I recently purchased the 3 inch Read shell (see below) from Nick Harris of Falmouth. Nick is one of the most honest and reliable dealers I have known in 40 years or more in the business. He gets most items directly from the diggers as he did this shell dug on the Coffee Hill battlefield. Fought on October 14, 1863, between Jeb Stuart's Horse Artillery and the rearguard of Gen. Warren's 2nd Corps, it was a small part of the larger Bristoe Campaign and ended as a draw. I'm not buying every Read I lay eyes on, but what jumped out on this one was the pronounced leather washer under the flange of its copper fuze plug. Previous research suggested December 1863 marked the beginning of the addition of the leather washers. The only documentation I have found are the two documents pictured below. Both directed at the CS Navy who I assumed was following the lead of the Army. Now, thanks to this shell which was almost certainly made and fuzed in September 1863, I have moved the starting date back several months.
Thanks to the thousands of Virginia Reads that have been excavated, they are regularly seen for sale at shows and on web sites. There are three dating features you should consider upon initial contact.
1) Wood fuze plug or copper? If it had a wooden plug, it was cast in late 1862. By December 1862, all 3 inch Reads should have had copper plugs until production of that pattern ceased around March 1864.
2) Flame groove in the sabot? Late 1862 or the start of 1863. Introduction and widescale distribution of McEvoy's Fuze Igniter made the grooves unnecessary.
3) Leather washer under fuze head. Earliest known use September 1863. (This probably applies to the big shells as well.) I have photographed hundreds and examined many more from Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and never seen a washer under a fuze head. When you see a washer, you know its a late-war shell. Often, it has decayed leaving a narrow gap. Almost always seen on Reads (and 10 pdr. Parrotts) dug at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor.