Legends of the American Frontier
The American frontier was a wild place before the West was won: A reliable weapon could mean the difference between life and death. Wild animals, the elements, and hostile Native American tribes upset at the incursions into their territory were all very real dangers. But the reality of the frontier was that resources were scarce: bullets were hard to come by, and frontiersmen often didn’t have the resources to craft or maintain a traditional armory. Often, weapons were slipshod or even homemade, including knives, tomohawks, and even some muskets.
This kind of devil-may-care attitude towards armament generated many entertaining tall tales about frontiersman, largely through the spread of stories about Daniel Boone and others like him. The tales about frontiersmen’s battle apparatus could fill (and have filled) many books, with colorful characters like Nathaniel Bumppo improvising weapons and stealing the enemy’s to use against them.
The Legend of the Tooth Bullet
By far the most colorful frontier legend, though, is the concept of the tooth bullet. This entertaining idea holds that when frontiersmen and settlers ran out of traditional bullets, they would use the teeth of large animals as ammunition! This bizarre choice of weaponry may seem strange, but it becomes a little more understandable when one understands the price of bullets in pre-Old West America. The ability to hunt or bring down invaders was a highly crucial element of daily life. It stands to sense that a smart man would use every possible resource available to keep himself alive and fighting another day.
Without a doubt, many methods of warfare were practiced in the frontier that seem impractical, even brutal today. “Stonewall” Jackson’s methods of delivering smallpox-infected blankets to Indians is one of these bizarre, questionable practices. But the true nature of frontier warfare is still largely speculation: while frontiersmen were able lumberjacks, hunters and trappers for the most part, they did not keep extensive records of their choice of weaponry. The most valuable evidence of their personal belongings comes from frontier store records and ledgers.
A lack of bullets in these, of course, does not indicate whether frontier settlers and pioneers used teeth as ammo. But a close examination of the practicality of doing so can be educational as well: Let’s take a look at the basic physics of a musket for a moment. These simple devices were essentially long tubes of metal, flintlock devices that fired small spheres of lead. If the weapon was of a good make, the bore along the barrel would propel the projectile in a straight and deadly line.
All too often, frontier and pioneer muskets were of a slipshod design: They lacked a good craftsman or gunsmith to perfect them and so tended to be more of a ragtag assembly of parts.
The lack of a bore usually meant the musketball or projectile would fail to spin on exit, flying off in a random direction somewhere in front of the gun. Therefore, it was good for a hunter to be very close to his prey to ensure a hit. In this case, a tooth bullet may have worked. Sadly, the physics of a tooth or bone in a compressed gun chamber would have pulverized any tooth that wasn’t perfectly carved to fit down the barrel. This makes the use of a tooth bullet fairly unlikely, and ultimately impractical.
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- Image courtesy of Al Haines
- Image courtesy of John S. C. Abbott
- License: Royalty Free or iStock source: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18576/18576-h/18576-h.htm
- License: Royalty Free or iStock source: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/23798/23798-h/23798-h.htm
Peter Wendt is a writer and researcher with an interest in interesting dental facts. For the reader who wishes to read more about ‘oral’ history, he recommends they check out orthodontist Dr. Barbieri’s site.