Help me find evidence concerning the deadliness of splinters
January 17, 2007 11:54 PM   Subscribe

I just watched the Mythbusters pirate special, and I'm looking for historical evidence to argue with the cannonball/splinter conclusion. (don't click through if you don't want spoilers)

The myth in question concerns the deadliness of splinters thrown out by a shot penetrating the ship's hull; after testing with air cannons and a replica six-pounder, they weren't able to produce significant splinter-related injuries to the pig carcasses in use as human analogues.

Much as I'd love to argue with the methodology, it was probably the best that could have been done; finding a heavier ship's gun (say, in the 18-pound to 36-pound range seen on warships of the 18th and 19th centuries) and being able to test fire it doesn't seem likely. So I'll leave the methodology alone; instead I'm hunting for historical records which would support the threat posed by splinters and similar debris.

I've done some initial poking around in Google and found a couple promising items (for example, this description of a Revolutionary War battle lists two splinter wounds, one of which apparently proved fatal), but what I'd really like is to get my hands on some real historical accounts -- the more primary the source, the better. A really good example is this Wikipedia article, which (while being horrifically badly formatted) reproduces a British captain's official letter detailing a battle from the War of 1812, including mention of two splinter wounds. Unfortunately, if there's a web-accessible repository of these sorts of captains' reports, I haven't been able to find it.

Anyone know of such a thing, or of similar records which would contain relevant information? I know the evidence is out there, I just need to find it!
posted by ubernostrum to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If they used a 6-pounder for their tests, they didn't prove anything interesting. Naval guns in the main battery of ships of the line in the Napoleonic era were rarely smaller than 24 pounds, and often were much larger than that.

For instance, the super-frigate USS Constitution carried 32 24-pounders and 20 32-pounders in its main battery.

It's not just that the ship-based cannons fired heavier shot. They were also built heavier and had longer barrels, which meant that they could use more powder and had higher muzzle velocity.

I don't see how you can extrapolate the result from a test based on a 6 pounder up to what a 32-pounder would actually do to a wooden ship. It's like comparing the damage done by a .22 short pistol to the damage caused by the Barrett long rifle.

By the way, what kind of wood did they use for their target? Different kinds of wood splinter differently, and if they used anything except oak (or some comparable hard wood) for their test then it's another reason why their test would be meaningless.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:35 AM on January 18, 2007

Sir Walter Raleigh received a splinter wound which lamed him.

Quite a few instances here, transcribed from contemporary papers from the Crimean war.
posted by pompomtom at 1:38 AM on January 18, 2007

This page has a lot of cool information about the armament on HMS Victory.

At Trafalgar she carried 30 32-pounders, 28 24-pounders, 30 long 12-pounders and 12 short 12-pounders (plus four 12-pounder carronades).

The 32-pounders had a muzzle velocity of 1600 fps and at a range of 400 yards could penetrate 42 inches of solid oak.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:44 AM on January 18, 2007

I had quite a quick success with google messing around with search terms. There are lots of original reports of splinter casualties if you google ["splinter wound"], here and here. There are also oodles of contemporary historical reports of people wounded in such battles, so it seems very likely mythbusters got it wrong.

A good way to approach finding primary sources would this method: google permutations of the following terms [splinter wound shot cannon battle] and you will find a list of notable battles involving splinter wounds, as well as specific people who were wounded.

This method lead me to a bio of Lieutenant Richard Dale, which says he got a wood splinter caused by a shot; by searching on him I found a first hand Account by Lieutenant Richard Dale in which he says he recieved a "splinter of one of the guns".

Similarly, there are reports of Nelson being wounded by a splinter to the stomach, so it may not be too hard to find accounts of that. Here's a different first hand account found this looking for Nelson stuff.
posted by MetaMonkey at 1:50 AM on January 18, 2007

I think you read that article about Nelson wrong. Nelson was killed by a musket ball fired by a French Marine. During battles the Marines were placed in the rigging and fired their muskets down onto the decks of enemy ships, especially concentrating on the bridge in hopes of taking out officers.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:59 AM on January 18, 2007

MetaMonkey didn't say Nelson was killed by a splinter, just that he was wounded. He was wounded more than once in his career, there have been pictures painted to remember some occasions. Tenerife 1797, Nile 1798. Wikipedia also notes wounding by stones and debris thrown up by cannon shot at Corsica in 1794 which accounted for his right eye.
posted by biffa at 3:40 AM on January 18, 2007

A simple search of the Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion with the phrase "splinter wound" got several matches. Including this page with poor Wm. H. Cook and his "Splinter wound of both thighs and legs. Left hand carried away."

