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Making a Cartridge Case.
The Evolution of Cartridges in America

     Industrial Manufacturing Methods are always very Top Secret! Later, when the process becomes obsolete, everything is thrown away. The real details of making that item is lost and forgotten. Machinery is scrapped and people who did the actual brain work die.

     Some cartridges have lasted for Years. The 22 rimfire Short is a good example. Smith and Wesson introduced their first little 22 rimfire revolver in 1857. This revolver used the Rollin White, bored through cylinder patent. It was chambered for the 22 Short Rimfire. The 22 Short is still around. There have been many advances in material, priming and powder. It would be fun for an old machinist like me to see the Manufacturing process they used back in 1857. That is not possible. All we can see is what manufacturers are doing today. If they will let you look!

     Fortunately, we do have Patent Drawings and Original Cartridges to look at. They do not show the whole process of making a Cartridge case. They do give us a general idea of how the process was developed.

     By September, 1868 we had those first Reloadable Centerfire Cartridges designed by Hiram Berdan. Armies around the World adopted these new Centerfire Cartridges. American Riflemen loved the idea too. Shooting Rifles was a National Sport.

     Check out these patents and pictures. You will get an idea of how those Cartridge Cases you Reload were first invented and made for American Riflemen. Our Great Grandads thought it was a Big Deal! 

Winchester 45-75 Cartridges

     As you wander around a show, keep and eye out for Cartridges for your favorite Rifles. A box like the one pictured above can tell you a lot.

     I would Never cut up a cartridge from a box like this. It is much too hard to find a complete box. I would Never sell a single Cartridge out of a complete box like this. I hate it when people do that!

     There are plenty of single Cartridges for sale out there. If you want just one, then check out the Auction sites. You can find a single example easily.

     I have always made a habit of buying Old, Fired Cartridge Cases. I seem to find one or two at every show. Sometimes I will buy a whole bag of stuff. Metal detector finds are common. 

     The cases below came from many different places. Most were corroded and damaged in different ways. I usually have several of each. Sometimes dozens. For the Image below, I picked out the worst ones I had of each type. I hate to cut them up, but you can't really tell how they are constructed unless you sacrifice a few.

     Check out the following pictures. I saved you the trouble, time and effort. Many of these are 100 to 150 years old. As always, there were a few surprises and I learned a lot!

50-70 Cartridge Designs

     There is no way I could ever assemble all the different Cartridge Case Designs here, all by myself. I do buy any interesting examples I can. I will keep adding new images over time. Then you won't have to cut up your collectors items.

T. G. Bennett and Winchester

     This 1880 Patent is a good example of How a Cartridge case is made. These are the steps a Flat Metal Disc goes through to become a Solid Head, Brass, Cartridge Case. (Here they call it a Cartridge-Shell). This is not the whole story by far. You can see Ten basic steps in the patent drawing.


     1. You must have a powerful Mechanical Press to form the metal in each of these steps.

     2. You must have very strong, very hard, highly polished dies made for each step in the process. One Male and one female. The dies must have some type of plunger built in to push the metal out of the female die or off the male die. (A complicated die)

     3. When each clean piece of metal is pressed into a die, it must be soaked in lubricant. The lubricant cools the metal and makes it move easily. The pressure is so great that the metal literally flows like a thick liquid. This is sometimes referred to as Extrusion.

     4. Copper and Brass ( non ferrous) type metals get Hard and Brittle when subjected to pressure. Between each step the metal must be heated very hot and quenched in water to soften it. (Avid Reloaders know this. Occasionally, cases have to be Annealed, (softened) so they will not get too hard and crack. The Cartridge Cases also grow longer when fired and occasionally have to be trimmed back to proper length.) Then each piece must be cleaned of all oxidation between each step. The lubricant, Die and Metal Part must be absolutely clean or the die and metal part might be damaged.

      This all sounds like a lot of steps, but you must remember that you are making a lot of cartridges. With each step you usually make Hundreds or Thousands of cartridge-shells. Our ancestors were very clever at making this process completely automated. Even when they were using Water Wheels and Flat Leather Belts to drive their Machinery.

