The Truth about “Dum Dums”
A learned monograph on the origins of a much misused term of today
During the late 19th Century, most of the major military forces in the world were transitioning from large caliber cartridges using heavy, soft lead projectiles at relatively low velocities. The goal was to increase cartridge velocity in order to increase the range of the projectile. However, this could not be done with a cartridge using heavy, large caliber projectiles without greatly increasing recoil. Thus, experimentation soon concentrated on cartridges using comparatively lightweight, smaller caliber projectiles1. As an added benefit, the small caliber cartridges also weighed less than their large caliber counterparts, allowing soldiers to carry more cartridges. This advantage was even more significant as the transition to smaller cartridges coincided with the transition from single-shot rifles to manually-operated repeaters, predominately bolt-actions.
In 1886, the French were the first major power to make the switch, going from an 11mm cartridge down to 8mm2. Other nations quickly took notice, and were loathe to be left behind. The British began their own research in 1887, and by 1888, they started the transition from the .577/.4503 to the .303.
However, experimentation had already shown that soft lead projectiles at the higher velocities would heavily foul the bore of the rifle barrel. This would result in decreased accuracy when the rifle was repeatedly fired without cleaning. This had already presented itself as an issue with the older low-velocity cartridges, and several countries, including the British, had resorted to wrapping the bearing surface of the projectile with a strip of paper4. This was not an entirely satisfactory solution for various reasons. Thus, designers of the higher velocity cartridges resorted to covering projectiles in a metal “jacket,” such as cupronickel5.
This development came with its own problems as the fully jacketed projectile would no longer expand upon striking a target (animal or human) like the older plain lead bullets. Combined with the reduction in caliber, the non-expanding, fully jacketed bullets were not as effective as their earlier large caliber counterparts. For the British armies deployed in the colonies, this issue was particularly problematic as they often found themselves far outnumbered by “highly motivated” indigenous tribesmen6. The latter were far less likely to give or take quarter than their “civilized” European counterparts.
In India, during the Chitral7 campaign of 1895, the .303 Lee-Metford rifle was clearly shown to be less effective than the older .577 Snider and .577/450 Martini-Henry rifles. Reports of enemy combatants receiving multiple wounds from the .303 and remaining active were commonplace. There was even one report of an individual being struck six times, who then walked roughly 14 kilometers to a British aide station for treatment8. The Indian Army, which had a fairly large amount of independence from the British Imperial Army, set to work to improve the effectiveness of the .303 cartridge.
At the Indian Army arsenal located in the town of Dum Dum9, Captain Bertie Clay10 developed a “soft-point” jacketed .303 projectile. This was created by removing 1mm of the copper-alloy jacket from the nose of the standard Mark II .303 projectile, exposing the soft lead underneath. The new soft-point was used to good effect during the Tirah11 campaign of 1897-98, and the name “Dum Dum” became slang for any expanding jacketed projectile that followed12.
However, the British Army did not adopt the Indian soft-point. In Britain, Woolwich Arsenal had been independently working on its own expanding jacketed projectile design: a “hollow-point.” The latter not only removed part of the jacket but also included an open cavity in the exposed lead nose of the projectile. The British Army adopted the Mark III hollow-point in 1897, but the improved Mark IV hollow-point soon replaced the earlier cartridge later the same year.
The first major combat use of the Mark IV was at Omdurman13 in September 1898. Only certain units had the new cartridge, with the remainder using the earlier Mark II. After hearing of the great success of the Mark IV, the troops still equipped the Mark II reportedly resorted to filing the nose of the projectile to expose the lead underneath. Due to problems with jacket/core separation (sometimes within the bore itself14), the Mark IV hollow-point was replaced by the Mark V hollow-point in 189915.
Britain’s political and military rivals quickly seized upon the adoption of expanding jacketed projectiles as a political issue, accusing the British of inhumane conduct violating international law and the customs of war. In 1898, the Surgeon General to the Wūrttemberg Army, Professor Paul von Bruns, published a paper that endeavored to show the destructive effects of the “Dum Dum.” Not possessing examples of either the Indian or British projectiles, von Bruns fashioned his own using more powerful sporting cartridges from the German firm Mauser. Following tests using cadavers, von Bruns concluded that any limb struck by a “Dum Dum” projectile would require amputation. Upon submission of von Bruns’ paper, the German Congress of Surgeons issued a resolution that expanding projectiles be excluded from “civilized warfare.” In an 1899 paper, von Bruns compared the Mark II fully jacketed projectile with the Mark IV hollow-point in tests using wood, clay, and live horses.