You could probably get some more hits using their boolean and proximity search features. I can't recomend that Cornell U. Making of America site enough.

A quick search doesn't seem to reveal an online full-text version anywhere, but if you could get a look at The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion that would probably be helpful also.
posted by marxchivist at 5:47 AM on January 18, 2007

A much more modern arguement for the lethality of wood splinters created by artillery fire is that during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, German artillery shelling American positions around Bastogne caused trees to "explode" when HE mortar rounds hit them. (HBO's Band of Brothers series went to some lengths to re-create this hazard based on accounts of Easy Company men, who were acting as technical advisors to the series.) The modern WWII era HE mortar round is probably more energetic by as much as an order of magnitude than the largest black powder naval gun of the 18th century, but the black powder guns in naval battles were often fired into an opposing vessel at nearly point blank range, as the two ships pulled into grappling range of one another.

Regardless of the Mythbusters excellent show, I doubt that the rig they used accurately recreated the fresh hell that a 32 pound Napoleon fired at point blank range could.
posted by paulsc at 6:27 AM on January 18, 2007

Best answer: I too had issues with that episode and am glad to see that my fellow pirate nerds are registering their displeasure on the internets with all due speed! Yar!

I am not sure that using a Napoleonic cannon with modern gunpowder would not recreate the same effects as using a cannon from the Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730) with period gunpowder. There's a lot more power and speed with the later cannons/powder and I wonder if that lead to cleaner, neater holes in the target and less splintering all together.

Also, I wonder if a single shot would be enough to produce the hail of splinters the show sought to disprove. It seems to me that as a ship gets pounded again and again, the structure weakens and becomes more likely to splinter.

Also also, would a single board be an adequate test for splintering? After the cannonball punched through the hull of the ship, there's still a lot more wood for it to impact and potentially splinter.

When it came to the initial question "What hurt more people, cannonballs or the splinters they made?" my initial reaction was that it was an apples-to-oranges comparison as cannonballs were not designed to take out the dudes on the other ship. That's what shot was for!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:01 AM on January 18, 2007

Also, I pulled up an interesting history of the cannon here.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:10 AM on January 18, 2007

I agree with many of the above comments. If something has been viewed many times by different people then it should be true. I don't watch MythBusters anymore because I don't like their methods. The above comments supprot that they don't try other things before they make thier conclusion. They eventually just blow something up.
posted by thetenthstory at 7:33 AM on January 18, 2007

speaking of the Constitution, this description of the battle between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812 mentions a splinter wound suffered by a Royal Navy lieutenant.
posted by the painkiller at 7:35 AM on January 18, 2007

The real problem was that it's not a pirate "myth," it's a warship "myth," and pirate ships != warships. Constitution's planks are seven inches thick, not the simple boards in the target they used.

I don't know where they'd have gotten a proper naval cannon to fire, though, and I don't want to think about what it would have cost to build a target wall to the dimensions of, say, Constitution's or Victory's hull, if it would even be possible to find beaming and planking that thick now.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:43 AM on January 18, 2007

um, yeah. i should probably have read the whole post first.
posted by the painkiller at 7:43 AM on January 18, 2007

It looks like we've reached a consensus here but I found this neat video of a cannonball shattering the side of a wooden ship and creating a hail of splinters. I haven't seen the Mythbusters episode in question, but it sounds like they were trying to do something like what is shown above. You'll find the video half way down the page I linked to.

Also, a book named For Fear of Pain: British Surgery, 1790-1850 describes an encounter between the HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake in which 14 of the 60 men wounded aboard the Shannon suffered splinter wounds.

