a single combat load that had more than one shot in it. They were packaged as one element, that you bit, poured and loaded like a normal round.
    – Oldcat
    Jun 9, 2015 at 21:22
  • However, the muskets this question is about, had gunpowder and wadding between the balls.
    – vsz
    Jul 31, 2016 at 15:47

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