Measuring, Identifying and Collecting Dug Civil War Bullets

Measuring, Identifying and Collecting Dug Civil War Bullets

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One of my favorite things to dig in Middle Tennessee are bullets.   Which is a good thing, because obviously they are the most common Civil War relic that we find.  I dig way more bullets than wheat cents, for example.    I’ve dug over 300 of them in the last two years, and was just telling a friend that just dug his first that digging them never gets old.   Digging Civil War bullets is very addictive.  I feel a split second of time travel every time I pull one out of the ground.

Another thing that is great about Civil War bullets is there are well over a thousand different variations of them.   And it is an extra thrill to dig a bullet type that you have never dug before.


The standard references for bullet id are the McKee & Mason (M&M) book, Thomas & Thomas (Thomas) book and Round Balls to Rimfire (RBTRF).    Collector’s refer to a bullet by their number in each book.   The most popular reference is the M&M book.   Most collector will refer to the M&M number first. will use a Thomas # for bullets found in Thomas that are not found in M&M, and resort to RBTRF# only if the bullet is not found in other texts.

McKee & Mason,  Civil War Projectiles II – Small Arms & Field Artillery with Supplement
This is a hard to find book at much less than $100, but it is the “bible” for most collectors.

Dean S. Thomas, A Handbook of Civil War Bullets & Cartridges
This compact but powerful reference is only $12 on Amazon.

Dean S. Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire
Thomas has compiled an incredible 4 volumes describing Civil War bullets history in every detail.    I only have Volume I so far, and they are around $50 for each.



First, clean your bullet carefully and remove the dirt from the cavity if it has one before attempting to identify.  You don’t want to damage it, especially if it is a rare or valuable variant.

A good magnifying glass:  I use a big magnifying glass, and various small loupes.   I keep several loupes.  I like to have one in the truck, one by my sink where I clean bullets, and a couple in the office because I’m always misplacing them.

Digital Caliper:  Must have to get accurate measurements.     Be sure to zero before you measure and turn off after you are done.   Most use watch batteries so you can’t just change them out like AAAs.

Digital Scale: You want one that will weigh in Grains

Good Lamp:  A good lamp or other light source will help immensely


This is the caliber of the bullet (sort of) at its widest diameter.  Zero your caliper and put the bullet between the jaws.  BE CAREFUL NOT TO SCRATCH THE BULLET.   I like to carefully turn the bullet so I feel it is just touching the jaws at the bullets widest diameter for the most accurate measurement.   Write down the width to 3 digits (ie .574).

The Length (or Height) of the bullet is the measurement from the base to the point.   Place the bullet in the jaws sideways so the base is flush against one of the jaws and the point barely touches the other.  This is the length of the bullet.  Write it down (ie 1.054).

Turn on your scale and make sure it is the grains mode (GN).  Make sure the scale shows zero, then place the bullet on it.  Write it down (ie 475.2 grains)


Number of Rings or Grooves
These are the rings near the base of the bullet, which is why we call a 3 ringer a “3 ringer”.    These were used to hold lubricant. Most bullets either have zero rings, two rings or three rings.


Base and Cavity Type
Look at the bottom of the bullet.  Does the bullet have a flat base or a cavity (hole in it)?  Note the illustration showing base types in the front of the M&M book.   M&M separates bullets in the book based on base type, which can be a bit confusing.  A “rebated” base, for example, is a flat base that has a diameter less than the rest of the bullet.  Some unusual bases are triangular, or a plug base, which is a cavity with a flat surface in the bottom of it to hold a wooden plug.   Another thing to note is how deep the cavity is.  This is subjective.  I usually just note that it is “shallow”, “regular”, or “deep”.  The M&M book puts a determiner by the cavity number of each bullet to note its relative depth.  For example, Cavity 5-1 is shallow, and cavity 5-3 is deep.

Bullets with markings in the base are very popular among collectors.  The most commonly cavity-marked bullets are Enfields imported from England. Some of the more common markings seen are “L”, “L2”, and “57”.  Some three-ringers and other bullets have markings in the base, such as a star.  You’ll want to know if its marked not only because each marking is super cool and desirable, but because it will help you determine if it’s the first of that bullet type you have dug.

Three "L" marked base Enfields

Three “L” marked base Enfields

READ MORE for: Reference Books for Bullet Identification…>

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There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Jim E. Thomas at 2:17 pm

    Great idea for a page and good content. Just a few comments.

    Under section “MEASURING THE BULLET — Diameter/Width”, I would add that you need to take an average of several measurements since very few bullets are perfectly round.

    In reference, not all M&M photos are to scale.

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