The first version of this essay was written in 2008. Since then, it has been revised many times as I continuously broaden my knowledge of the fascinating final heyday of the black powder muzzleloading firearm. My interest in historic cartridges of the 1842-1865 era stems from being a Civil War reenactor and living historian, particularly concerned with historical accuracy. My focus in this area of study is not entirely recreational; as a U.S. Army Ordnance officer, the history of ammunition is a professional interest as well, and can teach us several valuable lessons. These cartridges, primitive by modern standards, produced the overwhelming majority of casualties in the United States' bloodiest war. They stood on the cusp of modernity and marked the zenith of development for muzzleloading firearms, the end of three hundred years of technological and industrial advancement. They were never improved upon. Their immediate successors were metallic cartridges used in breechloading rifles, which in a highly developed form still remain in use today.
For the Civil War infantryman, small arms ammunition were among the tools of his trade, absolutely essential to his job as a soldier. It is for no small reason that the United States and British governments in the 1850s and 1860s meticulously studied bullet and cartridge types to develop scientifically-advanced and highly accurate rifle-musket ammunition. There is a misconception that these cartridges were simple, because they were intended for use in what we now consider to be primitive firearms. On the contrary, small arms ammunition for the rifle-musket was made (when circumstances allowed) to exacting specifications. This ammunition had to be made with precision, measured within tolerances of a thousandth of an inch, even while constructed with paper, string, black powder, and raw lead. Ultimately, these cartridges represented the culmination of four hundred years’ development of the muzzle-loading firearm, and they remained on the technological forefront for less than two decades. In 1853 and 1855, the years that Britain and the United States respectively adopted rifles as the standard-issue infantry weapon, it represented a dramatic and unprecedented improvement in the individual capability and accuracy of the ordinary soldier. Warfare was changed permanently; no longer were ranks and files of close-order formations required for maximizing the firepower of the smoothbore musket. The individual soldier possessed a weapon that (with the proper ammunition) was accurate out to hundreds of yards, enabling the soldier to effectively engage individual targets. By 1873, merely 20 years after the adoption of the Pattern 1853 Enfield, the muzzleloading military rifle was already obsolete and being phased out of front-line service, but it had made its impact not only on military tactics, but on the course of history itself. We are still living in the world that these primitive-looking tubes of paper, powder, and lead were largely responsible for creating.
In the summer of 1858, Captain Boxer proposed reducing the diameter of the bullet from .568-inch to .550-inch. This was highly controversial, and somewhat absurdly, still remains controversial. Modern Enfield muzzleloader shooters fill internet discussion forums with arguments for or against plugs, and for or against the .550-inch bullet. From the historical evidence, and personal experience, I am wholly convinced of the superiority of the .550-inch bullet for battlefield use. Extensive tests in 1858 concluded that the .550 caliber bullet was the ballistic equivalent of the .568 caliber bullet, with a flatter trajectory. The .550-inch bullet was adopted for service in India on July 26, 1858 and, after disproving all the detractors, became the official cartridge for the entire army on February 21, 1859. The updated cartridge was lubricated with pure beeswax. The adoption of the .550-caliber bullet required adjusting the paper patterns used in making the cartridge. In 1860, Captain Hawes's marvelous book Rifle Ammunition provides the exact dimensions for the 550-caliber bullet cartridge.
From Small Arms 1856. The US-style cartridge was, essentially, a "neat and convenient" bag to hold bullet and powder together, demonstrating an entirely different philosophy of small arms ammunition than the British embraced with the Enfield cartridge.
Enfield cartridge, circa 1856, showing modified bullet with boxwood plug and the paper choked and tied with string at the base of the ball.
The original Pritchett bullet.
The United States adopted a modern rifled muzzleloader in the M1855. It was a fine rifle and the product of considerable research and experimentation. We are fortunate to have a readily available primary document, the excellent 1856 Reports of Experiments with Small Arms for the Military services, by officers of the Ordnance Department, U.S. Army, which is also commonly cited as Small Arms 1856. This condensed summary covers the experiments in different styles of rifling as well as various bullet and cartridge combinations, from the wholly conventional to the occasionally bizarre.
Potentially tens of millions of Enfield cartridges were run through the blockade and used by Confederate forces during the American Civil War. It is important to note that the majority of these were manufactured by private British companies including Eley Brothers and E.A. Ludlow. The British Government did not permit the sale of ammunition made for the British Army at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, or ammunition purchased from private makers on Government contracts (bullets for British military use were stamped with the broad arrow). It is likely that small quantities of Government ammunition that had been condemned and deemed unserviceable for British Army use was purchased by profiteers, who sold it to the Confederacy. There are period accounts documenting the Confederate use of British Government ammunition ("each cartridge having the crown of England stamped upon it") as well as private manufacture ("I picked up a rebel cartridge, and on examining the cartridges found the makers' stamp on them; it was E. & A. Ludlow, Birmingham, England.")
