Colt's combustible cartridges for revolvers


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Gatofeo
July 7, 2004, 12:11 AM
Gatofeo notes: I originally began writing this as a reply to a discussion concerning making your own combustible cartridges for a cap and ball revolver. Those posting replies soon segued into wondering when combustible cartridges were first made for revolvers.
Well, I dragged out the Gatofeo Big Book of Dubious Gun Knowledge and did a little research. This topic answers that question --- and more.
I found this information so interesting that I was reluctant to bury it in a reply, so I created a new post to share it.
Okay … mebbe you don’t find it so darned interesting … but I did.

I can find no reference to when Colt stopped making combustible cartridges. I would hazard a guess that it was in the late 1860s or early 1870s, when sales of his cap and ball revolvers drastically fell to the newfangled cartridge guns.

The definitive work, "A History of the Colt Revolver, from 1836 to 1940" by Charles Haven and Frank Belden has quite a bit to say about combustible cartridges for Colt’s cap and ball revolvers:

"The paper cartridges used with Colt revolvers were developed during the middle to late 1850s. At first made of metal foil, they were improved until they consisted of a bullet, to the base of which was attached a charge of powder contained in an envelope made either of goldbeater's skin or of paper impregnated with saltpeter so that it would be consumed by the fire of the discharge.
"Some of the English skin cartridges, and the early American foil cartridges, were contained in another wrapper of heavy paper, which was torn off to load the cartridges into the revolver.
"The latest American way of putting them up was in boxes containing the right number for one load of the cylinder of the model that the cartridges were made for.
"These boxes were a block of wood bored with holes for the cartridges, wrapped in paper and varnished to keep out moisture. A string or wire running around the outside of the block but inside the paper was pulled to tear the paper and open the box.
"Some of the cartridges were put up in cardboard boxes with all the cartridges together in one compartment, but this system was not as good as the wood block boxes because the cartridges were apt to be damaged by striking together in the box while they were being carried.
"Colt, in conjunction with Colonel Hazard, who made Hazard's Powder, made cartridges at the Colt Cartridge Works, which was a part of the Colt factory, but some distance from the other buildings for safety. They were also put up by a number of other makers, among them Eley of London, D.C. Sage of Middletown, Connecticut and Robert Chadwick of Hartford, Connecticut."

On another page (116) of this book is an illustration of Colt combustible cartridge boxes. One of the boxes is opened, showing the cartridges inside the block of wood.

This illustration notes, "... Colt appears to have commenced the manufacture of combustible envelope cartridges of metal foil circa 1856 ... Apparently the use of cartridges with cap and ball revolvers was not very widespread until after 1860."

The inside label of an original cased Colt revolver made in London is shown in this book. The interior label contains instructions for loading and cleaning the Colt revolver.
These instructions include, "DIRECTIONS FOR LOADING WITH COLT'S FOIL CARTRIDGES."

The instructions go into detail on opening the cartridge box, which I won't go into. What's interesting though, is this note:

"To ensure certainty of ignition, it is advisable to puncture the end of the Cartridge so that a small portion of gunpowder may escape into the chamber while loading the pistol."

This practice of puncturing the cartridge so a little powder trickles into the chamber is still suggested today by some who make their own cartridges for revolvers.
In my own experience, this is not necessary IF the paper is of the correct type, and the solution of saltpeter to water is fairly high. I usually dissolve 4 heaping Tablespoons of saltpeter in a quart of water. This ensures that the paper will be well-saturated with saltpeter. In shooting about 100 homemade combustible cartridges over the years, I’ve never had a dud or hangfire.

Now, remember, the above is a note about the FOIL cartridge. The foil is not nitrated so it’s more resistant to ignition than a nitrated paper cartridge. It's interesting to note that the foil cartridges were not long made; Colt changed to paper and skin cartridges and never returned to making foil cartridges.

Now, just for the heck of it, here are the prices for .36 and .44 pistol combustible cartridges, from a Colt flyer of 1867:
Colt Belt Pistol (Navy) ... packages of 1,200 .... $18 per thousand
.44 caliber (presumably the 1860 Army) ... packages of 1,200 ... $22 per thousand.

Odd. Packaged as 1,200 cartridges but the price is per thousand. So, did you calculate how much more those extra 200 cartridges cost you and add that when ordering? It’s got me stumped.

