Silver Bullets: Myth, Reality, and Practicality

Some time ago I began doing background research for a future youtube video on silver bullets (I swear I’ll get around to it eventually – early 2017 hopefully). More than anything, I was curious about where the myth of silver bullets being werewolf killers originated, so I started digging around the internet looking for origin stories. Apparently, this all dates back to 18th century Southern France to the small rural region of Gévaudan, which was suffering from a wave of anthropophagous animal attacks so frequent and severe that they were unusual even for France at the time.


Side note:

Anthropophagous animals (those who prey on humans, either at all or preferentially as in Gévaudan), are not as unusual as modern North American statistics would have us believe. During the 18th century, tens of thousands of people were killed by anthropophagous wolves in France alone, with similar trends in India right up until the beginning of the 20th century with tigers, panthers, and other animals.

End side note.


Historical Background

18th century artist’s interpretation of the Beast of Gevaudan. [Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain]
To make a very long story short, the Beast of Gévaudan killed so many people that the King of France intervened, offering a significant reward for killing whatever animal was responsible. Several “beasts” were killed, which were all very large wolves, but the one historically credited as being the actual Beast was shot and killed by a hunter named Jean Chastel. His story was later embellished with the detail of blessed silver bullets, which built upon the local’s fears of werewolves or unnatural “demon” wolves to spawn modern werewolf legend.

Silver bullets, as ridiculous as they sound, are actually not incredibly far-fetched. Silver has long been known to possess “purifying” properties (which are now known to be anti-microbial), and is considered a noble metal in alchemy. It doesn’t take a huge logical leap to see how this may have translated into believing it was capable of slaying demonic beasts.

One must also consider the types of firearms being used in 18th century France to hunt the Beast of Gévaudan and similar anthropophagous predators. The killings in Gévaudan began in the Spring or Summer (accounts vary) of 1763, which sits squarely in the era of lead balls and muskets (specifically the Charleville Musket, which fired .69 caliber lead ball ammunition using black powder).

Charleville Musket 1866. [Source: Wikimedia Commons IAW Creative Commons 2.0 License; Original Source]
As anyone familiar with period long arms can confirm, these guns were loud, smoky, and not particularly accurate at range. It’s not hard to believe that hunters and soldiers, brought in by the monarchy to stop the killings and prevent a peasant rebellion, may have claimed the Beast was “impervious” to normal bullets, either to save face after repeated failures or because they were missing the Beast’s vitals. Sprinkle in a mass of illiterate peasants (not to be derogatory; that’s literally what they were), superstition, and a need to strengthen faith in a failing monarchy (this was all between 1763-1767 – the French Revolution was only some 20 years later in 1790), and you have a prime canvas begging for a writer to embellish the Beast of Gévaudan’s tale with some holy silver bullets.


Silver’s Suitability

Silver, having a slightly higher density, similar hardness, and being just about as malleable as copper, would make a fine bullet material if the projectile were constructed properly on a lathe or modern CNC machine (especially if it were designed as Lehigh Defense’s or Barnes’ expanding rounds are). In fact, it might even marginally surpass copper in performance due to silver’s superior shear modulus, which would allow it to perform well as an expanding bullet with less material at reduced velocities.

Despite being completely adequate for bullets in modern firearms, silver as a musket ball being driven by black powder would have been decidedly inferior to lead. Muzzle velocities were low, clocking in somewhere around 1,000 fps, which meant that the density (and therefore mass) of the .69 cal lead ball was vital to terminal performance.

Masses of a 0.69 cal musket ball composed of different materials.

A solid copper or silver bullet would have done nothing but waste money and decrease the likelihood of a kill, neither of which would sit well with a local hunter of common birth such as Jean Chastel. One would also wonder where such a man would find the 18th century French equivalent of an acetylene torch needed to create such bullets in a region as poor and remote as Gévaudan, but that’s a question for the historians.


The Mythbusters Problem

Silver is quite a capable lead substitute, despite Mythbusters claiming otherwise (twice!). Their testing methodology had a whole host of problems, but these are the principal issues which plagued them and other past attempts at creating Ag ammo:

They cast their bullets…

Silver is notoriously hard to cast because it’s very thermally conductive and has a very high melting point. This leads to imperfections in the final casting if not done very precisely with purpose-built equipment at super high temperatures. Mythbusters did not do this, and in fact lamented on camera how difficult casting was.

using lead bullet molds

If you ever look at copper bullets side-by-side with their lead/copper jacket (or even just lead) counterparts, you’ll notice that the copper bullet is substantially longer. Due to its reduced density, copper bullets have lower sectional densities than their lead counterparts, and the bullet must be longer both to properly stabilize at the same twist rate and to be correctly weighted for caliber. One cannot simply pour a less-dense material into a mold designed for lead and expect good results.

Top: Barnes TTX 55 gr SCHP loaded round; Bottom: American Eagle XM193 55 gr FMJ loaded round.
While the Barnes TTX bullet may look shorter as a loaded round, pulling the bullets reveals it’s substantially longer.

Rather importantly, bullets stabilize based on their sectional density and length. Despite common wisdom in barrel twist dictating bullets be selected by weight, that’s only valid because the vast majority of bullets are of similar enough construction that comparing length and sectional density is unnecessary. In FMJ and all similar projectiles, heavier = longer in a close enough fashion to use weights for twist rate suitability.

They didn’t even do a modicum of research

Their ultimate conclusion was that silver, being less dense, was inherently “less accurate” than lead, which is ridiculous given the rampant success of all-copper bullets on the market. Copper is even less dense than silver, and I’ve never seen anyone complain that Barnes bullets are “so inaccurate” or even inferior to traditionally-constructed projectiles. In a twist of irony, Mythbusters filmed and operated out of California, which requires that all hunting ammunition be lead-free.

In preparation for this episode, several months ago I contacted engineers at Barnes bullets, who in not so many words confirmed what I wrote above. It’s not just idle speculation.

Ironically, Patricia Briggs, a popular werewolf novelist, has described the difficulties of casting silver bullets in her blog, which is remarkably well-informed for someone obviously uninitiated in firearms.


Final Thoughts

If you really feel the need to arm yourself against large wolves, which is definitely a concern in places like Northern Idaho, I would strongly suggest a hand cannon in .454 Casull or .460 S&W Magnum range, or a nice general purpose game rifle like a Weatherby Vanguard in 7mm Rem Mag or 300 Win Mag. Something tells me your wolf problem will go away pretty quickly with a modern bullet delivering 3000 ft/lbs to its vitals.

Then again, if you feel compelled to take all necessary steps against werewolf attack, a good machinist should be able to lathe-turn some silver round stock for you.


Author’s Note: I have been reading the book The Man-Eater of Gévaudan: When the Serial Killer is an Animal by Giovanni Todaro on Kindle, which is an excellent nonfiction account of the circumstances surrounding the Beast’s killings and explanations of anthropophagous activity, both in 18th century France and other regions. Despite being only a step above a google translate job (the book was originally published in Italian), it’s been quite a good read which I highly recommend.

 

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