SHOOTING THE BLACK POWDER REVOLVER
c John L. Fuhring
Making and using paper cartridges
and including some suggestions and warnings
This is article 8 of 8 articles
This is a special addition to my other articles.
I would like to suggest that you read the other articles first.
Link to article 1
Introduction to the advantages of using paper cartridgesIn my article on preventing chainfires(where two or more chambers go off together), I write about the primary importance of loading cleanly so that you don't end up with grains of powder between the chamber wall and the bullet. Using paper cartridges is a very clean way of loading that is especially effective at preventing chainfiring, but that isn't the only advantage or even the major advantage of using paper cartridges. The remarkable improvement in the speed of reloading is the second great advantage of using paper cartridges. Since there is no need to eject brass, the time it takes to reload your revolver now approaches a cartridge revolver. This is especially true if the cartridge revolver does not have a swing out cylinder or another kind of multiple shell ejector system. Of course, capping each of the cones is tedious and time consuming, but overall the whole reloading sequence using paper cartridges and caps takes about the same time as reloading a fixed cylinder metal cartridge revolver such as the Colt .45 "Peacemaker."
Another advantage of using paper cartridges might seem trivial to you, but if you use preloaded and measured charges, that will completely eliminate any chance that you will overload a chamber (so that the top of a slug sticks out and prevents the cylinder from rotating). By the same token, any chance that you might underload a chamber is eliminated too.
Finally, if you preload your charges, you won't have to carry around a whole bag full of flasks, wads, nipple wrenches and all the rest of the things that we black powder shooters normally take with us to the range. All you will need to take is a box (or packs) of ammo that includes a cap with each charge. If you want to go hunting with your revolver, just think how much easier it would be to carry a couple of packs of paper cartridges in your shirt pocket.
Cartridges then and nowIt is my opinion that 99% of soldiers and civilians who carried these revolvers back in the old days used commercially made paper cartridges and never even owned a flask. Originally, commercially made cartridges were made with nitrated paper (a form of smokeless powder actually) that was entirely consumed when the charge went off. What is more, the nitrated paper would immediately start to flash when the hot gas from the exploding cap hit it and so it was not necessary to rupture the end of the cartridge to expose the powder as you were loading.
Well, times have changed and commercially made paper cartridges haven't been available for over 100 years. Today, if we want paper cartridges, we have to make them ourselves.
With regard to historical accuracy, the cigarette paper cartridges we make are not the same as the cartridges that were used in the old days. Cigarette paper is treated to burn slowly and will not flash. A cartridge made of this paper generally will not burn through to the powder when the hot gases from the cap hits it and so there will be a lot of misfires unless we rupture the end of the cartridge or first dump in the powder. More will be said about this soon.
Making standard paper revolver cartridgesThe truth is, making up cartridges is tedious and can be a bit messy. Reloading brass cartridges can be time consuming and a little difficult, but reloading brass is ever so much easier than making up paper cartridges. All the mess, time and trouble not withstanding, I'd like to suggest that you go ahead and make up a couple of dozen paper cartridges and if you like the many advantages of shooting these things, you might want to go on and experiment with improved versions. If you'd like to give these things a try, here's how I make them up:
The first thing you will need is a smooth wooden or metal rod about six inches (150 MM) long with a diameter just slightly larger in diameter than the diameter of the bullets you shoot. This will be the form on which you wrap the paper cartridges.
The other thing you will need is a pack of "roll your own" cigarette papers. Now, when I was a kid, smoking tobacco was almost universal and pipe tobacco and other loose tobaccos (like Prince Albert) were very commonly used. By today's standard, cigarettes were extremely cheap, but it was even cheaper to "roll your own" and so cigarette papers were sold everywhere and buying them was no big deal. Things are, shall we say, a little different today. Cigarette paper is still available at gas stations and a few other places, but if you buy a pack, expect the young people behind the counter to look at you in some amazement and with a lot of curiosity. Today, probably 99.95 % of all cigarette paper goes into making "joints" or "reefers" and the filling is not Prince Albert by any means. Of course, if you smoke pot for whatever reason, you are already quite familiar with buying papers and you don't need me to warn you regarding funny stares from young clerks.
