The Lamar Rifles

Making Realistic .58 Caliber Ball Ammunition

As living history interpreters, our main goal is to sustain an illusion while at an event. However, all this work in not made for the spectators' sake. Rather, it is for our benefit. The more realistic an environment we create around our camp and on the field, the better experience we will have. If we succeed in this task, the spectators will also be well served, as they will see the most realistic possible portrayal of the daily life of a Confederate infantryman.

This illusion includes historically accurate clothing, accouterments, personal items and weapons. Many of us go to great lengths to insure our uniforms and personal items are indistinguishable from the genuine article. Unfortunately, this is less true of the "business end" of being a soldier -- our weapons and ammunition. None of us would be caught dead wearing a farby uniform. Why should we be less concerned about our arms and ammunition?

This is the first installment of several articles I plan to write on the subject of Civil War small arms and ammunition. In particular, this article will describe the procedure for making realistic .58 caliber federal-style musket cartridges. I will also discuss how to package the cartridges (with percussion caps) in 10 round ordnance depot packs.

Later articles will discuss how more elaborate ammunition may be realistically produced, such as .69 caliber ball and "buck & ball" cartridges, imported Enfield cartridges, as well as the Gardner cartridge, a type commonly produced by Confederate laboratories.


The most complete description of cartridge making technique I have found is in the U.S. Army Ordnance Manual of 1856. That manual gives exact dimensions and composition for the cartridge papers for both .58 and .69 caliber arms. I am in search of a Confederate equivalent but as of yet have had no luck.

The technique described uses three seperate papers: a small piece of card stock to make a stiff tube containing the powder charge; an inner wrapper over the card stock tube to close it off near the bullet base and protect the powder from contamination by lubricant; and an outer wrapper which encloses the powder cylinder and bullet. The outer wrapper is tied at the top (at the rounded end of the ball) and is crimped over into a flap at the powder end. This flap is then folded over along the side of the cartridge.

The technique I will describe is much simpler and produces a round which looks identical to one made by the Ordnance Manual technique containing a real ball.

Tools & Supplies

First, you'll need a paper cutter for making the cartridge papers, papers for the caps, and the package wrappers. You can get a cheap one for about $15-$20 at an office supply store. Next comes the paper. The best (most realistic) paper to use is a 30lb unbleached newsprint. Get this at an art supply store in pads of 9" x 12" sheets. One pad of 50 sheets costs about $30 and is sufficient to make 200 rounds including paper for the caps and package wrappers. Get a bunch of glue sticks (the Ordnance Manual says to use glue -- it doesn't say what kind.) You will need string to tie the cartridges and the packs. I use cotton crochet thread which you can get at a fabric supply. It's heavy three-stranded thread and is identical to the stuff used on examples I've seen in museums. You will also need something to fill the space the bullet would occupy in the cartridge. The best thing for this is Charmin Ultra toilet paper -- one sheet occupies the same volume as a 500 grain Minie ball.

Now for the hard part. You need a .575" wooden dowel, about 10" long, for rolling the wrappers. A 9/16" dowel is pretty close (.5625") if you can find one. If not, take a 5/8" dowel and turn it or sand it down until it's the right size. The advantage of getting a true .575" dowel is that you can use it to make real rounds if you want to shoot live. Make sure the dowel is sanded smooth.

Turn of sand one end of the dowel into the ogive shape of a minie ball -- use a real ball for comparison. Smooth off the other (flat end) of the dowel slightly with sandpaper.

One final thing: you have to make two marks on the dowel -- one for tying the paper tube and one for ramming the "ball" into the tube. Put one mark 3.75" from the rounded end and one 3" from the flat end.

The final pieces of equipment you will need are some loading blocks and a crimping block. To make the loading blocks, use nice, flat pieces of 2x4 or 2x6 and drill 5/8" holes at regular intervals all the way through the block. The more you make the better. The crimping block is used to create the "tab" at the powder end of the cartridge. Use a single 6" length of 2x4 and drill a single 5/8" hole in the middle. glue a 1/2" x 1/2" x 4" strip of wood on each side so that when you stand the block on a table its top is 2.25" high off the table. You'll see why this is important in the Step 4 on finishing the rounds.


