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"Dropping usable weapons and running away" Topic

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4th Cuirassier25 Sep 2023 4:05 a.m. PST

"24,000 loaded but unfired weapons were found lying on the field after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. Eighteen thousand weapons carried two or more loads in the barrel, and many carried over a dozen unfired rounds. It would appear that soldiers were loading and reloading their weapons, cramming powder and shot down the barrels but only pretending to fire."

Murray, Leo. Brains & Bullets: How psychology wins wars (Kindle Locations 970-973). Biteback Publishing. Kindle Edition.

I've never read any similar account of any other battle, but it seems most unlikely to me that the practice of loading, not firing and then abandoning your weapon arose only in the ACW and then stopped. This cannot be only an ACW thing.

Dropping your weapon and thinning out because you've run out of ammo is one thing, but dropping a fireable – indeed, loaded – weapon is quite another.

Are there other examples? What was going on?

pzivh43 Supporting Member of TMP25 Sep 2023 5:03 a.m. PST

Sounds reasonable to me for the era of blackpowder. Noisy, chaotic in the extreme. Plus the training was not what it is like today. Add in the complicated reloading procedure for the weapons. As the training improved and the reloading made easier with breechloaders and magazine rifles, I'm betting that dropping weapons was less prevalent. Although it did happen. Being wounded, for example, and dropping your rifle as you moved back for aid, etc.

Frederick Supporting Member of TMP25 Sep 2023 5:11 a.m. PST

"You go for a man hard and fast enough and he don't have time to think about how many is with him, he thinks about himself and how he may get clear out of the wrath that is about to set down on him"
-Charles Portis, True Grit

35thOVI Supporting Member of TMP25 Sep 2023 6:27 a.m. PST

Having fired rifled muskets with Thousands firing around you and over 100 field pieces firing, I can understand why you would not know your musket had misfired. Add to this the anxiety of being under fire, forgetting to cap before firing and then ramming down another round. Doing that until you realize it has not fired. The vent to the barrel clogging with black powder and the spark not reaching the round. And as mentioned, add how much training the man has had. I' m sure this happened in most wars with muskets. Men also fired their ramrod making the musket useless at that point.

I'm pretty sure I remember reading these things happening to Custer's men with rounds jamming in the breech loaders.

FatherOfAllLogic25 Sep 2023 7:05 a.m. PST

I imagine it happened all the time but 24000 rifles does seem like a lot.

4th Cuirassier25 Sep 2023 7:25 a.m. PST

@ FoaL

That was my take too. What %age of the combatants is 24,000?

Col Durnford Supporting Member of TMP25 Sep 2023 8:45 a.m. PST

I've also heard accounts of troops forgetting to remove at ramrod before discharging their weapon.

CHRIS DODSON25 Sep 2023 8:49 a.m. PST

According to Adkin in his excellent Gettysburg Companion, the Confederate total casualties were 23,000 and the Union were approximately the same .

Potentially 46000 discarded weapons from dead, wounded and missing would mean that the figure quoted was not as astounding as it first sounds.

For the Napoleonic period, musket practise with live rounds was not heavily promoted as I understand and therefore mishaps were probably inevitable.

Best wishes,


35thOVI Supporting Member of TMP25 Sep 2023 9:42 a.m. PST

About Custer and has weapons out west, this might be of interest. I don't vouch for accuracy.

"At the time of the Little Bighorn battle, Custer's troops were issued with the 45–55 carbine cartridge, although there is a contemporary reference by one of Reno's officers that many had drawn the more powerful 45–70–405—the two rounds were interchangeable as far as the cases went so could be fired in either the cavalry carbine or the infantry rifle. The main difference, besides enhanced recoil, was the carbine had sights calibrated for the 45–55, while the infantry rifle was calibrated for 45–70, meaning infantry ammo would tend to shoot a little high at most combat ranges.

The cases for both were of the folded head type and were made of gilding metal—nominally a soft alloy of 95% copper and 5% zinc with a distinctly bright copper colour as opposed to cartridge brass which is 70% copper and 30% zinc and has a yellowish colour. Gilding metal had been chosen because it was soft and easy to form by drawing with the machinery of the day, while brass required much stronger and more costly machinery and dies.

