The Origins of Dum Dum Bullets – 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.

End Notes…

1.- The Swiss led the way here with experimentation by Professor Friedrich Wilhelm Hebler and Army officer Eduard Rubin.  2.- The Portuguese adopted a different 8mm cartridge a year earlier, but few took notice as they did not adopt a repeating rifle along with it. The French 8mm cartridge attracted additional attention as it was also the first military cartridge to use the new “smokeless” powder.  3.- The designation of the British .577/.450 cartridge is confusing for many as the actual caliber of the rifle’s bore is .450″. The other refers to the parent cartridge case, the previously standard .577, which was constricted at the mouth, or “necked down” to accommodate the smaller caliber projectile.  4.- This practice is commonly known as “paper-patching.”  5.- An alloy of nickel and copper. Eduard Rubin is credited with being the first to use this material for a bullet jacket. At the time, jacketed bullets were also known as “compound bullets.”  6.- At the time, the description would have been “fanatical savages.”  7.- A town in northern India (now Pakistan) located near the border with Afghanistan  8.- The fellow reportedly even made a full recovery from his multiple wounds.  9.- A town located north-east of Calcutta.10.- The author has seen the name listed both as Bertie Clay and Bertie-Clay. It is not known which is correct.11.- Another town in India (now Pakistan) bordering the Khyber Pass.12.- This caused some confusion during the Boer War when the Boer recovered boxes from Mark II .303 ammunition produced at Dum Dum. Allegations were subsequently made that this was proof that the British were using expanding bullets.13.- A town in Sudan neighboring Khartoum. Reportedly, the battle actually took place in the village of Kerreri.14.- If not noticed and removed, the stripped jacket could obstruct the bore, and once a new cartridge was fired, the rifle could be damaged or even outright destroyed.15.- To prevent the core/jacket separation seen in the Mark IV, the Mark V’s lead core was alloyed with an increased amount of antimony to make the core harder. This had the unintended result of reducing the expansive effect of the projectile.16.- The projectiles were designed by a Major Desaleux, an Artillery officer in the French Army. Five variations were tested, labeled A-E. The fourth was officially adopted in 1898, and entered service a few years later as the “Balle D.” However, Desaleux based his work on earlier experimentation with pointed designs by Hebler and Rubin with small arms projectiles, and Whitworth and De Bange with artillery projectiles. While the French were the first major power to adopt the design by several years, sharply pointed bullets are better known by the German designation “spitzer.”

17.- It is now well known that sharply pointed bullets are prone to yaw after impacting live tissue. This is due to the distribution of weight towards the rear of the projectile. While the rifling of a barrel can keep such a projectile stable point first in flight through the air, it cannot in the denser medium of flesh. Thus, the projectile will yaw and then stabilize itself in a base forward orientation.18.- Currently known as Somalia.19.- The Mark VII projectile has a particular reputation for early yaw in tissue. The rearward balance of the projectile was exaggerated by the use of an aluminum core in the nose of the projectile, while lead was used in the rear. Some have even gone as far as to label it a “latent ‘Dum Dum.’”

by , Small Arms Historian
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Document History
Publication: 07/15/2007
Last Revised: 11/18/2008

Author’s Note
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.