As firearms technologies improved, smoothbore muskets began to be replaced by rifled barrels for greater accuracy. The invention of expanding bullets, such as the Minie bullet, made it possible for firearms to not only shoot accurately, but also improved the gas seal without the need for thicker wadding, because the bullet would expand and produce the gas seal itself. The main problems to solve here were to reduce the amount of fouling produced by the black powder and lead from the bullet, as well as to keep the cartridges from being affected by bad weather. The solution to both these issues was to provide a coating to the paper cartridge case, in the form of a mixture of beeswax and tallow. This coating allowed the cartridge to be somewhat water resistant, as well as provided lubrication to the bullet.
The lubricant made it easier to push the bullet down the barrel of the muzzle loader and also softened the residue inside the barrel, so that most of it could be pushed out of the way easily when reloading. This helped reduce the problem of powder fouling in the barrel, though it did not solve it.
Since the bullet expanded and provided the tight seal on firing, the paper needed to be thinner than previous paper cartridges, so it could fit between the bullet and the barrel properly. However, the thin paper could cause the body of the cartridge to not be sturdy enough. To get around this problem, cartridges were often made using multiple layers of paper, some thick and others thin. The following instructions and illustrations are taken from an instruction manual dating back to 1853 for the Enfield rifle. The manual explains that soldiers might find themselves in the position of having to make their own cartridges in the field, and therefore the manual shows how this was done.
Three separate papers used to manufacture an Enfield cartridge. Public domain image.
Tools used to manufacture the Enfield cartridge. Public domain image.
The first image shows the different paper shapes used to make a single cartridge, along with their sizes. The paper shape on the right (labelled as "stiff paper") is made of a thicker paper material and forms the body of the cartridge and gives it the strength, so that the cartridge does not deform easily. The paper shape in the middle (labelled "inner envelope") is made of a thinner paper material. It wraps in a thin tube around the thicker paper and then blocks it on one end, thereby separating the powder from the bullet. The third piece of paper on the left (the "outer pattern") is also made of a thinner paper material. It wraps around the bullet and the other two tubes, thereby enclosing the bullet and powder in one packet.
To manufacture one of these cartridges, the instructions are as follows:
- Make the powder case: This is done by rolling the "stiff paper" pattern tightly around the mandrel around 2.5 times. The mandrel is laid opposite to the side AB, with the base of the mandrel head coinciding with AD. After the "stiff paper" is rolled around the mandrel, the "inner envelope" paper is placed on top of it and rolled around it. The second paper overlaps the first one, so the excess is pushed into the hollow at the base of the mandrel, making use of the point to adapt the paper to the cavity which is to receive the point of the bullet, being careful to secure the bottom of the powder case, so that no powder can escape from it.
- Attach the bullet to the powder case: Put the point of the bullet well into the cavity of the powder case. Then roll the "outer envelope" paper tightly around the bullet and powder case, with the mandrel still in it. Then twist or fold the overlapped paper as close as possible to the base of the bullet. Then place the base of the cartridge on the table and withdraw the mandrel carefully from the other end, by pressing the powder case with one hand, while pulling the mandrel with the other, the aim being to not separate the powder case from the bullet. The powder case must be kept as close to the bullet as possible, otherwise the cartridge will not be usable.
- Charge the cartridge case: Place a funnel at the mouth of the cartridge case and pour in about 2.5 drams of black powder, or a lesser quantity, according to the firearm used. Remove the funnel, being careful that none of the powder escapes between the inner and outer envelopes and then secure the charge by squeezing the tops of the two envelopes close to the top of the stiff paper of the powder case, and then giving them a slight twist with inward pressure, laying the ends on the side of the cartridge. Three slits are made in the outer envelope to facilitate its detachment when fired.
Internals of an Enfield cartridge from the 1850s. Click on the image to enlarge.
Public domain image courtesy of user Zerodamage at Wikipedia/
- Lubricate the cartridge: In this step, the base of the cartridge case is dipped up to the shoulder of the bullet, into a lubricating mixture composed of 5 parts of beeswax and 1 part of tallow.
Cartridges were then packed in bundles of ten, and each packet was labelled as shown below.
The packets were then tied together with strong twine and packed into barrels, by placing the packets around the sides of the barrel, with a cylinder of percussion caps being placed in the center, with the ratio of 75 percussion caps for every 60 cartridges in the barrel.
To load such a cartridge into a rifle, the powder end of the cartridge is opened by tearing the thin outer paper envelope and the powder is then poured into the muzzle of the rifle. Then the bullet end is inserted into the muzzle, up to the level of the thick paper tube, which is then torn off and discarded. The bullet and the remains of the thin outer envelope are then pushed into the barrel using the ramrod and the rifle is then cocked and prepared for firing.
Interestingly, the use of lubricated paper cartridges was one of the causes of the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857. The sepoy soldiers of British India were required to bite on the cartridges to open them, as part of the loading procedure. A rumor spread that the cartridges were greased with beef fat (offensive to Hindus, who are forbidden to eat beef) and pig fat (offensive to Muslims, forbidden to eat pork). There were already rumors that the British authorities were trying to destroy the religions of the Indian people and the rumors of the content of the cartridge grease convinced sepoys of the Bengal regiment that their fears were justified. This was cited as one of the causes for the mutiny to start.
In our next article, we will look at further improvements to the paper cartridge, as we enter into the era of revolvers.