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Picture Page

June 2008

A closer look at the Thuer cartridge.........

I recently picked up the .44 Thuer cartridge case which is pictured here in one of my frequent trades of a bunch of my no-longer-interesting stuff for a bunch of someone else's comparatively much-more-interesting stuff. This was the first time I had actually seen an empty Thuer case, which I suppose is not surprising, as the cartridges themselves tend to be few and far between, at least in my neck of the woods. It had been fired and reprimed, but had not been reloaded, which gave me the opportunity to look a little more closely than I had ever done before at how these cases are constructed, without having to sacrifice one of the very few loaded examples that I have in my collection. The Thuer's conversion revolvers were one of the few developments that Samuel Colt was associated with that didn't make him a fortune. Even with his superb marketing skills, he was unable to overcome the shortcomings of these revolvers to sell more than an estimated several thousand in total over about a three or four year period. However, production of the Thuer revolvers did allow him with a means of disposing of some of his surplus of percussion revolvers as he waited out the expiration of the Rollin White patent on the bored through cylinder. This patent kept all the other American firearms manufacturers besides Smith & Wesson, who owned the rights to the patent, from marketing commercially successful metallic cartridge revolvers. White's patent expired in April of 1869, at which time Colt was already hard at work developing the Richards conversion revolvers that would be more positively received by the shooting public, and would be another step in Colt's transition from the percussion revolver towards the eventual development in 1873 of the very popular Colt Single Action Frontier Model Revolver, aka the Single Action Army.     

The Thuer case is made up of two parts, these being the tapered brass cylinder that makes up the body and head of the case, and a brass primer assembly, which serves the same purpose as the nipple on a percussion firearm. The primer assembly fits into the head from the inside of the case, and is secured in place by a flange that is forced down around it during the process of assembling the case. The primer is nothing more than a very small percussion cap, which fits on the nipple-like anvil of the primer assembly, and functions no differently than a Berdan primer. Perhaps this similarity to the Berdan primer may explain why Alexander Thuer patented the pistol but didn't bother securing a patent for his cartridge. The two separate parts of the case are readily apparent in the small section from the drawing for the British patent on the pistol, shown above, and in the picture shown here of a sectioned .44 Thuer cartridge that was taken from Charles Suydam's book U.S. Cartridges and Their Handguns. The nipple-like portion of the primer assembly is also clearly shown in the drawing and the picture of the sectioned cartridge; one of the small primers is resting inside the case of the sectioned cartridge. The enlarged picture to the right that looks down into the mouth of the case shows another characteristic of the Thuer case that is not evident externally, this being the grooves that are intended to hold the lead bullet in place.

The Thuer cartridge was seated in the chamber of the cylinder just like a combustible paper cartridge, using the slightly altered percussion loading lever. The expansion of the bullet against the chamber wall was supposed to hold the cartridge in place, with the head of the fully seated cartridge extending slightly past the rear of the cylinder, placing the primer in position to be struck by the firing pin. As a result of recoil or mishandling of the revolver, the unfired cartridges had a tendency to move forward in their chambers, leading to misfires resulting from the firing pin not making contact with the primers. Another shortcoming of the Thuer conversions was the complicated system of reloading, which involved a two position loading tool with several small accessories, used in conjunction with the pistol, minus its cylinder and conversion ring, and employing the loading lever for repriming the cases, seating the bullets, and removing stuck cartridges from the reloading tool.



Those less-than-premium grade paper shotshells........

I picked up the new primed empty shell shown here at our local gun show, which I have never found to be a very good source for collectible guns, much less collectible cartridges and shotgun shells. If ever there was something to say 'It just ain't like it used to be' about, it is the caliber of today's gun shows. That said though, good items do occasionally turn up; otherwise, it would be difficult managing the hard chairs, the poor concession stand food (I can't figure out where they get those hotdogs with the greenish-brown color) and the endless stream of people who appear to have little interest in either guns or ammunition, and more likely than not are killing time after spending their last $5 at the door.  

