The Origin of Cartridge Paper

The origin of cartridge paper is usually thought to have been associated with the manufacture of ammunition but this is not strictly true. The link between gunpowder, fireworks and paper is much older. Bamboo firecrackers, fuelled by gunpowder, became an important part of Chinese religious rituals and festivals from c.500AD.

The Chinese though were well aware of the killing power of these explosive devices and quickly applied them to warfare. Within about 100 years, they were using gunpowder to create a variety of explosives, including bombs and "fire arrows" - bamboo firecrackers attached to regular arrows and shot at the enemy.

It is believed that around 600 AD rather than using bulky bamboo stems, firecracker makers began filling paper tubes with gunpowder and inserting fuses made from tissue paper with a trail of gunpowder inside. This application is the first known use of "cartridge" paper. By 1045 the use of gunpowder & rockets formed an integral aspect of Chinese military tactics. (1)

The use of explosives in warfare mainly arrows, portable cannon, incendiary jars & firecrackers spread from China into the Arab world and in a book on various trades and descriptions compiled by King al-Muzaffar Yusuf Rasul dating 1294 there is an early description of the making of a paper case cartridge for a firecracker.

"Fold a sheet of paper four or five folds on a mould. The mould is a rod that is turned to the

thickness of a finger. Fold very tightly, five or six plies Take it off the mould Seal its head very tightly & fill with barud and the charcoal of a willow tree together& seal its end very securely.

If you want to give it fire, pierce the head with a small piercing iron & insert a fuse, which has been twisted very well. Glue the fuse to the hole& move away. It will crack & move with explosive noise " (3)

Exactly how and when the knowledge of gunpowder & its uses are thought to have been discovered by Europeans is still a matter of debate & on-going research by military historians.(4)

Contemporary accounts describe rocket like weapons being used by the Mongols against the Magyar forces at the Battle of Sejo in 1241 and the Christians came up against these new Arab weapons when fighting in the Crusades.

The Spanish historian, Juan de Mariana,(5) relates that the Earl of Derby & the Earl of Salisbury were at the Siege of Algeciras (al- Jazira) which took place between 1324 - 1344.The historian, Richard Watson, believes that they may have brought the knowledge of gunpowder & cannon to the English who used in the Battle of Crecy in 1346 (6)

Such was the superiority, power & sheer noise of gunpowder-powered weaponry that the use of artillery spread quickly throughout Western Europe .To meet the challenge of the new type of warfare, the English Crown reorganised the Wardrobe of Arms into the Privy Wardrobe of the Tower in 14th century with the appointment of the first Master of Ordnance in 1414. Following further reorganisation in 1683 it assumed the form which it was to preserve, largely unaltered, into the nineteenth century and was known as the Board of Ordnance.

Amongst the Board's principal responsibilities were the provisions of arms and ammunitions including the supply of gun accessories such as pouches, belts & paper for making ammunition cartridges. (7)

The records of the British Board of Ordnance mentioned above are a prime source of information about the nature of military & naval supplies. For example in March 1672/3 the records indicate that the East India Company purchased 14 reams of cartridge paper, (8) following that in July 1673 with another 22 reams (9) & in the following March with 40 reams. (10) By the 1680's orders for cartridge paper are common.

In the 18th century orders were placed not only for simple Musquet Cartridge Paper but also for a more expensive "Dutch Cartridge Paper. - this may have been a heavier paper for cannon. Whether the "Dutch" cartridge paper was actually made in Holland is not known.

The supplier's quotations and the complaints correspondence between the Inspectors at the Board of Ordnance in London and the East India Company Inspectors in India are particularly revealing. For example in February 1802 the East India Company placed an order for 4,000 reams. (11) When 25,000 quires of this order arrived in Calcutta in March 1805 approximately 25% of the paper was judged as being of bad quality & & too thin for the purpose intended; it also was described as having a number of small lumps which could chafe off & leave holes.

