“Patent” Cartridges

by Joseph G. Bilby

Sometimes we come upon the most interesting historical and shooting tidbits Through sheer serendipity. Such was the case when I recently acquired some information via an email query from Mike Bailey. Mike was puzzling over an Official Records reference to the use of “patent cartridges” by the 14th South Carolina Infantry during the Seven Days’ Battles on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862. He wondered if it bore any relationship to an 1863 report concerning an attempt to manufacture British style Pritchitt bullet cartridges at the Selma, Alabama arsenal. As it turned out there was no connection, but two good stories. One follows, and I’ll save the other for another column.

In the early days of the Civil War, inventors, crank and otherwise, besieged the War Department in Washington, proposing various weapons and ammunition as sure rebellion stoppers. Among these were a number of “patent” cartridges designed to replace the standard paper cartridge used in the .58 caliber infantry rifle-musket. This ammunition was designed to accelerate the loading process by omitting the need for a soldier to tear a paper cartridge with his teeth, pour the powder down the muzzle, disengage the Minie ball from the paper and then discard the paper before ramming the ball home. A cartridge with a combustible covering for its powder charge was simply inserted in the gun’s muzzle and rammed. Some could be dropped down the muzzle without the use of a ramrod.

Included among these innovative rounds were the Bartholow “Improved Water-Proof,” Hazard Powder Company and Johnston and Dow cartridges. Large quantities of “patent” ammunition were acquired by the Federal government for field testing, and at least some of the 200,000 Bartholow cartridges purchased in late 1862 were issued to the 2nd DC and 10th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, when both regiments were stationed in Washington. The Johnston and Dow, which was issued to a number of Army of the Potomac units in the spring of 1862, seems to have been the only “patent” cartridge to be widely used in combat, however.

At the battle of Gaines' Mill, the First New Jersey Brigade used Johnston & Dow ammunition. John P. Beach of the 4th New Jersey Infantry recalled that his regiment’s fire was “rapid and incessant” because “we were armed with the new Springfield rifle with patent cartridge (no biting of cartridges).” According to one account, the Jerseyans didn’t even bother to ram their “patent inflammable cartridges.” One man recalled that “after the pieces had become warm it was only necessary to insert the cartridge, give the piece a slight shock, and it was home, thus greatly facilitating the rapidity of loading.” Lieutenant E. Burd Grubb believed the combustible ammunition, “in which the powder and ball were included together in the inflammable paper, it not being necessary to bite the cartridge, but merely to put it in the rifle and ram down,” was the same as that issued for reloading steel cases used in the “Union Volley” or “Coffee Mill,” a manually operated proto-machine gun.

Although perhaps fired in the Coffee Mill guns, some of them manned by Jerseymen from the First Brigade at Gaines Mill, the Johnston and Dow ammunition was not specifically designed for such use. The cartridges were widely issued to infantry regiments, including the 72nd New York of the Excelsior Brigade, which used them at Malvern Hill. Testimonials from officers to the effectiveness of Johnston and Dow ammunition appeared in a publication issued by the company in late 1862, indicating that it was used on the Peninsula, at Cedar Mountain and Antietam by a number of other units, including, the 10th Maine, 19th Massachusetts, 7th Michigan, 2nd, 28th, 34th, 38th, 42nd, 44th, 62nd and 100th New York Volunteer Infantry, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, 57th and 105th Pennsylvania and 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry.

Why the Johnston and Dow cartridge was not more widely adopted remains a mystery. Except for one officer dismayed by what we would call today a “cookoff,” or explosion of a cartridge being loaded, the reviews of the ammunition in the First New Jersey Brigade’s companies were complimentary. Ordnance chief Brigadier General James W. Ripley considered the ammunition “novel and expensive” and replied to petitioners at one point that he was not interested in buying more Johnston and Dow cartridges because the army had “a large supply of good small arms ammunition on hand.”

Although I believe that General Ripley often gets a bad rap on matters of innovation, in this case I fail to see his rationale for stonewalling. Johnston and Dow ammunition, according to most testimonials, including those of reliable officers like Colonel Theodore B. Gates of the 20th New York State Militia, was accurate, easy loading, clean shooting, waterproof and sturdy.

Even the Rebels were impressed by combustible rifle musket ammunition and used it when they captured it. Colonel Samuel McGowan, commanding the 14th South Carolina Infantry at Frazier’s Farm reported that “The regiment [14th] was halted at the edge of the cleared ground and volley after volley thrown into the ranks of the enemy, who returned upon us a very hot and fatal fire. In this musketry fight some of my men, having obtained patent cartridges, shot seventy times.” The South Carolinians had previously fought at Gaines’ Mill and may well have been firing Johnston and Dow ammunition captured from the First New Jersey Brigade.

For more on the Johnston and Dow, as well as other Civil War “patent” ammunition, I heartily recommend Dean S. Thomas’ book, “Round Ball to Rimfire: A History of Civil War Small Arms Ammunition.” (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1997). It is the best available source for Civil War ammunition research.

© 2001 by Joe Bilby

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