Stray Rounds with Jeff Edel

Regular Historic City News contributor, Jeffrey Edel who is a US Park Ranger and the Historic Weapons Supervisor at the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, and this month, he writes about the use of paper cartridges since the 1930’s.

Paper cartridges have been in use for nearly as long as hand-held firearms, with a number of sources dating their use back to the late 14th century.

Soldiers of Christian I of Saxony were said to have used them in 1586. Neapolitan soldiers were using them as well from the late 16th century on. Their use became widespread by the 17th century.

The paper used was “rag” a more resilient material made from cloth fibers rather than wood pulp.

Paper cartridges were often coated in beeswax, lard, or tallow or some combination of these, which served a number of purposes.

It provided some degree of water resistance, it lubricated the paper-wrapped bullet as it was pushed down the bore, and it melted upon firing to mix with the powder residue and make the resulting fouling easier to remove.

In the 1830s there was some “concern” when percussion arms were introduced into British service. At that time, there was a reduction in the service charge in the cartridge from 6 drams to 4.5 drams of powder.

This indicates that flintlock arms in England, up to the 1830s, were using 6 drams as the standard powder charge. 1 dram is equivalent to 27.34 grains — thus 6 drams is 164.06 grains.

With poor powder consistency, it is conceivable that even larger charges may have been used at other times and places.

164 grains of gunpowder is considerably more than what we would shoot today — even with a projectile. Most certainly, the hot load would exert more pressure than modern reproduction firearms are built to sustain. For example, the maximum load for National Park Service arms is 120 grains.

A musket, in the range of .69 or .75 caliber, might need such a large charge for several reasons, the requirement for priming of course – perhaps 20 to 30 grains, but primarily due to the loss of pressure because of the large windage of the loose fitting ball in such a large bore.

In the heat of battle, spillage would certainly also have to be compensated for.

The recoil from such a load would have been bruising.

Even taking into account that the percussion cap pretty much eliminated the problems of priming, that still leaves 123.05 grains as the main charge; a considerable amount of gun powder.

It would seem then, that range and impact on target were critical issues being dealt with in 18th and 19th century warfare.