Ordnance Questions & Answers

Since I began this column several months ago I have been queried both in person and via correspondence on a number of Civil War arms topics. Several of these queries on the historical and modern use of Civil War guns have wider import, and I'll try to answer a few on ammunition in this month's column.
Q. How were Civil War musket cartridges constructed? How were they used?

A. Civil War cartridges for the U.S. .58 caliber Springfield rifle musket, and American made cartridges for the .577 caliber British Enfield rifle musket, contained a paper wrapped powder charge with a grooved, lubricated minie ball sitting on top of it pointing up. The whole was then wrapped in another piece of paper to make a completed cartridge. In loading, the soldier bit off the end of the cartridge, then dumped the powder charge, 60 grains of musket powder, down the muzzle of his gun, discarded the remaining paper, inserted the bullet, rammed it down the barrel and then placed a percussion cap on the gun's nipple, or "cone."

British (and some Confederate) made Enfield cartridges, although paper, were constructed differently, with an ungrooved bullet, more undersized than the Springfield style projectile, wrapped in lubricated paper and pointing downward. After biting the end off the Enfield cartridge and dumping the powder down the muzzle of his gun, the soldier reversed the cartridge and seated the bullet, still wrapped in the lubricated paper, in the muzzle, discarded the excess paper, rammed it home and capped his weapon.

Q. How do todays shooters load musket cartridges?

A. My Australian friend Dick Stein, of the Perth Muzzleloading Club and the Perth Light Infantry, rolls neat original style cartridges of both the Springfield and Enfield pattern. I am less authentic and lazier. Inexpensive plastic cartridge tubes are available from sutlers who deal with skirmishers (I get mine from the Regimental Quartermaster, P.O. Box 553, Dept CWN, Hatboro, PA, 19040; catalogue $2.) as well as large muzzleloading supply houses. Dixie Gun Works also sells cardboard tubes, sort of a cross between the paper and plastic for those who wish to straddle the authenticity fence.

I load my cartridges in the plastic tubes sold by Regimental Quartermaster and other suppliers. They may not be authentic, but they're easy. The powder charge goes into the tube followed by the minie, nose down, with grease grooves exposed. Then, holding the loaded cartridge, I dip the exposed grease grooves into hot melted lubricant. with grease grooves exposed. Then, holding the loaded cartridge, I dip the exposed grease grooves into hot melted lubricant.

To load one of these cartridges, drop a measured powder charge into the tube and insert the minie ball, base up. The ball may then be lubricated by dipping it in melted lubricant, which also helps seal the cartridge against foul weather. If you wish, spoon some melted lubricant into the hollow base of the ball. To load your musket, pull the ball, dump the powder charge down the muzzle, insert the ball and ram. By the way, insert the ball into the barrel by holding it between your thumb and forefinger, do not "thumb," or use thumb pressure to push the ball in. Should you have a premature discharge, or "cook off," you might end up minus a digit.

Q. What were original Minie balls lubricated with? How was the lubricant applied? What's the best lubricant for use today?

A. Minie balls must be lubricated to cut bore fouling from black powder residue. The grooves on the side of Springfield style balls are intended to hold lubricant. Without lubrication, bullets will quickly become hard to ram home and, before long, one will become stuck fast halfway down the barrel. Civil War Minie balls were lubricated by dipping them, fifty at a time in a tin frame, into a mixture of one part tallow and eight parts beeswax.

There is no "best" modern lubricant. Dentist Dick Stein gets good results using tallow blended with leftover dental wax from his practice. Skirmishers of my acquaintance use a variety of lubes, many of them pet concoctions which include various waxes as well as tallow and more modern lubricants. A mixture of one part beeswax to two parts Crisco® shortening is popular. I use a combination of the beeswax/alox lube sold by The Regimental Quartermaster, SPG® a lubricant designed for use in black powder cartridge rifles, and Crisco shortening. My own mixture is not strictly proportioned. In hot weather I use less Crisco and more beeswax/alox, which stiffens the lube. In cold weather I go with a little more Crisco to soften it. If you are not going to carry your ammunition in a cartridge box and shoot your musket only at a rifle range, straight Crisco is hard to beat as a lubricant. I have seen muskets fired a hundred times without cleaning when minie balls were lubed with pure Crisco. The greatest drawback to Crisco is that it melts readily in hot weather.

A recent development has been the proliferation of so called "natural" patch and bullet lubes for muzzle loaders, including Thompson/Center's "Natural Lube 1000," available at most gun stores, and "Gene's Black Powder Seasoning Gun Lube." (Gene High, 1614 Capetown Dept CWN, Grand Prairie, Texas 75050; $5 a can plus $2 shipping.) The manufacturers of these lubricants promise vast numbers of shots between cleanings as well as easy gun clean up afterwards. Users of "natural" lubes are advised to use water for cleaning their guns rather than petroleum products. Petroleum based cleaners and lubricants will remove the seasoning (just like that on your favorite old skillet) natural lube imparts to a gun barrel. After cleaning, the lube is used as a rust preventative.

I have been using the first of these new generation lubricants, Ox Yoke's Wonder Lube®, available from all muzzle loading suppliers, to lubricate the patches for my round ball rifles for years. I've fired my halfstock .45 caliber rifle with "Wonder Lube," patches all afternoon long without cleaning. I have not tried Thompson/Center's or Gene's products, but have no doubt that they, like Wonder Lube, work just as promised. Wonder Lube's only drawback is that, while not as prone to melting as Crisco, it is messy on minie balls in a cartridge box. A bit of beeswax might stiffen all these lubes up a bit while remaining "natural." It is something worth looking into.

Q: Were standard paper cartridges with lead bullets the only ones used in .58 caliber muskets?

A:I am not a cartridge collector, but a perusal of any ordnance books, reveals a myriad of different types of cartridges. Most of them were experimental of of limited issue. The most common of the different cartridges were the Williamson bullet, used to clean out and the exploding bullet. Both of these were wrapped in paper in the same pattern as the standard cartridge. Some New Jersey troops were issued combustible paper cartridges at the battle of Ganies' Mill. Supposedly these were the same type as issued to the "Coffee Mill" machine guns used at the same battle.

Next Month -- The Spencer

1991 by Joe Bilby

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