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Eley Patent Wire Cartridges

posted Jul 26, 2010, 8:05 AM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Oct 4, 2011, 8:07 AM ]
    We associate the term "cartridge" with a round of modern ammunition.  However, cartridges were in wide spread use prior to the time the modern breach loading firearm was developed.  Indeed, different forms of cartridges have been in use with muzzle loading guns since the 17th century. These muzzle loading "cartridges" generally consisted of a pre-measured amount of powder or shot contained in paper wrapping.  Simple paper tubes containing a charge of powder and a projectile were used the military of most countries prior to the adoption of breach loading guns. 

    The use of "cartridges" for muzzle loaders was not limited to military rifles.   There were a variety of “cartridges” which were manufactured to aid in the loading of muzzleloading shotguns.   Far and away, the most popular muzzle loading shot cartridges were Eley’s Universal and Patent Wire Cartridges.  In 1858, W. W. Greener acknowledged the widespread use of the Eley patent wire cartridge among users of shotguns; stating: “Cartridges of wire, or “universal," are now so well known as to need no treatise to point out their advantages.”
  Those advantages which were taken for granted by the sportsmen of the 1850s included the following:   
  • Quicker Loading.  Conventional loading methods require that the over the powder wads be rammed home, that he shot be poured in, and that an over the shot wad be separately rammed home.  By contrast, the entire cartridge (including the over the powder wadding, shot and over the shot wad) could be rammed home in a single ramming.
  • Increased pattern density.  Guns of this era were almost universally had cylinder bores.  Eley claimed a 100% increase in pattern densities over “loose charges.”  Based on the little quantitative data which is available, a wire cartridge was claimed produce denser patterns than would be expected from a modern load using a full choke from a cylinder bored gun.
  • Increased velocity while maintaining dense patterns.  Shooters of muzzle loading shotguns quickly learn that producing good patterns with a front loader is a tricky proposition.  In many instances, dense patterns can be produced only by reducing the amount of powder in the load.  The result, of course, is a corresponding reduction in velocity.  Eley claimed that increasing the amount of black powder actually had the effect of increasing pattern density.

    The Eley Wire Shot Cartridge evolved over this time frame and no attempt is made to describe all of the different configurations for the cartridge.   The following is a generic description of the Eley Wire Cartridge.  


   The heart of the Eley Patent Wire Cartridge is a basket of hexagonal wire mesh; similar to modern poultry netting.  The period literature indicates that the wire basket was constructed of soft cooper wire.  However, the specimens that I have examined appear to be made from mild steel. The wire basket started as a cylindrical tube which was open at both ends.  The exposed prongs on bottom were folded inward to close off the bottom to form a basket. 

    The resulting wire basket was wrapped with a layer single layer of light weight, color coded paper.  The colors of paper designated the range for which the cartridge was intended.   References to the color coding include: (1) yellow for the universal cartridge (which did not have a wire basket) intend for short range use;  (2) 'The Royal', colored blue for medium range use (3) Green which was intended for long range and (4) Red which appears to be similar to the royal or blue cartridge.  The paper covering was gathered at the bottom of the basket and label showing the bore and size of shot was also pasted on the bottom of the cartridge.

    The paper wrapped wire basket was filled with lead shot mixed with bone dust.  The bone dust acted as a buffer which kept the shot steady in the package and helped to prevent the shot deforming.   Due to the significant difference in densities between lead and bone dust, the lead shot was most likely placed into the wire basket first and then covered with bone dust.  By vibrating the cartridge, the bone dust would fill in the empty spaces in the shot, making a more solid shot package.   Modern experience suggests that a light weight buffer can have a positive effect on pattern densities, particularly with larger sized shot. 


A sealed packet containing a dozen Eley Patent wire cartridges.  Cartridges were generally sold by the dozen, with each dozen wrapped in paper. 
The shot and bone dust were held in the wire cage by “pasting” a “top wad” on the top of the cartridge.  This was accomplished by wrapping a single wrap of light weight paper around the upper portion of the cartridge and the top wad as if the top wad was being taped in place.  The excess of portion of this tape was folded over the top wad and a light weight paper label indicating the cartridge’s bore and shot size was glued on top of the completed cartridge. 

    The top wad was generally made of stiff card board approximately .070 inches in thickness and approximately the same diameter as the diameter of the bore of the gun for which the cartridge was intended.  However, more than one source indicates that the top wad was made from cork during certain periods of time. 

    The entire cartridge was 1 ¼ to 1 ½ inches length depending on the gauge and volume of shot.  While Eley wire cartridges could be special ordered in different weights of shot, the standard shot charges for the common shot gun bores was as follows:


Weight of Shot



Weight of Shot


7/8 oz



1 ¼ oz





1 3/8





1 3/8





1 ½


1 1/8



1 ¾


1 ¼




    Instructions for using the Eley Cartridges were included with each package of cartridges. Several examples of these instructions have survived.  The old instructions provide some interesting insights into the use of the packaging and use cartridges of the cartridges in the field. 

Orignal Instructions for Eley Wire Cartridges

    Letter to the Editor in the Moring Chronicle (London), May 28, 1828 from Joshua Jenour, the inventor and original patentee of the Wire Shot Cartridge.  This letter was published just prior to the time the patent was sold to the Eley Brothers in 1828.
    A number of sources indicate that the wire cartridge was a French invention.  I do not believe this to be the case.  The original patentee for the wire cartridge was Joshua Jenour. Mr. Jenour had been born in Fleet Street, London in 1755 and was the son of the elder Joshua Jenour. The elder Mr. Jenour was an owner and manager of the Daily Advertiser, which has been described as the first modern newspaper. The younger Mr. Jenour succeeded his father as the paper's printer until the Daily Advertiser ceased publication in the 1790's.  The patent for the so-called “wire cartridge” was issued by the English Patent Office on November 28, 1827 to Joshua Jenour under Patent No. 5570.   The Eley Brothers (Charles and William) purchased the patent rights in the spring or early summer of 1828.

    Early attempts by the Eley Brothers to market the Wire Shot Cartridge proved unsuccessful; primarily due to the cartridge's reputation for "balling."  The term balling referred to failure of the wire cartridge to disperse its shot and instead fly down range as a single projectile.  In approximately 1836 William Eley introduced the "Improved" Shot Cartridge which became very successful.  Eley's Improved Patent Wire Cartridge was widely used by sportsmen right up to the time of the adoption of the modern breach loading cartridge.

      The next article describes the construction of a modern muzzleloading shot cartridge loosely based on the Eley Universal Cartridge.  I have also posted an Article which describes the methods for taking shot cartridges into the field.