The British Army also instructed soldiers in the manufacture of cartridges, in an emergency situation. On more than one occasion, and perhaps most famously at the Siege of Lucknow, British soldiers made their own ammunition for the Enfield rifle. Several period sources, including the Queen's Regulations, provide templates for the cartridge paper and instructions for making cartridges. It must be noted that these patterns were not the official "government" pattern, and were simply intended for soldiers making their own ammunition in the field, where the methods, materials, and quality controls were far removed from the precision of the Royal Arsenal. A lot of confusion has resulted from these patterns and instructions for soldier-made cartridges, with a common assumption that they represented an official change to the Enfield cartridge. I made the same mistake in the 2009 version of this essay, and given the paucity of period sources, I can see why this misconception has been often repeated elsewhere.
Finally... a word on Confederate-made Enfield cartridges. This ammunition varied wildly in quality, and often used crudely cast bullets. However, more often than not, Confederate-made Enfield ammunition was generally serviceable. The Confederates recognized the superiority of the "English cartridge" and used Enfield cartridges in increasing numbers until officially adopted as the only pattern used for muzzle loading rifles in February 1864.
At more or less the same time, the British were already in the process of adopting a breechloading rifle that fired a centerfire metallic cartridge; essentially a modern breechloading gun. The era of the rifled muzzleloader was over. Yet when the P1853 entered service, it marked the first time anywhere in the world that every soldier's standard issue infantry weapon was capable of individual, aimed, rapid fire that was accurate to several hundred yards. Instead of massed volleys, individual soldiers now engaged their own individual targets. The importance of this in military history cannot be understated, and these squat little paper cartridges have left a significant mark on the history of the world.
The outbreak of the US Civil War created a sudden, immediate demand for millions of rifle cartridges. The 1856 cartridge, while ludicrously simple by British Army standards, was considered too tedious and complicated to make. The 1861 version of the U.S. Ordnance Manual reduced the 58-cal US cartridge to the very acme of simplicity. Instead of three individually sized papers, the 1861 cartridge required only one size. The inner wrapper was rolled up around a mandrel, and choked and tied; this became the powder cylinder. The bullet was placed over the tied end of the inner wrapper while still on the mandrel, and the outer wrapper was rolled, choked, and tied around the bullet. Now the cartridge was ready to be charged with powder. The lubricant was changed as well, to predominately beeswax with a small amount of tallow, to prevent the lubricant from running and melting off the bullet.
This change was never adopted officially by Confederate sources; the C.S. Ordnance Manual calls for manufacturing cartridges in the 1855 pattern, with the pasted-closed powder cylinder. Ultimately it was the Confederates, who discovered the effectiveness of the Enfield cartridge from English ammunition run through the blockade, that abandoned the "US-style" cartridge altogether, and solely adopted the Enfield cartridge for all muzzleloading rifles in February 1864.
The opinions and positions are those of the author writing in a personal capacity about a subject of professional military historical interest, and do not represent the position of the U.S. government.
The other significant modification was choking and tying the bullet end of the cartridge with string. Because of the plug, the paper could no longer be twisted into the hollow base of the bullet. Choking and tying the cartridge also prevented the bullet from being pushed through the paper when being rammed. More tests concluded that these modifications were successful. In July 1857 Captain Edward M. Boxer, Superintendent of the Royal Laboratory, made his first recommendation to improve the cartridge: his suggestion to modify the lubrication composition to five parts beeswax to one part tallow was adopted by a committee and officially implemented. Boxer is best remembered today for inventing the centerfire primer system that still bears his name.
At some point between the August 1855 changes and the near-simultaneous publication of two wonderful and definitive books, Hans Busk's Hand-Book for Hythe in 1859 and Captain Arthur Hawes's Rifle Ammunition in 1860, changes were made to the pattern of papers used to make the cartridges. The old 1853 cartridge pattern utilized a large "outer wrapper" which fully enveloped the powder cylinder; this can be seen in the illustration from the 1855 Companion several paragraphs above. The new pattern utilized a much longer wrapper for the powder cylinder, which stuck out even beyond the outer wrapper of the cartridge, and both layers of paper were twisted to close the cartridge after filled with powder. In several years of dedicated research I have never been able to determine when, exactly, the pattern was officially changed.
