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 April 2018

Please note: Unless otherwise indicated, the pictures on this web site are my property, and should not be used by anyone without crediting the source.

An extraordinary fired cartridge case....

I probably average several emails a week from people who, having stumbled across my web site, ask me to identify and provide them with a value and/or age, or to give my opinion on the authenticity of an item they have. I'm usually able to provide at least some of the information they're looking for, although values and ages are often just guesstimates. So often, when I'm looking at one of the more interesting items I catch myself thinking (as I think most of us tend to do)  "If only it could speak". Obviously, inanimate objects can't tell you where they've been and what they were doing there, but occasionally they come very close to doing so.

Which brings me to this month's item. I received an email this past week from a lady who was interested in the age of a fired cartridge case that she had recently found in a bag of tourist souvenir pins in a thrift shop. She went on to say it was inscribed "fired in volley by 22nd Reg. at Grant's funeral". Essentially, she wanted to know if the engraved shell was as old as the engraving would suggest it was, and if it could actually be a memento from Civil War General and President Ulysses S. Grant's funeral, which occurred on August 8th, 1885. Attached to the email were several photos that piqued my interest.


Disregarding the engraving for the moment and focusing on the cartridge case itself, it is a relatively common folded head, Berdan-primed .50-70 Government cartridge case, of the raised or stepped head style produced by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company (UMC) beginning in about 1868. The illustration below left is a cross-section of a UMC folded head cartridge case with it's Berdan primer. The photo below right of the two cartridges shows what the blank would have looked like prior to having been fired and engraved.



The June 1887 UMC price list includes folded head Berdan-primed as well as solid head boxer-primed .50-70 Government cartridges in both bulleted and blank loads, so they produced the folded head, Berdan-primed cartridges at least until 1887. I was unable to locate UMC price lists for 1888 and 1889, but the one published in June of 1890 no longer includes a Berdan-primed version, so they were out of production by that date, and possibly a year or two earlier. The U. S. Government has always had a practice of procuring military ammunition in times of need from commercial ammunition manufacturers. Such was the case in the 1870's and 1880's when contracts were often negotiated with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the United States Cartridge Company, and UMC to produce some of the ammunition that was needed for the military. In my own collection is a wood shipping crate that held 500 UMC folded head .50-70 Government cartridges, manufactured and shipped to the Army  Depot in Washington D.C. on December 24th, 1873 as part of an ammunition contract with the government. It remained in storage there until being shipped to the Virginia State Militia. See here.  


The photo shown below, from an album titled "Seven Mile Funeral Cortege of Genl Grant in New York August 8, 1885", is captioned "Twenty Second

Regiment, N.G.S.N.Y.", and shows that the Twenty Second Regiment was present at the funeral. The 22nd Regiment was part of the New York State National Guard, as indicated by the letters N.G.S.N.Y. in the caption. Most state guard or militia units were armed at the time of the funeral with .50 caliber Springfield 'Trapdoor' rifles that had been rendered obsolete when the .45 caliber Springfield rifle was selected as the standard long arm of the regular U. S. Army in 1873. However, in 1872 the Governor of New York had contracted with the Remington Arms Company to supply 15,000 new Model 1871 rolling block rifles, like the one pictured here, to arm the New York State Guard with. Like the older Springfield Trapdoor rifles, these Remington rifles were chambered for the .50-70 Government cartridge, and were the rifles that should have been in use by the New York National Guard at Grant's funeral and well into the 1890s.




If this cartridge case actually was one of those fired in the volley, that is, fired as part of the 21 gun salute that Grant received, and all were similarly engraved, perhaps to be presented to dignitaries who were in attendance at the funeral, then where are the other 20? Surely one or more would have come to light in the intervening years. Another possibility is that a large number of empty cartridge cases were engraved in this manner by an entrepreneur who offered them for sale as souvenirs in the days following the funeral to tourists visiting the tomb. But again, what has happened to the others? I would expect that quite a few would have survived such that one would occasionally be offered for sale. And then there's the possibility that the engraving is completely bogus, added recently to a random fired cartridge case by some one intent on creating an instant collectible which he could profit from. A number of factors convince me that this isn't so. The photos above and below clearly show the engraving on the case. The style, quality and general appearance of the engraving are enough to convince me that it is 'of the period'. The caliber and physical characteristics of the case are correct for the reasons discussed above. That it was found in a bag of trinkets in a thrift shop, having never come to light to be the subject of discussion among historians or cartridge collectors at some time in the past 130 plus years is surprising, but I am convinced that it is what the engraving says it is. In my 40+ years of collecting cartridges I have never seen or heard of another.


So what is the story behind this engraved cartridge case? Who knows? But I would speculate that the members of the honor guard probably kept the fired cases from the blanks they fired, and one chose to have this one engraved as a lasting reminder of this special event in his life.


I'd appreciate feedback from anyone who has seen or heard of a similarly engraved cartridge case.







UMC cartridge catalogs from the International Ammunition Association reference section, various catalog dates as discussed,


Illustration of the Union Metallic Cartridge Company cartridge head, Metallic Cartridges (Regulation and Experimental) as Manufactured and Tested at the Frankford Arsenal, Philadelphia, Pa., Government Printing Office, 1873, reprint by The Armoury, West Hurley, NY


Seven Mile Funeral Cortege of Genl Grant in New York August 8, 1885, The Instantaneous Photographic Co, Boston, Mass.


Information on the New York National Guard rifles from a discussion regarding the engraved cartridge case in the International Ammunition Association's cartridge forum, found here:

and Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values, 6th edition, page 194, DBI Books, 1994


Photo of the Remington Model 1871 Rolling Block rifle from a closed auction on the Guns International auction site,


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