Rebel Ammunition Woes, Research Compendium & First Report on New Spencer

by Joseph G. Bilby

A few months ago, thanks to some primary source information and questions forwarded by reader Dan Bailey, I wrote about the use of rifle musket “patent cartridges” in the Civil War. This month, we return for the promised second installment of the“Bailey files” discussion, concerning Confederate efforts to manufacture British style Enfield cartridges. Dan’s initial question was whether or not there was some connection between the term “patent cartridges” and the Enfield cartridge. There wasn’t, but his query led to a topic of interest in its own right.

A review of the Museum of the Confederacy’s Captain John M. Payne papers, recently printed in David Noe, Larry W. Yantz & James B. Whisker’s Firearms From Europe, (Rochester, NY, 1999) reveals Confederate importation of large amounts of imported British ammunition. For example, 610 cases of Enfield cartridges arrived at Wilmington, North Carolina aboard the blockade-runner S. S. Lynx on June 27, 1864.

Confederate arsenals manufactured millions of Federal style paper cartridges, but were apparently unable to satisfactorily reproduce the British style Enfield cartridge, with its smooth sided paper patch lubricated bullet. In March 1863, the Army of Tennessee’s ordnance officer, Lieutenant Colonel H. Oladowski, complained to Colonel Johnston, of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ staff that “the [British type] ammunition supplied for the Enfield rifles was found in a few instances rather too large.” According to Oladowski, “when guns become fouled, after 15 or 20 rounds, it is difficult to lodge the bullet home.” In dramatic contrast, a British test of Enfield ammunition resulted in one gun firing 16,000 rounds without cleaning.

Colonel William Preston initiated an investigation in response to Oladowski’s complaint and subsequently reported to President Davis that “Complaint was made of certain cartridges for Enfield rifles” as being too large, and fouling the guns.” Preston was initially advised that the oversized ammunition was manufactured at the Atlanta arsenal, but a Major Wright of that post passed the buck for the bad cartridge production to Selma Arsenal.

Atlanta ammunition had its own loading problems, however, as it was “not well greased.” According to Preston, Major Wright attributed that problem to “the absorption of the grease by the paper.” Wright additionally reported that Captain Finnie of the Augusta Arsenal recommended that ammunition production be confined to the grooved US style version of the Minie ball. Remarkably, Finnie also reported that “deficiency of bees-wax in the lubricator is also a great disadvantage.” Since beeswax was accounted a vital element in bullet lubricant, one wonders what was going on in the Confederate ordnance department.

Problems persisted. As late as October 1863, Captain Charles Semple, ordnance officer of General Breckinridge’s Division, reported that fouling problems with Confederate made ammunition put a number of rifle muskets out of action during the course of a battle. Semple requested that a continued effort be made to produce quality English style ammunition, since troops “issued the English cartridge,” had no such problems. Apparently this skill was never mastered, as British ammunition was still being imported into Wilmington until Union forces closed that port in early 1865.

Progressive Federal reenactors looking for accurate information regarding the perfection of their image, as well as historians who concentrate on the history of small units and soldier life will be very interested in the new Columbia Rifles Research Compendium.

The first edition of the compendium, produced through the efforts of the Columbia Rifles, a progressive Federal reenactment unit, is now available. Chapters like John E. Tobey’s “Hats and Union troops in the Eastern Theater” and Ed Quigley’s “The Issue Fatigue Blouse” are examples of the book’s comprehensive uniform section. Equipment is covered in a series of essays including “The US Bayonet” by Jason E. Twiss and, of particular interest for the readers of this column, Jeff Henion’s “Cartridges for the .58 Springfield Rifle Musket.” Other chapters like “Playing Paddy Right: Some Basics of an Irish American First Person Impression” by noted Irish in the Civil War scholar Kevin O’Beirne and John Tobey’s “Life on the Farm,” relate 19th Century social history to the story of the Civil War soldier.

The Columbia Rifles Research Compendium is $26, including mailing costs within the US, of which $5 is donated to battlefield preservation. All in all, this is a must have book for both the reenactor and historian of soldier life. To purchase the Compendium, send a check or money order for $26 to Andy Metheny, 367 Burroughs Road, Boxborough, Massachusetts 01719 (978) 263-1753 (e-mail:

I have just received a report on the new Armi-Sport Spencer from faithful correspondent Steve Platteter, out in the wilds of Wisconsin. Steve managed to get hold of one of the new Model 1865 carbines in .45 Schofield caliber imported by Taylor & Co. According to Steve, who hopes to use the gun with ball ammo in Cowboy Action shoots and with blanks in Civil War reenactments, the gun is “very bullet shape sensitive.”

Steve and his shooting buddy, Brian Pittman “tested three different shapes of bullets, and flat round nose seems to work the best.” It is very important that the nose of any bullet, no matter its ogive shape, should be flat for use in a Spencer. Pointed or even round nosed slugs risk a recoil induced magazine detonation which, in the Spencer, with its buttstock magazine alongside the shooter’s head is far more dangerous than a similar situation in the Henry, with its magazine forward of the receiver. This point was even stressed by Oliver Winchester in a postwar letter to the Ordnance Department promoting his Model 1866 improvement on the Henry.

Steve also made up some blanks using .44 Magnum cartridge cases and these worked well. There will be more on this ongoing story in future columns. Until then, keep your powder dry and God Bless the USA!

© 2001 by Joe Bilby

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