Fort McCoy ArtiFACT: Lead ball munition shrapnel
Shown in this photo from Aug. 25, 2016, are some examples of lead shrapnel found in a past archaeological dig at Fort McCoy, Wis. Archaeologists with Colorado State University’s Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands were investigating a site on South Post at Fort McCoy in 2016 when they came across nearly a dozen small lead balls spread across approximately half of the 1.5-acre site area. These lead balls were almost certainly shrapnel from an artillery projectile fired sometime around World War I, as the primary impact area used at Fort McCoy prior to the installation expansion around World War II was located on South Post not far from the excavation. (Courtesy photo) (Photo Credit: Scott Sturkol) VIEW ORIGINAL

Soldiers training at Fort McCoy in 2022 have amenities and access to resources that their predecessors couldn’t have imagined possible.

They also have restrictions and responsibilities that those who came before them never had to worry about. Today, natural and cultural resource conservation is integrated into the training mission in many ways.

One of these conservation efforts is clear to anyone who has spent time on installation lands for more than 15 years but would be completely invisible to anyone else. Brass shell casings and other objects remaining after ammunition and missiles are used, collectively referred to as ammunition residue, used to be left behind after training exercises and could be found on the ground surface in many locations around the installation.

Current Army regulations require the collection and turn in of retrievable ammunition residue and some of these materials are authorized to be recycled or sold via the Qualified Recycling Program.

The Qualified Recycling Program is an initiative focused on the disposal of recyclable materials and pollution prevention, and one of the ways it manifests at Fort McCoy is in the recycling of spent brass and other authorized materials. This program both eliminates the cost for disposal of authorized items and contributes to funding which supplements many programs at Fort McCoy. It has been an important part of Fort McCoy’s solid waste and recycling program diverting 82 percent of their non-hazardous waste from the landfill in 2021.

Archaeologists working at Fort McCoy used to find shell casings and other ammunition residue both on the ground surface and below, but these days they are rarely seen above ground. Below ground, however, there are still multitudes of materials like these that help document the entirety of the time span soldiers have trained at the installation (1905-Present).

Archaeologists with Colorado State University’s Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands were investigating a site on South Post in 2016 when they came across nearly a dozen small lead balls spread across approximately half of the 1.5-acre site area. These lead balls were almost certainly shrapnel from an artillery projectile fired sometime around World War I, as the primary impact area used at Fort McCoy prior to the installation expansion around World War II was located on South Post not far from the excavation.

The lead balls are roughly the same size as a marble and would have been packed with hundreds more of the same into an artillery projectile. This projectile would also have contained a fuse timed to detonate prior to impacting on the ground so that the hundreds of lead balls would have dispersed in the widest possible range, producing an effect akin to higher gauge shotgun shells.

The word ‘shrapnel’ can be traced to Henry Shrapnel, an officer in the British Army who was instrumental in developing this type of artillery shell. Shrapnel shells were very effective against personnel in the open, but the balls could be stopped by sandbags.

Troops were also safe from the loads of shrapnel shells in trenches and bunkers, and steel helmets such as the British Brodie helmet and the German Stalhelm were effective at protecting wearers from head injuries caused by shrapnel shell loads.

True shrapnel artillery shells were considered obsolete by the start of World War II, replaced by high explosive rounds which could launch larger projectile fragments and were effective against not only personnel, but buildings and enemy artillery guns as well. Eventually the term shrapnel was applied to any metal or other fragments that were dispersed from exploding projectiles and no longer was limited to the original musket ball like projectiles.

Archaeologists at Fort McCoy have found projectiles that span nearly the entirety of human occupation of North America — from 12,000-year-old stone spear points to the metal arrows and musket balls of the 1700-1800’s, and finally Army ordinance from 1903 Springfields to modern M4 carbines.

The history of Fort McCoy’s more than 100 years of military training is well represented in the archaeological record in cartridges and other projectiles. The Army picking up their brass rather than leaving it behind is a example of good environmental stewardship which has an added financial benefit which is shared by the Fort McCoy community.

Archaeologists will recover fewer spent cartridges in the future, but they will still find ammunition residue and other materials left behind which will paint a picture of past military and recreational activities at Fort McCoy.

All archaeological work conducted at Fort McCoy was sponsored by the Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division Natural Resources Branch.

Visitors and employees are reminded they should not collect artifacts on Fort McCoy or other government lands and leave the digging to the professionals. Visitors and employees should also be aware that some objects on the ground at Fort McCoy could be unexploded ordnance which can be very dangerous. In general, the best practice is: if you did not drop it, do not pick it up.

Any individual who excavates, removes, damages, or otherwise alters or defaces any historic or prehistoric site, artifact, or object of antiquity on Fort McCoy is in violation of federal law.

The discovery of any archaeological artifact should be reported to the Natural Resources Branch.

(Article prepared by the Fort McCoy Archaeology Team.)