The modern bullet is the culmination of a long series of inventions and innovations. Just like the firearms that launch it, ammunition has its own extensive and fascinating history, which stretches back more than a thousand years. On that note, any discussion on the changes that firearms have undergone over the centuries would be incomplete without also discussing its projectiles. Here is the history of ammunition, from before the first bullet to the latest take on the concept.
~900: Chinese Fireworks and Fire Lance Projectiles
Alchemists of the Tang dynasty were the first to discover the explosive effects of combining saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. While these were initially used to create the world’s fireworks displays, military applications were soon discovered.
Fire lances were gunpowder-filled bamboo tubes, attached to spears, which could spew flame when a fuse is lit. They could also transform any objects placed inside them, such as rocks, into potentially lethal projectiles — the first “bullets” for the first “firearm.”
~1400s: The Cast Lead Ball
With the development of armor and stone fortifications in Middle-Ages Europe, firing stones at high speeds was no longer powerful enough. Gunsmiths and ammunition manufacturers got creative by shaping molten metal into sphere shapes, first with iron, then with easier-to-produce lead. These lead balls, projectiles created specifically to be shot out of firearms, were the first bullets.
1830s: Experiments in Cylindro-Conical Bullets
In the 1830s, a French infantry captain Henri-Gustave Delvigne designed bullets that were “cylindro-conical,” rather than spherical. The term refers to their cylinder-shaped body ending in a pointed head. François Tamisier, a French artillery captain, added grooves to the design for improved stability.
Both inventors ran into a difficult: bullets needed to be small enough to be easily loaded, but big enough to line up with the barrel grooves. Louis-Etienne de Thouvenin’s rifle, the carabine à tige, contained a steel stem that expanded bullet bases when the bullets were struck with a loading ram.
1841: The Minié Ball
Despite its name, the Minié ball was the culmination of the experiments in conical bullets. It had a hollow base and three grooves, intended to make it fit easily inside rifles. Building on Delvigne’s work, French army officer Claude- Étienne Minié designed the bullet to expand upon firing, grip the grooves, and spin out from the barrel, allowing for greater muzzle velocity, range, and accuracy. The Minié ball’s design brought together and enhanced the developments that came before it, making it the first modern bullet.
1882: The Full Metal Jacket Bullet
The Swiss engineer Eduard Rubin decided to encase a soft lead core within a shell made of copper alloy, creating the world’s first full metal jacket bullet. This practice allowed bullets to fly faster without suffering deformation or losing too much metal while escaping the barrel. The copper may also be substituted with steel alloy — either way, full metal jacket bullets have higher speeds than bullets with only lead.
1898: The Spitzer Bullet
In 1898, Captain Georges Raymond Desaleux of France tackled the challenge to minimize the air resistance that a bullet faces. His solution was to elongate the bullet even further and add a thin cylinder atop a thicker one. This new design allowed for high accuracy over longer distances than ever before. The spitzer bullet’s aerodynamic qualities were further improved with the development of the boat tail base in 1901. When loaded into the first machine guns, this bullet changed the face of warfare.
The bullet as we know it started taking shape mainly in the 19th century. With that said, this idea — harnessing the power of an explosion to launch a projectile faster than one could throw it — is an old one. In earlier times, ammunition was pottery shards in bamboo tubes, then round stones, then balls of molten lead. In the future, it may take forms that we cannot even imagine today.
With that said, the history of ammunition continues to be written, and the next great innovations may come sooner than we think.