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Firearm Cartridges Part 2 – Breech Loading Rifles & Revolvers, Balloon Cases, Combos & More

The first metallic cartridges were wound metal pinned to a base. The patent for bored through revolver cylinders was held by Rollin White. The first cartridges were paper, but the patent was sold to Smith & Wesson, and history was changed as the longest lived metallic cartridge was introduced in 1857, the .22 Short cartridge.

Balloon Case

About 1860 the .44 Henry was introduced and like the .22 Short was a rimfire. The case was folded at the rim and the primer mixture was spun-in. This case was known as a “balloon case” because of the way it was formed, later solid head center fire cases were much stronger. The metallic cartridge was on the scene prior to the beginning of the Civil War. Most of the early cases where rimfire, both civilian and military. Because of their construction they were limited in strength. Early .45 Colt cases where balloon construction as well. Back then as with all cartridges, they were loaded with a fine black powder. Black powder has relatively low power and only about 40% is turned to gas while the rest is smoke and fouling. Fouling is the build up of residue in the bore. It ruins accuracy and eventually a muzzleloader cannot accept a projectile because the bore is plugged.

Breech Loading Rifles & Revolvers

Breech loaders will suffer accuracy but continue to carry on, of course black powder is a mixture of willow charcoal, potassium nitrate (saltpeter) and sulfur. The sulfur acted as a catalyst, while the charcoal was the fuel and potassium nitrate the oxidizer. Works but inefficient, some rifle rounds bordered around 2000 feet per second (fps), but the trend with black powder tended to be under 15OO fps, usually around 1200 fps. The only way to increase power was to punch out a larger chunk of lead. This is the reason the bore size and bullet weight went up.

Rifle Pistol Combo of the Same Caliber

The .44 Henry only held about 35 grains of powder, but with 15 rounds in the full rifle and 12 rounds in the carbine, the owner had unprecedented firepower, particularly against muzzle loaders. Repeaters like the Henry and Spencer became popular for those going west after the Civil War. In 1873 Winchester introduce the .44-40 and the .38-40 cartridges. Colt introduced their new Peacemaker single action revolver in both calibers and introduced us to the .45 Colt. The combination of a single cartridge for pistol and rifle was popular. The .45 Colt had better performance in the revolver, but the .44-40 performed better in the rifle. Until the Cowboy Action Shooting of today, the 45 Colt wasn’t a rifle cartridge. Also, in 1873 the US military adopted the “Trapdoor”- 1873 Springfield using the centerfire .45-70 cartridge replacing the stop gap .50-70, which was a popular up through the 20th century as a sporting caliber.

From Black Powder to Smokeless Propellants

Black powder ruled supreme until 1866 in Prussia when an artillery captain Johann Schultze introduced a new propellant of nitrated hard wood. This was the first of the smokeless propellants. By the late 1880’s many countries where converting their military to smokeless propellants. The US variant of the Danish Krag-Jorgensen rifle as the M1892 Springfield was adopted and thus was the first smokeless round in use by the US military. At .30 caliber and it was considered to be a small bore but offered high velocity, which lead to the next innovation, jacketed bullets. At velocities higher than 1500 fps leading occurs. Leading is the deposit of lead in the bore due to friction and heat leading to lead fouling and destroying accuracy. So the bullet was wrapped in a copper alloy jacket with a round nose and lead core. It was rimmed and armed the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Like the British fighting the Boers, both the Boers and Spanish where armed with 7mm Spanish Mausers shooting a pointed spitzer bullet. The spitzer, German for pointed, gave the Spanish and Boers a range advantage over the US Krag and the .303 British round nose bullets. The Krag never achieved over 2,200 fps and while .303 was just a bit faster the round nose restricted range. The US and British forces took a lot of casualties closing to within their effect range against their foes. To compound the problem for the US the infantry was still armed with Trapdoor Springfields in 45-70 and suffered all of the problems associated with black powder.

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