Articles‎ > ‎

Making Muzzleloading Shot Cartridges

posted Jul 28, 2010, 6:45 AM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Feb 24, 2011, 8:57 AM ]
During the muzzleloading era, the Eley Patent Wire Cartridge was said to be the second greatest invention for shotguns after the percussion cap.  Having now reproduced a facsimile of the Eley "Universal" Cartridge, I believe that the high praise given to Eley Shot Cartridges was well deserved. My facsimile of the Universal Cartridge is easy to carry into the field, quick to load and produces good patterns.  The only significant drawback which I have discovered is that they are extremely labor intensive to make.

    An earlier article on this site provided some history regarding the Eley Muzzleloading Shot Cartridges.  The Eley Shot Cartridges came in two distinct types.  The Eley Wire Cartridges has a wire mesh shot cup which had effect of increasing pattern density for longer range shots.  The Eley Universal Cartridges were made completely from paper and were intended for closer shots.  This Article describes the construction of a shot cartridge using only paper based on the Eley Universal Cartridge.

    While the shot cartridge described in this Article is based on the Eley Universal Cartridge, it is not intended to be a completely historically accurate reproduction of the Eley Universal Cartridge. First, I have not disassembled an Eley Universal Cartridge. Consequently, I have no first hand information about the internal construction of the Universal Cartridge.  My cartridge is based on examination of a Eley Improved Wire Cartridge which had come apart. My cartridge is constructed in a manner similar to the sample Eley wire cartridge except that the wire shot cup is replaced with a paper shot cup.  The Eley Cartridges also used bone meal as a buffer in the shot charge.  The bone meal buffer has been eliminated in my shot cartridge.  Finally, as described latter in the Article, my shot cartridge incorporates a concave felt wad in the base of the cartridge.   The literature from the 1800s suggests that Mr. William Eley acknowledged that his shot cartridges would shoot better if wadding was placed between the powder charge and the cartridge. My testing produced similar results. In order to avoid using a separate wad, I incorporated a wad into the cartridge.  While I have never seen a specimen of an original Eley Cartridge incorporating a felt wad, the period literature indicates that during the late 1850s Eley began incorporating felt wads into their cartridges too.

Overcoming the problem of "Balling"

   When making shot cartridges for muzzle loading shotguns there are two competing factors which come into play.  First, the cartridge must be sturdy enough to be carried into the field.  At the same time, the cartridge must be fragile enough that it will consistently release the shot charge when fired.  A common problem with shot cartridges is their tendency to "ball".  Balling occurs when the shot cartridge fails to open and allow the shot charge to disperse.  When a charge "balls" the cartridge and shot charge fly down range in a single projectile. Obviously, this can be very dangerous since you are essentially shooting a 12 gauge slug.   The early Eley shot cartridges had a tendency to ball and those early problems almost became the ruin of the Eley Company.

    In order to insure that the cartridge does not ball, the cartridge must come apart or fail at two important places when the load is fired.  First, the joint between the shot cup and the over the shot wad must fail. Second, the area between the pedals of the newspaper shot cup must also consistently fail or rip open so that the pedals of the shot cup will open and allow the shot to disperse.  In order to make sure that the cartridge comes apart properly on firing, very light weight paper is used in the critical areas.  The over the shot wad is held in place with common streamer paper.  The area between the pedals of the news paper shot cup is covered with one layer of nine pound onion skin paper.  By using these light weight materials at the two critical areas, the problem of balling has been greatly reduced, if not eliminated.  Since the time that I started using this method of construction for the shot cartridges, I have patterned at least fifty cartridges and not one cartridge failed to open.  A few cartridges will show mild lateral stringing of the shot column.  However, even cartridges which showed lateral stringing of the wad column produced serviceable patterns in 20 inner core of the pattern. 

Useful Tools

    There are two home made tools which I use in making the shot cartridges.  Both are very simple. First, I use a dowel with a masking tape marker at the proper length to create the shot cup of the proper size.  A small hole is then been drilled through the center of the dowel so that a piece of wire can be used to help remove the Shot Cup. Second, I use a home made threading machine to hold the over the shot wad in place while it is attached to the cartridge. The threading machine is nothing more that box which holds a free spinning rod in a perpendicular position.  The weigh of the rod will hold the over the shot wad in place while you paste the streamer paper in place in order to attached the over shot wad. 

