The cartridge pictured above is a Williams cleaner. It is wrapped in green paper and tied with tan
twine at the nose. The tail is crimped and then folded. The overall
length is 2¼". The story of the Williams
Cleaner bullet is one of intriguing negotiation between its inventor, Elijah
D. Williams, and the Ordinance Department of the Federal Government.
1861, Williams applied for a patent for a newfangled bullet which he hoped would ultimately replace the elongated .58 caliber minie ball. It was lighter than the government issue
minie ball and cast without any cavity at its base. Instead, it had a flat plunger slightly
spaced from the base of the bullet which was attached by a small throat at its
center. The void was filled with
zinc. Upon discharge of the firearm, the
disc compressed against the base of the ball, forcing the zinc outward where it
scraped against the lands inside the rifle's barrel while passing down the bore. This process removed black powder fouling from
inside the barrel and alleviated the need to periodically cease firing and clean the bore.
were additional advantages asserted by Williams.
With its reduced weight, more bullets could be cast from
the same amount of raw material, and it was claimed that the Williams cleaner’s trajectory
was flatter and more accurate than the traditional minie ball. According to
Williams, the cleaner bullet was also less expensive to produce and he offered
to prove it by a sale of bullets to the Ordnance Department for 20% less than the standard minie.
applied for and was granted trials from the War Department. His applications were accompanied by a letter
from Colonel Hiram Berdan of the famed U.S. Sharpshooters who, after testing
the bullet, noted that it was "the most perfect projectile for Army use I have ever
the Spring of 1862, Williams cleaners were being purchased by the War
Department and orders were then given to the troops that their use was to be intermingled
with the standard cartridges. Although
no official document exists for the early instructions, tradition states that
the ratio was one cleaner in ten rounds fired.
In order that they be differentiated from the standard cartridge, they were
wrapped in colored papers, mostly blue or green.
As the cleaners began reaching the armies, minor improvements were made in the design of the bullet. But controversy also arose. Some well meaning officers in the War
Department conducted tests of their own with less than satisfactory findings. As a result, more official tests were
conducted with mixed results. As was
common with military affairs, controversy reigned supreme. During the process, in November 1862 the
ratio of cleaners to be fired was increased to two for every ten standard rounds, and in
August 1864 orders increased it further to six of every ten, although it is doubtful that this directive was widely practiced in the field.
January 29, 1864 E. D. Williams & Co. delivered their largest shipment of
ammunition to the Ordnance Department, made up of 21,000,000 cartridges. But the Ordnance Department was now flooded
with unused ammunition and put a temporary halt to additional orders. Then suddenly, on May 1, 1864, Elijah
Williams died and the marketing energy behind his revolutionary bullet faded
away. Supplies on hand proved sufficient
to conclude the war and the advent of rimfire cartridges brought the
interesting saga of the Williams cleaner bullet to a close.