From Hawes Rifle Ammunition, showing the long wrapper of the powder cylinder projecting beyond the top of the outer wrapper.
Post-1860 cartridge. Note the gummed band at the top joining the outer wrapper to the powder cylinder
This early Enfield cartridge also utilized the original .568-inch "Pritchett bullet" designed by the London gunmaker R. T. Pritchett specifically for the P1853 Enfield rifle. It had a shallow base, with no plug or iron cup like the older P1851 bullet employed. The new ammunition worked well in peacetime conditions, and it was truly revolutionary. During tests at the School of Musketry at Hythe, 150 rounds were fired non-stop from the same rifle. All other rifles in service at the time would become hopelessly fouled and impossible to load after firing 40 or even fewer rounds. The ammunition was so integral to the proper function of the weapon that it was, very early on, referred to as the "Enfield-Pritchett" rifle by period sources.
By this time (circa 1857) the manufacture of the Enfield rifle cartridge had become a carefully quality-controlled science. Strict specifications were established for the quality and thickness of the paper used, and all cartridges were passed through gauges to ensure uniform size to within one-thousandth of an inch. This was an excellent cartridge, and achieved excellent results... on England's green and pleasant land. The lubricating mixture on ammunition sent to hot climates would melt, soaking into the paper and coming in direct contact with the lead bullet. Acids in the tallow caused the lead to form a hard white crust, making the bullet much harder to load. Captain Boxer and Colonel Hay debated the ideal mixture, with Boxer advocating pure beeswax and Colonel Hay in favor of a preponderance of tallow.
The first major modification to the Enfield rifle cartridge was ordered by Colonel Charles Crawford Hay, commandant of the School of Musketry, following extensive experiments in August, 1855 under simulated wartime conditions. Mr. Pritchett's plugless bullet was abandoned and, instead, a similar .568-caliber bullet with an expanding plug made out of boxwood was adopted. According to period sources, the boxwood plug solved two issues with the Pritchett bullet. First, the expansion of the Pritchett bullet was theorized to be too gradual, whereas a plugged bullet expanded instantaneously upon firing while still at the breech. Second, the plug protected the base of the soft lead bullet from being deformed, which was common with the old Pritchett bullet. Boxwood was not the first choice, and ten million iron cups (like the old P1851 rifle's Minie bullet used) were ordered at considerable expense. Tests found that the iron cups were unsuitable, often falling out of the base of the ball and becoming an erratic projectile themselves. Already bought and paid for, the cups had to be discarded; period sources record the anger of the public at such government waste.
All Enfield cartridges made by hand used three or four separate pieces of paper. Not all were made by hand; a limited number of Enfield cartridges were manufactured using a machine to form the paper cylinders (called "bags") directly from paper pulp with a vacuum mold. This technique had limited success, and period sources remark with frustration that the promising new technology was still not functioning like they had hoped as late as the mid-1860s. Most British cartridges, and all Enfield cartridges made in the Americas, were accordingly made by hand.
The new cartridges for the P1853 Enfield with Pritchett bullets were originally made in the same fashion as the older cartridges for the P1851 rifle, the immediate predecessor of the P53. These cartridges were not choked and tied with string at the base; the paper at the end of the cartridge was twisted off, and simply stuffed into the hollow base of the bullet. The bullet end of the cartridge was lubricated up to the shoulder of the bullet in a composition of one part beeswax to six parts tallow, by weight. The new rifle was thoroughly modern, but it was the ammunition that made the rifle a success as a practical general-issue military arm.
The paper sizes and dimensions, in inches, for the final pattern of Enfield cartridge utilizing the shorter outer wrapper, and a gummed band to join the outer wrapper to the powder cylinder.
Ironically, however, actual wartime service during the Crimean War revealed so many flaws in the ammunition that the brand new P1853 rifle was nearly abandoned, with critics declaring it a failure and some even calling for the re-adoption of the old Brown Bess smoothbore! The unchoked and untied cartridges seemed to have become loosened during shipment, and ammunition arrived in the Crimea "creased" and with the paper "loose" around the bullet. Reports came back to England (prompting loud public controversy) that the Enfield cartridge was difficult if not impossible to load, and that the bullets would be pushed through the paper while being rammed, removing any benefit of the lubricated paper, reducing accuracy, and increasing the rate of fouling. These problems were two-fold: first with how the cartridge was being made, and second with Mr. Pritchett's bullet itself.