So, now you have a rod of the proper length and diameter for a form and a pack of cigarette paper and for now, that's all you need plus a little spit which we all have plenty of. Take a thin paper and wrap it on the rod with your two thumbs and forefingers so that the paper is regular and tight on the rod. Where the end of the paper runs down the length of the tube, give it a good wet lick with your tongue, but don't drool all over it, just get it slightly wet. In a moment or two the spit will dry and the paper will be glued into a cylinder that can then be slid off the rod. This is a pretty quick and easy operation so you might want to make up a couple of dozen of these tubes before going on to the next step. Not all your tubes will be perfect, but nearly all of them will be quite useful.
After all the tubes are completely dry, take a bullet (conical or ball) and roll it down the tube, but leave enough tube so that you can twist the end and seal the bullet in the tube. You might want to put a little spit on this twist so it doesn't come undone later.
The next step is to fill up the back of the tube with a measured amount of powder or, better yet, put in a felt wad before putting in the powder.
Cut off most of the excess paper tube with scissors, but leave enough of the tube so that you can fold it over the powder and have a tab of paper that extends up the cartridge after you have folded it. Give that tab of paper a little lick with your tongue so that your spit will glue it to the side of the cartridge and no powder will escape. If you don't have one of those nifty capping tools, you might want to glue a cap to the cartridge so that you don't have to go fishing for one in a cap box. You can also simply twist the end shut, but sometimes the twists come undone and powder leaks out.
A standard powder & slug paper cartridge made from cigarette paper.
If you are shooting no more than 12 to 18 rounds and
marksmanship isn't important, these will allow you to reload quickly.
Shooting with standard cigarette paper cartridgesAt the range, when you go to load your revolver, you may be tempted to load the entire cartridge as one piece because that way seems fast, but I urge you not do so even if you have ruptured the rear end and exposed the powder. As mentioned, cigarette paper burns very slowly so that not much of it is consumed and most of the time we find paper residue inside a chamber after shooting. Paper left in the chamber is bad for two reasons:
First, you have to take the time to fish the paper out and unless you have forceps with you, this isn't easy.
Second, any remaining paper might be smoldering and we all know what happens when black powder touches something burning.
To avoid these problems, I suggest you use the paper tube to carefully put the powder down in the chamber without spilling any on the top of the cylinder. You can then put the crumpled paper in to act as a wad. Loading this way is a little slower, but doing so will prevent paper (sometimes smoldering paper) from remaining in the chamber after a shot. This may actually be a faster way than putting in the whole cartridge since you won't have to spend time fishing out paper from a chamber when you go to reload.
The disadvantages of using standard cigarette paper cartridgesThese cartridges will make reloading very fast and easy while you are at the range, but again I will stress the fact that modern cigarette paper does not flash like the old nitrated paper of the 1860s and if you don't rupture the end of the cartridge and pour the powder in, you will get a misfire and, as mentioned, paper will remain in the chamber. Many times you can get a chamber to fire after two or three new caps, but that destroys the whole reason for using cartridges.
I hope you realize that if you shoot these kinds of cartridges (containing only powder), your pistol will quickly foul up and your bullets will be all over the target or miss it altogether. You will not be able to shoot more than a dozen or so shots before the cylinder gets sluggish and you will have to stop and clean your revolver. This is because, as you may have noticed, the cartridges described above do not contain grease behind the bullet. If you have read my article on preventing fouling, you know how vitally important it is to have grease behind the bullet. This is the primary reason I normally don't use paper cartridges, but there are ways around this.
Improved paper cartridges and their loading
A paper, powder-only cartridge
I've had success using little paper powder cartridges that do not contain a bullet. The little cartridges are made up the same way as described earlier with a pre-measured charge. When you go to load, pull off one of the twists to expose the powder, carefully dump the contents of the powder in the chamber then stuff the paper in afterwards to act as a wad. Now, just as I describe in my article on preventing fouling, put in a smear of shooting grease from a wide mouth jar into the top of the chamber, then ram in your slug, do this for all chambers and then put on the caps.
