Metal Detecting Ammunition: Identify and Determine the Age With Help From Aquachigger

No matter where you metal detect you are likely to unearth an old bullet or casing. From shotgun headstamps to Civil War Minie Balls, there are ways to help identify the ammunition in question.  Thankfully, I’ve been able to get some insight from Aquachigger who has agreed to share some of his knowledge. 

In this article we will discuss the following:

  •  How to identify the type and size of ammunition
  •  Determining the age of ammunition found while metal detecting
  • Sources to help aid in identifying ammunition 

According to Gun Digest, there have been over four hundred different commercial headstamps and more than eight hundred military headstamps used. This does not include old lead rounds. That can make identifying what you have found difficult at times. More modern cartridges offer details on their headstamps. Here they usually have the size, maker mark, and occasionally the production date.

Bullet Mold with Collection of Shells and Bullets Found Metal Detecting. Photo Credit Nicole Bauer

The same can be said of shotgun headstamps. Shotgun shells were made starting in the mid-1800s. They originally started out as brass and were eventually changed to paper shells in the 1870s, and then to today’s modern plastic. Each headstamp offers details about the maker and size. Designs each maker used on their headstamps changed over the years and can aid in the process of determining its age. 

Identifying and Dating Shotgun Shells Can Be Easily by Done Using
Aussie Metal Detecting: Shotgun Headstamp Database

Lead ammunition has seen a long history of evolution.  According to the Portable Antiquities Scheme website, the lead shot has been around since the 15th century. Early in the colonization of the United States, rifles were loaded with gunpowder and a lead shot. Not until the 1800s were bullets for rifled weapons created and began being designed in what is known as a conical shape instead of the long-used musket ball or lead shot. 

Early US military training sites and campgrounds, battlefields, and even early homesites can be sources for metal detecting different forms of lead ammunition. Whether it is a lead shot or the ever-sought-after Civil War two or three-ringer bullet detectorists are finding them in many different locations. Soldiers who came home from the war carried ammunition home with them, so it is possible to find those Civil War Minie balls in places where the war did not take place. 

A Civil War Ammunition Spill Found at a Civil War Camp. Photo Credit – JP Hunts of Mason Dixon Diggers

In order to gain more insight into old ammunition that is a common metal detecting find, I reached out to Beau Ouimette the YouTube godfather of metal detecting known as Aquachigger. If you have watched his videos and followed along with his adventures, then you know he is an incredibly knowledgeable adventurer to rely on. I sent Aquachigger a few questions I have seen in metal detecting forums and he kindly offered some advice: 

Are all three-ringer and two-ringer Minie ball bullets found metal detecting from the Civil War?
Aquachigger:  Minie balls must have 3 rings (actually groves) to be classified as a Minie ball. The Minie ball was created and adopted by the military just before the CW (1858ish) but was used for some years  (maybe 10ish) afterward but mostly out west in the Indian wars. Other bullets may have 2 rings (groves) but are not actually classified as Minieballs. Both were probably used by civilians for hunting for a short period of time after the war, but most of the Minieballs found will have been lost during the war.

How can detectorists determine the size of the ammunition they have found? 
Aquachigger: By using calipers to measure the width.

What is the best way for detectorists to help determine the age of the ammunition they have found?
Aquachigger:  Generally speaking, most ammunition that was in use during the war was rapidly outdated soon after the war ended therefore there is a very small window of specific ammunition that will date to that period. There are reference books that we use to identify the exact type of bullet found. Random musket balls (round) cannot be dated except in that if they were found on a known CW battlefield or campsite and even that is not 100% accurate.

What kind of ammunition should detectorists look for from the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812?
Aquachigger: Only the round musket balls, usually in .69 caliber or very close to that were used at that time. Some riflemen used round balls of smaller caliber in their rifles.

Is there a source you use to help identify ammunition?
Aquachigger: There are several reference books available and many websites that can be useful. One of the most useful books is called “Some Civil War Bullets”.

How do you preserve bullets you have found metal detecting?
Aquachigger: Lead requires no preservation techniques. Only a light cleaning with perhaps a toothbrush and water to get off some of the dirt. 

What is the rarest type of ammunition detectorists can find?
Aquachigger: There are certain bullets that were used in a very limited number of specific firearms that will have more value than others because there were fewer of that type of gun used. The location of finds can also influence the value. One example of a rare bullet would be a Whitworth sharpshooter bullet or a Gardiner Explosive bullet, but there are others of similar worth.

Resources for Identifying Ammunition

Below are a few websites and books that are useful resources for determining the age of the bullets found metal detecting. There are also website forums and groups on Facebook where more help can be found. Feel free to leave a comment below if you have other useful resources.

Reference: Civil War Bullet Reference Guide by Greg Sites

All metal detecting finds whether it be a coin, relic, or ammunition can help detectorists determine the age a metal detecting site was most active. Hopefully with the resources above you are able to gain a deeper appreciation of how ammunition can be valuable in gaining a better understanding of the overall picture that has formed the history of the land. Happy hunting. 

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