Winchester 1880 Cartridge Patent

     This Patent Drawing tells us what Winchester was doing in 1880. One step at a time, from a disc of metal, to a fully formed solid head cartridge. This was a very advanced process compared to cartridges made even five years earlier. It is very similar to the cartridges we use today. Winchester produced a huge selection of Rifle and Pistol cartridges using this process. Far more than just the cartridges for their rifles. All centerfire and all Reloadable. This Patent contributed to the amazing success of Winchester.

     NOTE: T.G. Bennet was an interesting fellow. He arranged the purchase of John Browing's 1879 patent for his Single Shot Rifle. Browning made the rifles himself, in Ogden Utah, for a few years. In 1883, Bennett heard of the rifle and took a train out West to make a deal. By 1885 Winchester was producing what we now call the 1885 Single Shot Rifle. In 1890, Bennett became President of Winchester. He continued his relationship with Browning for 19 or 20 years, buying most of his patents on a royalty basis.

     Bennett also assembled the Winchester Collection of Antique Firearms. I was lucky enough to go to Connecticut way back in the 1970's to view the collection before it was broken up. The nice stuff was given to the Cody Museum. The rest was sold or thrown away. That included a lot of drawings and models we sure wish we had today. A real Shame!

The Centerfire Cartridge Cases

     There were a Lot of Centerfire Primer and Cartridge Patents. Not all of them were Used by American Cartridge Manufacturers and Arsenals. Some were complex and impractical. Some did not have any hope of working out in the field. Springfield and Frankford Arsenal came up with their own designs. They seemed to be arrogant or ignorant and did not try very hard to patent their ideas.

     In the years after the Civil War, there was a "Golden Age of Cartridge Development." We went from Rimfire to Centerfire Cartridges. A progression of new Centerfire designs allowed American Riflemen to Reload Cartridges Easily. American Riflemen Loved the Idea. Riflemen wanted to improve Accuracy. This was both a Hobby and a Profession for Great Grandad.

     The Rimfire was O.K. for small, short Cartridges. Big cartridges with Black Powder were not that great. The Big Rimfire Cartridges with Black Powder, produced a lot of fouling. After 20 or so shots, there would be so much Black Powder Fouling, it became hard to push a new cartridge into the chamber. In most Rifles, the Breech Block would hit the Rim on it's edge, first. Trying to force it in, could Detonate the Rimfire Cartridge. We have no idea how many people had Big Rimfires Blow up in Their Face!

     Firearms Manufacturers tried Big Rimfires for a short time, then Dropped them very quickly. They realized that the Centerfire, with the cap or primer in the Protected Center of the Cartridge Head was necessary. It was the only way to make a practical, Safe, Large Caliber Cartridge.

     In the middle of a battle, you did not have time to stop and clean out your Rifle Barrel. You had to be able to push in a tight Cartridge without fear of Premature Detonation!

Benet Internal Primed Centerfire

     I had to cut up 3 of my 50-70 fired cases to get this image. If you look close, you can see the Folded Rim of All the Rimfire Cartridges. The hollow rim would hold the fulminate that would detonate a Rimfire Cartridge.

     Stephen V. Benet , a designer at Frankford arsenal, came up with this "Cup" idea. ( Along with many other ideas) Frankford arsenal already had advanced Rimfire Cartridge Manufacturing Capability. 

    This Cartridge was a Big, Long, Rimfire Style Cartridge Case, with a cup pressed and crimped into the inside, to make it a Centerfire Cartridge.

    These Cartridges were made of an easily formed, copper colored metal, called Gilding Metal. This is a form of Brass, an alloy of copper and Zinc. ( 95% copper and 5 % Zinc) This stuff was used for everything from Pennies to Civil War buttons, to Bullet Jackets. It is easily formed to any shape and easily plated. ( Buttons were often plated)

     This was an easy step for Frankford Arsenal. They were already making Rimfire Cartridges and Detonating Fulminate. Making this little cup was not a problem! The thin base was soft enough to allow the firing Pin and Heavy Hammer of the Trapdoor Rifles to detonate the Fulminate in the little cup by denting the Base of the cartridge.

