- The user first enables the weapon's safety mechanism so that it cannot go off when loading. In the case of a flintlock, the user puts the mechanism at half cock and pushes the safety lever. In the case of a matchlock, the user makes sure the lit match is kept well away from gunpowder.
- The user places the butt of the gun on the ground, taking care that the barrel is pointed away from the user.
- The user takes their powder from their powder horn (a conical container hanging from the waist that contains gunpowder) and pours out a certain amount of gunpowder into a measuring tube or measuring flask.
- The user then closes the powder horn and returns to their waist. The user then pours the powder from the measuring tube into the top of the muzzle (or barrel). The user also taps the barrel a bit to make sure the powder has settled in the bottom of the barrel near the pan.
- The user then takes a bullet (in those days, it was a ball) and wraps it in a patch of lubricated paper or cloth to surround the bullet. Since the diameter of the bullet is usually smaller than the barrel, the patch surrounding it ensures a tighter fit.
- The user then pulls out the ramrod which is a long thin rod stored under the barrel and uses it to push the bullet all the way into the barrel, so it is sitting on top of the gunpowder. The user then returns the ramrod to its storage tube under the muzzle.
- The user now lifts the weapon off the ground and opens the cover over the pan (called the frizzen for flintlocks and pan cover for matchlocks and wheel-locks). The user then adds some priming gunpowder into the pan and closes it. In the early days of firearms, the priming gunpowder was finer than the main gunpowder in the barrel.
- The user then cocks the rifle to full cock and disables the safety mechanism. Now the weapon is ready to fire.
One solution to speed this process up (especially the sections marked in bold font above) is to provide pre-measured quantities of gunpowder and priming powder in a handy packet, so that the user doesn't have to measure them out in the field. This was what the first cartridges did and they were made of cloth or paper. Soon after, it was realized that it would be faster still, if the packet also contained the bullet inside it, so that the user wouldn't have to fumble around for a bullet in a separate container. Better still, it was realized that the material that the packet was made of could also be used as a patch or wadding, which reduced one more overall step as well, since the user didn't have to fumble around for a separate patch. By this time, paper was usually the material of choice for making the cartridges. The next step was to coat the paper on the outside with wax or tallow. This made the paper cartridge somewhat resistant to water and also had a secondary function -- on firing the weapon, the wax would melt and combine with the gunpowder residue, making it easier to clean the barrel later.
Typical paper cartridges for muzzle-loaders were made as a paper tube which was divided into two sections and then sealed off on both ends. The first section contains the bullet and the second section contains the gunpowder. Thus, for a muzzleloader with paper cartridges, the loading process was now reduced to:
- Hold the weapon horizontally and open the flash pan.
- Bite the end of the cartridge that contains gunpowder to open the packet. Then pour a little bit of powder in the pan and close the pan cover.
- Hold the weapon vertical and pour the rest of the gunpowder into the barrel.
- Now take the other end of the cartridge (the end that contains the bullet) and ram it into the the barrel using the ramrod. There is no need to wrap the bullet in a patch or wadding since the paper of the cartridge already serves this function.
- Cock the rifle and it is ready to fire.
Compared to the old loading process, the number of steps to load the weapon is reduced significantly.
For percussion lock muzzle-loading weapons, the procedure is similar:
- Hold the weapon vertically.
- Tear open the powder end of the cartridge and pour into the barrel.
- Put the other end of the cartridge (the end containing the bullet) on top of the barrel and ram it inside using the ramrod.
- Bring the weapon horizontally, put it on half cock. Reach into a separate bag that contains percussion caps and place a percussion cap on the nipple of the weapon
- Bring the weapon to full cock and it is now ready to fire.
Later on, an early breech-loading weapon invented in Germany, called the Dreyse Needle Gun took the percussion lock idea one step further and included the percussion cap into the cartridge itself. To use this, the user would simply open the breech of the weapon, drop in the cartridge and then cock the weapon. Paper cartridges were slowly phased out when breech-loading weapons became increasingly popular, and they were replaced with metallic cartridges.
Incidentally, one of the causes for the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 was due to a rumor that the tallow that the paper cartridges were coated with on the outside, was made with cow-fat and pig-fat. Since the soldiers were required to bite these cartridges to open them, as part of the loading procedure, they believed that this was a plot against their religions. To counter this rumor, some garrisons allowed the soldiers to grease their own cartridges, but it wasn't enough to prevent the mutiny from starting. After peace was restored, all units were allowed to grease their own cartridges themselves.