Updated: Oct 1, 2021
by Jim (the gunsmith)
Long before the advent of brass cased cartridges, firearms used rolled paper cartridges for their ammunition. Many people don’t realize it, but paper cartridges were used in America as far back as the American Revolution. These first cartridges were fairly simple; they contained a round ball rolled in a certain manner that held enough gun powder to provide the main charge for the ball in addition to the priming powder for the flintlock pan.
In later years as the flintlocks gave way to percussion cap ignition, paper cartridges became a bit more advanced. Mamy paper cartridges were made up of multiple pieces and types of papers. Some of them could be quite complex. In addition to separate powder chambers and wrappings to contain the ball, some paper cartridges had a top layer rolled over the entire cartridge to provide waterproofing. The following pictorial shows how I roll my cartridges to be used in my reproduction muskets and other firearms.
I start off with some simple handmade wooden tools. These are what I use to form various pieces of each paper cartridge.
Shown here is a greased elongated ball pre greased that I cast from a bullet mold for a Burton style Minie cartridge. More on bullet casting in a later blog….
Here is the outer wrapping cut to size, along with a ball and powder to be loaded into the cartridge.
The next few photos will show you how I roll and tie the papers around a stick sized to fit the ball and hold the powder charge in a separate paper cup.
The final folding of the tail end to close the powder and prevent it from leaking….
.58 caliber musket cartridges are packed 10 each with a small roll of musket cartridges in each packet. They’re tied in waterproof paper wrappers and have a label glued on the the front of the packet for Confederate style or printed directly on the wrapper for Federal style Arsenal issued packets.
As you can see, many firearms utilized paper cartridges before brass cases became widespread. Shown here are cartridges for Rev War .75 caliber smooth bore muskets, Civil War style rifled muskets in .58 caliber, and even a tapered paper cartridge in .44 caliber for Colt’s patent revolvers.
In this photo is one of my own rolled paper cartridges for the Sharps 1869 / 1863 breech loading files and carbines.
While it’s amazing to see how firearms themselves have advanced since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, what is often overlooked is the advancement of cartridge designs to feed the various firearms being developed along with firearms technology.
Colt cartridge packets were shipped in a small wooden block with holes drilled for each individual cartridge. The block protects the flimsy paper during transportation and before use. The label is reproduced from an original and is directly printed on the wrapper. The wrapper is then waterproofed with linseed oil to repel water from the elements.