Back in London a sample of this paper was compared with the standard paper held at the Tower & no difference could be found as to thickness. Messrs Dickinson & Son, said by the inspector to be the best Cartridge papermakers in England were called in & asked to examine the samples without being told which was which. . Dickinson attested in writing that the sample returned from Calcutta was as good a cartridge paper as could be desired. After finding no fault with 1100 reams of cartridge paper still awaiting dispatch, the inspector rejected the complaint with the following remark: (12)

"Where such immense quantities as 9000 reams or 4320,000 sheets go to India in one year & are required for shipping as fast as it is ready to examine every sheet could not be done .but...each ream is weighed & the different quires are promiscuously selected and compared with the sample..." (See note 3)

Another criticism from Bengal received the following reply:

"As to its (paper) not standing the damp of India, the inspector begs to observe, that it stands very well in this Country of clouds, damp & rain." (England) (13)

There was also a series of unresolved complaints received from Bombay between 1810 - 1817 which led to them to order packing paper for making up cartridges cases. The Board's response was explicit.

"The value of cartridge paper cannot consist in colour but in its tenacity of remaining in the soldiers pouches without cutting, rubbing or suffering damp to reach the powder. Regular Cartridge paper is made from coarse unbleached bagging, the packing paper from a bleached & more expensive material but less strong (if equal substance) & to give it a softness it has a proportion of paper shavings which must render it more absorbent of moisture & less tenacious." (14)

The cartridge paper supplied to the Board of Ordnance for muskets had to be made to tight technical specifications, as it had to

perform several functions. The description of loading a musket makes this clear.

To load the musket the soldier held it horizontally, took out his paper cartridge & tore open the powder end with his teeth. (Hence the origin of the saying "to bite the bullet") He poured a little powder into the priming pan & shut it - holding the musket vertically. Pouring in the remaining powder down the muzzle he immediately pushed in the rest of the paper tube still containing the ball & rammed it down the bore. The force of the rammer crumpled the empty part of the tube on top of the powder into a rough wad & the fact that the ball was still encased in paper stopped it

rolling back out again if the musket was lowered. (16)

For muskets cartridges the paper had to be weak enough to be bitten through by the soldier yet be resistant to any abrasion during storage in a pouch. A good compressibility was needed to form a reasonable gas seal when the case was rammed down the muzzle & the paper had to be well sized so as to prevent the powder becoming damp yet soft enough to bear chocking

with twine (15 &16)

Ball ammunition also required paper with a consistent thickness as not to make a ball wrapped in it too tight in the barrel. (16)

That this was of importance is indicated by a change in specification between 1802 to - 1806 - 07& c1847 when the weight gradually increased from 9.5lb to 10lb per ream to 14 lbs by c1847 so as to adjust the gap between the ball & the bore & thus the balance between ease of loading & accuracy at the target.(17)

With the adoption of small firearm usage by the infantry the supply of a standardised cartridge became even more important & the Board took a pro- active role in trying to insure uniformity of supplies whilst always looking to make improvements in materials and equipment design.

One simple innovation was the introduction of coloured cartridge papers to identify clearly the difference between blank & balled ammunition. In a note dated 1811 the Board stated that "In his Majesty's Service white cartridge paper is invariably used for Ball & blue for Light or Blank ammunition." (18)

A green paper was supplied for making up & packing blank cartridges for use with a separate ball for the new Two-Grooved rifle. (19)

However, when battles were fought far away or supplies scarce soldiers or armourers would obtain the paper for making the paper cases wherever they could find it. Dard Hunter relates a story that during the American War of Independence, after the British Army had withdrawn from Philadelphia, the Americans were so short of cartridge paper that they used about 2500 copies of a sermon printed in Benjamin Franklin's printing shop. (20)

As one might expect machine made cartridge paper seems to have come into British use c 1815 -17.John Dickinson, the papermaker, was one of the Board's suppliers not only of cartridge paper for small arms but also for cannon cartridge paper. A man of great drive & thought,

On 12th November 1807 he took out a patent for "a cannon cartridge paper manufactured on an improved principle", by mixing in certain proportions wool or woollen rags to the linen rags or other material at the half stuff stage, by means of which "when the paper is lighted by the explosion of the powder in the gun, it is prevented from retaining sparks of fire after the flame goes out. This paper did not smoulder & so cause premature explosion. (21)

A typical quotation for the Board by Dickinson's is shown by the quotation dated 13th April 1847 below:

70 Reams of Cannon Cartridge paper

900 reams white musket Cartridge Paper

300 reams of Green Cartridge paper 14lbs (40gms)

250 Reams of strong white paper for Wrapping 45lb (21a)


Makings for the Board did not always go smoothly. Joan Dickinson in her book The Endless Web mentions that that on 19th January 1821 her husband had a letter by coach to say all the East Company ammunition paper was bad so they will be obliged to take it back at a great loss owing to George (John's younger brother) not attending to it while they made it.

