The Paper Musket Cartridge,
Today when one thinks of ammunition one probably imagines modern cartridges made of brass which contain smokeless gunpowder, a bullet, and a primer. Many firearms today even have magazines that can hold 20, 30, perhaps even 100 cartridges at a time. However before the end of the American Civil War, when soldiers fought with flintlock or percussion muskets, most firearms were limited to one. Cartridges of the time were also much different from the metallic self contained cartridges of today. From the 17th century until around 1865, most cartridges were actually paper.
Before the invention of the cartridge, a soldier or hunter would typically load a musket by pouring loose powder from a flask, then loading a patch followed by the bullet, or maybe just the bullet. Using a flask was often slow and if it lacked a tap, the amount of powder poured could vary from shot to shot, effecting performance. Eventually by the late 15th century soldiers in both Europe and Asia had the idea to place pre-measured powder charges in containers, typically worn on a bandoleer, thus speeding the loading process and ensuring better consistency.
In the late 16th century soldiers in Denmark and Naples had the idea to wrap a pre-measured amount of gunpowder as well as a bullet inside a piece of paper. Doing so ensured consistency of powder and sped up the process of loading. By the 17th century the use of paper cartridges became widespread in Europe and the America’s.
To load a musket with a paper cartridge, the user would first bite off an end of the cartridge. The user would first pour a little bit of powder in the flashpan, unless the musket was a percussion lock which became common around the mid 19th century. Then the user would drop the cartridge, powder and all into the barrel. The ramrod would be used to push the entire cartridge down the barrel, thus properly seating it and ensuring there was no air gaps between the bullet, gunpowder, and chamber (which could cause an explosion).
Typically the paper was also pre-lubricated with wax, tallow, or lard to protect it from moisture, allow it to travel the down the bore easier, and lubricate or clean the muzzle. Using this method a well trained soldier could expect to fire around 3-4 shots a minute. Some of the most battle hardened soldiers could achieve even more. This was the case when in April of 1866 seven hundred soldiers of the Fennian Brotherhood invaded Canada. Composed entirely of battle hardened Irish Union Army veterans who served in the American Civil War, the Fennians were able to maintain such an intense rate of fire that initial Canadian Militia reports stated that the invaders were armed with repeating rifles.
A seat of your pants, loading on the run method called the “tap method”, made famous by the Sharpe’s Rifle’s book and TV series, could speed up the loading process further. In this method the user pours primes the pan, drops the cartridge down the muzzle, then taps the rifle butt against the ground to seat the cartridge. The tap method made the process faster since the user didn’t have to withdraw and replace the ramrod. This method was certainly not officially used in any army, and I myself am unsure how often it was used in history, if at all. One thing to note, as a flintlock smoothbore musket shooter myself, I would never recommend doing this, as an improperly seated cartridge could turn your musket into a pipe bomb. Below is the famous scene from Sharpe’s Eagle, and a vid of murphysmuskets using the same technique.
The paper musket cartridge would be most popular in the 18th up to the mid 19th century. By the mid 1800’s gun makers began designing others types of cartridges, eventually inventing the self-contained metallic cartridge, which allowed for conventional loading and practical multi-shot repeating firearms. The last conflict which saw the widespread use of paper cartridges and muzzleloading firearms was the American Civil War. By 1870 the reign of the paper cartridge ended with the production of rimfire and centerfire metallic cartridges and repeating firearms technology.
A musket cartridge wrapped from newspaper, late 18th century.