We’ve all seen movies of Daniel Boone-like characters whip their powder horn around and pour black powder down a muzzle before ramming home a lead ball. Many believe that during the Revolutionary War, muskets were only primed this way with separate powder and ball and that the use of cartridge, where ball and powder are tightly wrapped together in advance in paper, was not in use until the American Civil War. But visit any of the many Revolutionary War museums scattered throughout the former colonies and you will see cartridge box after cartridge box, both American and British, tucked neatly behind glass cases.
At the start of the Revolutionary War, rebel forces were generally drawn from militias. These militias, many of which loosely followed standard military procedures, were formed to defend the early settlements from indigenous natives and French intrusions. The British government encouraged these home grown military units because they did not have the money or manpower to protect the vast regions of its new American colonies. Because of the “use what you have” nature of the local military units, most soldiers showed up with arms of many different calibers when the newly formed Continental Congress ordered the colonies to commit their militia regiments towards a Continental Army.
Consider the conditions of the day: if your regiment carried the same caliber musket or rifle as other regiments, then pre-made cartridges could be easily exchanged and re-supplied during battle and were the most proficient means of reloading your weapon. This factor worked well for the British carrying a similar Brown Bess, but not so well for the American forces who had grabbed the family musket or Kentucky rifle before running to muster. Virginian “Light Horse” Harry Lee complained that the lack of uniformity in the caliber of muskets created many difficulties including the one involving munitions resupplying cartridge. At Brandywine he said that “no single brigade in the army had muskets of uniform caliber….[making] the exchange of ammunition in battle impracticable.”
If your cartridge box was water resistant, keeping the powder within the cartridge dry, you could generally rely on your musket firing consistently. British boxes were made of stout calfskin, each capable of holding twenty-four to thirty cartridges. The outer flap was made of waterproof leather with brass studs or small iron nails to secure the flap down. An inner flap covered the cartridges with thick linen that was well painted. Many times this inner flap had a long leather tongue stitched on. This appendage allowed the soldier to keep the bottom flap securely down and the paper cartridges in place while the block was withdrawn and reversed. This box was far better than the inadequate boxes carried by the Americans, which usually allowed water to seep in and, pardon the pun, dampen their confidence that the powder would fire. General Henry Lee believed there was no excuse for this. With leather plentiful and good workmen throughout the colonies, he placed the blame on “the criminal supineness of our contractors.”
Non-uniformity of caliber or poorly made boxes stopped Continental Soldiers from slinging cartridge boxes around shoulders or strapping them to their hip or belly due to their size. To ameliorate matters, Washington tried to procure tin boxes which he referred to as canisters. These canisters held thirty six one ounce ball cartridges and were carried on the belt.
As colonies began to fill regimental quotas to the Continental Army, sending fewer militias, same caliber weapons began to become more common. On March 28, 1778, the Board of War wrote to Governor Clinton urging that New York furnish canisters to her troops, “as there is a total lack of cartridge boxes.” Actions such as this aided the use of cartridge by the American forces, though even at war’s end, a soldier biting off the end of his cartridge and stuffing it down the barrel could be seen alongside another with his powder horn hovering over the end of his muzzle.
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“The Craft of the Early American Gunsmith,” by Stephen V. Granesay. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 6, No. 2, Oct. 1947. Pp. 54-61
“The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee,” by Robert E. Lee. Da Capo Press, 1998.
“Notes on the Continental Army,” by Colonel John W. Wright. The William and Mary Quarterly, Second Series, Vol 12, No 2 (April 1932) pp 79-103