Measuring, Identifying and Collecting Dug Civil War Bullets

Measuring, Identifying and Collecting Dug Civil War Bullets

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


Until you have some practice, this can be quite confusing.  The bullets in the M&M book are separated by base type (flat, cavity, rebated etc), then by number of rings.  There is also an addendum in the back of the book with some random bullets, so check there if you can’t find it elsewhere.

After you find the pages with the bullets that have the similar base and number of rings, you will see they are sort of sorted by diameter, so try to find the bullets closest to your diameter/caliber.

The tolerances of bullets varied during manufacture, and many bullets were cast by hand out in the field.   Also, your bullet has been in the ground 150+ years and may have been fired, carved on, etc.  Therefore it makes sense that your bullet will almost never be right on with the measurements or weight in the book.   That is why it is best to also have the weight to help see if you’ve got the right bullet.   Your bullet should look like the one in the photo, and have measurements and weight that are close.

Fortunately the photos of bullets in the M&M book are actual-sized, so you can put your bullet right on top of it or side by side to compare appearance.  Often small things like the ring/groove types and their spacing apart are important.

Some bullets are pretty easy to ID.  Others can be a lot of work.  I try the books first, then the web, then get some help from experts on Facebook if all else fails or I am unsure of my ID.


Army of Tennessee Bullets:  Several good sites are available, mostly dealers, where you can see all types of unusual bullets with great photos.  Army of Tennessee is my favorite.    They have a ton of different great bullets with M&M numbers and great photos.

Sgt. Riker:  The Sarge is awesome.  Note he also provides riker cases and mats for displaying your rarer bullets.

eBay:  While eBay is more prone to mis-identification, it can be a big help on getting in the right direction for hard to find bullets.

Facebook:  Post your bullet in your favorite metal detecting forum and usually someone will be glad to quickly help.   ID ME and Civil War/Indian Wars Relic Identification are some really good resources with a lot of knowledgeable people


Dropped or Fired:   A dropped bullet will look awesome and is more valuable and desired by collectors.  It will not have a circle around the tip where it was hit by a ramrod, and it won’t be beat up or mangled too much.   A fired bullet will show ramrod marks, may show rifling marks, may be warped, or even distorted or pancaked due to impact.   While dropped bullets are more collectible, fired bullets represent the Civil War better as most often they were actually used in the fighting.

Pulled:  A pulled bullet was unloaded from a gun with a special attachment on the ramrod.   Some drill a hole in the bullet, and some grab it and pull it out.   Pulled bullets are fairly unusual to find, and I like them a lot.   Seems like you’ll find them in groups when you do find them!


Great diagram showing pulled bullets from the War Between the States Collectors Page on Facebook

Carved:  Soldiers would carve bullets out of boredom.   While some detectorists find amazing works of arts, the ones I find are usually just “carved on”.  These pieces of “trench art” are desirable by collectors and a wonderful addition to any dug collection.

An Enfield bullet "carved on" by a soldier with no artistic talent LOL

An Enfield bullet “carved on” by a soldier with no artistic talent LOL

Other unusual and interesting bullets are chewed by animals, chewed for pain or boredom, and bullets that have been extracted from a soldier’s body.

I don’t sell my bullets, but I like to see what they are going for to help determine how uncommon or rare they might be relative to each other.

In addition to the aforementioned dealer sites and eBay, you can Google your bullet name and M&M number to see what they might be going for if any are available online.

Also, you can check their book value by picking up the latest Civil War Collector’s Price Guide by North-South Trader.    The only thing I don’t like is I don’t see any bullets listed that are not in M&M.

I have at least as much fun identifying and displaying bullets as I do digging them.

I keep my dug and fired bullets separate, and separate some uncommon types, such as Enfields into a separate container.  I separate carved bullets, pulled bullets, and chewed bullets as well.

I keep my best example of each type of bullet in cool displays with labels denoting their M&M or other number and the city where they were found.   I even create special displays for my extremely rare bullets.

Some of my rarer bullets displayed with some of my other favorite finds.

Some of my rarer bullets displayed with some of my other favorite finds.

I love to photograph my bullets and other civil war finds to show my friends on Facebook.   I’ll usually photograph bullets in groups, but will photograph cavity markings and uncommon bullets separately and in more detail.

A photo of several "Buck n' Ball" bullets and the Enfields that replaced them.

A photo of several “Buck n’ Ball” bullets and the Enfields that replaced them.

Identifying and researching your finds to learn more about them can bring them to life in new and exciting ways.   Bullets provide one of the best opportunities to do this.   You can often learn whether they were used by US or CS (or both), identify and see the guns they were for, and even, in some occasions, narrow down the likely exact troops that carried them and likely dates the bullet ended up where you dug it.

So don’t just dig bullets –  collect ’em!

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Pulled Bullets: Courtesy of Artie Quick,  War Between the States Collectors PageDetecting365

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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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