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Bite the bullet

Posted by Lewis on October 16, 2003

In Reply to: Bite the bullet posted by Nina on October 15, 2003

: : : Could someone explain to me the meaning of this expression, please ?

: : Bullet: If someone is told to chew or bite on the bullet then they are advised to accept their punishment. The Bullet in this instance was a real one. It was a point of honour in some regiments that soldiers never cried out when under the discipline of the cat o'nine tails. In order to remain quiet, they literally chewed a bullet. If they did sing out, then they were termed a "nightingale".
: : An alternative explanation comes from the time of the Indian Mutiny. Cartridges at that time came in two parts, the missile part inserted into the base and held there with grease. This grease was either pork or cow fat. In order to prime the bullet the two parts had to be bitten apart and the base filled with powder before re-inserting the missile. Pigs are untouchable to Hindus and cows are holy animals, not to be desecrated. In consequence the Hindu soldiers fighting for the British were damned when they bit the bullet, whatever the fat used.

: That's interesting! I'm used to a different explanation and a different meaning. As a kid I used to listen to Words and their stories on Voice of America, and their version was roughly as follows:
: The term originated in battlefield suregery before anesthesia. A surgeon about to operate on a wounded soldier would urge him to bite on a lead bullet to make it easier for him to clench his teeth and not scream.
: Hence the meaning listed in most dictionaries: to enter with resignation upon a difficult or distressing course of action, to face a painful situation bravely and stoically.

With my knowledge of cartridge-based weaponry much enhanced by the writer Bernard Cornwell, I can confirm that the procedure for readying a long-arm was to ground the stock/butt, bite off the top of the cartridge (which contained the bullet), pour most of the powder down the barrel, spit the bullet down the barrel and (having primed the firing pan with the remaining powder) shove the paper wrapping down the barrel with the ram-rod to push it to the end. (IIRC in a hurry, to get a higher rate of fire, it was possible to get the bullet pretty much into position by thumping the butt of the musket/rifle on the ground instead of ramming. I think it was called 'shock ramming' or 'grounding', but I'm open to correction)

The cartridges would probably have been greased to protect the powder from damp, but I doubt that it was inevitable that taboo animal fat would have been used : mutton was very popular and that is fatty, so there is no reason why a banned substance should have been used.

During floggings and surgery a folded piece of leather was often used to bite into, but a bullet, being lead which is soft, would have done in the absence of a leather strop and it was common for soldiers to bite on a bullet when being subjected to something painful on a battlefield.

I think that the expression 'bite the bullet' is from that battlefield medical use, rather than from biting the cartridge.