Friday, August 8, 2014

Rifle-muskets, paper cartridges, and a cherished memory

One of the latest trends in the Civil War hobby is the use of original style paper cartridges to live fire rifles, rifled muskets, and rifle-muskets in the “traditional” manner, and I must admit I have crossed the river. After the recent Muskets and Memories Civil War weekend at Boscobel, Wis., I find myself left with an empty wooden St. Louis Arsenal box that was once full of 30 wrapped packets of 10 cartridges each, a work space littered with snippets of paper and string, and a sore left elbow from rolling tubes. It is all the fault of my grandson, Gabriel, and—bless him—my desire to show him a different side of musket shooting.

 The use of paper cartridges for as been around for a time and a number of shooters have enjoyed taking a step back in time to roll paper tubes, tie one end shut, then load a Minie ball and powder before folding the tale. It takes a while longer produce such cartridges then it does to type those words, however, and  the practice has been limited to the few individuals interested in trying to replicate the Civil War experience of live firing an 1861-65 style shoulder arm.

I must confess I have long been a member of the North-South Skirmish Association, Inc., the organization which holds marksmanship competitions for all sorts of Civil War firearms and artillery, first with the old Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers and now the Union Guards, as well as a longtime member of the American Civil War Shooters Association, a similar organization based in the Midwest.  The N-SSA is in the process of developing a “traditional” match for five-member teams using issue-style paper cartridges and firearms with original sight configurations.  The ACWSA actually put the idea to a test in a recent demonstration at Boscobel, Wis.

Nineteen participants, a mix of about a dozen living historians and a handful of ACWSA members, shot more than 240 paper cartridges in two five minute relays. The first target was a 4x4 foot sheet of drywall at 100 yards and the second a mass of mounted clay pigeons on a backer at 50 yards. The first event was by volley fire and the second rapid fire. The cartridges were issued in arsenal packs of 10 each from a replica wooden arsenal box. The cartridges contained a Burton-style hollow-base bullet of the type developed in the late 1850s along with an internal powder tube and 60 grains of Goex FFg black powder.

The living historians, with little live fire experience, seemed to be fascinated with the paper cartridges and the live fire experience. They were quick to point out how much they had learned about how potent the old rifle-muskets proved to be and how the ramming of actual bullets slowed the loading procedure. The shooters quickly adapted to the paper cartridges and some skirmishers with experience said they found them just as fast as the plastic tubes used to quick loading.

The chawing of cartridges and furious loading was a sight to see.  As my comrade from the old Sixth Wisconsin, Pvt. Johnny Dunn, likes to say, “Once you shoot paper you can never go back.”

As for my grandson, who began his reenacting as a drummer boy in the “Seeing the Elephant” in-the-round video for the Civil War Museum at Kenosha, Wis., and now plays “the devil’s tattoo” for Co. K, Second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, the live fire of paper cartridges experience is a memory he will long cherish. The same can be said for his grandfather and the others who participated or watched.

A special thanks to the ACWSA for hosting and developing this event, and a nod to my friend N-SSA Commander Phil Spaugy and others for encouragement and help in making it a reality.

Now I am wondering how this traditional shooting of Civil War style muskets is going to develop. I know one thing—it sure is a lot of fun.

Videos of the traditional shooting can be seen at: