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The Effectiveness of Historical Muzzleloading Wire Shot Cartridges

posted Jul 8, 2011, 8:28 AM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Sep 15, 2011, 10:34 AM ]
An illustration of Spiral Wire Cartridge invented by Joshua Jenour, the fore runner of the Eley Wire Cartridge.
Historically, muzzleloading shotguns had no chokes.  For most of the muzzleloading era, conventional wisdom was that densest patterns were produced by shotguns with  perfectly cylindrical bores. Even after the advent of breach loading guns and early development of the shotgun chokes, a substantial debate was waged regarding the relative merits of choked verses cylinder bore guns.
As a general proposition, the effective range of cylinder bored guns is approximately 20-25 yards. By today's standards, this a fairly short shot.  As a result, a commonly asked question is how to extend the effective range of an open bored gun. 

    By experimenting with different combinations of shot, powder and wads, it is often possible to find a load which will produce a lethal pattern at up to 30 yards with a cylinder bore gun. However, muzzleloading enthusiasts are constantly in search of that magic load which produces modified or even full choke patterns from a cylinder bored gun.  Modern muzzleloaders have experimented with a variety of techniques for improving pattern density; including plastic shot cubs, pillow ticking shot cups, shot buffers, and various exotic wad combinations.  However, no one has been able to reproduce the claimed effectiveness of the "wire shot cartridges" in use prior to 1860.

The Eley Wire Cartridge.

    There are several Articles on this website regarding Eley's Patent Wire Cartridges.  Eley Brothers claimed that their Cartridges to procure what many muzzleloading shot-gunners are currently searching for: a manner of controlling pattern density through adjusting the load placed in the gun.  Over the years, Eley Brothers produced at least three different cartridges identified by color the outer paper wrapping. Each of these cartridges was designed to be used a different ranges.  The longest range cartridge was colored green and was referred to as 'The Green'.  The Green was intended to be used primarily for waterfowl. Eley cautioned users that use of the Green Cartridge was dangerous except in wide open spaces. The intermediate range wire cartridge was "The Royal" which was either red or blue in color.   The Royal Cartridge was intended for use in the the second barrel of a double barrel gun to give some extra range when walking up game. Finally, Eley Brothers also made a non-wire cartridge known as the “Universal” Cartridge. The Universal  Cartridge was colored yellow and was constructed entirely out of paper.  The Universal Cartridge was intended as shorter range shots.

    After some initial problems, Eley Wire Cartridges gained an excellent reputation for producing dense patterns which greatly extended the range of the cylinder bore guns.  By the end of the muzzleloading era, the Eley Wire Cartridges were hailed as the second greatest advancements in firearms, being second only to the percussion cap.    The following quote was taken form an advertising circular produced by Eley regarding their Patent Wire Cartridges:

They {Eley Wire Cartridges} are strongly recommended by the following eminent sporting authors: Colonel Hawker, author of 'Instructions to Sportsmen ' ; T. B. Johnson Esq., author of the ' Game-keeper's Directory,' &c. ; Nimrod ; J. Oakleigh Esq., author of * The Oakleigh Shooting Code ' ; James Tyler Esq., author of 'The Shooter's Manual ' ; W. Watt Esq., author of 'Remarks on Shooting, inverse.' A prospectus containing the testimonials of the above-named authors, and further information may be had on application at the warehouse, 30 St James's Street. They are well worth the attention of merchants and captains. To be had of all gunmakers."

    There are many sources attesting to the effectiveness of the Patent Wire Cartridge.  Indeed, there are many references in the historic books which describe bird being taken an ranges of between 50 and 100 yards with use of Green Eley Wire Cartridges.  While there are many stories about a specific birds which were killed at long ranges, there is scant quantitative information regarding the actual pattern densities which were produced by use of the device.  Eley Wire Cartridges are now quite rare and expensive. (I just paid $30 for a 16 gauge cartridge).   It is not practical fire an original Eley Cartridge at a patterning board in order to get some quantitative information regarding the actual effectiveness of the Eley Cartridges.  Consequently, it is necessary to rely on the information form the testing which was done while the Eley Cartridges were in use.

From The Shot-Gun and Sporting Rifle

    One of the few pieces of quantitative information is found in a book  titled: The Shot-Gun and Sporting Rifle:and the Dogs, Ponies, Ferrets, &c., used with them in the various kinds of shooting and trapping by John Henry Walsh. The source of the information recounted in the book is not entirely clear.  It appears that the data was based on tests conducted by Eley and included in a multi-page advertisement. The Eley Advertisement was separately bound as a pamphlet and distributed with the July 1938 Issue of the New Sporting Magazine.  The purpose of the pamphlet was to promote the virtues of the "Improved" Patent Wire Cartridges which has been released for the 1837-8 hunting seasons.  A copy of the data reported by Eley is reproduced on the left.