     The only big problem was the Thin Folded Rim made of a Very Soft Gilding Metal. The Springfield, Trapdoor Rifles had a little flapper type Extractor. If the Barrel and Chamber was fouled badly, the Extractor could pull through this Weak Rim. Then your Rifle was just a Club. Probably not as useful as a Tomahawk!

     These Cartridges were made in; 58 Musket and Carbine, 50-70 Rifle and Carbine, 45-55 carbine, 45-70 Rifle, 45 Colt, 45 Schofield, 44 old Model Colt and probably others. Frankford Arsenal continued to make these for many years, while buying more modern, advanced Cartridges from Commercial Manufacturers. These empty Cartridge Cases are scattered all over The West. People often mistake them for Rimfires.

Benet Primed Steel Cup

     While going through my bags of old 50-70 brass, I found two Cartridge Cases that were a little different. They had a Darker Patina, indicating a little different Alloy of Gilding Metal. One had two wide crimp grooves around the base. Another one had a narrow crimp, just 1/4 inch wide. Otherwise they looked much the same, with a small bevel around the outside of the rim.

Benet Primed 50-70
Benet Primed 50-70

     These had to have been made in some numbers. After all, they were found out here in The West. 

     I picked out the worst one, to split it open and look inside. This happened to be the Case with the Wide crimp grooves at the base. The case you see Above Right, with the Narrow Crimp, may be a little different inside. There was a Martin, Bar Primed Cartridge Case, which is pretty scarce. They had a narrow crimp at the base. Later Martin Primed Cases are shown below. This Case is so corroded it is hard to tell what is inside. Cutting it might destroy it. I can pick it up with a magnet, so there is steel inside. I will wait until I find another one or two, before I cut one of these in half!

     I found it was almost impossible to split the base on the upper Cartridge. A hardened steel saw blade went dull immediately. Fortunately, I had one diamond blade for my saw. The diamond cut through, but the steel cup was hard as glass!

     As you can see, this Steel Cup is much like the Gilding Metal Cups. They are heavily corroded after 140 years or so, outside in the ground. This is an interesting variation I was not familiar with. It is easy to identify these Cases with a Steel Cup because a magnet will pick them up.

     The Steel cup did not correct the Thin, Folded Rim Problem. It may have made the Base a bit stronger.

Martin Primed Cartridge
Martin Patent Primer

     The photo above left, is from Special thanks for allowing me to use his information and images. I only have One of these Martin, Internal Primed Cases. It was found here in New Mexico and was a gift from Ed Curtis. I will not cut it apart.

     These are often mis-identified on the internet!

     No! That is not a Primer you see in the Center of the Cartridge Base! It is a fold, pressed into the base. The priming compound and an upside-down cup are crimped into the inside!

     These are also found scattered all over the West. They were made in 50-70, 45-70, 45 Colt, 45 Schofield and 44 Old Model Colt. Maybe others.

     Frank Sellers mentions these Martin Primed Cartridges in " Sharps Firearms" pages 334 and 335. Frank had access to the Original Sharps Records when Bill Pease owned them. ( Before Dr. Moore) He, and Dewitt Bailey III did a lot of research. They said;

     " The first metallic cartridges made by or for the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford were made by the company using the Martin Patent Machinery at Springfield Arsenal. These Martin Patent cartridges were of two types; the very early folded head, patent type cartridges and the later bar-primed type. Both were packed in paper wrapped cardboard boxes, which did not carry any indication of who made them. These cartridge boxes are marked MARTIN'S CENTRE FIRE CARTRIDGES, with data on the cartridge and it's load. At least two boxes are known with a hand-stamped Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company Label."

     So, if you have some Martin Primed Cartridges, they might be some sold by Sharps, or they may be Military Issue. An Important Historic Point of Interest.

     Later, Sharps bought Berdan Primed Cartridge Cases from U.M.C and loaded their own Cartridges. Still later, they bought Complete (1868) Berdan Patent Cartridges from U.M.C.