The Frankford Arsenal cases were also inside primed using the Benet priming system. In this, instead of a normal primer pocket like in modern centre fire ammo, the priming compound was carried in the base of a shallow cup with two or three flash holes. Inserted into the case, the cup was supposed to act both as a carrier for the primer compound and as an anvil for when the firing pin indented the base of the cartridge and compressed the cap composition between the case and cup. Two deep crimps were applied to hold the cup in place.

Problems did not take long to show up in service though, one of the more notorious being the jamming. In general, the jamming could be caused by a number of factors:

The trapdoor Springfield rifles and carbines had a single pivoting extractor claw which bore on only a small portion of the case rim. In a tight case, the extractor would sometimes tear through the folded head rim leaving the case and most of the rim in the chamber which then had to be painstakingly dug out with a knife (or if an infantry rifle by using the cleaning rod).
The gilding metal cases, unlike those of brass, would not shrink back a little after being fired, but instead would tend to stick to the walls of the chamber requiring more effort for ejection and increasing the tendency for 1 above to happen particularly if the chamber of the carbine was slightly rough or corroded.
The crimp which held the priming cup in place weakened the case body and there were instances of a case being so solidly jammed in a dirty chamber that the extractor would rip the entire case head off leaving just the case body in the chamber. In 1876 the usual means of extracting such a headless case was to try and dig it out with a pocket knife. Later issues of cavalry carbines had a three piece, screw together cleaning rod in the butt and a headless shell extractor (which was also issued with infantry rifles).
Dirty ammunition—generally ammo which has attracted dust or grit or has built up a layer of verdigris from being in contact with leather. In 1876, in Custer's regiment, cartridge belts were made by the regimental saddlers out of the normal waist belt and old latigo leather reins, as supplies of proper accoutrements were slow in coming from the Quartermaster depots. The oiled leather in the belts and cartridge loops however, tended to corrode the guilding metal of the cases and made it easier for grit and dust to accumulate. The following year, prairie belts made of canvas began to replace the locally made leather ones.

The British Martini-Henry was in most respects a superior weapon, particularly in having a better, two pronged extractor which fairly evenly spread out the stresses to both sides of the rim. On the other hand, the cartridges issued with the Martini-Henry were primitive by comparison. The cartridge body was made of coiled brass foil inserted into a pair of base cups with a fibre wad for regidity. An iron case rim, pierced for the primer held it altogether by means of a hollow rivit which doubled as the primer pocket. The primer itself was similar to modern day shotgun shell primers.

The cartridge severed fairly well until replaced in the1880s with solid drawn brass cases of more modern construction, but was not without its problems. Being made of relatively thin brass foil it was easily damaged to such an extent that chambering would be difficult. Its ability to repel water was suspect, and under certain conditions of rapid fire could lead to extraction problems during periods of prolonged firing which would rapidly heat the barrels to the point of being too hot to touch. This problem was exacerbated by blown sand and dust, particularly noted in the Egyptian and Sudanese campaigns. Unlike Custer's men in 1876, the Martini-Henry rifle at least had a cleaning rod which could be used to push out jammed cases (although with thousands of Zulus charging down on you, it must have been a daunting exercise). I am not sure what the jamming rate was at Isandlawana, but Lt Chard in his post action report of Rorke's Drift recounted instances of jams during the 5-hour long action in which his tiny garrison expended some 18,000 rounds."

4th Cuirassier25 Sep 2023 9:53 a.m. PST

@ Chris D

That's a good point re numbers. If there were ~48,000 killed or incapacitated who all dropped their weapon, then what the stat is saying is that half were found empty, and half loaded. Of the half found loaded, three-quarters had been loaded more than once, in some cases with up to a dozen rounds.

You do wonder how someone doesn't notice that he has that many rounds in the barrel.

