Pre-Revolutionary War Cartridge Box Round Information


In the spring of 1775, Massachusetts residents struggled to equip its fledgling provincial army of minute and militiamen. One problem the Committee of Safety recognized was the need to properly carry bullet rounds, commonly referred to as cartridges. Although hunting pouches were more commonplace among Massachusetts soldiers, cartridge boxes of French, British and Provincial origin were utilized on April 19, 1775. A short review of Massachusetts’s militia laws and resolves on the eve of Lexington and Concord reveals the urgency for the adoption of cartridge boxes by provincial militia men.[1] Yet despite this demand for the adoption of such an item, by 1776 the results were discouraging. For example, of the 678 men and officers in a Bristol County militia regiment, only a mere 274 men had obtained cartridge boxes.[2]

In light of this attempt, the question arises what did these boxes look like? Naturally, the design varied from maker to maker. A French box from the Siege of Louisbourg varied from a Massachusetts box made for the 1759 campaign against the French. Yet, in light of these differences, the more important question is, given the accuracy of smooth-bore muskets, the intended purpose of a socket bayonet and the shortage of such edged weapons within the Massachusetts army, of those boxes that were present on April 19th, how many rounds did these boxes contain?

It appears that the number of rounds a cartridge box could hold varied from box to box. According to the Reverend Samuel Chandler, the French cartridge boxes he observed during the French and Indian War contained “3 rows, 10 in a row, 30 cartridges and 30 bullets lose.”[3] The list of stores for General Braddock’s expedition, dated October 12, 1754, revealed “For service of the two Irish Regiments: . . . Cartouch Boxes with Straps . . .12 holes . . . 1400:; “For service of the Two American Regiments: Cartouch Boxes with straps . . .12 holes . . . 2000.”[4] In a letter of Henry Bouquet to Forbes, dated June 14, 1758, the author notes “I have noticed a great inconvenience in the use of cartridge boxes for the provincial troops. They do not know how to make cartridges, or rather, they take too much time. In the woods, they seldom have time or places suitable to make them. These cartridge boxes hold only 9 charges, some twelve, which is not sufficient. I think that their powder horns and pouches would be more useful, keeping the cartridge box, however, to use in case of a sudden or night attack.”[5]

Artifacts recovered from the British man-of-war Invincible, wrecked in the Solent while sailing for the invasion of Louisbourg in 1758, also provide detailed information about cartridge boxes. Among the items recovered in 1979 was a nine-hole belly box with part of the leather flap still intact.[6] In the “General Orders of 1757 Issued by the Earl of Loudoun and Phineas Lyman in the Campaign Against the French”, the orders indicate effective “July 2d, 1757, at Fort Edward, that Each Man be provided with 24 Rounds of Powder & Ball.” In 1758, the amount of ammunition carried was increased to 36 rounds as found in Montpenny’s Orderly Book. On September 17, 1758, the “Brigade Major (was) to review the men for duty dayly on the parade before they mount Guard & see that they have their blankets & provisions, & also 36 rounds of ammunition.”

Provincial boxes also varied in the number of rounds on the eve of Lexington and Concord. A belly box recovered in Middlesex County had twelve rounds with an additional seven added when a second block was nailed to the first.[7] Another box unearthed in Southern Massachusetts had 23 rounds,[8] while a box on display at Fort Ticonderoga had 24 rounds.[9] Militia laws and resolves also provided some insight into how many rounds a cartridge box should have, although it appears a minimum number was left undecided. The Town of Bridgewater expected its soldiers to be equipped with a “pouch containing a cartridge box that will hold fifteen rounds of cartridges, at least.”[10] Roxbury required every militia and minute man to carry “thirty rounds of gunpowder and ball.”[11] Finally, when the Commonwealth adopted Timothy Pickering’s drill in 1776 for its soldiers and militia, the number of rounds for a cartridge box was never addressed.[12]

Clearly, the variety of cartridge box rounds posed a problem for Massachusetts militia on April 19, 1775. However, as Lt. William Sutherland recalled, “[The] fire now never slackened . . .as we left Concord, but always found it heavier . . . where we saw these partys upon the heights.”[13] Whether the heavy and constant fire was attributable to the number of militiamen on the field, the supplementing of cartridge boxes with pouches or both is an issue that remains to be unresolved.

[1] "Each soldier to provide himself with a good fire arm, a steel or iron ram rod and a spring for same, a worm, a priming wire and brush, a bayonet fitted to his gun, a scabbard and belt thereof, a cutting sword or tomahawk or hatchet, a . . .cartridge box holding fifteen rounds . . . at least, a hundred buckshot, six flints, one pound of powder, forty leaden balls fitted to the gun, a knapsack and blanket, [and] a canteen or wooden bottle to hold one quart [of water]” Journal of Arthur Harris of the Bridgewater Coy of Militia.; “Militia minutemen [who were to] hold themselves in readiness at a minutes warning, compleat in arms and ammunition; that is to say a good and sufficient firelock, bayonet, thirty rounds of powder and ball, pouch and knapsack." Town of Roxbury Resolves, December 26, 1774; The Town of Braintree required each soldier furnish himself with “a good fire lock, bayonet, cartouch box, one pound of powder, twenty-four balls to fitt their guns, twelve flints and a knapsack.” Town of Braintree Resolves, January 23, 1775.
[2] "List of Men & accouterments of each man [illegible words] Regiment in Bristol County [Massachusetts]" from private collection. Dated 1776: "Men including officers - 678, Firearms - 446, Ramrods - 129, Springs - 9, Worms - 160, Priming wires - 193, Brushes - 138, Bayonets - 175, Scabbards - 142, Belts - 181, Cutting swords & hatchets - 255, Cartridge box and powder - 274, Buckshot - 10373, Jackknives - 403, Tow for men - 258 flints for men - 2084, pounds powder - 244 1/2, Bullets - 11934, Knapsack - 365, Blankets - 386, Canteens - 295".
[3] “Extracts from the Diary of Rev. Samuel Chandler . . .” New England Historical Genealogical Register, Vol. XVII (1863), p. 346-354.
[4] Stanley Pargellis, “Military Affairs in North America 1748-1765: Selected Documents from the Cumberland Papers in Windsor Castle, p. 486 (1936), p. 2.
[5] “The Papers of Henry Bouquet”, Vol. II, p. 88.
[6] The flap has a GR cipher and could have belonged to either a marine or one of the invasion force. For a detailed color picture, see Brian Lavery, “The Royal
Navy’s First Invincible”, pp. ix, 70 (1988).
[7] This box may be viewed at Minute Man National Historical Park, Concord, Massachusetts.
[8] George C. Neumann, Collector’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, (Texas, 1997), p. 68.
[9] Ibid, p. 74.
[10] Journal of Arthur Harris of Bridgewater. (Emphasis added)
[11] Town Resolve of Roxbury, December 26, 1774.
[12] One may argue this is evidence of the variety of cartridge boxes and their number of rounds within the colony.
[13] Report of Lieutenant William Sutherland to Major Kemble, April 27, 1775.