The redcoats had a lot of balls

Pax Arcana

boston_massacre1March 5 marks the 238th anniversary of the Boston Massacre, in which a troop of British soldiers outside the Custom House fired cowardly into the mob that was, um, attacking it.

Five people were killed in the fight, and another six were wounded. Considering there were only eight British soldiers with muzzle-loading muskets — and only six total shots were fired — it seems awfully strange that 11 people were hit.

The answer, according to J.L. Bell, lies in the particular musket loading technique employed by the British soldiers. It turns out the redcoats had a lot of balls:

The most likely explanation is that the soldiers each had two balls in their muskets. Those guns worked more like shotguns than like modern rifles. When gunpowder ignited inside the tubes, it pushed out whatever had been tamped down in there—one ball, two balls, buckshot, nothing but powder (called “snapping” the gun).

In fact, we have evidence of soldiers elsewhere in Boston that night being ordered to put two balls into their muskets. On 17 March, future American artillery captain Edward Crafts (younger brother of coroner Thomas Crafts) told the town’s investigation that the day after the Massacre he’d talked with a “Corporal McCan”—probably Hugh McCann of the 29th Regiment.

McCann reportedly told Crafts that on the night of the 5th:

his orders were, when the party came from the guard-house by the fortification [on the Boston Neck], if any person or persons assaulted them, to fire upon them, every man being loaded with a brace of balls.

”Brace” is an antique synonym for “pair,” usually used these days in the context of hunting. Folks of the late eighteenth century seem to have liked the alliteration of “a brace of balls,” since it shows up in other newspaper stories.

The term “brace of balls” has a slightly different meaning in present-day Boston. As in, “THAT FACKING TURNCOAT MIKEY VRABEL HAS A FACKING BRACE OF BAWLS IF HE THINK WE-AH GUNNA TAKE IT EASY ON THE FACKIN’ CHEEFS NEXT YE-UH.”

How Could Six Shots Hit Eleven People? [Boston 1775]

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2 Comments

Filed under history

2 responses to “The redcoats had a lot of balls

  1. Esquire

    This article was clearly written by a Yank, because everyone (except Americans) knows that a “brace” is most commonly used in soccer/football, where it’s a reference to a player scoring two goals in a match.

    • Cooney

      I would like to point out, that although this may have been written by a “yank” the information is centuries old. Also the term “brace” is much older than the modern game of football/soccer, it was, as the author of the article states, a hunting term, such as “a brace of rabbits”. See this link, definition number 10; http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/brace

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