The US 1862 Expanding Ball Cartridge

The series of trials that took place at Harper’s Ferry and Springfield Armory Arsenals in the mid 1850’s culminated in a new standard caliber of .58 and the selection of the refined Burton Expanding Ball as the projectile of choice.  Along with the projectile, a cartridge was devised for it.  This cartridge was based on other similar cartridges of the day, and served well in peace time even though it was somewhat tedious to make, with 3 different patterns to be cut out of 2 different kinds of paper.  But with the outbreak of war, the increased demand for ammunition drove demand for a simpler cartridge that was easier and faster to make.

In addition to being a simpler design, the design also sought to eliminate one of the problems with the 1855 style cartridge.  In the 1855 design, the powder was contained in an internal compartment, or “powder cylinder”, that was open on one end and sealed on the other end that butted up against the bullet.  The outer wrapper’s tail served to somewhat seal the open end of the powder cylinder.  However, if the outer wrapper was not very snuggly wrapped around the powder cylinder, then in handling the cartridge gunpowder could exit the open end of the powder cylinder and then work its way into the space between the powder cylinder and the outer wrapper, and even down into the bullet compartment itself.  During loading, any powder that had managed to work its way out of the powder chamber was lost.

The new design was included in the Third Edition of the United States Ordnance Manual in September of 1861, which was published in 1862.  The new cartridge greatly simplified the inventory and assembly requirements, in that it utilized one kind of paper, and one single pattern to be cut from it.  Two identical tubes were identically constructed, both with conical ends formed over a wooden dowel and tied shut.  The outer wrapper contained the bullet, and also the inner wrapper whose nose nestled into the cavity of the bullet.  The inner wrapper contained the powder, and its tail protruded out of the outer wrapper, and both inner and outer wrapper tails were pinched and folded together in the usual way, thus completely sealing the powder chamber. 

Top: 1862 Cartridge.  Bottom: 1855 Cartridge.  (Note the inner envelope protruding from the outer on the tail of the 1862 cartridge)

Top: 1862 Cartridge.  Bottom: 1855 Cartridge.

(Note the inner envelope protruding from the outer on the tail of the 1862 cartridge)

The new design had a couple of drawbacks compared to the original design.  Namely that the tail of the cartridge was now comprised of two thicknesses of paper, and thus slightly more difficult to tear open.  Also the lack of the stiff internal powder chamber meant that the cartridge was slightly less robust than the original design, and when the tail was torn off the resultant “mouth” from which the powder poured forth was not as cleanly severed and so sometimes the powder did not pour as easily as in the original design.  Still, the benefits of the new design outweighed the drawbacks.  It was stated that a boy could produce 800 cartridges of the new design in a 10-hour shift.

Like the original 1855 design, the 1862 design was intended to be used by removing the lubricated bullet completely from the paper envelope which contained it.  After the contents of the cartridge were removed from it, the paper cartridge body was discarded.

The 1862 pattern was adopted by most, but not all, US arsenals, and manuals on both Union and Confederate sides continued to cite the 1855 pattern for the duration of the war.  Evidence suggests that at least Confederate arsenals continued to use the 1855 pattern throughout the entire war, though there was a constant drive to move to the British Enfield style of cartridge, which they fitfully achieved in 1864.

1862 Cartridge Dimensions
Dimensions for cartridge wrapper, from US 1862 Ordnance Manual

Dimensions for cartridge wrapper, from US 1862 Ordnance Manual


The Ordnance Manual for the Use of the Officers of the United States Army (1862) Third Edition, United States Army Ordnance Dept., 1862

Authentic Civil War Paper Cartridges for the Reenactor, Brett Gibbons

Round Ball to Rimfire, Volume 1, Dean S. Thomas

Steve Sheldon has been in the N-SSA since 2012.  He has been an avid shooter all his life and got into black powder after buying a British Enfield musket for Christmas in 2011.  Doing Google searches about it after the fact led him to the N-SSA and to seek out the Deep South folks at a skirmish in Birmingham, Alabama.  He shoots with the 4th Louisiana Volunteer Infantry and lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife and two kids.  He shoots Musket, Carbine, and Revolver, and just picked up Smootbore this past year.  He hopes to be able to buy one of those fancy breech loaders one day as his arm gets tired trying to keep up with the rest of the team!