This particular shell has a charcoal paper hull, and is headstamped S.G  No 10, indicating it is a second grade 10 gauge shell. Many shooters in the late 1800s loaded their own shotgun shells, using new primed empty paper shells produced by most of the big ammunition makers. These companies usually had a line of premium grade shells and one or more lines of lower quality shells, the differences between them usually involving the composition, shape and/or height of base wadding used, and the finish and height of the brass head. The lower shells generally had a low base wad that tended to allow the the hull to separate at the top of the head after only a few loadings. These shells were purchased by those shooters who either could not (or would not) pay the premium price for the premium shells, or who had no intention of loading their shells multiple times. The shell shown abovel does have a headstamp that indicates who made it, and, unfortunately, the maker remains a mystery. I have included below four other American-made second grade or second quality paper shells that are identified in the headstamp as such.  


Both of the shells shown here were made by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. The one on the left has a tan hull and is headstamped S G. It and the shell above by the unknown maker are the only two American shells that I am aware of that use the SG headstamp. The shell on the right is has a black hull and is headstamped XX, another indication of a second grade shell. The XX headstamp was used by a number of other makers as well, including the Strong Cartridge Company, the United States Cartridge Company, and Winchester.


The United States Cartridge Company made the SECOND QUALITY headstamped shell on the left; it has a black paper hull. The U.S. Cartridge Company produced a variation that was headstamped U.S.C.CO.  No 10 (or 12) SECOND. The Worchester Cartridge Company also produced a SECOND QUALITY headstamped shell, which, oddly enough, is the only known headstamp by this company. The shell on the right is headstamped SQ, for second quality. It was made by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and has a light grey hull. The company also made a variation that included W.R.A.Co. in the headstamp. Winchester appears to have been the only American maker to have used the SQ headstamp.



 A trio of mysterious bottlenecks..........

In my opinion, there is not much that can be more frustrating than struggling with trying to identify a cartridge that has made up its mind to be contrary. However, when one occasionally succeeds in breaking the code and positively attaching a name to one of these 'John Does' of the cartridge collecting world, it provides a great deal of satisfaction, especially when accomplished on one's own. These I probably won't be able to identify, as I have struggled with them on several occasions and have come up with nothing that I am confident with. The dimensions of these three are:


bullet - .476"

neck - .490" (split neck, measurement is inaccurate)

shoulder - .555"

base - .564"

rim - .678"

case length - 1.452"



bullet - .480" (bullet is a little rough)

neck - .483"

shoulder - .539"

base - .573"

rim - .654"

case length - 1.946"



bullet - .452"

neck - .486"

shoulder - .558"

base - .580"

rim - .669"

case length - 2.026"

That stubby little cartridge #1 looks like I've been playing with the picture and have shortened it down, but I promise I haven't. I was thumbing through George Hoyem's Volume 4 of The History and Development of Small Arms Ammunition, and found he had this same cartridge identified simply as .45-1.452, stating that it "was made for some magazine rifle, and its similarity to the rimfire .56-46 Spencer with long neck is apparent but no sure identity has been established". A check of the Buttweiller archive revealed that he listed five of these over the years, and never was able to make a positive identification, describing it early on as a Winchester experimental known as the .45 - 1 1/2" Bottleneck Model 1873 or the .45-52-240 Ernest, later as the .45-52-290 Ernest, and finally in a couple of his later auction catalogs as possibly a .56-46 Long Centerfire Spencer. I'm certainly more confused now than when I started. The bullet is paper patched, and the case has a stepped UMC style folded head with a rounded brass primer, most likely Berdan.

#s 2 and 3 are enough like so many bottlenecked 11mm military cartridges to keep me guessing forever. I have a category of cartridges in my collection that I list as '11mm Egyptian?'. I will eventually park any cartridge in this category if it has a bottlenecked case, and a neck and base anywhere near the of measurements for the 11mm Egyptian and I can't identify it as anything else within a reasonable length of time. These two are currently listed in that category in my collection, though I have serious doubts about #3 due to the length of its case. Cartridge #2 has a flat base which is somewhat rounded at the rim, and a rounded (Berdan?) primer; cartridge #3 also has a flat base that is rounded at the rim, and a flat (Berdan?) primer.