By using some simple math (and making a few assumptions), the data provided by Eley can be compared to modern choking standards. The Eley data is based on the number of pellets hitting a 2 foot square target at 40 yards. By contrast, modern shotgun patterning is based on the number of pellets hitting a 30 inch circle at 40 yards.  The two foot square which was used by Eley contains 570 square inches; while the 30 inch circle contains approximately 700 square inches.  By assuming that the 2 foot square represented the center of the pattern and that most modern loads produce relatively uniform patterns over the 30 circle at 40 yards, we can calculate the number of pellets per square inch and make some rough comparisons to modern pattern densities. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that the distribution of pellets of most patterns tends to be in a bell shaped curve.  However, at 40 yards, the effect of the bell shaped distribution on these calculations is relatively small.)

    The Eley data indicates when using a loose charge between 60 and 100 pellets hit the two foot square.  This equates to between .104 pellets per square inch (60 pellets/570 square inches) and .170 pellets per square inch (100 pellets/570 square inches). Using the high estimate of 100 pellets hitting the 2x2 foot target for the ‘loose charge,” the pattern density would fall somewhere between a modern cylinder bore and a skeet choke.   So far, so good.

    The Eley data claims that between 120 and 200 pellets would hit the two foot square when using a wire cartridge.  This produces a range from .208 (120 pellets/570 square inches) pellets per square inch to .347 pellets per inch (200 pellets/570 square inches).  The high estimate of 200 pellets hitting the 2x2 target would be a greater pattern density than would be expected from a full choke.  It must be noted that Eley gives some fairly wide ranges the number of pellets hitting its 2x2 foot target. The low estimate of 120 pellets hitting the 2x2 foot target results in a pattern density similar to a modern improved cylinder choke.   

Unitorm Shot Sizes?

However, there is a question regarding whether Eley was using standard shot sizes at the time. The Shotgun And Sporting Rifle written in 1859 at page 209 provides: "Most people suppose that an ounce of No. 6 shot is the same all over the world, and did I until I had the curiosity to compare the contents of several bags of shot and cartridges by different makers. The following is the result:-

    One cautionary note, it is interesting to that the Eley data claims that exactly twice as many pellets hit the target when comparing the loose charge to the Eley Cartridge.  While this may be simply a coincidence, it does seem a bit odd.  

    One of the few pieces of third party information regarding the effectiveness of the Eley Wire Cartridge  can be found in the famous book Instructions To Young Sportsmen: In All That Relates To Guns And Shooting By Peter Hawker.  At page 117 Colonel Hawker describes his patterning results.  The most useful quantitative data provided by Colonel Hawker is the information from what Colonel Hawker describes as his "Subsequent Trial".

From Instructions to Young Sportsman 8th Edition

    In order to make some sense of the Subsequent Trial data, it is necessary to make a number of assumptions.   First, Colonel Hawker tells us that the test was conducted at 40 yards.  However, there is no reference to the size of the target included with the data.  By reviewing Col. Hawker's diary, we find that he most often used a target measuring 24 by 19 inches for his patterning work.  Paper measuring 24x19 was a standard size during the 1800s, so it makes sense that paper of this size was often used by Colonel Hawker.  

    We can check this assumption regarding the size of the target by comparing the “loose shot” data to what we would expect from a typical cylinder bore pattern. Standard Number 6 shot contains approximately 225 pellets per ounce. With a 1 1/4 ounce load of number sixes, we would expect approximately .159 pellets per square inch. Assuming that the target was 24x19 inches (456 sq. in.) the loose charge data equates to .153 pellets per square inch.   This seems to indicate that the assumption regarding the size of the targets was reasonable.

    Applying the same assumptions to the data from the cartridges, we can calculate that the average pellets per square inch is .279.  A modern full choke gun should produce a pattern with .278 pellets per square inch with 1 1/4 ounces of number six shot at forty yards.  We can double check this result by comparing the total pellets hitting the target with the "loose charge" and the Eley cartridge.   As between the two loads, there is a 78% improvement in pattern density.  By comparing the improvement in pattern density to modern standards, cartridge would produce a pattern which is roughly equivalent to a modern full choke pattern.

    From these test, we can conclude that the Eley Wire Cartridges were likely capable of producing full choke patterns from a a cylinder bore gun. 

The Berney Spiral Cartridge

While the Eley Wire Cartridge was the most common shot cartridge, it was not the only shot cartridge used by sportsmen prior to the invention of breach loading guns.  One of the competitors to the Eley Cartridge was the Berney Spiral Cartridge which was described in the
Cyclopedia of the Industry of all Nations By George Dodd, Charles Knight (G.P. Putnam, 1851) as follows:

There was another patent, that of Thomas French Berney, Patent No. 8143 of July 6, 1839. 'Cartridges are made with two cases, an inner one formed of spiral wire for containing the shot, and an outer case of paper'

   A more detailed description of the Berney Spiral Cartridge can be found in The Mechanic's Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal and Gazette Volume 32 (ROBERTSON, 1840). 

