Monday, July 17, 2017

An Ounce of Lead

Pirates and lead go together in this infamous phrase. “And ounce of lead” meant a bullet, or, as it was called at the time, a shot. Whatever it was called, it was probably close to 62 caliber by modern calculations, and when it hit, it hurt.



But why were the projectiles for 18the century muskets and pistols made out of lead?

For one thing, lead is a common metal. It is one of the earliest known elements, dating back to pre-history. And it has a low melting point, making it easy to extract from ore and to work after it is extracted. Lead does not oxidize (rust) easily, so it is fairly easy to keep around.

In addition, when people began using firearms to fling small objects at each other, it was quickly discovered that lead projectiles do a lot of damage to the human body.  A lead projectile flattens as soon as it meets resistance, and it flattening, it spreads out. A 1” round shot going into the body makes a 1” hole. Coming out, it may make a 4” hole. Or it may break to pieces and spread out, doing even more damage.

Ancient Roman plumbing

Lead has many uses in the early 18th century. Dating back to early Roman times, it had been used for water pipes. That’s right, just like the ones in Flint Michigan. (As of this date, Flint still does not have drinkable water.) In fact, Roman word for lead – plumbum – is the origin of our modern word, plumbing. What happened to the people who drank water carried in these pipes?

It depended. As noted above, lead doesn’t usually react with water. But if the water is even a little acidic, it can pick up molecules of lead and carry them along. This can cause lead poisoning. Some scholars believe that lead poisoning of the general population contributed to the fall of Rome, while others are skeptical.



The problem is that lead is very easy to get and easy to work with. It can be melted over a campfire (at 621 degrees Fahrenheit) which made it easy to cast. Lead was used to make the type which was set into plates to print books, posters and newspapers. People who worked with it often dies of lead poisoning.

From Roman times onwards, folks who enjoyed drinking wine noticed that wine stored in lead containers tasted better than wine stored other ways.  This is because lead reacts with alcohol to produce lead acetate (Pb(CH3COO)2) also called sugar of lead. This substance sweetened the wine.

Unfortunately, it also poisoned the drinker, if he enjoyed enough of it. Unfortunately, no one quite understood why. The Roman Catholic Church forbid the use of wine containing sugar of lead in communion, and wine bottlers who used it were viewed with suspicion, but the use of lead to sweeten wine remained in practice until long after the age of pirates.


Lead was also used for a variety of other purposes. White lead paint was applied to the underside of ships to discourage the growth of seaweed and discourage parasites such as shipworm from damaging the wooden structure. Guess what? These things didn’t like the poisonous lead.

Sheet lead was also used as we might use plastic today. For example, when the flint of a flintlock pistol was clamped into the gun, it was often wrapped in a small piece of sheet lead, which helped the jaws of the clamp to grip if firmly. These pieces of flint were often taken out for sharpening (a sharp flint makes a more reliable spark) and were also often replaced. The men who did this work would never have thought to wear gloves. But today we know that touching lead with bare skin can cause the metal to be absorbed through the skin.

Notice the sheet lead wrapping the base of the flint


Another way that pirates encountered lead was casting shot for their pistols and muskets. Some shot was shipped – and could be stolen – as ready-made round balls. But it the size didn’t fit the available guns, or if the only lead available was solid blocks, the pirates would melt it down (something easy to do, even on a ship) and cast their own projectiles.

Equipment to cast lead is simple – an iron pot, a fire, and a mold. The most simple mold-release agent was simple carbon from a smoking candle, and the shot could be hardened by dropping the recently cast spheres into water.

Shot casting kit

How-too instructions are currently available online, if you want to turn old lead pipes into anything from bullets to collectible figurines. But beware! You’ll also be told to wear breathing protection, and long sleeves, and to never get the fumes into your eyes. In fact, it’s not even recommended that you bring any of your lead-casting paraphilia into your home after you’ve used it. Don’t even put the clothes you wear while doing it next to clothing you use for any other purpose! Today we take the dangers of lead poisoning seriously.

It’s likely that many working-class pirates suffered from some level of lead poisoning. Symptoms can vary widely from individual to individual, and can start with relatively low levels of exposure, or at higher levels.



The symptoms – among which are muscle pain, abdominal pain, problems sleeping, depression, and reduced libido, are much like the symptoms of hard work and excessive alcohol. Pirates were also known to have hallucinations and personality changes, also easily attributed to drink. Damaged gums could be blamed on scurvy. Lead poisoning might have plagued many a pirate crew, and it would be hard to tell for sure, without modern blood testing.

Did lead poisoning contribute to the downfall of the pirates? One of the hallmarks of lead poisoning is also decrease in cognitive abilities. This may explain the sometimes vast differences between the pirate deck-hand, a fellow who prided himself in speaking and living by simple truths, and the wily and devious pirate captains, who, with their elevated status probably didn’t cast round shot or paint the boat.

Is it true? I don’t know, but it’s something to think about. One more bit of trivial from the age of pirates.


1 comment:

  1. A very interesting and enjoyable entry, thank you! I didn't know just how easy casting lead is, though I knew how dangerous the stuff is.

    Typo you might want to correct - it's paraphernalia, not paraphilia. I seriously hope nobody has a paraphilia aka sexual fetish involving lead casting! 😳

    ReplyDelete