Paper patched bullets a blast from the past

John Moore

It has been said paper patched bullets were the original expanding bullets. Sportsmen of the day would cast bullets of differing hardness, usually by varying the amount of tin in their alloys, depending upon the game they intended to hunt.

In the mid-1800s the world’s sportsmen and most armies used paper patched bullets and rifles of all calibres, right down to .22 cal, were loaded with them. Many of today’s shooters haven’t even heard of them or, if they have, don’t know how they work or whether they may be of use to those of us who reload for our firearms.

I’ve shot a flintlock musket and they’re great fun if you have the chance. So let’s go back to the days of muskets such as the famous British Brown Bess. These were smoothbore flintlocks where the rifleman poured the charge of black powder down the barrel then placed a greased cloth patch over the muzzle, a round ball on top and pushed the whole lot down the barrel, seating it on the powder. Then it was up to the rifleman to make the powder ignite, sending the round ball on its way. Being a round ball it wasn’t too accurate.

Then someone discovered that if a projectile was made to spin, especially if elongated and spun at the right rate, it would fly true. Various ideas were tried with different bullet designs and all sorts of rifling. The powder was black powder, meaning low velocities so these early rifles shot large, heavy bullets which carried a long way. When it was realised that if a piece of paper was wound around the bullet it kept the lead bullet from touching the metal bore of the rifle, the paper patched bullet was born.

Breech-loading rifles using brass cartridge cases were invented, with target shooters at first loading by seating a bullet into the rifling (like World War Two 25-pounders) followed by a brass case containing the powder charge. Then came the fixed ammunition used nowadays. You’ve probably seen photos of paper patched bullets - large, rimmed, old-style cases loaded with a lead bullet but sporting a paper collar above the case mouth.

Paper patched bullets are made by winding a piece of paper, usually twice, around a lead bullet. When they were made commercially this was done by hand, usually involving female fingers. However, the lead bullets I make for patching are designed to fit the diameter of the bore, not the groove, which means the paper patch is at least partly cut by the rifling as it travels up the barrel. The bullet sheds the paper patch in pieces as it exits the muzzle. The paper acts as a kind of sabot.

So for a long period in the mid-1800s paper patched bullets were in vogue but this didn’t suit the Americans. Perhaps they didn’t have the labour to hand-make each bullet or because their focus was on production machines, but while their sportsmen used paper patched bullets, their arsenals broke ranks and made grooved lubricated bullets (what we know as cast bullets) for their 45-70 Government cartridge.

In the late-1800s engineers worked out how to draw suitable metals into long tubes, so jacketed bullets were born. And, of course, these could be made by machines so paper patched bullets died out commercially. Interestingly, some of the first jacketed bullets were marketed as metal patched bullets.

Don’t be concerned about the potential accuracy of paper patched bullets. In the late-1800s rifle shooting was a popular public sport with thousands turning up to watch important matches. Shooting was done offhand ie, standing up, using custom-built single-shot rifles aiming at targets 200 yards away with good shots achieving groups of 2^. Quite remarkable.

The ammunition was handloaded at the range, usually using the same brass case, with the bullets either seated separately or as fixed ammunition. Swaged bullets were found to be more accurate than cast at long range, because they didn’t contain any air bubbles. Paper patched bullets were preferred until it was proved around 1900 that the latest grooved bullet designs fired in the specially made target barrels were more accurate for this low velocity target shooting.

About 20 years ago I was frustrated when I couldn’t get a short, flat-nosed 30 cal bullet to work. Whatever I did they just leaded the barrel. These bullets had been cast using a high tin lead alloy and were probably 30 years old. I’d used them when working on farms as a lad with part of my job being vermin control. The gods must have been smiling when I put the load together as it would shoot into about one inch at 100 yards in several 308s I had, loaded to about 1600fps. I now know these alloys soften dramatically over time, so I was probably trying to shoot bullets with an alloy that had softened to be like plain lead.

I then read about paper patched bullets. I reasoned that if I used such a bullet it may not matter what the alloy was as it wouldn’t touch the metal of the barrel. So I made a reducing die, sized these troublesome old cast bullets down to bore size, wrapped them in some pad paper, wiped lube on them and fired. The bore remained clean as a whistle and I remember being amazed. Fast forward to today when I load paper patched bullets in larger calibre rifles - 308, 30-06, 38-55, 375 H&H and 45-70 - plus the heavier bullets for my 357 revolver for rams when I shoot Metallic Silhouette.

Most of the hunting I do is in the bush with shots usually at 50-100m, so, I want a bullet that will anchor a deer on the spot, which these do without fail. I’m talking about a wide, flat-nosed bullet around 300gr in a suitable alloy in 375 or 45 cal. The muzzle velocity of these hunting loads is 2000-2200fps but I’ve found I can prepare faster loads. A 270gr load from a 375 H&H at 2550fps, nearly a full power load, performs well if someone wants to shoot some of these. Note the 375 and 45 calibre rifles are Ruger No.1s so can handle the pressures these loads generate.

There’s a bank on our farm which looks down into a wet patch 170m away, ideal for a few 20-litre drums and boxes for some practice with sons and friends, shooting off our knees or over crossed sticks. The fall of shot can be easily seen. For fun shooting I find any alloy can be used, ranging from pure lead to wheel weights, any mixtures of these, and the scrap collected from the sandbox at the rifle testing range. If it can be melted, it seems to work well. If you’re contemplating having a go at paper patched bullets for hunting, at velocities where the impact velocity may be around 2000fps, please do some testing. I use a pretty hard alloy as soft bullets can flatten to a wafer on impact. The hunters and military of yesteryear used hard alloys for their serious work to ensure penetration.

Why would you make these bullets? I do because I can. They take a bit longer to make than good cast bullets but the idea of being able to shoot firearms with bullets made from scrap metal and wrapped in pieces of takeaway shop paper bags appeals. I can make bullets of any weight I wish to try, with any nose or base shape. I cast slugs of the desired weight then swage the final bullet but you can simply cast and size with good results if you wish. And it’s cheap shooting with the real costs only being the primer and powder, and wear on the barrel is minimal.

The lube I use is a mixture of beeswax and Vaseline which I find clean to use and very effective. Importantly there isn’t any fouling, copper or lead, so at the end of a shooting session all you need is a quick swab with rust preventative, though some shooters don’t bother to even do this. These bullets may be an idea for someone who can’t easily buy manufactured bullets.

If you’re interested, seek out a book called The Paper Jacket by Paul Matthews (Wolfe Publishing). Paul is a US technical writer and can be credited with documenting, before it was lost forever, a lot of the history and pros and cons involved in making paper patched bullets.

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