Personal logo The Virtual Armchair General Sponsoring Member of TMP25 Sep 2023 10:27 a.m. PST

Again, in action, in firing line (though mostly open order), it would be entirely possible not to realize one's own weapon has not fired for whatever reason.

Of course, in the extreme example of a dozen rounds down the barrel, there might come a point even in action when the firer realizes his ramrod is not going all the way down!
In such a case, that weapon is not merely useless, but positively dangerous--a long series of misfires followed by a success would be beyond messy.

So, abandoned weapons once it's clear to the firers that they are not working should not be surprising.

And given the huge numbers of casualties on the field, it's actually surprising there isn't a one-to-one ratio to men lost and weapons dropped.


Personal logo KimRYoung Supporting Member of TMP25 Sep 2023 12:16 p.m. PST

You do wonder how someone doesn't notice that he has that many rounds in the barrel.

35thOVI pretty much pointed that out.

Thousands of muskets, hundreds of cannons all firing, bullets flying all around, men to the left and right of you going down killed and wounded, officers out of action, fear, panic and total chaos! I think your focus is to just survive, not try to figure out if your rifle has an extra round or so down the barrel.


Personal logo Dal Gavan Supporting Member of TMP25 Sep 2023 2:28 p.m. PST

Even if they can't hear their weapon because of the noise, then surely the lack of recoil would tell them that the weapon hadn't fired?

Unless they'd only ever fired blank charges then the recoil from black powder weapons firing ball, or even shot, is something you remember. If you hold the butt properly seated in your shoulder the recoil is more a hard shove rather than the hammer blow some histories and novels claim it is, but still something you'll notice.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP25 Sep 2023 5:31 p.m. PST

4th, a weapon with multiple round in the barrel is probably not "fireable." Probably some of them were dropped for just that reason as the soldier picked up another which one of his comrades no longer needed.

As regards the LBH, this link
says 2% of recovered Springfield cartridges showed signs of having been pried out of the weapon. I thought I remembered higher--but remember these are the rounds successfully extracted. How much time would you spend in the middle of a battle trying to clear a jammed carbine? How much time COULD you spend before some native American demonstrated that his tomahawk was still in good working order?

von Winterfeldt25 Sep 2023 10:37 p.m. PST


Even at re-enactments, shooting however only with blanks, so less recoil, but using ramrods – I witnessed experienced re-enactors who did do it for years, failing to notice misfires, there we did saftey inspections after each "battle" -one was caught still with 6 cartridges in the barrel, he should have noticed from the ramrod as well – did he – no? So we don't have to underestimate stress and distraction.

Personal logo Dal Gavan Supporting Member of TMP25 Sep 2023 11:22 p.m. PST

That does surprise me, mate. Blanks have nearly no recoil, but I'd have thought the ramrod not dropping down as far as it should would be a give away. I've only used my musket for target shooting and scaring rabbits and the odd fox, so haven't been using it under any pressure. However I've always been aware of my weapon state and rounds fired, and remedied stoppages, when in some reasonably stressful situations- but those were modern weapons.

35thOVI Supporting Member of TMP26 Sep 2023 4:44 a.m. PST

Dal, I will vouch for what VW just wrote and what I had said earlier. I've seen as well. In my younger days, I was at some of the 125th and 130th re-enactments. As many as 18,000 plus participants. With all the muskets and cannons firing, noise, excitement and everything else, unless you watch your barrel, you cannot tell if the musket fires. It was worse making movies. I saw multiple injuries shooting "The North and South 2". Just one example: shooting a charge scene against confederate entrenchments. The scene ended. One of the other Union reenactors leaned up against the Confederate entrenchments with his musket leaning up between his arms with the muzzle pointed up toward the side of his face. Musket had not fired during charge, he did not know and the rounds in the barrel went off and side of his face had the black powder burn into his face. He was hauled off in an ambulance. (We always safety checked ours afterwards, obviously he did not). That was just one example. I've seen lots.