     The Martin Primed Cartridges of both types, had the same problem as earlier Government Cartridges. The Folded, Gilding Metal Rim was weak. The extractor could pull through the Rim if a Cartridge Case stuck in a Badly Fouled Chamber.

Berdan Patent, 1868

     The Colonel Hiram Berdan Cartridge Patent of September 29, 1868 was a real turning point for Cartridges, Primers and Reloading. ( H. Berdan of Civil War Berdan Sharpshooters Fame)

     Berdan's Cartridge design still used the Folded Rim used in the Gilding Metal Rimfire and Centerfire Cartridges. There was a big change in the Metal he used. His Cartridge used a "Cartridge Brass" Metal. The Gilding Metal of earlier Cartridges was composed of 95% Copper and 5% Zinc. Cartridge Brass was a combination of about 70% Copper and 30% Zinc. This combination is much stronger, and very formable when shaping the Cartridge Case. This probably happened because of much experimentation and Improved Machinery developed by our U.S. Cartridge Manufacturers. 

     Along with improved Metallurgy, there was an Outside Primer. Percussion Cap Technology was well known. The Percussion Cap had been around for years. All Berdan did, was to make the Percussion Cap larger in diameter and thinner. You could drill a hole in a piece of wood the size of the Cartridge Case Body. Drop the Cartridge Case in the hole in the wood. It would stop on the Rim. Then you could poke a hole in the old primer with an Awl and pop the old primer out. ( This caused many Berdan Decapping Tool Patents to be filed.)

U.M.C. 40-50 Cartridge

     This is a super example of a 40-50 Sharps or Remington Bottleneck cartridge, based on Hiram Berdan's 1868 Cartridge Patent. You can see every detail, including the foil lining that holds the Fulminate or Priming Compound in place. I did not make this one. The fellow that did this sure knew what he was doing! I just bought this one, and I am glad I did! This was a great find for me.

Berdan Cutaway Cartridge

     I had a few of these 50-70 Berdan Patent Cartridge Cases in the bags of old stuff I have saved through the years. As usual, I picked out the worst one and cut through the Head and Primer. After 140 years out in the weather, there were a few holes corroded right through the Cartridge Case Walls.

     I got lucky with this one. It shows all the details of the early Berdan Patent 50-70. This example shows how the firing Pin strikes the Primer, Fulminate and Anvil extremely well. Chamber Pressure pushed the Primer back against the Breech Block Face when the Cartridge Fired. The Large, Round, Firing Pin Indentation shows that this Cartridge was fired in a Sharps Sporting Rifle. The Military Carbines and Rifles had a rectangular Firing Pin. The Remington Rolling Block had a Smaller, Round Nose Firing Pin.

     Sharps sold a lot of 50-70 Cartridges with Grooved Lubricated Bullets. This is no surprise since that was the Standard 50 Government Load. Sharps also sold these Cartridges with a 473 or 500 grain Paper Patch Bullet. This cartridge was probably loaded with a Paper Patch Bullet. I say this because there is no sign of a Crimp at the case mouth. The Grooved, Lubricated lead bullets were held in place with a heavy crimp at the case mouth. Usually there is some of that crimp left, after firing, in all crimped cartridges. 

     This is still a folded head Cartridge, but it is very much improved by better Metal and Cartridge Technology.

Milbank primer patent (2).PNG
milbank primer1.jpg

     This is a strange little Cartridge. It was the Very First Patent Winchester had. This Patent was probably used for the Very Last, Model 1866 Winchester rifles that were made with Centerfire Firing Pins. These were probably used for a while, for the First 44-40 cartridges for the Model 1873 Winchester Rifles.

     This is still a Folded Head Cartridge but it is different. Milbank or Winchester figured out a way to insert a metal plate in the rim, when they formed the Cartridge. This plate would strengthen the Rim of the Cartridge. The Winchesters had very thin extractors. Reinforcing the Rim was logical. I doubt these worked well but this was all Winchester had.