Of course, you can do the exact same thing using those preformed Pyrodex pellets, but these little cartridges are a lot cheaper, you don't have to use expensive wads (the paper takes the place of the wads) and you can vary the charge to your own preference.
Paper cartridge with a grease "cookie"
You might try a method that other people have used very successfully: in a flat bottomed pan, melt a thin layer of shooting grease that contains a large percentage of beeswax so that it does not melt below at least 110 degrees F. After the grease cools but before it gets too hard, use a metal tube of the right diameter to punch out disks. Roll the disks in cornmeal or flour so that they are not greasy to the touch and then put one in each tube under the bullet and before putting in the powder and sealing the cartridge.
Theoretically, this should be the very best way of making up a cartridge because you get all the advantages using cartridges plus you are guaranteed an adequate amount of grease to prevent fouling. As already suggested, rupture the end of the cartridge and pour in the powder then crumple up the paper as your wad.
Paper cartridge with solidified grease on the outside
Perhaps the easiest way is to make up a batch of paper cartridges containing only a bullet and powder. Next, melt a batch of shooting grease (with a large percentage of beeswax in it), then dip just the upper 1/2 to 2/3s of the cartridge in the melted shooting grease and let it cool. If it isn't excessively hot, I don't think the melted grease will penetrate the paper to any degree, especially if you do this operation quickly. If there isn't enough grease on the outside of the paper, you can re-dip the cartridge for a thicker coating. Roll the completed cartridge in flour or fine corn meal to keep it from being greasy to the touch and sticking to other cartridges.
At the range, when you go to load, rupture the cartridge, pour in the powder followed by the paper tube with the bullet still in it and then ram the bullet into the chamber. With the grease on the paper and the paper acting as a wad, you should be able to shoot accurately all day. It should make an interesting experiment regardless of the outcome.
Plain paper cartridge using stiff grease to hold the slug
This is the method you should use if you wish to experiment with flash paper
Another easy way of making a paper cartridge is to simply stick the slug on with stiff grease. Make up a tube of paper as described earlier. Once made up, the paper part of the cartridge should be dipped in melted grease + wax, then the bullet should be "stuck" to the top of the paper cylinder while the grease is still melted (as shown above). The grease + wax should then be allowed to solidify.
Of course, there is no reason why you can't simply leave the slug off and just put a layer of grease on the top of the paper. When you go to load, rupture the cartridge end, pour in the powder, put the paper in the chamber (grease side up), then grab a loose slug and ram it in. Do this for all the revolver's chambers, cap the nipples and you are ready to shoot. If you are a slow reader like I am, it will take you just about as long to actually do this as it has taken you to have just read it.
What your load should look like in cross section
A cross section of a chamber showing a paper cartridge load with required grease.
If you wish to experiment with nitrated (flash) paper cartridges.I absolutely DO NOT recommend using potassium nitrate to "nitrate" ordinary paper. KNO3 turns paper into a "slow match" that slowly smolders rather than burns and bits of paper slowly burning at the bottom of a chamber would spell disaster if you were to dump fresh powder on top of it. Please, do not, under any circumstances, use paper "nitrated" with KNO3, but use magician's flash paper because it is specially made to burn to nothing in an instant and it is made by people who know how to make a safe product.
and an important warning!!
I do not recommend you make your own flash paper because it involves two dangerous and concentrated acids and an elaborate process of washing that must be done exactly right. If you don't know what you are doing and if you don't do the washing exactly right, you will end up with highly unstable and very dangerous nitrocellulose instead of flash paper. This stuff gets more dangerous the longer it sits around because the paper becomes more highly nitrated with time.
If you want to experiment with paper revolver cartridges, such as our ancestors used, I strongly suggest that you get some professionally made paper from a magic supply store. The fact is, ordering real flash paper is easy and cheap and requires no special handling or charges and man does it work, so there is really no excuse for trying to make your own and maybe blowing off a finger or worse. I minored in chemistry and believe me, there is no way I want to make my own flash paper, so be warned.