I've also fired live rounds and after so many rounds the black powder residue makes ramming harder and harder, so I could see not knowing there were multiple rounds. (I know they had cleaning rounds, I even have a few originals. Always wondered how well they worked). My kick on my Enfield was not bad at all firing live rounds by the way. (Old Euroarms made in Italy, I think).

Anyway, this was in re-enactments and movies. I can only imagine what it would have been like in actual combat with the fear, excitement, noise and adrenaline. So I can see it happening often. With a flintlock you have the primer pan flash in front of your eyes. With ours, you cap and don't have that flash, so I could see less multi loads with flintlocks. I did Revolutionary war for 3 years and did not see as many issues there. That hesitation between pan flash and actual fire, is very obvious.

Anyway just a few of my experiences that might help to explain some of this.


Major Bloodnok26 Sep 2023 9:16 a.m. PST

At the museum I work we show early 19th century militia training days twice a year. One year our cap't. noticed that someone's musket was misfiring and the user kept reloading his musket. When this was pointed out (rather forcefully), the user then peered down the barrel to have a look… He had three unfired loads down the barrel.

Personal logo Dal Gavan Supporting Member of TMP26 Sep 2023 7:00 p.m. PST

Thanks vW and 35th. I've never had to rush my black powder shoots, so had plenty of time to deal with the odd misfire, blocked vent or to change a flint. So I'll wholly accept your experience over my theory.

35thOVI Supporting Member of TMP27 Sep 2023 6:18 a.m. PST

Dal, I don't know how many guys I've seen who would clean their barrel, but never take the nipple apart and clean it and the vent holes. Biggest cause of misfires I know of. In 40 plus years, I never had one misfire.


von Winterfeldt27 Sep 2023 6:22 a.m. PST

the flint alone of course makes things much worse compared to a percussion cap.

Personal logo Dal Gavan Supporting Member of TMP27 Sep 2023 2:43 p.m. PST

I had a lot of misfires when I started out, mate, mainly to do with how I had the flint seated or not putting enough/any powder in the pan- which may make vW chuckle at his own memories. There was some cheap FF powder I bought that left more residue than a heard of elephants with dysentery. The vent needed picking out after about 10 shots and boiling out the barrel produced a really rancid smell of sulphur. In the end I gave up on it. It's probably still in the shed somewhere.

Back on topic, there's a lot that can go wrong so I shouldn't be surprised at what happened with troops in hastily raised and trained units.

Murvihill28 Sep 2023 5:17 a.m. PST

I'd like to know where these numbers were derived from?

Personal logo Dal Gavan Supporting Member of TMP28 Sep 2023 7:42 p.m. PST

Perhaps from weapons picked up during the battlefield clearance, Murvihill? The US army probably left parties behind who would have collected all the discarded weapons they could and then had them inspected for serviceability, so they could be put back into use.

Murvihill29 Sep 2023 5:16 a.m. PST

Then there would be, somewhere indicating said facts. Do you have it?

Personal logo Dal Gavan Supporting Member of TMP29 Sep 2023 4:42 p.m. PST

I don't. However the source given by the OP may be a good place to start.

Murvihill30 Sep 2023 4:10 a.m. PST

I'm not gonna buy the book to find out, and one of the reviews mentions that it is missing academic sourcing. Has anyone seen this fact presented elsewhere?

35thOVI Supporting Member of TMP30 Sep 2023 6:08 a.m. PST

It only made sense to retrieve weapons after a battle, especially in the Civil War, as both sides could use many of the weapons.

With the amount of casualties in these battles, thousands of arms retrieved makes a lot of sense.

As to "why" they were loaded. That is open to interpretation of individuals and authors. I've stated my experiences. But they are obviously NOT in battle.

Here is another quote, it states some of what I've said previously. I'm not taking sides, just giving my personal experiences and what I have seen.