Professor Alexander Ogston of the Surgical Department of the University of Aberdeen was a major critic of von Bruns’ papers. Among other things, Ogston noted that no effort was made to compare the wounding effects of the “Dum Dum” small caliber projectiles with their earlier large caliber, soft lead predecessors or with the fully jacketed projectiles of other nations. Ogston quoted a contemporary report from France concerning experimental testing of their new sharply pointed, solid brass projectiles16. The author indicated that it caused wounds as severe as those attributed to the Mark IV hollow-point by von Bruns17.
As a result of the politically charged controversy, the “Dum Dum” issue was brought up during the 1899 Hague Peace Conference. There were three major Conventions passed, along with three Declarations. However, none of these were binding upon a participating country unless the item was signed by the delegate and ratified by its government. Britain signed and ratified the three Conventions and Declaration I. The British government did not ratify Declaration II, and Declaration III was neither signed nor ratified by Britain. It is the latter Declaration that was squarely aimed at the British use of “Dum Dum” projectiles. The British were joined by the US and Portugal in rejecting Declaration III. The US representative pointed out the British were singled out for criticism on the issue, while the Portuguese and Swiss use of semi-jacketed projectiles were ignored.
While the Hague Conference was underway, orders were sent to the General Officer Command in South Africa that if they needed to mobilize, only the fully-jacketed Mark II cartridges were to be issued. After the Boer War was formally declared in October 1899, another order was sent demanding that all stocks of hollow-point ammunition in South Africa be shipped back to Britain. Even if the British had accepted Declaration III, it would not have been necessary to abide by it during the Boer War, as neither the Orange Free State nor the Transvaal were signatories of the document. The decision to withdraw the hollow-point ammunition was strictly an attempt to quell criticism from the Dutch, French, Germans, and Irish Nationalists.
However, in 1903, the Dervish overwhelmed over 200 Colonial troops in a battle near Gumburra in Somaliland18. The few survivors placed part of the blame on the ineffectiveness of the Mark II cartridge. As a result, the Mark V hollow-point was quickly reissued to British troops in Somaliland. The decision to reissue hollow-points was again criticized abroad and at home. The British adopted a new fully-jacketed projectile, the Mark VI, in January 1904. The copper-alloy jacket was thinned in hopes that the bullet might expand in spite of lacking exposed lead at the nose; however, this did not work any better than the earlier Mark II. By 1907, trials of sharply pointed, fully-jacketed .303 projectiles were well on their way and improvements in gunpowder allowed even higher velocities. The result of these experiments resulted in the Mark VII cartridge, adopted in 191019. The Mark VII remained in British service through the two World Wars and afterwards until the .303 was replaced by the 7.62mm NATO cartridge.
by Daniel E. Watters, Small Arms Historian
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Section of a commercial soft point projectile
Dum Dum Headstamp
Comparison of Hotchkiss and Hebler Rifles, with Arguments Favoring the Reduction of Caliber Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute (1888)
Rifles, Military Appletons’ Annual Cyclopædia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1889 (1890)
Inhuman Weapons of War New England Medical Gazette (1898)
British Bullets and the Peace Conference Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1899)
The Rifle The Quarterly Review (1899)
The Surgical Aspects of the Modern Small-Bore Projectile Annals of Surgery (1900)
Expanding Bullets The Peace Conference at The Hague: And Its Bearings on International Law and Policy (1900)
Last Revised: 11/18/2008
This article was originally published at The Gun Zone — The Gunperson’s Authoritative Internet Information Resource. My friend and mentor Dean Speir has graciously hosted my articles at TGZ for nearly 16 years. These articles would likely have never appeared online without his constant encouragement and assistance.
With TGZ’s closure in early 2017, Dean encouraged me to find a new home for my scholarship so it wouldn’t be lost in the dustbin of the Internet. Loose Rounds has welcomed me with open arms. In the future, I intend to expand my legacy TGZ articles and add new contributions here at Loose Rounds.