On preview: My second link goes to google books and I'm not sure how to make it go to page I want instead of the beginning of the book. It's page 103.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 8:12 AM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I thought the myth was about which is more deadly, the cannon ball or the splinters. I thought it was assumed that some people would be hurt by the splinters. If someone could find data that showed more people died from the splinters (not just injuries) than the cannon balls then the Mythbuster's would be invalid.
posted by pibeandres at 8:30 AM on January 18, 2007

Given the hygiene of the time, I'd think even a minor splinter wound could go septic and lead to an early call with Davy & crew.
posted by Good Brain at 8:38 AM on January 18, 2007

Best answer: It's different than a "warship myth".
The thing was, we were tasked with filming a "pirate special". That meant working with the best recreations of the types of ships that pirates would commandeer and battle with. Hence the 6 pound gun. Pirates by and large preferred the smaller, more agile guns and boats, and that's what we worked with. That was what our best research came up with. And we did research it.

There is nothing on earth I'd rather see that the "fresh hell" a 32 pound gun would do on 7" thick boards, but we worked for months just finding any cannon that was a: safe to fire and b: reasonably close enough to film.

GoodBrain has an interesting point, and it's a good one, not sure how we would have tested it though (smily face emoticon here).

The best part about this thread is the research and search term hints. Thanks for that.

*full disclosure:
I'm home right now with a few stitches in my hand from a small shop accident last night. Please take that into account if my tone seems a wee bit petulant. I would have loved to replicate the footage that GalaxieFiveHundred posted, which we saw as part of our research.
posted by asavage at 9:17 AM on January 18, 2007 [6 favorites]

It's different than a "warship myth".
The thing was, we were tasked with filming a "pirate special".

I agree completely. Answering this for converted sloops or adventure galleys is a far cry from the records of ships of the line.

I only meant that what you were busting was a different thing from the wider notion that people are talking about here. That people are thinking about a different thing from the thing you were testing. Of course, it would have helped if I'd said so more clearly.

Have a nice recuperation.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:34 AM on January 18, 2007

Response by poster: Adam, thanks for the response (and my sympathies for your wound). I'm still a little bit wary of six-pounders as a typical weapon, though; plenty of pirates and privateers sailed with heavier guns, and from what I know of the history, more than a couple got their hands on carronades, which were almost explicitly designed to inflict splinter wounds (and had the advantage of being lighter than cannons which fired equivalent weight of metal, meaning a smaller vessel like a converted sloop or cutter could carry them). But as you've pointed out, it's pretty much impossible to both find and safely test fire a working example of those guns today.

robocop is bleeding also made a good point that typical cannon shot wasn't really meant to kill, either by direct impact or debris; grape would do that far more effectively (especially if you wanted to clear the enemy's deck just before boarding), while round shot was more useful for disabling the enemy's ship with strategic targeting of yards, rigging, rudders and so on.
posted by ubernostrum at 10:27 AM on January 18, 2007

On the episode they had no trouble producing a large amount of splinters that went everywhere. But none of them had enough mass and velocity to actually pierce the skin of the nearby carcasses. I think that a projectile with more mass would certainly produce more splinters but I think that's missing the point, which is making a cloud of wood particles flying through the air is meaningless if they don't have enough kinetic energy to cause death.

You can certainly find historical accounts of people dying from wounds caused by wood particles, there is no doubt about that. But you can also find plenty of historical accounts of people being killed by the impact of the projectiles themselves, or by parts of the ship collapsing on them, or by water rushing into the ship, or by the ship sinking, or shot by the invadin party's guns after becoming cornered by debris, and so on. The question is not whether it happened but by what proportion did these various types of fatailities occur. The myth was that flying wood particles alone were responsible for more fatalities than other more direct forms of injury from the cannon, and finding primary source accounts of splinter deaths does not do anything to prove or disprove that hypothesis.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:01 PM on January 18, 2007

The one time I spoke with an ancient grandfather-in-law, he talked to me about the Battle for the Forest Argonne, which he lived through during WWI. He specifically talked about the flying splinters from artillery shell hitting trees. It was bad enough that his wife said she had never heard him talk about it before, about seventy years of silence.
posted by dragonsi55 at 2:48 PM on January 19, 2007

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