Arming the Union through Innovation, Genius, and Agency
Men, Machine, & the Carbine
Advancements in Cartidges
The American role in metallic cartridges began with Walter Hunt, the inventor of the safety pin and fountain pen, who patented his "rocket ball." The rocket ball was a conical bullet that encased its powder and blocked the bottom of the bullet with a cork or paper wad. Yet, priming was still separate and supplied through a fulminate “‘pill’ that fed into the action automatically as the cartridge was chambered."5 However his ammunition and rifle, the Volition Repeater, would never become widely popular, and nor would the guns that directly followed the Volition Repeater due to their imperfection or over-complexity.6
The predecessor to the American-made rim-fire metallic cartridge was a bullet that had a hollow base with fulminate priming in it, and it was made by Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson, and Oliver Winchester in the early 1850s.7 Americans Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson patented improvements to the Flobert1 cartridge on August 8, 1854. Their improvement "spread primer across the base of the cartridge and tallow lubricant behind the ball."8 That bullet helped to guide the course of ammunition modernization, including the move to the rim-fire metallic cartridge.
Rim-fire quickly evolved from the first metallic cartridges. The primer, usually fulminate, was located around the rim that was attached to the bottom of the cartridge. When the hammer hit the rim of the cartridge, it would spark and set off the powder charge in the cartridge.9 Those cartridges were made out of copper or brass and formed a gas seal for the ignition chamber after it expanded during the ignition explosion.10 After the led bullet was fired, the cartridges then would contract as they cooled down after the explosion, allowing for the marksman to easily extract the cartridges.9 That method proved to be very effective for breechloaders.
Benjamin Tyler Henry, who worked for Smith & Wesson before his work with the New Haven Arms Company where he invented his repeating rifle, was a pioneer that led the way in the development of the metallic self-contained cartridge.11 The Henry cartridge was a .44 caliber rim-fire with 26 grains of powder, and included a 216-grain bullet.12 He patented his rifle and cartridge on October 16, 1860. (The Henry Rifle, however, was never truly mass produced in large numbers during the Civil War; therefore, it was not as widely used as the Spencer.13)
Metallic cartridges were created with other advancements, not just for repeating rifles, in mind as well. Ambrose Burnside, maker of the Burnside Carbine used George P. Foster's patent, number 27,791, for his non-rim-fire metal bullet. Foster’s patented cartridge held a grease ring toward the top of the cartridge surrounding the ball. That chamber held extra powder or grease. The improvement was to seal the breech to stop it from leaking gas, and the ring would protect the gun from black powder damage. Burnside's cartridge was the first cartridge to be lubricated on the inside rather than on the outside. The cartridge was made out of copper or "tapered foil.”14 Both the Maynard and the Burnside used "semi-fixed copper ammunition to provide a successful breech seal."15b The one downside to the Burnside cartridge was that it was sometimes hard to extract.4
Whether the technology advanced to seal the breech or to have successive shots without a primer, the proper cartridge would allow the full potential of the gun, and the marksmen, to be utilized. Although handy, rim-fire metallic cartridges—the final step in ammunition evolution during the Civil War—could prove to be dangerous. If the fold at the bottom of the cartridge busted, then primer on the rim could discharge. That rim-fire problem inspired inventors to work on the center-fire cartridge during the end and after the Civil War, as seen in the model 1866 government rifle.9
a A Frenchman Gustav Flobert patented and developed his cartridge in 1846 (Bilby, Revolution in Arms 55-56). According to Joseph G. Bilby, "Flobert ammunition used a bigger percussion cap as both detonating device and aided by a bit of black powder, propulsive charge for a small bullet.17
b According to Burnside Biographer William Marvel, "A separate primer ignited the charge through a hole in the base of the cartridge."16
1 Thomas B. Rentschler. Cosmopolitan and Gwyn & Campbell Carbines in the Civil War: A Definitive Illustrated History of Two Rare and Unusual Civil War Cavalry Carbines and Their Use in the Field (Lincoln: Andrew Mowbray Publishers, 2000), 73.
2 Joseph G. Bilby, A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles (Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2006), 57.
3 Winston O. Smith, The Sharps Rifle: Its History, Development and Operation (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1943), 52.
4 Col. Berkeley R. Lewis, Notes on Cavalry Weapons of the American Civil War, 1861 – 1865 (Washington, D.C.: The American Ordnance Association, 1961), 20
5 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 54
6 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 54-55
7 Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley, 13, 145; Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar, Engines of Change: the American Industrial Revolution, 1790 – 1860 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986), 28.
8 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 56
9 Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley, 29
10 Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley, 29; Charles R. Norton, compiler, American Inventions and Improvement in Breech-Loading Small Arms, Heavy Ordnance, machine guns, magazine arms, fixed ammunition, pistols, projectiles, explosives, and other munitions of war, including a chapter on sporting arms (Springfield, Massachusetts: Chapin & Gould, 1880), 296.
11 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 60.
12 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 61.
13 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 67.
14 Norm Flayderman, Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms … and their values, 5th ed (Northbrook: DBI Books, Inc., 1990), 491.
15 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 53.
16 William Marvell, Burnside (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 11.
17 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 55.
There were many types of cartridges used during the Civil War, featuring different material from linen to metal. Cartridges, in general, made loading breechloaders easier, and metallic cartridges made breechloading practical.
In the beginning of the war, paper or linen cartridges were popular. These cartridges were used in carbines, such as the Sharps and the Gwyn & Campbell. Despite their wide use, linen and paper cartridges were "almost obsolete from their inception," according to Historian Thomas B. Rentschler.1 Linen and paper cartridges were not durable, and the cartridges easily became wet and then unusable. Likewise, after a long journey powder would have likely leaked out of the paper cartridges,2 proving the cartridges not useful. Paper and linen cartridges could also risk the marksmen safety when loading. Past cartridge debris could have caused the cartridge being loaded to detonate before the breech was closed.1
Inventors experimented with different types of coverings for their cartridges. The Sharps would later adopt "goldbeater's skin," the same covering used by cartridges in Colt percussion revolvers. That material would ignite even if the cartridge was not cut and powder was not exposed, unlike the paper or linen cartridges.3 The goldbeater's skin made up for the varying size of cartridges or the cartridge being placed to far into the barrel, diminishing misfires. Another covering used for cartridges was rubber, as used for the Smith carbine's cartridges. The rubber encasing worked successfully, but could be difficult to extract due to the heated rubber sticking to the chamber (Colonel Berkely R. Lewis, "Notes on Cavalry Weapons of the American Civil War 1861 - 1865," 20). Linen, paper, goldbeater's skin, and rubber covers could not be used in truly repeating rifles, such as the Henry or the Spencer, because they need a separate priming mechanism between each shot. These problems would be solved through the metallic cartridge.
ARTIFACT: NATIONAL FIREARMS MUSEUM | PHOTO: ALLISON AND BRITTANY VENTURELLA
Sharps Metallic Cartridge, rimfire