 Mr. Berney patented a few years ago a new kind of cartridge. The shot is enclosed in a spiral wire case, tapered towards the end, and provided with a cushion at bottom of wool, moss, tow, or any other soft elastic substance, to prevent by its elasticity the sudden explosion of the powder from breaking the case or jamming the shot. The case expands- after its discharge from the gun, and according as the coils are more or less apart, so does the distance vary to which the bulk of the shot may be carried before escaping through the coils. The object intended by this cartridge is to convey a greater number of shot to a given mark, without diverging or separating, than can be done by the use of the ordinary cartridges;

    Not much is know about Mr. Berney or his spiral cartridge.  Mr. Berney was apparently a man of some means.  He is reported to have owned owned 87 acres of meadow and pasture in the village of Taverham England.  Taverham is a village on the River Wensum. It is approximately 5 miles north-west of the City of Norwich and approximately 120 miles north-east of London.  

    The Berney Spiral Cartridge did not gain much popularity and appears to have been little used by sportsman.  The thing that makes the
Berney Spiral Cartridge interesting is that there is some very good quantitative data based on two series of tests conducted in the presence of third parties during March and July of 1840. The March 1840 test was described by Colonel Peter Hawker in his Diary as follows:

 March 17, 1840 London. At Chalk Farm (where I met all the leading gunmakers) to see a trial of cartridges invented by T. T. Berney, Esq., of Morton Hall, near Norwich, who had previously called to request my attendance. The cartridge consists of a spiral spring, which is filled with the shot and calcined cinders, and strongly wadded with about an inch of moss next the powder. The performance nearly doubled anything I had before seen, and these projectiles must be capital for open or for coast shooting; but, as the spiral springis a deadly missile wherever it hits, they must never be used for common sporting. Mr. Berney promises experiments with a swivel gun in about six weeks, and was kind enough to show me his plan for firing his stanchion at plover by means of an elliptic spring attached to the saddle of a mule, he having one trained for this purpose. I never met with a more ingenious or intelligent gentleman than this thoroughbred old sportsman, Mr. Berney. I could, however, scarcely enjoy my view of his experiments as I was so unwell, and the weather was most piercing.

    Chalk Farm is an area of north London, England. Consequently, it appears that Mr. Berney traveled to London to meet with Colonel Hawker (who was the preeminent writer on wing shooting at the time) and the leading London gun makers.  The "leading London gun makers" in attendance would likely have included such historic figures as James Purdey, Charles Lancaster,  Thomas J . Mortimer, James Wilkinson and William Moore·. 

    The March 1840 tests were also described in the The Mechanic's Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal and Gazette Volume 32 (ROBERTSON, 1840) as follows:

We witnessed last week some very interesting experiments made in the shooting ground at Chalk Farm with a new cartridge invented and patented by Thomas Trench Berney, Esq., of Morton Hall, Norfolk, in the presence of a number of eminent sportsmen, gunmakers, &c. In this cartridge, for which a patent has been procured, the shot is enclosed in a spiral wire case which is tapered towards the end, and provided with a cushion at bottom formed of wool, moss, tow, or any other soft elastic substance, to prevent by its elasticity the sudden explosion of the powder from breaking the case or jamming the shot. The case expands after its discharge from the gun, and according as the coils are more or less apart is the distance to which the bulk of the shot may be carried before escaping through the coils. Three experiments were first made with a common duck gun charged with No. 6 shot in the usual manner, and fired by Mr. Berney against a 2 feet 6 inch iron target at 40 yards distance. The average number of shot which hit the target was 126. Fifteen shots were then made with the same gun charged with the patent cartridge, at distances varying from 40 to 60 yards, and the average number of shot carried home was 256, making a difference in favour of the patent cartridge of 130. It was also evident that the force with which the shot from the patent cartridge struck the iron target far exceeded that fired in the ordinary way. Among the gentlemen on the ground was that distinguished sportsman and excellent judge of projectiles, Colonel Hawker, who declared emphatically that the performances of the cartridge were quite '* wonderful.

    Unfortunately, the results of the March 1840 tests provide insufficient information regarding to preform much in the way of quantitative analysis which would allow a comparison to modern standards.  However, more detailed data from the July 1840 test were published in the THE MECHANIC'S MAGAZINE, MUSEUM, REGISTER, JOURNAL AND GAZETTE, VOLUME 33 ROBERTSON, 1840.  A copy of the test results is reproduced below. 


By assuming 300 pellets per ounce of seven shot, we can make some comparisons to modern choking standards.  The ounce and one quarter load would contain a total of 375 pellets.  The patterning paper is reported to be 30x30 inches for a total of 900 square inches.  The July, 1840 produces the following pattern densities (measured in pellets per square inch);

loose charge .101 pellets per inch

cartridge .308 pellets per inch

    These pattern densities can then be compared to compared to modern standards by calculating the number of pellets per inch with 375 total pellets.  The modern standards are as follows:

Cylinder (40%): 0.214

Improved cylinder (50%): 0.294

Modified (60%): 0.321

Full (70%): 0.401

    As can be seen, the loose charge data falls well below the expected results for a cylinder bore gun and cartridges produce patterns which are slightly tighter than a modern improved cylinder pattern.  These results are most likely indicated that the assumption made regarding the number of pellets contained in the shot charge was too high.  However, the data does show a large improvement in pattern density with the cartridges as compared to the loose charge.  Once again, this data shows that wire shot cartridges were fully capable of producing dense patterns, even by modern standards.