Making the Rounds

Step 1: Making the Tubes

To make 6 tubes, cut a sheet of paper into 4" x 4.5" rectangles. Stack up the resulting six pieces and make a cut to make a trapezoid. Using the glue stick, glue the diagonally cut edge of the paper. You can glue all 6 papers at once if you lay them out in a staggered fashion on top of each other. Then, starting from the edge opposite the glued edge, roll the wrapper around the dowel to form a tight tube. Set aside to dry and glue some more tubes. Make all your tubes before proceeding to the next step.

Step 2: Tying the Tubes

Now that you have a bunch of tubes, you are ready to tie them. Cut the crochet thread into 5" lengths, enough to tie all the tubes you have made. Slide a tube down onto the rounded end of the stick to the mark you made, making sure the end of the tube with more paper hangs over the rounded end of the stick.

Crimp the paper with your fingers over the top of the rounded end. Then, tie the tube off tightly right where the stick comes to a point. Cut off excess string and paper, leaving about 1/4". Do the rest of the tubes this way until they are all tied off. Your work will go faster if you do the steps one at a time to all the rounds.

Step 3: Making the "Ball"

Take a sheet of toilet paper and fold in half twice, until it is a square of half the original size. Fold one edge over one third of the way then roll it up lengthwise into a tight roll.

Stuff the "ball" into a tube, small end first and ram with the flat end of the dowel to the mark. Repeat for all the other tubes and place round end down in the blocks. This is a time consuming step but becomes much quicker with practice.

Step 4: Finishing the Rounds

Fill each tube with 65 grains (that's what the manual says) of FF black powder. The final step is making the "tab" which you tear when using the cartridge. This is difficult at first but will become easier with practice. Make sure you have at least one empty loading block for this step. Set your crimping block on the table, flat side up. Place a charged cartridge, "bullet" side down, in the block. Here's where it is important that the block be exactly 2.25" above the table. If you've done everything correctly to this point the powder charge will be flush with the top of the block. This gives a nice crimp.

Using the thumb and forefinger of both hands, flatten the protruding hollow tube. Fold the flat tube squarely away from you so that the paper lies flat on the block. Fold the "wings" of the flattened paper inward in thirds to form the tab. Fold the tab back toward you over the bottom of the cartridge. Remove the cartridge from the block, put a little glue on the tab, fold it aginst the side of the cartridge and place it in the block to dry. Repeat this step for the rest of the rounds until the block is full. Let dry for 5 - 10 min. and empty the completed rounds into a container.

Step 5: Packaging the Rounds

If you want to package caps with your rounds (hey -- you've gone this far already -- why be farby now?) you need to make more small tubes to put them in. For this you can just use tubes you have made for rounds. Flatten, crimp and glue one end of the tube. When dry, fill with 12 primers (this is the Federal standard -- Confederate laboratories typically packaged 13 primers due to their lower reliability) and seal the other end.

Cut some 9" x 4" pieces of paper. Glue one oend of the paper. Wrap 10 rounds in the paper, five "bullet" side up and five down. Seal one end like you would a Christmas package. Place the package of caps in the open end, fold it over and seal it.

It's a good idea to glue a label on the package. If you have access to good labels, let me know. I'm working on obtaining / reproducing stamps to make realistic labels for various Federal and Confederate arsenals. Some Confederate packages are labeled with a stamp on the wrapper rather than a stick-on label.

Once you have a label on the package, tie it, package-style, with a 15" length of the crochet thread and cut off the excess. Of the Confederate arsenals, Selma, Augusta and Macon were known to put the label under the string; Charleston tied the package then glued the label over the string; Columbus did not use string but relied on the glue of the label to hold the package closed, and Richmond stamped the package rather than labeling it. Consistency is not known.


By the time you've made a few packages of rounds, you'll no doubt be ready to quit. Don't worry -- this takes patience like anything else worth doing. It took me a while to figure this out but I'm at the point where I can make about 30 rounds per hour including packaging.



-Author unknown


Trapezoid dimensions
Trapezoid dimensions for the cartridge tubes.
.69 Caliber Rounds
.69 Caliber rounds

.69 Caliber Packs
Finished .69 Caliber Ammunition Packs (10 Cartridges and 13 Caps)




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