The most significant difference between the pattern for the .568-inch bullet and updated pattern for the .550-inch bullet is the length of the powder cylinder. It is 1.75 inches long for the .568 pattern, but 2.05 inches long for the .550 pattern. Additionally, the new bullet was 1.09 inches long while the old .568 bullet was 1.05 inches long. This had the effect of increasing the overall length of the cartridge by a quarter inch, an inconsequential difference for British soldiers using cartridge boxes made for Enfield ammunition. However, this made the Enfield cartridge too long for the U.S. pattern cartridge box (it is impossible to secure the flap closed with Enfield rounds in the tins), to the frustration of future Confederate soldiers who would be issued British ammunition ran through the blockade.
The P1853 Enfield rifle-musket cartridge is entirely cylindrical and is distinguished from most other cartridge types by the bullet end having been lubricated on the paper exterior. This facilitated the loading of the bullet while still wrapped in the lubricated paper, and meant that the bullet itself had to be undersized more so than usual to fit the bore of the musket. Several improvements were made to the bullet and cartridge over its service life.
Image and text from A Companion to the New Rifle Musket, 1855. Note the instruction to "twist the remainder of the envelope into the hollow of the bullet" without choking or tying it. Changes to the cartridge came quickly; shortly after these instructions were published in 1855, the bullet and method of making cartridges would be substantially modified.
The 1856 cartridge, with it's Burton bullet, utilized three separate pieces of paper in its construction; the large outer wrapper and cylinder wrapper made from a thin paper, and the cylinder case made from stiffer paper (known as "Rocket Paper"). The exact properties of the paper for the outer wrapper were not essential; Small Arms 1856 merely directs that it "should not be made of too strong paper" and recommends paper known as "No. 3" previously used for making blank cartridges for the older M1842 musket. The only component of the cartridge that required any precision measurement was the bullet itself, which was produced by machinery to nominally about .575-inches. This gave very little windage, even in a clean rifle barrel. In spite of the bullets being immersed in an anti-fouling agent of one part beeswax to three parts tallow, ramming became difficult as the barrel fouled following multiple shots. The powder cylinder was formed by rolling on a mandrel, and then using paste to glue the bottom of the cylinder so that it would not leak powder or come in contact with the greasy lubricated bullet. To load this cartridge, the soldier would tear the cartridge, pour the powder, and then hold the cartridge by the bullet and strike the powder cylinder portion squarely over the muzzle, breaking it away. This exposed the base of the bullet, which could be squeezed into the muzzle for ramming.
New for December 2016: I have recently completed a more comprehensive history of specifically the ammunition developed for the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle which is available entirely for free in PDF format here:
Enfield-style bullets, loaded with paper around the bullet, were among those tested. The paper patch, and the reversing of the cartridge for loading, were considered "important defects" and the Ordnance Department ultimately adopted a greatly modified version of the Minie bullet. The bullet selected was designed by James H. Burton, who rarely receives the credit for such a successful and widely-used bullet but, perhaps, may be fortunate not to have his name forever associated with the most lethal projectile ever utilized in an American war, which cannot be said for Claude-Étienne Minié.
The penultimate Enfield rifle cartridge pattern, from Hans Busk's Hand-Book for Hythe. This pattern is for the .568-caliber bullet.
U.S. 58-cal Rifle Cartridges ("Minie" Cartridges)
Both the 1859 Hand-Book and the 1860 Rifle Ammunition mention three cuts made in the outside wrapper (seen clearly in the pattern above) which were made to facilitate the separation of the bullet from the paper as it left the muzzle. These cuts elegantly solved the problem of paper clinging to the bullet as it flew downrange, and caused the paper to fall away from the bullet in a fashion similar to a sabot. Following the Indian Mutiny, British Army infantry drill was changed to instruct soldiers to tear the cartridge open with the fingers, instead of "biting" the cartridge and tearing it with the teeth. To facilitate the easy tearing of the cartridge (while simultaneously holding the rifle), the outer wrapper was shortened and secured at the junction with the inner (powder cylinder) wrapper with a strip of half-inch wide "gummed paper," making it easier to tear through just the inner wrapper.
Enfield "bag cartridge"
AUTHENTIC PAPER CARTRIDGES
REENACTORS, LIVING HISTORIANS, AND BLACK POWDER SHOOTERS
AN HISTORICAL ESSAY ON THE PERIOD CONSTRUCTION
ENFIELD AND MINIE CARTRIDGES, &c.
Captain Brett Gibbons, U.S. Army Ordnance Corps, December 16, 2016
P1853 Enfield rifle cartridges
Authentic Paper Cartridges
Both images from Small Arms 1856, showing the original pattern of the 58-caliber rifle cartridge. The dimensions for "Altered musket" were for M1842 smoothbores that had been rifled.