How to make Musket Balls for your army
- Take a lump of lead.
- Heat it in a crucible until it melts.
- Carefully pour the molten lead into a mould.
- Wait until the lead has solidified.
- Break open the mould and remove the lead ball.
- File off any high spots or lumps
- Check the ball for irregularities by rolling it down a slope.
- Repeat the above 10,000 times – or more if you have a large army.
This slow process was how musket balls were made until 1782 when a Bristol plumber had a strange dream. William Watts imagined that he saw raindrops forming into perfectly round spheres as they fell through the air. Wondering if molten lead would behave in the same way he conducted an experiment in which he poured molten lead through a sieve from the tower of his local church. It worked!
Encouraged by his success Watts experimented further, adding a three-story tower to his house and digging a shaft underneath to achieve a longer drop. Later in 1782 William Watts patented his process and made a fortune. Soon “Shot Towers” were being constructed all over the world, from Finland to Philadelphia, from Tasmania to Twickenham. (Yes, we do have a shot tower of our own in Crane Park)
How It Works
A Shot Tower is essentially a tall, hollow structure, with a heating chamber at the top. Here lead is heated until molten, then poured through a copper sieve. The size of the shot is determined by the size of the holes in the sieve. As the drops of molten lead fall through the air surface tension forms them into spherical balls. At the bottom of the tower the lead shot is caught in a water-filled basin.
The shot is then removed from the basin and rolled down an inclined table to check that it is completely spherical. Any shot that is “out of round” is sent back up the tower to be melted again. The final stage of the process is to polish the shot with a little graphic to prevent oxidation.
Notable Shot Towers
The tallest shot tower ever built still stands in the Melbourne suburb of Clifton Hill in Australia. This brick structure was built in 1882 and is 80 metres or 263 feet high to the top of the small chimney. The shot tower at Jackson Ferry in Virginia, USA began construction around 1800 in a rural area. It was built of stone with walls almost a metre (2.5 feet) thick, as it was not practical to use brick in that region for such a large structure. The 23 metre (75 feet) tower was built at the edge of a cliff and utilized a subterranean shaft of the same length to double the overall distance the lead would fall.
There was a famous Shot Tower on the South Bank in London. It was constructed in 1826, and was in use until 1949, when it was demolished to make way for the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Our own local shot tower in Crane Park, built by a Mr Jacobs of Hanworth in 1826, stands in the middle of what was once a gunpowder mill. At only 83 feet tall (25 metres) it is a tiny thing when compared with other towers and only capable of making small bore shot. It was reopened on 2004 after being fully restored and now serves as a visitors centre for people visiting Crane Park.
THE SHOT TOWER IN LITERATURE
The death of Old Hank Bunker
“I’ve always reckoned that looking at the new moon over your left shoulder is one of the carelessest and foolishest things a body can do. Old Hank Bunker done it once, and bragged about it; and in less than two years he got drunk and fell off of the shot-tower, and spread himself out so that he was just a kind of a layer, as you may say; and they slid him edgeways between two barn doors for a coffin, and buried him so, so they say, but I didn’t see it. Pap told me. But anyway it all come of looking at the moon that way, like a fool.”
THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by MARK TWAIN — Chapter 10
— from Martyn Day