The history of cartridge paper appears to be a neglected area of research by paper historians. The few brief descriptions discovered cited John Krill's book "English Artists Paper Renaissance to Regency."(22)

The first usage of the term "artists" cartridge paper is attributed to a drawing paper with a rough surface. Ackerman's advertisement of 1802 carries a description of simply a wove cartridge paper for Mounting & Sketching. A later sample of wove cartridge paper provided by Ackerman was pale beige

or of white in colour (whited brown) & made from white & darker colour fibres. What is particularly interesting is Krill's reference to a request received by the papermaker William Balston in 1798 to manufacture a cartridge paper to be used to mount works of art on paper. For William Balston supplied cartridge paper to the Board of Ordnance. (23)


Cartridge paper today bears little resemblance to that made in the 19th century or earlier. This article describes only one type of cartridge paper - that made for making paper case cartridges for small arms. Specialised cartridge papers of different thickness, strengths & coatings were made for pyrotechnics, port fires, rockets, tin case shot, & other forms of artillery. Wrapping paper was also used in great quantity for bundling ammunition as can be seen from John Dickenson's quotation above and from quotations from paper merchants in the Board of Ordnance Records. (24)

Of the huge volumes of cartridge papers that were produced little has survived: those fragments that remain are usually severely degraded & discoloured due to being in contact with black powder. Because the cartridge papers used by artists in the early 1800's were not ephemeral they may well be the best surviving examples of one of the most important grades of paper ever produced in the 19th century.


This article could not have been written without the help & advice of David Harding, Martin Hinchcliffe, National Army Museum, Moira Buick, Alfred Witherwick, Mark Griffen & Fritz Easthope, the Ely Cartridge Company, & C.W.Harding, Birmingham Gun Barrel Museum. If there are any technical mistakes of a military nature they are entirely of my own making!


1.Dard Hunter states that in 1630 paper cartridges first used by Gustavus Adolphus (1594 -1632) King of Sweden and the Swedish paper historian, Bo Rudin,

states that Lessebo Mill in Sweden was founded at the close of 17th Century to meet the demand for cartridge paper, which had previously been imported. (25)

2. An interesting thought is that soldiers must have good front teeth! Records indicate that during the American Revolution, some English soldiers avoided conscription

by knocking their upper teeth.

3. The following production figures for arms from the Board of Ordnance during the American War of Independence & the Napoleonic Wars hint at the level of production

of cartridge paper. During this period, some 298,000 small arms from purchased from English contractors and a further 504,000 arms through other domestic & foreign sources. In 1804 the Tower of London itself for the first time became a manufacturing facility and by 1815 some 2-and-half million arms had been produced by 164 contractors. (7)

4. 14lbs (The English-made cartridge paper of the East India Company (& Board of Ordnance) certainly C1800-1850 came in a sheet size of 22 ins x 17 ins.) (17)


1. A Brief History of RocketryAuth. NASA'fi funun (/?)Auth Rasul (d.1294)

4. Gunpowder Composition for Rockets in Arabic Military Treatises in the 13th & 14th Centuries.


5.Historia General de Espana 2 vols Madrid 1608Auth. Juan de Mariana

6. Chemical Essays vol 1 London 1787Auth. Richard Watson

7. British Board of Ordnance Small Arms Contractors 1689 - 1840 Auth. De Witt Bailey

8. OIOC: L/AG/1//5/3

9. OIOC: L/AG/1/6/3

10. OIOC: L/AG/1/5/4

11. NA1: BIMBP 1-22 Feb.

12. OIOC: L/MIL /3/2447

13. Small Arms of the East India Company. Vol. 1 3Auth.D.H. Harding

14. OIOC L/MIL/3

15/ 16.Private Correspondence C.W.Harding / DH Harding.

17Private Correspondence D.H. Harding


19. Small Arms of the East India Company Vol. 13 & 4Auth.D F Harding

20. Papermaking. The History & Technique of an Ancient Craft: Author Dard Hunter.

21. The Endless Web Auth Joan Dickinson

21a. LF2 108

22. English Artists Paper Auth. John Krill

23. William Balston Papermaker 1759 -1849Auth. Thomas Balston.

24.LF2 108

25. Making Paper -A Look into the History of an Ancient Craft. Auth. Bo Rudin.

Copyright Griffen Mill 2017