Cartridges Before There Were Cartridges

One of the early attempts at self-contained cartridges for repeating firearms was the Volcanic cartridge. The Volcanic cartridge is a conical lead bullet much like a Minié ball, but with a deeper hollow base. In that base was the powder charge, held in by a disk covered with a thin cork wad and a metal cup. The cork and the cup had a hole through them so the firing pin could hit a fulminate pellet between the disk and cup. Functionally, the disk acted much like a modern primer’s anvil. On firing, the bullet’s lead skirt expanded to seal the bore.

These original Volcanic cartridges were auctioned by Rock Island Auction at their May 20, 2011 Premiere auction. They were described as, “Five bullets in two sizes, all lead construction with ribbed bases and wooden base plugs. 1) Two bullets, .5″ long, 33 caliber, with brass primer rims. 2) Bullet, .68″ long, 40 caliber, with primer ring. 3) Two bullets, .71″ long, 41 caliber.” Rock Island Auction photo.

The Volcanic cartridge was an improvement over Walter Hunt’s 1848 Rocket Ball patent.

As you can imagine, a bullet’s base doesn’t hold much powder so the loads were anemic at best. I’ve seen their energy reported as 56 ft.-lbs., which is about on par with the .25 Auto. Another problem with the Volcanic was that if you had a misfire, there was no way to extract the dud and you had to push it out with a cleaning rod.

The ancestry of the Henry rifle is obvious in this New Haven Arms Co. volcanic rifle. Rock Island Auction photo.

Despite those shortcomings, Volcanic lever-action repeating pistols from Smith & Wesson, and pistols and rifles from the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company and New Haven Arms Co. were made and those eventually led to the Henry rifle and then the Winchester.

This Smith & Wesson Volcanic pistol is on display at the NRA’s National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, VA. National Firearms Museum photo.



Scott Mayer

“Shooting Guns & Having Fun”

Scott Mayer
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