Abandoned weapons

"37,574 rifles laying on the battlefield were collected after the battle.
• 24,000 were still loaded
• 6,000 had one round in the barrel
• 12,000 had two rounds in the barrel
• 6,000 had three to ten rounds in the barrel
The weapons with multiple rounds had probably been loaded but not "capped." This meant when the trigger was pulled and the hammer struck there was nothing to ignite the powder. In the noise and excitement of the battle the soldier didn't notice and kept reloading their gun. Had they remembered to cap their weapon after cramming half a dozen rounds in, it would have gone off like a bomb."

donlowry30 Sep 2023 8:55 a.m. PST

Back on topic, there's a lot that can go wrong so I shouldn't be surprised at what happened with troops in hastily raised and trained units.

Which helps to explain why units full of country boys with hunting experience had an edge over city boys who had never handled a gun before.

Personal logo Dal Gavan Supporting Member of TMP01 Oct 2023 4:52 a.m. PST

I'm not gonna buy the book to find out

You could try an inter-library loan?

Which helps to explain why units full of country boys with hunting experience had an edge over city boys who had never handled a gun before.

Probably, Don. Did either side recruit units from specific districts, or just on a state basis?

35thOVI Supporting Member of TMP01 Oct 2023 6:32 a.m. PST

"Did either side recruit units from specific districts, or just on a state basis?"

Not sure I completely understand the question…. But normally volunteer regiments were formed by state. Within the regiments, many companies would be formed from a specific county, City or area. So companies would be made up of brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers and friends. Also colleges could form companies. Normally a regiment would be from a specific city or set of counties within said state. Sometimes like country of origin, ie. Irish, German, Italian.. etc.

The above is true of infantry, artillery and cavalry. Most units were volunteer, but there were regular units as well. Regulars enlisted from everywhere.

This of course is the norm, there were always exceptions.

Hopefully this answers your question.

FYI for the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (southwest Ohio)

"Companies in this Regiment with the Counties of Origin
Men often enlisted in a company recruited in the counties where they lived though not always. After many battles, companies might be combined because so many men were killed or wounded. However if you are unsure which company your ancestor was in, try the company recruited in his county first.

Many throughout the Regiment were from Butler County.[2]

Company A – Many men from Warren County.[3] see Roster.

Company B – see Roster.

Company C – Many men from Preble County[4] – see Roster.

Company D – see Roster.

Company E – Many men from Preble County[4] – see Roster.

Company F – Many men from Warren County.[3] see Roster.

Company G – see Roster.

Company H – Many men from Montgomery County[5] – see Roster.

Company I – see Roster.

Company K – see Roster. "

Nine pound round01 Oct 2023 6:45 a.m. PST

It varied. A lot of times the recruiting effort brought in people from a single area, and sometimes it drew the net wider. The states were also very different, even then- rural Vermont or New Hampshire had far fewer people, far more thinly spread, than New York or Pennsylvania. A regiment raised on a statewide basis in Vermont or Maine probably looked a bit different from one raised by the Union League in Philadelphia.

Agree with the comments on misfires, I've never fired a percussion cap rifle but I have found that if you ream out the touch hole of a flintlock between shots with a bristled cleaning thing like a pipe cleaner (Traditions makes them), the incidence of misfires and flashes in the pan drops dramatically. This is OK for those of us who are using it for hunting, but I could see what a problem it would be for volley firing.

I use 2F for the main charge and 4F for the priming pan, but I would expect that a percussion cap produces a far cleaner and hotter flame, which means a lot more reliable ignition. That "elephant dysentery" description is a pretty accurate way to describe the way the first patch comes out of the barrel.

donlowry02 Oct 2023 8:16 a.m. PST

Prominent citizens would frequently lead the recruiting efforts in their locale and then become the captain or colonel of the unit they raised, depending on its size, although the officers were often elected in the early days (a hold-over from the way militia was raised). For instance, just after Fort Sumter was fired upon, Grant (as a former Army officer) helped to raise a company from his town, Galena, Illinois, but he declined to stand for election as its captain as he thought he could get a higher position (and eventually did). Anyway, that entire company (and later a second one) was from the town of Galena and its surrounding county, then it was eventually combined with companies from other areas to form a regiment.

