I'm interested in the history of firearms, especially black powder ones. Sadly I'm not good at looking for sources.

What I wanted to find out is the details of paper cartridges for Colt and Remington revolvers. Remington 1858 is said to have used "from 25 to 30 grains and a conical ball". The thing is, what I can tell from using relatively exact replica, chamber can hold around 40 grains and conical, and 45 grains with round ball. At the same time, it was well known (as far as I could find out, sorry for the lack of source) that you don't want gunpowder just next to the lead, because heat will make lead deposit in the muzzle faster, lowering amount of shoots between cleanings. Also, the closer ball is to the rim of the cylinder, the smoothest transition to the muzzle, good for accuracy and gun longevity. Thus, it's hard for me to believe people back then didn't use anything.

All modern paper cartridge making manuals tells us to use cornstarch, cornmeal, semolina, sometimes felt circles.

But what was really used?

  • 3
    I can't find period-specific source material that hasn't been adapted to modern replica building. But my impression says no, there was not any insulating material between powder and ball in these revolver-specific paper cartridges, and certainly nothing like wax discs, lube slugs, filler material, etc. Later systems like Martini Henry added such material to reduce black powder fouling, but it appears from a survey of my library that such things were not much seen in the Civil War generation.
    – Smith
    Oct 20, 2022 at 17:13

2 Answers 2



The projectile sat on top of the gunpowder and was glued to the paper, as demonstrated by Guns of the West.

Because the paper cylinders were typically rolled using a fixed size dowel, if you were using a reduced charge you could use a filler such as flour or any inert powder, but that was only to ensure there was no gap between the ball and the powder. Such a gap might make the already fragile paper cartridge even more fragile.

The question supposes two problems which might be solved by adding a wad to paper cartridges.

  1. Reducing heat on the projectile to reduce lead from being deposited inside the barrel (reduce "lead fouling").
  2. Seat the projectile firmly against the barrel to improve accuracy (reduce "cylinder gap").

I don't believe paper cartridges attempted to solve either issue.

Cylinder gap

The issue of keeping the projectile snuggle against the rim of the cylinder was not solved by revolvers at the time. Revolvers will always have a cylinder gap. Even modern metallic cartridge revolvers with higher tolerances still have the issue; a notable exception being the 1895 Nagant Revolver. This is also why revolver rifles were a bad idea, your support hand could easily be harmed by gas leaking out of the cylinder, as demonstrated by Ian McCollum on a Colt 1855 Revolving Rifle.

enter image description here

Back to the question. Here is Karl Kasarda demonstrating loading a 1862 Colt Police Revolver with paper cartridges. Like in any muzzle loader, the chambers of the cylinder are not bored-through; they have a solid back. Karl uses the loading lever just like a ramrod; he rams the cartridge into the chamber from the muzzle end to firmly seat the projectile in the chamber, and compress the gunpowder against the bottom of the chamber.

enter image description here

This is both to prevent the projectile and gunpowder from falling out, and also keeps the gunpowder snug against the primer to ensure the gun fires. The quantity of gunpowder used does not matter, it will be compressed against the back of the chamber by the loading lever.

This loading procedure pushes the projectile away from the cylinder edge defeating the premise of the question.

Lead fouling

This was a real thing, and again, wasn't solved by revolvers of the time.

There are typically two causes of lead fouling. One is, yes, a tiny amount of lead being turned into gas by the explosion of the gunpowder. The other is a tiny amount of lead being scraped off the projectile as it transitions from the chamber to the barrel.

The issue of depositing lead in the chamber or barrel (fouling) could be handled by applying lubricants to the paper cartridge, which had their own fouling issues, but the reality is black powder fouling was a far worse issue. Black powder guns had to be cleaned regularly regardless of lead fouling, as often as after a couple dozen shots.

You could add a wad between the powder and the projectile to attempt to reduce fouling, but it was not necessary, and it was not to reduce heat on the projectile. It was to better seal the chamber and avoid having gas and unburnt powder from leaking out around the projectile.

What is wadding?

