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  • Expanding Bullets and Savage Warfare
  • Kim A. Wagner (bio)

The authors of 'Studying Mars and Clio' (History Workshop Journal 88, 2019), the preceding article, claim that my argument concerning the British use of expanding bullets during colonial campaigns against non-white enemies during the 1890s1 is unfounded and that 'in fact, Britain adopted expanding ammunition for use against all adversaries'. This claim appears to be based exclusively on evidence from the Hague Conference in 1899, where British officials did discuss the use of expanding bullets against 'civilised', meaning white, opponents. The British delegate John Ardagh, for instance, did indeed talk about bullets that:

we may desire to adopt, and not for savage warfare alone but for civilized warfare too, in which the need for infantry of a projectile which shall be capable of stopping a charge of cavalry or a bayonet charge at close quarters.

Yet this is quite evidently a hypothetical proposition about a future scenario, since the British had already in 1896 developed and adopted expanding bullets exclusively for use in 'savage warfare'. The legal discussions that emerged from the Hague Conference in 1899 showed the British to be reluctant to sign a ban on all expanding bullets and thereby legally restrict their own ability to develop and deploy such ammunition in future conflicts. While there is zero evidence that the British 'intended to use the ammunition against European adversaries', there is, however, plenty to suggest that the expanding bullet known as the Dum-Dum bullet was explicitly conceived and deployed as a projectile to be used against non-white enemies.2 The distinction made by the authors, between 'technical rather than racial or cultural justifications', is furthermore entirely spurious since the 'technical' was always imbued with cultural and racialized assumptions – as the military, medical and ballistic articles and reports cited in my article demonstrate. Some further examples might nevertheless be instructive. For example, in a letter from the Director General of Ordnance, of 2 December 1895, it is stated that:

A bullet that has greater stopping powers than the present service pattern is evidently necessary in campaigns undertaken against fanatical tribes of [End Page 281] the class met with on the North and North-West Frontiers of India … The present service bullet would probably be suitable for warfare between civilized nations, but … I do not think … that a bullet which expands or becomes distorted on impact should be used in civilized warfare, nor would it be as necessary as when dealing with savage tribes ignorant of the possible effects of bullet wounds and indifferent to pain.3

After the Dum-Dum bullet had been developed and deployed during the Tirah Campaign on the North West Frontier in 1897, Surgeon-Col. J. Stevenson of the Army Medical Service wrote a lengthy 'Statement on the General Question of the "Stopping Power" of Modern Small-Bore Bullets':

What therefore is required is a modern small-arm bullet which, on traversing soft tissues only, will produce a wound which will cause such destruction of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels, as will have the same stopping effect as if a long bone were fractured. This is quite feasible; but it can only be by selecting a bullet which, on account of an alteration at its point, will strip its envelope and undergo fragmentation of its core in the greatest possible degree … The employment of a bullet of this destructive character in European warfare might be against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Congress of St. Petersburg; but the fanatical Asiatic knows nothing of congresses, and would only laugh at the suggestion of waging war on such principles. All his efforts are directed towards causing the greatest possible injury to his enemy, and he fully expects his enemy to do likewise by him. No purely humanitarian sentiments, therefore, need interfere with the use of bullets of a destructive nature by civilised nations when at war with people of this class.4

Following the Hague Conference, the British carefully avoided using expanding bullets in South Africa 1899–1902, where the enemy, the Boers, were white, and subsequently the Dum-Dum bullet (Mark III), and the later improved versions of expanding bullets...


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pp. 281-287
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