WARNINGIf you use flash paper, I absolutely do not recommend you put the bullet inside a tube made of this paper. The paper will end up between the bullet and the chamber wall making a chainfire almost certain.
Latest project using flash paperAs of January 2, 2017, I received a package of flash paper from a magic supply store. To my surprise, it was clear to send this paper by ordinary first class postage and the paper was suprizingly cheap even with the postage.
As of today, Feb 24 2017, after a long delay due to bad weather, out of town horse events and many other projects needing my attention, I finally rolled my first cartridge using real commercial (magician's) flash paper and I must say that I am extremely pleased with the results. The flash paper is more like "onion skin" paper than heavy writing paper, so it is ideal for rolling into cartridges. The glue stick glue I used worked pretty well, but I did have a slight problem at first getting the paper to stick to itself. I think I used too much spit and watered it down too much, but when the glue dried, the tube held together fine.
Since this was a "back yard" experiment with no opportunity to actually do any live firing, I did not make up a "proper" cartridge with a slug, but only a tube with powder in it. I simply glued one end of the tube shut by folding the tube over on itself, filled the open end with about 20 grains of black powder, folded and glued that end shut and waited a few minutes for the glue to dry so the tube wouldn't open. When the powder only cartridge was ready, I put it in one of my revolver's chambers and then tamped it down all the way in. I didn't split the cartridge open exposing the powder because I wanted to see if the hot gas from the cap would set off the powder through the paper and it did (hooray!). The charge went off instantly after the hammer hit the primer. Immediately after the charge went off, I looked around where I had fired the charge (between two trash cans for noise suppression) and I could find no trace of the flash paper. I quickly looked deep inside the chamber of the revolver and saw no trace of the paper in there either. When the charge went off, the paper, glue and powder instantly burned away. Unlike saltpeter "slow match" paper, I was pleased to see that there was nothing left smoldering inside the chamber.
This experiment seemed to confirm two things to me: 1) the primer cap will set off the powder charge through the cartridge making it unnecessary to rupture the cartridge, but I need to do more experiments to confirm that and, most importantly, 2) the cartridge, flash paper, glue and powder, is completely consumed when the charge goes off. Of course these are only very preliminary results and I will have to do many more especially with live cartridges complete with lead slugs.
As I wrote before, using these kinds of cartridges and using a revolver capping tool, I think that a person will be able to reload a revolver as quickly as someone reloading a Colt Single Action Army brass cartridge revolver since there won't be any spent brass to eject, but we'll see. If the good weather holds for a week or so and the range opens, I'll try to get out there for some live firing with flash paper cartridges and get back to you.
If my experiments support it (and I think they will), I will have to rewrite my article and not recommend cigarette paper for cartridges at all. Right now, it looks like the paper of choice is commercially made magician's flash paper, and my article will have to reflect suggestions for this kind of paper that will be different from some of the suggestions I made for cigarette paper cartridges.
Today is April 2, 2017. Last week I tried to make up some flash paper cartridges for my planned trip to the shooting range. While trying to make up several tubes, I discovered something about flash paper. All my ordinary glues would absolutely not stick to the nitrated paper. No matter what I tried, nothing would stick the edges of the paper together in anything like a efficient way. I was severely disappointed and so I simply left the revolver home and took only my flintlocks to the range. Actually, I had a wonderful time with the flintlocks and they worked superbly, but that is another story.
After I got home I tried more experiments to try to get some kind of glue to stick to the flash paper when I remembered that when I was a kid we would use a cellulose nitrate dope to glue on the paper of model airplane wings. In addition, in the early days of photography, a solution containing silver nitrate and cellulose nitrate dissolved in some liquid (called collodion) would be spread over glass plates, and then the photograph would be taken and immediately developed. The very first smokeless powder (powder B) was made from dried collodion sheets cut into small pieces. I once read that collodion was made from lightly nitrated cellulose nitrate that was dissolved in either to make collodion, so tried to dissolve some old smokeless powder (cellulose nitrate) in either. It didn't work, the powder didn't dissolve. I then tried acetone and sure enough, the powder dissolved making a dope that would stick the flash paper together. Either the article was wrong or my memory is at fault, but either doesn't work, it's acetone that dissolves cellulose nitrate. I have yet to make any more cartridges, but now I know that it can be done.