     The earliest 44-40 Model 1875 Winchester Reloading Tools had a Slot and Chisel for removing Berdan Patent Primers. Winchester may have given up on this Milbank Patent. They may have either Made, or Bought Berdan Patent Cartridges in 44-40 caliber, until they got Patents of their own.

winchester 1874 primer patent.JPG

     Winchester probably Heaved a Big Sigh of Relief when they got this patent. They had to apply to The Patent Office many times to get it. Once they had these Cartridges in Production, they quit putting a Berdan Chisel on their 44-40, Model 1875 Reloading Tools. ( They did keep it on other Calibers)  

    This July, 1874 Winchester Patent shows what Collectors call a Balloon Head Cartridge. The Rim is solid Brass, but the Base and Primer Pocket are Very Thin. In figure 4 you can see the Head of the Cartridge. This is very different from the 1880 Winchester Cartridge Shell Patent you can see at the top of this page.

    Figure 4 shows us what Winchester was doing at this point in time. They must have thrown a lot of money at forming Brass Cartridge Cases. They advanced Quickly to Much Thicker, Solid Head Cartridges.

    I don't have any of these Milbank 44-40 cartridges to cut in half. I also do not have any Berdan Primed 44-40 Cartridges. They were so thin and delicate, there are probably not many left around, but I will keep looking. 

E. Remington & Sons 50-70
Remington Raised Headstamp

     Ed Curtis describes this as a Balloon Head Cartridge with an added cup pressed in. The added cup looks a lot like the 1868 Berdan Patent Cartridge. This seems to be the next logical step in Cartridge Design after the 1868 Berdan Patent. I am guessing these were made sometime between 1873 and 1875. There is very little information available on this design.  

     The Cartridge Base is Very Thin. Remington must have thought the Base Needed this extra Metal Cup for Strength. The Rest of the Cartridge Case is thick and Strong. This is probably the best Remington could do at the time. They did form a Thick, American Type Primer pocket that looks strong. 

     Remington did have the Smoot patent Primer of 1875. for their Cartridges. The Smooth is one of many American Patent Primers. 

     If these Cartridges were made before 1875, Remington must have used some other American Patent Primer.

Farrington Primed 50-70
U.S. Cartridge Co. 50-70

     I had two of these 50-70 Cartridges stashed away in my stuff. I think this could be called a Balloon head Cartridge. The base is thinner than the Rim.

     At First Glance they look like a Very Late 50-70 Cartridge for the Remington Hepburn Rifle. Most folks look at that round Head and say Hepburn! Hepburn!!!!

     That is not the case at all. They are Much Earlier Cartridges. They also have a Farrington Primer. Look close and you will see a shallow primer pocket. The Farrington primer is the same diameter as our regular American Primer, but only .100 thick. All other American Primers are .125 thick.

     Ed Curtis tells me these round head style 50-70 Cartridges were sold by the Phoenix Cartridge Company in Connecticut. The Phoenix Cartridges are so rare I can't find any examples or Boxes, though I know they made thousands of Cartridges of all types, starting in 1870.

     Even the United States government bought Cartridges like this, even though they were making their own Internal Primed Cartridges. Mine were found out here in the West.

     This Cartridge Case is Much stronger than The Folded Head Cartridges.

Farrington 50-70 Cartridges

     I reproduce the image above left, with the permission of Old Check out his website. He has many great examples of Collector Cartridges. This is his description of these cartridges is great. I could not do better except that he uses Boxer Primer which is incorrect. ( See Boxer Primer, No Such Thing! on this web site.). His Cartridges were loaded so he could not know the Primers are thinner. (.100 thick)

     ( From:

    This picture shows four .50-70 cartridges, none with headstamps but all known to have been produced by the United States Cartridge Company. They are all primed with variations of the copper Farrington primer, patented in 1872 by DeWitt Farrington and used exclusively in its various forms by the U.S. Cartridge Company . The most readily recognized of these primers are those with what appears to be a bump or 'blister' on the surface, as seen on the third cartridge from the left in the picture. Others include the concave type, as on the first two cartridges in the picture, which appears to have been smeared into the primer pocket, and the rounded type which looks pretty much like the copper Boxer style primers used by the other cartridge companies. As can be seen on the sectioned head, the Farrington primer has no separate anvil, but instead is formed from a single piece of copper; once the cup is formed, the sides are folded in to form a base which serves as the anvil. I'm not sure what the purpose of the blister is on the primer of the third cartridge, but it may be intended to hold the internal priming compound in place. 

