Some History of 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
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,
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
Lt. 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
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, after-action reviews of the ammunition in the
First New Jersey Brigade's companies were complimentary.
Ordnance chief Brig. Gen. 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
Johnston and Dow ammunition, according to most testimonials,
including that of reliable officers like Col. 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. Col. 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's 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
Joseph G. Bilby has been writing about the Civil War, firearms
and outdoor subjects for more than 20 years. He has authored
more than 250 arti-cles and histories of the 15th New Jersey
Infantry, New Jersey African American soldiers and the Irish
Brigade. His latest book, Civil War Firearms (Combined
Books), re-ceived the LSU Civil War Center's Award of Excellence.
He is also commander of the N-SSA's 69th New York. His email
address is JGBilby44@aol.com