The July 1960 issue of Shooting Times magazine has a wonderful article on Colt’s foil cartridges, entitled, “Sam’s Tin Can Cartridges.”
The author, Stu Miller, notes that the foil cartridges are almost never found, such is their rarity. They remain rare today.
In this article, Miller wrote:
“There had been a number of systems tried out in the hopes of perfecting a waterproof cartridge. The most common was the skin cartridge … the powder charge was contained in an envelope made of treated animal intestine, and was tied to the base of the conical lead bullet with thread.
“Various types of lacquers and varnishes were used to waterproof the paper envelopes, but with limited success. In addition to other defects, the paper was usually rendered so brittle that it was hard to handle without breaking.
“The Army was having its troubles with the moist climate of Florida. Indian trouble there in the 1830s and 1840s finally culminated in the Seminole War. (This) led the Army to scout about for a waterproof cartridge.
“Sam Colt turned his attention to this problem, out of patriotism and the chance to make some good money in the process,” Miller wrote. “After trials and experiments, Sam decided that the best answer would be a metallic cartridge.
“(Colt) had three major problems:
First off, what sort of metal could be used? Second, how could he seal the joints of the cartridge? And third, what would happen to the “case” once it was fired? Would fragments of the material plug the hole in the nipple, or what?
“He soon settled on thin tinfoil as the proper material. Tests of American foil showed that it often possessed tiny holes admitting moisture. As a result, all the foil used was imported, mainly from Germany.
“After trying various glues, varnishes, solders and whatnot, he finally hit on ‘India rubber cement,’ very similar to the stuff used in putting patches on inner tubes. This had the added virtues of being flexible and waterproof.
“Surprisingly, the residue remaining from the fired cases proved to be no problem in the small arms cartridges. During exhaustive Army tests of the foil cartridges, 25 rounds were fired from a musket without cleaning. The breech plug of the barrel was removed and the bore was examined --- no fouling from the tin foil could be found.
“While the Army was anxious for a waterproof cartridge, it was not enthusiastic over any radical change. In April 1840, the Army finally gave Sam and his fin foil cartridges an official trial. The cartridge passed, and the Army reluctantly recommended a partial adoption of its use.

Miller wrote that though Colt was awarded a contract for some 50,000 carbine and 50,000 rifle cartridges, the deal became entangled in red tape and fell through. Colt only produced 10,000 tinfoil rifle and carbine rounds at its Paterson, N.J. factory, delivering them in June 1841.

In 1843, J. M. Porter was appointed secretary of war. Colt again brought his tinfoil ammunition project to the military and was better received. The Army issued him a large quantity of musket and rifle projectiles and gunpowder. He was to make the cartridge cases with the Army components and package them to the Army’s specifications.

“These were to be packaged like regular musket cartridges, 10 to a bundle,” Miller wrote. “On the outside of the packet was to be stamped the word TINFOIL. This marking was also repeated on the wooden ammunition case.
“Altogether, several hundred thousand rounds of musket, rifle and carbine ammunition were made for these Army contracts and other minor sales. However, there were those in the military who didn’t take too kindly to Sam, his product or his business methods, so the anticipated contracts for millions of rounds just didn’t come to pass. Sam gradually lost interest in ammunition and turned back to his guns.”

Apparently Colt lost interest in tinfoil cartridges for long arms, but he seems to have renewed his interest in tinfoil cartridges later. As noted above, in the mid 1850s, some 10 years after the military lost interest, Colt began making tinfoil cartridges for his revolvers.

According to this 1960 article, none of the larger tinfoil cartridges for muskets or rifles have survived. Nor can I find any evidence of a single specimen today, in my books or on the net.
Tinfoil PISTOL cartridges exist today but are rare.
Miller’s article shows a sealed box of Colt’s “Metallic Foil” cartridges, for the five-shot Model 1855 pocket revolver of .31 caliber. Curiosity got the best of Miller and he carefully opened the box, to discover five live cartridges, and five DUMMY cartridges made of pink paper!
That’s a puzzler, isn’t it? Miller is equally baffled and has no explanation.
Perhaps that box was made on a Monday by some bleary-eyed worker!

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mec
July 7, 2004, 12:20 AM
Boy! That was an interesting little monograph.
Thanks.

Gatofeo
July 7, 2004, 10:50 AM
Monograph!
That was no monograph, that was a Gatograph!
Sheesh .. da noyv of some people ... <grumble> ... ;)

mec
July 7, 2004, 02:10 PM
Ok or a polygraph

Shanghai McCoy
July 7, 2004, 11:03 PM
Well whatever ya want to call it it's a darned fine bit of info and history.Thanks Gatofeo,great work as always.

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