5/8 inch dowel with masking tape marker to form correct size shot cup.  For a 12 gauge cartridge the shot cup will be approximately 1inch in length for a 11/8 ounce load. 

Home made threader which is used to hold the over shot wad in place while it is "pasted" in place with streamer paper and wall paper paste.

Construction of Cartridge

    The steps for creating the Shot Cartridge are as follows:  (Note: the dimensions are for a shot cartridge to be used in a 12 gauge gun). 

  • The Shot Cup is formed by wrapping a strip of newspaper coated with wallpaper paste around a 5/8 inch dowel with a 20 gauge nitrocard at the end.  The strip of newspaper should be approximately 1.5 inches wide and 6 inches in length.  Fold the end of the newspaper strip over the 20 gauge nitro card in order to form the Shot Cup.  Once the Shot Cup is formed remove it (with the 20 Nitro Card in the bottom) from the dowel and allow to dry.
  • Cut v shaped slits in the Shot Cup in order to form to petals.  The v shaped slits should be approximately 1/4 of circumference of the shot cup at the mouth and taper to a point at the bottom of the shot cup. The Shot Cup would be fairly sturdy in construction.  The Shot Cup forms the backbone of the cartridge and needs strong enough to maintain the integrity of the cartridge when it is being handled prior to loading.
  • After the v shaped slits are cut, paste a piece of nine pound onion skin paper around the shot cup using wallpaper paste. The purpose of the onion skin paper is hold the shot charge in place during handling.  However, onion skin paper needs be able rip and allow the petals of the Shot Cup to separate; allowing the shot charge to disperse.   The piece of onion skin paper should be just long enough to complete one full wrap around the Shot Cup.  If you use more than a single wrap of onion skin paper, you will run the risk "balling."  The onion skin paper should also extend approximately 1/2 inch below the bottom of the Shot Cup.   Allow glue to dry.
  • Insert a felt wad into the hollow area at the bottom of the cartridge fromed by the onion skin paper extending beyond the Shot Cup.  The felt wad should be made from 1/8 inch wool felt and approximately .80 inches in diameter.  By forcing the felt wad into the hollow area behind the Shot Cup, the felt wad will take on a concave shape.  In order to make this step easier, I form the felt wads first. This is done by soaking  the felt wads in hot water and then forcing the wad into a portion of a 20 gauge shotgun hull.  When the felt wads dry, they will retain the concave shape.
  • Trim the onion skin paper at the bottom of shot cartridge flush concave edges of the felt wad. 
  • Fill the Shot Cup with shot.and paste top wad in place with a wrap of streamer paper using wallpaper paste as the adhesive.  This is the trickiest part of the operation.  After filing the cartrdige with shot, I place it in a shotgun shell loading tray to hold it upright.  I then place an over the shot wad on top and hold the wad in place with the threading machine described above.  Coat a piece of streamer paper with wall paper paste and wrap it round the shot cup and over the shot wad.  After the wall paper paste has dried, any excess streamer paper can be trimmed away. 
  • Lubricate the bottom of  Cartridge if desired.  I use the Beeswax, Tallow, and Paraffin lubricant described in the Article on Felt Wads.  Simply melt the lubricant in a double boiler and dip the bottom of the completed cartridge in to the melted lube.
    The resulting cartrdige is smaller than a 12 gauge bore and should fit easily into the barrel up to the over the shot wad.  The over the shot wad can be forced in to the bore with your thumb or a short starter. 

    Eley Brothers recommended that their cartridges be rammed firmly into powder charge.  This helped facilitate the dispersal of the shot charge.  I follow this same practice with my shot cartridges.

shot cup with v shape slits cut in sides.

felt wad being formed into concave shape

Base of cartridge with felt wad pasted in place and onion skin paper trimmed flush.

Over shot wad being held in place by threader