Bill N02 Oct 2023 12:17 p.m. PST

I have no doubt that men caught up in the moment of the fighting might fail to notice that their weapons did not fire. There are a number of instances of men being wounded and not noticing. Plus there are the stories of athletes sustaining injuries but not realizing it until after the game ended.

What I am not sure about is human behavior when you realized in the heat of combat your weapon had not fired. Especially if you discovered it when you loaded a second round. Would you actually take time out in the middle of the fighting to try and clear the weapon? Or would you look around to see if one of your wounded comrades had left his weapon behind and grab that one?

donlowry04 Oct 2023 9:54 a.m. PST

Would you actually take time out in the middle of the fighting to try and clear the weapon? Or would you look around to see if one of your wounded comrades had left his weapon behind and grab that one?

Good point. And then would you eventually double-load that one? So the number of double-loading shooters might will have been somewhat lower than the number of double-loaded weapons.

dapeters05 Oct 2023 1:47 p.m. PST

While I get how in actual fighting soldiers might be altra focuous on the enmey at hand and forget everything else. On the otherhand 24,000 out of say 200,000 slodiers that one in 8 and that assuming that every one of those 200,000 was indeed in the heat of battle.

I too would expect to have heard smilar reports from arround the world.

4th Cuirassier06 Oct 2023 7:48 a.m. PST

@ d a peters

That's why I thought it was weird.

What happened to the weapons after other battles in other wars?

Bill N06 Oct 2023 10:28 a.m. PST

Could be there was no systematic effort to count them in prior actions.

Steve Wilcox06 Oct 2023 11:18 a.m. PST

Some reading that I found interesting:

Loaded Muskets Taken After Battle At Gettysburg


Loaded muskets picked up after the battle of Gettysburg
The #70 post by Craig L Barry (mid) and the #80 post by thomas aagaard (bottom):


coopman17 Feb 2024 6:16 p.m. PST

Officer: "Why are you running away soldier"?
Soldier: "Because I can't fly sir".

P Carl Ruidl05 Apr 2024 5:40 a.m. PST


Please read History Archaeology and Custer's Last Battle (Fox, 1992) as he devotes a fair amount of information to this topic. Reno embraced the jamming theory as it deflected attention from his questionable conduct.

Crook's command expended over 80,000 rounds (see Private Louis Zinzer's diary: Company C/2nd U.S. Cavalry) of similar ammunition in six hours only eight days before and had no problems with cartridge extraction. I apologize for the rabbit hole.

thomalley05 Apr 2024 2:10 p.m. PST

I believe that when re-enactors are doing a battle they are not allowed to even carry a ramrod, just as a safety procedure.

Major Bloodnok05 Apr 2024 3:25 p.m. PST

All the ones I've participated in let you keep them, you just can't use them.

35thOVI Supporting Member of TMP05 Apr 2024 6:12 p.m. PST

I have read accounts of what I wrote happening. Also men loading and not capping, loading again, not capping, then finally capping and .. wham! Men firing their ramrods, jams, vent clogs, just about everything imaginable. Of course some dropped the weapons and ran.

My only issue is the "pretending" to fire. I've heard of some who said they did that because they could not take another life. But they really seem to be a minority.

In my reenactment days, we were allowed to use and not use ramrods. Depended on the specific rules of that reenactment. When involved in volley firing with 8000 to 15000 reenactors, plus around 80 to 100 artillery pieces, it can be easy to not know your weapon did not fire. I saw many examples.

Example: while filming "The North and South 2", we were shooting the Petersburg scenes and attacking the Confederate entrenchments. About 1500 Union involved. After the filming stopped, one of the Union soldiers leaned against the top step of the Confederate side with his rifle leaning up against his body. All of the sudden his rifle went off and multiple rounds went off, with the black powder burning up the right side of his face, with the powder burning under his skin. He did not know his weapon had not been firing and kept loading rounds. Sad, the guy was hurt badly.

I fired flintlocks back in the 70's. It was normally easier to determine misfires with them. But also Rev War re-enactments were much smaller, even during the bicentennial. I think Yorktown only had 3000 and I think it was the biggest.?

I am strictly talking muzzle loaders.

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