There is something similar to what you're asking about: wadding or a wad. Modern projectiles are carefully matched to the barrel diameter and serve to seal the barrel. But because the projectiles of the time were often irregular and slightly sub-caliber. This was both to ease their loading down the barrel, and also so they would still work after the barrel had become fouled and thus narrower.

When the projectile does not fully seal the barrel, wadding is necessary. Without a wad, expanding gas and unburnt powder could leak out around the projectile. This would waste the force of the powder, and also add to fouling. Shotguns loaded with multiple sub-caliber pellets (buckshot, birdshot) still use them today.

enter image description here

All those sparks coming out of movie guns might look cool, but it's unburnt powder. It betrays that there's no projectile in Ash's Boomstick to seal the barrel. His "recoil" is the actor flinching and exaggerating.

The reality is you can use anything as a wad. Karl Kasarda likes using coffee filters, and even leaves and twigs.

What is a paper cartridge?

To make it clear, paper cartridges for revolvers are different from those for smoothbore muskets (long arms) and different again for breechloading rifles.

For a long arm, the paper cartridge served as a pre-measured portion of gunpowder and projectile(s) to speed loading and make it more precise than fumbling around in a pouch for a projectile and pouring gunpowder from a flask. The cartridge was tied off into two sections separating the gunpowder from the ball. The user would bite the paper open, pour a small portion of gunpowder into the pan, and pour the remaining gunpowder into the barrel. Then they'd wrap the paper around the projectile(s) and ram the wrapped projectile(s) down the barrel. So in that case the paper itself served as the wadding.

For revolvers, the paper cartridge served like a metallic cartridge today, except it lacked a primer; the primer came separately often as a percussion cap. Loading a paper cartridge into a revolver was done in three steps.

  1. Shove the whole cartridge into the chamber.
  2. Firmly seat the cartridge in the chamber using a loading lever.
  3. Place a percussion cap onto the nipple.
  • So the percussion cap ignites the paper directly on a paper revolver cartridge?
    – justCal
    Oct 21, 2022 at 21:44
  • @justCal Yes. It's basically cigarette paper. It's treated with an oxidizer (usually a nitrate aka "saltpeter") to help it burn faster and more completely.
    – Schwern
    Oct 21, 2022 at 21:54
  • Keeping bullet close to the cylinder rim has nothing to do with the cylinder gap. The point of it is to make transition from cylinder to the muzzle happen when bullet is still slow, so the shock from inherently imprecise alignment is lower. Even if the gap was 0 um, this would be a factor. I can believe military didn't care, but that's just different issue than the one you described.
    – Mołot
    Oct 21, 2022 at 22:00
  • 1
    Isn't the distance the ball seats in the cylinder set by the loading arm lever? It would seem this is determined by the mechanics of the firearm and not by the content of the paper cartridge.
    – justCal
    Oct 21, 2022 at 22:11
  • @justCal you have to ram the ball as far as it goes, to make sure gunpowder grains are firmly squeezed against one another. Otherwise you risk incomplete burn or slow burn, and the nightmare of ball stuck in the muzzle. So if you have only 30gr powder and 40gr space, you need to push ball ¼ deeper into the cylinder chamber. You need to have 40 grains (volumetric) of something for optimal position if you don't fancy risking gun exploding with your next shot, when second ball hits the first, stuck one. I firmly believe soldiers back then liked their hands.
    – Mołot
    Oct 21, 2022 at 22:47

Not sure about elsewhere, but on the American frontier what we now refer to as "the fringe n a buckskin jacket" was functional - as the wadding necessary.

enter image description here

The wadding was ripped off on demand, and replaced when depleted. The band holding it onto the jacket proper was originally more substantial, so as to not rip the jacket under such wear and tear.

  • 4
    I don't think this was used in Civil War-era revolver paper cartridges.
    – Smith
    Oct 20, 2022 at 17:08
  • 1
    Paper cartridges for revolvers would not be made in conditions so rough you need to tear bits off your clothes for wadding. They required a small kit which would include all the necessary materials. If you ran out of paper cartridges, you'd load powder and ball manually.
    – Schwern
    Oct 21, 2022 at 21:58

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