Bite the bullet

Posted by Lewis on September 05, 2005

In Reply to: Bite the bullet posted by Victoria S Dennis on August 23, 2005

: : : : : : Where does 'bite the bullet' come from?

: : : : : BITE THE BULLET -- "Brace yourself for an unpleasant experience; decide to get on with a difficult task. Although one can find other explanations, it seems most plausible that the term originated in battlefield surgery before the days of anesthesia. A surgeon about to operate on a wounded soldier would urge him to bite on a bullet of soft lead to distract him from the pain; at least it would minimize his ability to scream and thus divert the surgeon. Rudyard Kipling reflected the broader meaning in 'The Light that Failed' : "Bite on the bullet, old man, and don't let them think you're afraid.'" From The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985).

: : : : OED: to bite (on) the bullet: to behave courageously; to avoid showing fear or distress.
: : : : WOD: - bite the bullet : to enter with resignation upon a difficult or distressing course of action

: : : : I don't know how "bite the bullet" started, but sometimes it was literally necessary to bite the bullet. In the 1850s the British Army in India received a new arm, the recently invented Enfield rifle, named after the arsenal in Enfield. One of the peculiarities of that weapon was that you had to bite off the ends of lubricated cartridges. The Indians in the British Army in India, or sepoys, believed, correctly "that the grease used to lubricate the cartridges was a mixture of pigs' and cows' lard; thus, to have oral contact with it was an insult to both Muslims and Hindus. Late in April 1857, sepoy troopers at Meerut refused the cartridges; as punishment, they were given long prison terms, fettered, and put in jail," as the EB relates. The reluctance of the sepoys to "bite the bullet" resulted first in mutiny, then in a spreading rebellion among outraged Indians.

: : : : The Enfield rifle had a huge effect in the War Between the States (the American Civil War). Late in the war the Union army received a number of Enfield rifles. Normally, when the rebel army faced off against the yankees, they would let out their famous "rebel yell" and charge headlong across the space between armies, sometimes overwhelming the other side. When the yanks had Enfield rifles in numbers they could no longer be overwhelmed. This rifle was accurate at a very long distance compared to the weapons with which both sides went into the conflict, and could be reloaded very quickly. They could pick off the rebels one by one long before they got close enough to do any damage. Thus was a very bloody war made bloodier.

: : : : So good was the Enfield rifle that, with some modifications, it served the British Army in both world wars. SS

: : : Sorry, Smokey, the association of the Enfield cartridge with "bite the bullet" is pure urban legend, and it's my impression that it's quite a recent one; it's only in the last half-dozen years that I have heard it proposed in opposition to the obvious battlefield-surgery one. It can't be true because to use the Lee-Enfield cartridge you had to bite off the end of the cartridge at the opposite end to the bullet; the bullet was precisely what you did *not* bite! You can find a clear cross-section of said cartridge, with discussions of its use, at either of these two sites:
: : : kipling/topic04.html
: : : cartridge.html
: : : However, soldiers really *were* given a bullet to bite during battlefield surgery; a bullet was used because lead is just soft enough that the man wouldn't break his teeth biting it. Bullets with tooth marks have actually been found near American Revolution battlefields. (VSD)

: : Thanks, Victoria, for the information. Actually I did not proposed the Enfield rifle as a source for the phrase. (I think I said so.) Nor have I ever heard an urban legend to that effect. In fact, I've heard hardly any urban legends at all, unless I thought they were something else. I thought that what I DID hear about the Enfield rifle was interesting, and I wanted to share. (In the Sepoy Mutiny it was not the Lee-Enfield rifle, which arrived early in the next century.) I'm not trying to carp. I was really glad to get your information, not having found it for myself. SS

: Whoops, yes, of course it was the Enfield, not the Lee-Enfield. (I grew up with a passionate fan of the old Lee-Enfield, which must have made the extra syllable creep in sublinminally.) Sorry I misunderstood your post, but a lot of people are pushing a connection between "bite the bullet" and the Mutiny. VSD

My dad was a fan of the old Lee-Enfield from his days in the services.

anyhow - there is a pre-Enfield instance of biting bullets - or rather, if one were to be slightly pedantic, cartridges. in the Napoleonic era (late 18th early 19th centuries) there was a transition from musket to rifle. the musket was usually muzzle-loaded and at first, the difference between a musket and a rifle was simply the 'rifling' of the barrel - the cutting of internal grooves down the length of the barrel so that the bullet span - which made rifles much more accurate than other guns.
soldiers used powder horns to power their guns at first.
anyhow, as in improvement of efficieny, eventually, soldiers had paper cartidges which had both the powder for each shot and the bullet. not only that, but the cartridge itself was used as wadding. thus, the soldier would 'bite the bullet' end of the cartidge, pour most of the powder into the barrel (apart from some used for the firing pan) and ram down the bullet and wadding using the rod provided with the rifle. [panicking soldiers would sometimes forget to remove the rod and trying to shoot the ram-rod was not a good idea, so sometimes, for speed, the riflemen would 'ground' ram their rifles by slamming the butts down on the ground which was a quicker, but a less sure way of settling the bullet.]
I am not absolutely sure, but I do think that the paper of the cartridge probably was greased to reduce the likelihood of the powder getting wet.
if that was the case, and it is probable that it was, there could easily have been a problem about using certain types of animal fat. there is no reason why the fat of lamb could not be used in India though, should that be an issue - or even other oil, so I am not coming down either way on the 'bite the bullet' speculation.

I would add that as to 'bite the bullet' was an irreversible step - you couldn't restore a bitten cartridge once bitten.