The Effects of Gunfire
By Patrick McSherry
Please Visit our Home Page to learn more about the Spanish
here for information on the Spanish Mauser
for information on the 45-70 "Trapdoor"
here for information on the
here for information on the Lee Rifle
The weapons used by the various army regiments and the U.S.
Marine Corps represented variations in the evolution of firearms. Not
everyone agreed that it was a good idea to make the leap from the 45-70
shot rifle to the Krag Jorgensen rifle or
the Lee-Metford rifle with
their multi-shot magazines. for a variety of reasons.
First, some believed that the smaller calibers of
the Mauser, Lee
Krag were a mistake since they did
not have the "take down" power of
the large caliber 45-70 "Trapdoor."
They argued that, eventhough the
smaller caliber weapons would wound and eventually kill the enemy, the
goal was to stop their attack immediately and believed that the larger
caliber weapons could do this more reliably.
Some advocates believed that using a
magazine weapon was a mistake as soldiers would waste ammunition by not
taking the time to aim properly, something that a single shot weapon
would force them to do. The "useless" expenditure of ammunition would
raise the war cost, and would create logistical issues if the soldiers
expended the ammunition faster than it could be supplied. Conversely,
it was argued that the smaller caliber ammunition weighed less, and
therefore a soldier could carry more of it.
The smalller caliber weapons also used smokeless powder. Not only
did the lack of smoke help conceal the soldier's firing location, the
smokeless powder allowed for higher muzzle velocity. This allowed
for a flatter trajectory of flight of the bullet, meaning less
correction was necessary when firing, and the soldiers could get a
better aim. However, it was argued that the
velocity was too great and the round would pass through the enemy's
body without causing serious damage (i.e., it would pass through a bone
creating a small hole rather than breaking the bone and stopping the
Initially, it was claimed that the Spanish were using explosive
ammunition. However, it was later discovered that the Mauser, Krag
and Lee rounds had
a tendencey to wobble at shorter ranges, meaning that when the bullet
hit, it did not necessarily hit point first. When it hit at an angle at
high velocity (called "keyholing"), it had an inadvertent explosive
effect, creating far
more injury. At longer ranges, this effect did not occur. This must be
remembered when reading some of the accounts below.
The accounts below reflect the
findings and conclusions of the men in the field who witnessed the
effects of the gunfire from these various weapons.
longarms used during the
Spanish American War.
General notes on the small
caliber weapons (Mauser, Krag-Jorgensen and Lee Rifles):
Nicholas Senn, Chief Surgeon, U.S.
"No further doubt can remain in regard
to the difference in the mortality of gunshot wounds inflicted with the
large and small caliber bullets. The
cases...appear to prove that the danger incident to gunshot wounds of
the chest made by the small projectile, consists in complicating
injuries involving the heart and large blood vessels, and that, in the
absense of such injuries the prognosis is favorable."
Dr. Orlando Ducker, American Medical Association:
"The effectiveness of rifles of small caliber but of great initial
velocity like the Krag Jorgensen, Lee-Metford or Mauser, for
should be considered settled ....Another fact remains to be proven,
whether the mortality is greater from the use of modern or old-style
[large caliber] rifles. In the case of our own troops troops [at the
Battle of Cuzco Well] the fatality was greater to the proportion
wounded than formerly. However, that will require\ further
Capt. H. Eugene Stafford, 71st New York Volunteer Infantry:
"No explosion is produced by the Mauser ball...although there are reports to the
contrary. It is supposed at certain distances, like the Krag-Jorgensen, to have an explosive effect. [This
is because] occasionally the Mauser
[bullet] seems to turn over in its course. The effect is bad, as
the bullet is long and thin. The wounds, however, are mostly clear cut.
There is little shock unless the viscera or chest are struck. There is
little pain as compared with the wounds from Remingtons and larger
bullets. The bleeding is not so great as in the old [larger caliber]
wounds...The [Mauser] bullets inflicted what might seem to be
yet patients are on the rapid road to recovery. Some of them
the mouth and came out in different places behind and under the ear and
through the neck without doing vital damage. One went from cheek to
cheek, breaking both jawbones, but was not fatal. One man was shot just
above the left eye, apparently while lying down and aiming his gun. The
bullet passed through the eye, down and out of the left shoulder.
