Black Powder Paper Cartridges

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Two 1860 Army models with both regular paper cartridges and paper cartridges loaded with 30-grain Pyrodex pellets.

There is just as much to learn, maybe more, and a lot of experimenting possible, with the use of black powder and one of the things we can experiment with is the use of paper cartridges.


Before I look at the loading of paper cartridges, it is necessary to point out the care that must be used in actually shooting these. These paper cartridges are known as Combustible Paper Cartridges, which means the paper should burn as the cartridges are fired. In a perfect world this is what would happen but perfection is rarely achieved and especially when using percussion revolvers. When paper cartridges are used it is possible for paper to remain in the chamber and also burning embers. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize what would happen if a new paper cartridge was loaded into a chamber which still has a burning ember.

If paper cartridges are used IT IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to check the cylinder chambers for remaining paper before reloading them. The use of paper cartridges is not for anyone who is unwilling to do this.

The tools and components needed for making paper cartridges.

The Process

Unless I am firing only a few rounds, I prefer to load percussion cylinders by removing them from the revolver itself and using a loading stand to hold the cylinder. It also allows extra leverage in seating the oversized round balls. By following this method, it is easy for me to check the chambers to make sure no paper remains. If there is paper, and even if it doesn’t have any burning embers, it is still a good idea to remove any paper residue that might hinder the combustion of the next cartridge.

Speaking of combustion, I would advise using Magnum percussion caps when firing paper cartridges. CCI has #11 Magnum caps available and the latest Remington #10s I purchased are advertised as 50% hotter than previous versions. All of my percussion revolvers are equipped with stainless steel SliXshot replacement nipples from SliXprings and these are designed specifically for use with these two sizes of percussion caps.

Dixie Gun Works’ Quick Load Target Tubes make pre-measured
.44 loads much faster on the range.

Pellet Perfect

One of the simplest ways to load paper cartridges is made possible by the use of Hodgdon’s Pyrodex Pellets. For .44 percussion sixgun use there are 30-grain pellets. I use 1.5″ square cigarette papers and place a round ball, lubed wad and pellet in the proper order on one edge of the paper and apply Elmer’s Glue using a glue stick on the other end of the paper, bypassing the built-in cigarette paper glue by covering it with the Elmer’s. It is then rolled up just as we would roll a sausage link in a pancake. Roll it as tight as possible without tearing the paper, pressing the glued portion in place and then twisting both ends to seal everything. The size of the paper allows for adequate material for twisting and then the excess can be cut off. These are rather fragile and should be placed in a sturdy cartridge box immediately. If the paper tears as we are loading them into the cylinder chamber, there is no problem as it has served its purpose and the tearing in all probability aids in the combustibility.

I keep several cartridge boxes with paper cartridges made like this and with differing round ball sizes of 0.451″, 0.454″ and 0.457″. The only downside to this is the fact we are confined to using only one powder type and one powder charge.

These are .44 paper cartridges ready to load at the range.

Cartridge Construction

There are as many ways to make paper cartridges as there are people doing it. I use plastic mandrels in both .36 and .44 sizes from Guns Of The West. They are also available in .31 and Walker/Dragoon sizes and can be purchased individually or in kit form. In addition to the mandrel, there is also a plastic forming piece to help seat the bottom cup. In use, the proper size piece of paper to form the body is coated with glue on one edge, carefully and tightly wrapped around the mandrel and glued in place.

Experimenting will show what size piece of paper is necessary to form this body. The cup is placed on one end by using the seating tool. I place Elmer’s glue around the bottom of the cartridge body and also on the cup where it will wrap around the body.

The cups are easily made by using a paper punch available from most hobby stores. These can be had in different sizes; however, I mostly use 1″ round discs for this. My paper of choice is Melitta #4 coffee filters. The proper size template is used to lay out the size of the body of the cartridge while circular discs are cut with the paper punch. I have found I can use a layer of four papers that allows me to punch out discs quickly and easily, as well as cutting the paper form used for the body of the cartridges. If a thinner paper is used, the paper punch will jam. To avoid this, place an index card under the paper to be punched out and this will usually give enough body to circumvent the problems.

Once the cup is glued in place on the bottom of the cartridge and allowed to dry, I then add the desired powder charge followed by the ball and the end is twisted to keep everything in place. Lee Precision has a kit consisting of several powder dippers and I have found five of them apropos to my loading of paper cartridges. Their #1.0 throws a charge of 16.6 grains of FFFg black powder; #1.3, 22.0 grains; #1.6, 26.6 grains, #1.9, 30.0 grains and #2.2 yields 36.5 grains of FFFg black powder. Powder is always loaded by volume and the same dippers are used for Pyrodex.

If combustion is a problem, a hole can be punched in the cup of the paper cartridge as it is loaded into the chamber.

Paper cartridges using Pyrodex Pellets are easier to assemble than those using loose powder.

On The Range

What kind of performance can we expect ballistically from percussion sixguns? Let us look at a charge of 40 grains of FFFg. Experts seem to be divided on whether or not this was the original charge used for the .45 Colt with a 255-grain bullet. Whatever the original charge was, it was soon reduced to 30 grains for easier shooting. Cartridges were originally of the balloon-head variety, meaning the primer pocket stuck up inside the case. These were replaced by solid head cartridges in the 1950s. This strengthened the case but also reduced the powder capacity so modern .45 Colt cartridges will not hold 40 grains of black powder.

However, I am fortunate to have a good supply of both .45 Colt and .44-40 balloon-head cartridges for experimenting. With 40 grains of Triple F muzzle velocity from a 7 ½” .45 Colt using a 255-grain bullet and the same charge using a 200-grain bullet in a 5 ½” .44-40, both yield muzzle velocities over 1,000 fps. This is with modern Magnum primers. Switching to a percussion revolver, the same powder charge under a 140-grain 0.454″ round ball yields 939 fps from an 8″ barrel. The much-lighter bullet is about 100 fps slower than .45 Colt and .44-40 loads.

The 1847 Colt Walker had a larger cylinder than the 1860 Army and allowed the use of heavier powder charges. With the same FFFg powder and round ball, 50 grains gives a muzzle velocity of 1,162 fps; 55 grains comes in at 1,224 and a full-size charge of 60 grains measures 1,321 fps. This shows just how powerful the Walker actually was. I do not recommend the 60-grain charge! Modern Walker replicas are certainly made of stronger steel than the originals. However, this heavy charge really puts a strain on the sixgun.

Guns Of The West kit for making paper cartridges.


What kind of performance can be expected with less heavy loads? Looking first at .36 percussion sixguns recorded in my notebook, I find the following results using a 7 ½ Colt 1851 Navy — with FFFg, a 0.375″ round ball and a lubed wad, 15 grains gives 722 fps; 20 grains, 805 fps; and 25 grains tops out at 929 fps. Switching to Pyrodex goes 20 grains at 704 fps while 25 grains yields 936 fps. This is with a 90-grain round ball.

Switching to .44 caliber in a Colt Black Powder Arms Model 1860 Army using a 140 grain 0.454″ round ball, with FFFg powder and a lubed wad gives the following — 30 grains clocks out at 876 fps and 35 grains gives 921 fps. Switching to Pyrodex and the same powder charges yields 762 fps and 877 fps, respectively.

With the Ruger Old Army used for competition, I go with a 0.457″ round ball over 35 grains of Pyrodex for a muzzle velocity of 967 fps. After much experimenting with 15 different loads using FFg, FFFg, cartridge black powder, and both Pyrodex and select black powder substitutes, I found this one to be the most accurate, giving match-winning results.

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