Making and Using Combustible Paper Pistol Cartridges


I don't know a reenactor or skirmisher who doesn't own a cap and ball revolver. The purchase of a revolver seems to be a natural progression in the development of either reenactor or skirmisher. There are many replica cap and ball revolvers available, and they all seem to be available at one-time or another for about the price of a great coat. To this day, I don't know why most of us bought that first pistol before we bought our first great coat, but that observation just seems to define the popularity of old time pistols. Even when I was reenacting with an Infantry outfit, most members had some sort of cap and ball revolver. I wish I could say we all shoot our Colts, Remingtons and Rogers & Spencers as well as other Civil War ordnance.

Developing an accurate load for a cap and ball revolver is not an easy task. In .45 caliber alone, there are three different round ball sizes to chose from -- .451, .454 and .457. You wouldn't think that six thousandths of inch makes much of a difference, but it can. Then, even after you develop a good load, a practice session involves carting a lot of paraphernalia to the range to practice. Usually, pistol practice doesn't happen as often as it can or should simply because pistol practice is a lot of work loading. I have found that using the old fashioned paper cartridge can give you more practice time and improve your revolver shooting and enjoyment.

The combustible paper pistol cartridge is not new. They are listed in Army records dating back to before the Civil War. I have seen original, unopened packages of Colt paper cartridges at gun shows, in history books and even an antique store. I have found a combustible paper pistol cartridge to be easy to use and load, and using them has allowed me to practice more, which has improved my miserable pistol performance to where today I am almost mediocre!


If you are a cap and ball revolver shooter already, you will find that you have most of the equipment you need to make combustible paper cartridges. In addition to lead balls and black powder, you will need cigarette papers, scissors, white hobby glue, a loading block, a powder funnel and a cartridge former. I made my cartridge former out of a 4-inch piece of broken unbreakable ramrod, but you can use any short length of 3/8 inch wood dowel. The dowel has a dimension of .375 inches. I built up the diameter of my former until it fit into my cylinder chambers smoothly without a lot of wiggle. I used regular address labels because they were adhesive, but you can use masking tape if you don't have labels handy. If you make your former too small, you won't get a good fit when you glue the lead ball in. If you make it too big, your cartridges may tear when loading or be hard to load.

The cigarette papers need to be cut in half with the scissors. The ones I use in the brown package with white letters are 4 inches square, with a fold down one center perpendicular to the glue strip. I cut mine right down the fold, making two rectangles 2 inches by 4 inches, with a glue strip on one of the short (2 inch) ends. One pack of 32 papers makes 64 cartridge papers.


Using your cartridge former, roll one of the papers, starting with the short 2 inch end. Make sure you can see the glue strip at the 2 inch end before you start rolling, because the glue strip has to be facing you when you start rolling. Roll the paper tight on your former (see photo), and lick the glue strip and hold it down for a second until the glue sets.

Slide the paper roll up until about 1/4 inch sticks above the dowel. Place a small drop of glue on the paper roll near the seam , and spread that drop around the entire circumference with a pencil point or toothpick. Then, place your lead ball inside the paper roll. You want to seat the lead ball so that the paper just crosses the equator of the ball. This will make a leak proof seal, and when you load, you will actually shave the paper off of the ball. After you have completed about a dozen cartridges, you can mark your former where the opposite end of the paper roll should set for the correct position of ball and paper. This will help you align the roll quicker and speed up the process.

After gluing the lead ball into the paper roll, you have an empty paper cartridge. Place the cartridges in a loading block for powder charging. My loading block is a simple piece of 1 1/2 inch by 2 1/2 inch spruce stud with fifteen 9/16 inch holes drilled about 3/4 inches deep.

To charge the cartridges, I use a CVA powder flask funnel, which is perfect for the task. I place the funnel down in the cartridge, and holding the flask and cartridge together between my finger and thumb, I remove the cartridge, hold the funnel under the powder charger, and charge the cartridge. After placing the cartridge back in the loading block, I remove the funnel and repeat the process until all 15 cartridges are filled.

The cartridges have to be closed neatly for storage and use, and to accomplish this I use a little white glue on the folded end of the cartridge. I use what is called an "accordion fold" to close up my cartridges. To do this, you make two little folds on each side of the cartridge, like this -- >< -- then squeeze the end shut and fold it over. A small amount of white glue will hold the whole thing closed. I also like to place the completed cartridge in the cylinder just to "size" it. This assures me that when it comes time to load, the cartridge will fit.


Once you've made the cartridges, they are simple to use. Just don't forget we made them out of combustible paper! They load quite easily. Just insert the cartridge with a little thumb pressure until the ball sits just on top the cylinder, then rotate the cylinder around to the loading ram and apply firm pressure. Each load should sit about the same in the chamber. I use a generous amount of soft lube on top of each ball, which guarantees no chain fires. It is IMPORTANT to use your nipple pick to puncture each cartridge through the nipple before capping. I load the cylinder completely, then remove it from the revolver. After lubing the chambers, I flip the cylinder over and punch through each nipple. Pre-punching the load eliminates any possibility of a hang fire or misfire. I put the cylinder back in the gun for priming, and after capping each nipple I am all set. It has been my experience that lubing each cylinder is important, as is pre-punching the cartridge. If you do both devoutly, you will enjoy safe and quick pistol practicing.

Make sure you clean the cylinder carefully between relays of practice. I have found that two .45 caliber mops, like Kleen-Bores' Mop No. MOP-223 or MOP-224, one wet and one dry, clean the chambers out quite well. You don't want any old paper left in the chamber, and a quick visual inspection is important to verify this.

Combustible paper pistol cartridges have allowed me to practice much, much more with my Navy Arms Remington replica revolver. I have found that .451 lead balls backed up with about 30 grains of FF blackpowder produce good results, and the more I practice, the better the results are getting. Now, I actually look forward to pistol practice about twice a week! If you want to practice more with your pistol, I definitely recommend that you try using combustible paper pistol cartridges to speed loading at the range and increase your enjoyment of pistol shooting in general. These procedures can be modified for .36 caliber revolvers, and you can make blanks for reenacting by gluing cotton balls in the end or just gluing the paper shut around your cartridge former. Remember to use lube and pre-punch the blank cartridges as well.

Before closing, I want to say "Hi" to all my new found friends in Carnes' Tennessee Battery. We shared a hill top at Gettysburg, and they were great people to be with. Also, I want to thank Lars Curly of the 27th Virginia for being such a great friend to the Chesapeake Artillery. We love ya, Lars.

Get out there and do something to promote living history and preservation while we still can, and until the next time, shoot safe and have fun.

(C) 1995 Tom Kelley
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