I had to cut out the eye, but the man will get well. We cannot yet tell
what the poisonous effect of the bullets will be, but expect that it
will be slight. Small wounds have
healed with wonderful rapidity..."
N. G. Gonzales, Cuban Army:
"...Of the wounded none are
in serious danger except a stevedore who accompanied the party. As he
was stooping over the boat a Mauser ball passed through his shoulder,
perforated his lung and passed through his head at the jaws. But
the Mauser is a most humane weapon. Hit by Springfield or revolver
bullets, several of the expeditionaries would have lost limbs. As it
is, most of them will be ready for fighting again in a fortnight."
Grover Flint, Newspaper correspondent who travelled with the Cuban army:
"The Spanish regulars are armed with
rifle which has great range and high penetrative powers. It was found
by the Cubans that the wounds from the rifle were easily curable, the
speed of the bullet is such that it will pass through the bones of the
leg or arm, not breaking them, but merely leaving a small round hole...
Capt. H. Eugene Stafford, 71st New York Volunteer Infantry:
"From my experience wuth the
Spaniards whom I attended, I found that the
Krag-Jorgensen ball had a similar effect to the Mauser.
It is a little larger calibre; that was about the only difference..."
The 45-70 "Trapdoor Rifle:
From the Clay Butler Letter
which mentions the "HARVARD Incident"
"...The worst thing was the fight on
Monday night about
12 o’clock we were aroused by the noise of guns and the orders were
to his place.” The prisoners had made a rush, I suppose to escape. The
fired into them, and about 50 soldiers left here to guard the stores,
and opened fire. Six men were killed and about a dozen or so badly
hurt. I was
one of the boys detailed to go back among them after the fight and
dead and wounded down to the sick bay. I was barefooted,
and just think of wading into a deck all covered
with blood, and men lying around shot in all sorts of places. But a
used to it, and we hustked them down as if they were so many sacks of
rifles tear awful
holes in a man’s body, about the size of half a dollar..."
From a letter from Sgt/ Henry Madert, 1st District of Columbia
heard afterward that the bullets from our Springfield
rifles made such
large wounds at close range that the Spaniards called them light
artillery guns, and said they could not fight against any such guns."
Grover Flint, Newspaper correspondent who
travelled with the Cuban army:
"...the Spanish irregulars are armed
with Remington and Springfield rifles. The
wounds from these were more fatal [than those causes by the Mauser]
The bones, when struck, were smashed to splinters and the bullet in its
egress would tear the flesh frightfully, leaving deep holes and
lacerations. With the primitive hospital accommodations the Cubans
managed to save a large percentage of those wounded by the Mauser
rifle, but even with excellent hospital accommodations tehre would be
little hope for the others..."
Bruce Payne, 1st Nebraska Volunteer Infantry, Co. D (and distant relative of Willa Cather, the author):
"The Springfield shoots a lead ball which flattens out when it strikes a man and makes a ghastly wound."
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"Effects of Rifle Balls," New
York Tribune. July 25, 1898, 3. (Capt. H. Eugene Stafford).
"First at the Front," Evening
Star. (Washington DC), August 11, 1898, 12. (Sgt. Henry Madert
Gonzales, N. G., In Darkest
Cuba. (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1922), 81.
"Letters from Alton's Sailor Boys," Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton,
IL) July 20, 1898, 2.
Letters from Nicholas Senn,
Chief Surgeon, U.S. Volunteers. Reprinted from the Journal of
the American Medical Association (Chicago: American Medical
Association, 1899 174-175.
"Modern Bullets,"New York
Tribune. July 25, 1898. 3 (Dr. Orlando Ducker).
O'Connor, Margaret Anne, "The Not-So-Great War: Cather Family Letters and the Spanish American War," Cather Studies. (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), Vol. 6, 4, 6. (Bruce Payne)
"Wounds," The Hawaiian Star.
(Honolulu, HI), June 20, 1898, 4. (Grover Flint's information,
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