I have just heard that Duco cement is nitrate based. I don't know that for a fact since none of the stores around here carry it, but my homemade nitrated dope is so easy to make and essentially free since I have both acetone and smokeless powder. By the way, I used about a half teaspoon of powder and covered it with acetone and then let it dissolve. It doesn't take much of either product to make the dope.
I'll get back when I've made up some cartridges using these items, but right now I am greatly encouraged since flash paper cartridges may be put down the chamber quickly and without rupturing, without misfiring and without danger of smoldering residues.
Protecting your paper cartridges
All by themselves, these paper cartridges are quite fragile and you shouldn't just toss them in a bag or carry them loose in your pockets. They can be made quite rugged if put together in a six pack and then wrapped with paper or even wrapped up with aluminum foil.
When I was reenacting, many of the guys had preprinted wrappers that made their blank cartridges look exactly like original period cartridges made by Colt and Remington. Some other guys took two 3/8 inch blocks of wood about 3 inches long and 2 inches wide and clamped them together before boring out six holes, each one a little over .45 inches in diameter (.36 if shooting Navy caliber cartridges) and right between the two halves. They would split the two halves, put in their cartridges, put the two halves back together and wrap the whole thing with a labeled paper to seal in the cartridges. It was work making them, but these wooden forms really protected the cartridges. Of course, the cartridges could be placed in one of those large rectangular Altoids candy boxes or stacked in a cartridge box that had formerly contained brass cartridges.
I'm sure that you can come up with even more ways of protecting the cartridges and a way that works best for you. The whole idea is to protect the fragile paper from damage and loss of powder. If you are making greased cartridges, a wrapper or container such as this will also keep the grease from messing up other things in your kit.
A couple of important warnings if you are going to use paper cartridgesI know I've already issued this warning, but it bears repeating.
When using paper cartridges, always make sure the chamber is clear of paper before reloading. This paper might even be smouldering and you would not want to pour powder on top of that!
Be warned that there is a possibility that smoldering paper may land on the ground in front of your muzzle and if there is anything flammable down there, you could start a fire. There is a true story, told elsewhere in my articles, about how I came within seconds of completely burning down my local shooting range's building due to smoldering material from my flintlock rifle. You know, they don't call these things "FIRE arms" for nothing, so please be careful.
Finally, if you have experience using cartridges or if you decide you'd like to experiment with them, please write me at my geojohn.org E-mail address and tell me about it. I would be very grateful for any information that might improve this article and especially grateful for any information that would indicate where I might be giving out some bad advice so that I can correct it.
I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR SAFETYPLEASE NOTE, I CAN NOT CONTROL WHETHER OR NOT YOU OBSERVE GOOD SAFETY PRACTICES OR HAVE GOOD, SAFE MATERIALS AND EQUIPMENT. SINCE THIS IS A FREE WEBSITE, YOU MAY NOT ASSUME THAT ANYTHING PRESENTED HERE IS GUARANTEED TO BE SAFE AND THAT I AM IN ANY WAY LIBEL FOR YOUR ACTIONS. I ACCEPT NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANY ACCIDENTS THAT MIGHT OCCUR IF YOU MAKE UP YOUR OWN CARTRIDGES (ESPECIALLY IF MADE FROM FLASH PAPER). THIS, AS IN ALL ASPECTS OF BLACK POWDER SHOOTING, IS DONE AT YOUR OWN RISK. IT IS YOU AND ONLY YOU WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR SAFETY AND THE SUITABILITY OF THE EQUIPMENT YOU USE. IF PROPER SAFETY PRECAUTIONS ARE NOT OBSERVED, YOU MAY BE BADLY BURNED (OR WORSE), SO PLEASE BE CAREFUL!
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