Monday, December 14, 2015
DIV XXXII Part II - Once in a Lifetime Paper Cartridge Recovery!
I last left you in suspense with one final dig of my DIV wrapup from Cole's Hill remaining. It was just before lunch on the final day. I had already had an amazing weekend of finds and friends, but I was still looking for that one special centerpiece. I was continuing to find deep bullets in the swale at the base of Hansbrough Ridge, when one of those deep signals kept on going down and down. At the bottom of the hole I finally found my first target - a Sharps bullet. But I knew there had to be more than just the one bullet based on the signal on the detector, so I checked the hole to reveal another beautiful low tone.
I used the pinpointer to locate the next target, another Sharps. When I pulled the bullet from the hole, I noticed something remarkable. Still in the ground was the original paper cartridge! I was able to carefully excavate the cartridge and powder charge to reassemble with the bullet. I was still getting more signals, and one by one I slowly removed more complete paper Sharps cartridges from the earth.
Besides the first bullet, which was not complete, I recovered nine more bullets with the paper cartridge and gunpowder and six percussion caps. Sharps cartridges were generally sold in boxes of ten, so it is highly likely that this was a discarded full box of ammunition.
So how did the paper cartridges remain intact for more than a century and a half underground? As it turns out, these were no ordinary cartridges. Civil War small arms used a number of different designs for cartridge construction, the majority of which included a paper wrapped bullet and powder charge. The technology of war was rapidly advancing, however, leading to a number of new experimental "patent" cartridges by makers like Hazard, Sage, Barthalow, Potter, and Johnston and Dow.
Many of these patent cartridges were made of highly combustable nitrated paper or linen. They were designed to load more efficiently and burn cleaner. In addition, a nitrated collodion coating provided a certain amount of waterproofing versus a traditional paper cartridge. Despite favorable reviews, these experimental cartridges never fully caught on with the ordinance department.
The waterproof cartridges, plus the extreme depth of the hole they were found in and the Virginia clay helped preserve these complete cartridges intact. These waterproof patent cartridges do occasionally turn up in trash pits, huts, and trench lines, but are quite a rare find indeed. The majority of those recovered are 58 caliber three ring minie balls. Civil War bullet expert and author Jim Thomas identified my bullets as Johnston and Dow patent cartridges for the Sharps carbine. Although the Sharps was one of the most commonly used carbines of the War, with over 40 million rounds produced, only a small percentage of those were waterproof patent cartridges. And of those, a much smaller fraction still were preserved intact without being destroyed by time, the elements, or human farming or development. Needless to say, this is truly another find of a lifetime.
For me, that's the magical thing about this hobby. We get to connect with the past in such a tangible way, and make once-in-a-lifetime finds over and over again! While no two are quite the same, I will cherish these memories forever. Thanks for reading, happy hunting, and God bless. Stay tuned for a big news update from Detecting Saxapahaw this Christmas!