U.M.C. 45-75 Cartridge Case
U.M.C. Solid Head 45-75

     This is a 45-75 Cartridge made by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. I got these in an old Shooting/ Reloading Box for a Model 1876 Winchester. Half the cartridges were U.M.C., Half were Winchester. One of each were corroded badly at the Case mouth. Since the Cartridge Cases were probably purchased at about the same time, I decided to split their heads to see what they look like inside! I wanted to see what U.M.C. and Winchester were doing at this time.

     Most people would call this a Balloon Head Cartridge. 

     Apparently, U.M.C. was absolutely convinced this is a Solid Head Cartridge! They even made a Die which marked the Cartridge Head S and H on each side. Of course this stands for Solid Head!

Winchester 45-75

     This Winchester 45-75 Cartridge Case is from the same Shooting/ Reloading box as the U.M.C. Case above. The Cartridge Case Head is just a little bit thicker than all the previous Cartridge Cases. If these Cartridge were purchased at about the same time, then Winchester was a little more advanced in their Cartridge Case Extrusion Technology. The Head is a little bit thicker than the Rim. The Primer Pocket is thicker and stronger than the U.M.C. Case. Both of these 45-75 Cartridge Cases look like good, strong cases. 

Winchester 50-70 Cartridge Case
Winchester 50-70 Headstamp

     This is a slightly Later 50-70 Winchester Cartridge. It looks like it was trampled on by Wild Animals.

     The Cartridge Head is still in great shape. Everything is just a little bit thicker. Primer Pocket, Head Thickness and Case Walls. You can see we are getting Closer and Closer to to our Modern Cartridge Cases. For some reason the Progress was slow. I think the Cartridge Manufacturers would Spend a Bunch of Money on Machinery and Equipment. They used these tools until they wore out. Then, they made New equipment and better, thicker Cartridges.

     You Cartridge collectors may know when this Head Stamp was used.

     This is all I have in my collection of old Cartridges right now. I will keep buying examples, so I can add to this page in the future.

     Each new Cartridge Design I show here, leads to the Modern Cartridge Case you can see in the image Below.


     This is the End Product of our American Cartridge Development. It is a relatively new Remington-Peters 45-70 Cartridge Case. You can see it is a very Thick, Heavy Cartridge Case.

     I use these in my Original Sharps Sporting Rifles. I load 2 F Black Powder. I NEVER use Smokeless! The reason is simple. You can easily blow out a primer with a Smokeless load. The Original Rifles Have BIG firing Pins. (.125 diameter in the Sharps.) For Smokeless, you must drill out the Breech Block and sleeve it. Then fit a smaller Firing Pin. Don't do this with a valuable Antique Rifle!

     Also, the Original Rifles were designed to shoot Black Powder. The Black powder SLAMS the base of the Lead Bullet. The SLAM makes the lead bullet fill out into the rifling. The expanded bullet is more accurate.

     Smokeless will not expand the lead bullet. If you screw up with Smokeless you can shatter your left hand, or your Brain, if you have one. Get on the internet and search for " Blown Up Gun Images." You will see hundreds of pictures and some videos of modern firearms that have been shattered! All were Blown Up by self described "Experts", loading with Smokeless.

     My own Great Uncle blew a firing pin out of his 44-40, 1873 Winchester back around the turn of the century. It went through his eye and into his Brain. He either made or was given some Smokeless loads. He did not survive!

     These Cartridges do have some drawbacks. They are so Thick, you have to reduce the Black Powder Charge. If I load these with the Standard 405 Grain Lyman Bullet, I can only use 63 grains of powder. I can get more powder in with Paper Patch Bullets. Still, they are Great and Safe Cartridge Cases if you use your head.

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