Rifle musket and Minié Ball

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Author: Øyvind Flatnes
Category: Muzzleloading
Published: 11.24. 2007
Edited: Saturday 24 Nov. 2007, at 22:59 (GMT +1)
Views: 27012

.58 calibre Springfield rifle musket.

.58 calibre Springfield rifle musket.

By the time the smoke had cleared and the veterans headed back to their homes, the American Civil War (1861-1865) had exacted a terrible human cost. In four long years of bloody fighting, half a million of the three million men and boys in blue and grey had been wounded in combat. Two hundred thousand others had been killed. The cause of 90% of the losses is said to be the minié ball. The two brothers in arms, the rifled musket and the minié ball, should trigger one of the greatest changes of battle tactics of all time. Too many officers carried on the Napoleonic era battlefield tactics and thus spilled the chances of obvious victories with the superior weapons. Also, poorly trained recruits didn't have the knowledge to take advantage of the minié ball and rifled musket's deadly potential.

Find out more!
You can learn more about the history and use of the rifle musket and Minié ball in the brand new book From Musket to Metallic Cartridge: A Practical History of Black Powder Firearms.

Minié

Expanding bullets.

The ball is named after the French Captain Claude Etienne Minié who participated in the development of the ball. The minié ball is a undersized conical with a hollow base made to slip down the barrel quite easily. Wrapped in a paper cartridge which contained both the powder and ball it could be loaded at high speed without having to literally hammer the bullet down the bore which was common when using oversized conicals and patched roundballs. When the powder charge went off the bullet's sides, or skirt, expanded and made the bullet grip the rifling. The result was a muzzleloading rifle with great accuracy that could be loaded at high speed.

Most original muskets have a special progressive depth rifling. The grooves were deeper at the breech area and became shallower towards the muzzle. Usually .015" deep in the breech and .005" towards the muzzle. Unfortunately, very few replica musket manufacturers rifle their musket barrels this way today. Parker Hale in Birmingham, England made Enfield replicas with progressive depth rifling, but the machinery is now sold to Italy. I don't know if the quality of the Italian replicas are as good as the Birmingham Parker Hales.

Enfield muskets

Two Enfield muskets

If you have a "normal" replica rifle musket you should be able to put 5 shots in a 1,5" group at 100 yards. You should then pick a bullet that is about .002-.001" under the land diameter of the barrel. I'll use my Armi Sport .58 calibre 1861 Springfield musket as an example: It measured .581" across the lands. Then I had to have a minié bullet that had a .580" diameter. You'll notice that most of the moulds available has a diameter that ranges from .575" to .578". If you need a larger diameter you'll have to special order a largerr one or somehow enlarge the cavity.

Finding the Right Powder Charge

Martini-Henry

Lubricated minié balls.

If you have a minié ball of the right diameter you're on your way to get some acceptable accuracy. Warning: the work of finding the best charge could take ages! A charge of 55 grains can shoot great while a 56 or 54 grains charge can open the group considerably. I use to start with a low charge and build my way up with a .5 grain increasement. 2F or 3F? Well, it all depends on what your musket likes. The original US charge was about 60 grains black powder and the UK Enfield charge was 70 grains. I have never experienced that a musket has performed well with at normal minié bullet with charges over 80 grains. The reason for this is that the skirts get blown which affects accuracy.

Minié

Accuracy.

Minié

Replacement sight.

Start some place in the 35 grains range with 3F and 40 grains for 2F. It could take some time before you get the 1,5" group at 100 yards, but at he end it's worth it. Shoot from a bench rest and remember that it doesn't matter where on the paper the bullets hit as long as they are grouped. Sights can be adjusted later. I prefer to start the shooting at 100 yards because some loads will shot great at 50 yards but lousy at 100. Never a problem the opposite way though. Another important factor to consider is the bullet lube. It's purpose is to keep the fouling soft and lubricate the bore. Tallow and bees wax was the original lube, and that also works ok today. My Springfield shoots best with T/C Bore Butter. It is kind of sticky and slick, but I have not found anything that works better. If the fouling gets hard it is about time to consider a new lube. I use to feel with a finger in the bore after each shot, and then the fouling should be soft. On hot, dry days har fouling could be a problem, but if you wait a little longer between each shot it should work itself out. Some like to put grease in the base of the bullet, some do not like it. I prefer lube in the base, but not a single gun likes the same thing it seems. Here are 5 points that you should follow to get the best accuracy with a minié ball:

  • Weigh your bullets to +/- one half grain.
  • Weigh your powder to +/- .1 grain.
  • Be consistent in what you're doing. Do everything exactly the same.
  • Use powder and caps from the same lot.
  • Cast your bullets from pure lead.


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