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Taking Muzzle Loading Shot Cartridges into the Field

posted Sep 6, 2010, 6:30 AM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Mar 28, 2011, 8:45 AM ]
An earlier Article described the construction of Shot Cartridges for muzzle loading shotguns which are loosely based on the original Eley's Universal Cartridge.   Eley Shot Cartridges were developed in 1827 and in came two general types.  Eley's "Wire Cartridge" had a wire shot cup and Eley's "Universal Cartridge" as constructed entirely from paper.  See Article on Eley Shot Cartridges.   By the late 1850's, the Eley Shot Cartridges were in wide spread use in both England and the United States.  The reason for the popularity of the Eley Shot Cartridges was two fold:  First, Eley's Wire Cartridge significantly improved pattern density in the cylinder bore guns which were in use at the time.  Second, the Eley Cartridges (including both the "Wire Cartridge" and the "Universal Cartridge") made loading the muzzle loading shotgun faster and easier.   Since I have modern screw-in chokes in my muzzle loading shotguns, I use Muzzle Loading Shot Cartridges primarily because of the increased speed and ease of loading. 

    When taking Muzzle Loading Shot Cartridges into the field it is important to remember that they are fragile.  In order to avoid having the cartridges "ball" (or fly down range as a single projectile), it is necessary to construct muzzle loading shot cartridges in such a fashion that they will easily disperse their shot charge when fired. A necessary by-product is that shot cartridges can be easily damaged if you attempt to carry them without protection.  This was true for both the original Eley Shot Cartridges as well a the modern reproductions.

Historical Background

    Don't get me wrong.  I happily embrace current technology when it comes to my muzzle loading shotguns.  However, we should not discount the vast amount of experience which sportsmen of the 1850's had with their muzzle loading shotguns.  Consequently, a review the manner in which sportsmen the 1850s did things can provide some useful insights for the modern muzzle loading enthusiast. In the case of shot cartridges, the instructions which came with the original Eley Shot Cartridges give some interesting clues about how the Eley Brothers intended their cartridges to be handled.  A reproduction of the original Eley instructions can be found at 

In part, the original Eley instructions state as follows:

Charge with powder; then tear the outside case by means of the tape; place the cartridge in the barrel with its wadding uppermost, and ram it down smartly. It is not requisite to place a wadding between it and the powder.
The Outside White Case, which envelopes each cartridge, is intended to protect the cartridge from being broken or damaged when carried loose in the pocket. It should be stripped off before placing the cartridge in Eley's Patent Cartridge case.


    There are a couple important pieces of information which can be gleaned from these two sentences from the Eley Instructions.  First, it is clear that Eley Brothers were placing an outer paper wrapping around its cartridges in order to protect them. The adjacent picture of the Eley Universal Shot Cartridge shows the cartridge with its protective paper wrapping in place.  The protective paper wrapping extends almost to the top of the cartridge. While this adds some measure of protection to the body of the cartridge, it does little to protect the joint between the top wadding and the body of the cartridge.  In my experience, this joint is the most fragile area of the cartridge.

    Second, the Eley Instructions make reference to "Eley's Patent Cartridge Case."  Despite the name,  "Eley's Patent Cartridge Case" was not a patented invention.  Instead, the word "Patent" appears to be reference to the fact that the case was intended for "Eley Patent Cartridges."   A search of the British patents indicates that the Eley Brothers never obtained a patent for a "cartridge case."   Instead, on September 15, 1849, William and Charles Eley registered a design for a cartridge case as an "Article of Utility." This registration granted certain protections to the Eley Brothers with respect to the design of the cartridge case. However, the rights afforded party registering the article dealt more the pattern and shape of the object, as apposed to a novel invention.

  The accompanying pictures of an original "Eley's Patent Cartridge Case" illustrates the details of the case.   The Cartridge Case was made of tin and had five of individual compartments carrying shot cartridges.  The "Cartridge Case" has at several advantages.  First, the Cartridge Case protected the joint between the top wadding and the body of the cartridge.   As noted above, this is the most fragile part of the cartridge.  Second, the Cartridge Case was small enough to fit conveniently in a pocket.  Finally, the Cartridge Case allowed the protective outer paper wrapping to be removed prior to going into the field, eliminating the need to remove the wrapping under the stress of hunting conditions.

Excerpt from the Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland), September 4, 1858

   The final aspect of the historical use of muzzle loading shot cartridges relates to the powder charge.  For the majority of the time that shot cartridges were in use, shot cartridges contained only shot.  Sportsmen were instructed to charge their guns with powder "in the ordinary way."  This was a reference to the use of a powder flask.  However, during the late 1850's  a number of shot charges for muzzle loading shotguns which included a powder charge began to appear.  These include the Rackheath Cartridge, Hall's Number 1 Cartridge, and Hall's Number 2 Cartridge.

    The newspapers from the time confirm that during the 1850s Eley Brothers began producing their shot cartridges in such a manner so as to include a powder charge. An example of an advertisement for such a shot cartridge appeared in the September 4, 1858 edition of the Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin, Ireland).  Unfortunately, I been unsuccessful in locating a picture or illustration of how Eley Brothers incorporated a powder charge into their shot cartridges.

Modern Methods

    The manner in which I handle my shot cartridges in the field is not too different from the historical methods. I also enclose the cartridges in a paper wrapper.  The paper wrappers serve two functions. First, the paper wrappers provide some level of protection to the body of the cartridge.  Second, a powder charge can be placed in the bottom of the paper wrapper; allowing a shot cartridge and a powder charge to be carried as a single unit.

    My paper wrappers are made from paper tubes intended for rolling dimes.  Dimes are slightly larger than a 12 gauge bore, so the dime roll tubes are perfectly sized for a 12 gauge shot cartridge.  One end of the dime roll tube is sealed by placing a 12 gauge nitro card approximately 1/2 inch from the bottom of the tube. The bottom of the tube is folded over and taped shut using common masking tape.

    When you are getting ready to go into field, drop a charge of powder into the bottom of the dime roll tube.  Then place a shot cartridge in the top.  The top of shot cartridge will extend slightly above top of dime roll tube making it easy to withdraw the shot cartridge.  When it is time to load your muzzle loader, remove the shot cartridge from the dime roll, dump the powder charge down the barrel, place the shot cartridge on the top of the barrel, withdraw the ramrod and ram the shot cartridge home.    Loading a muzzle loader in this fashion is remarkably fast.  Loading in the field is also made easier if you use a "belly fob" to hold the gun in place while loading.

    To further protect the shot cartridges in the field, each paper wrapped shot cartridge/powder charge combination is placed in the plastic tube of an inexpensive choke tube case.  My local Walmat sells a nylon choke tube cases designed to hold six choke tubes in individual plastic tubes. The plastic tubes are also perfectly sized for holding shot cartridge and powder charge. 
    When hunting, the choke tube case can be conveniently carried in a pocket of a hunting coat.   The only additional item which needs to be carried to reload your muzzle loading shotgun is a supply of percussion caps.  Having all the items necessary to reload your shotgun in a small case is vastly more convenient than loading "in the ordinary way" (which requires a powder flask, a shot flask, over the powder wads, over the shot wads and possibly cushion wads).    Moreover, should anyone ask, there is a historical basis for the manner in which you are loading your muzzle loader.