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Picture Page

May 2004

Happiness is a dirty old shipping crate...

I have decided to devote the entire picture page for the month of May to this Union Metallic Cartridge Company shipping crate that was found in Western Virginia, and the boxes of cartridges that were with it. The crate is constructed of 3/4"+ planed pine boards, held together with square cut nails. On Christmas Eve in 1873, as attested to by the date stamped into the wood on both ends, it was packed at UMC's Bridgeport ammunition works with fifty boxes of .50-70 Springfield cartridges, destined for the Army depot in Washington, D.C.. These were probably part of two million .50 caliber cartridges that the government contracted with UMC to produce in late 1873. At that time, the government arsenals were focused on production of the new .45-70 cartridge, as the Model 1873 Springfield had just been selected as the standard for Army use in May of 1873. Once the crate was packed and the top secured in place, it was painted  a dark red, then stenciling and the date stamps were applied to both ends, and it was ready to be shipped. Upon arrival in Washington, it was probably packed away and forgotten for a while. Some time later, the top was painted gray, and addressed in black stenciled lettering for shipment to the Adjutant of the Virginia State Militia, in Richmond. Typically, the guns and ammunition issued to the states were, in turn, distributed to the various county militias. These were often stored in the county court houses where, more often than not, they were never needed. This certainly seems to be the case for at least a portion of the boxes that were in the crate, as the ten unopened boxes that came with it are in excellent condition. The fact that the original top is still with the crate would support the likelihood that it was still screwed in place when found by the previous owner. One opened box was also found with the crate, revealing the cartridges also to be in excellent condition. They are the Berdan primed, unheadstamped case style with the raised ring head typical of early UMC cartridge production. The box labels are rather plain, lacking the 'dog's head' UMC logo that was standard on the company's ammunition intended for commercial sale during the 1870s and 1880s. Four patent dates are printed on the labels; these include Hiram Berdan's patents of March 20, 1866, for the external primer cap and fixed anvil in the head of the shell, and September 29, 1868, for a cup fitted inside the case to strengthen the head. The other two are S. W. Wood's patents of April 1, 1862 and April 2, 1872, both of which I believe applied to the processes for forming drawn brass cartridge cases. The boxes themselves are constructed of four separate pieces of cardboard, consisting of two pieces to form the body of the box and two end pieces, all held in place by a pasted-on buff colored paper wrapper, with a pull string for opening the box. When viewed from the end, as in this last picture, the top and bottom do not form 90 degree angles to the front and back, but instead are canted slightly. As a result, when the cartridges are placed in the box, the bullet tips resting against the angled bottom cause the rims of the front row of cartridges to be positioned slightly above the back row, allowing for easier removal of the cartridges from the box. The pull string can be seen to the upper right in the picture. Pulling this string tears the paper wrapper across the end of the box, then across the back and the other end. The top can then be opened and 'hinged' on the untorn wrapper along the front top edge of the box to expose the cartridges.

One lazy weekend shortly after getting the crate my curiosity got the best of me, and I set out to determine how the boxes would have to be packed in the crate in order to fit all fifty that were originally shipped. This entailed making up facsimile boxes which closely matched the dimensions of the originals. At this point, two of the original boxes had found another home, so I found myself up to my elbows in cardboard, paper and glue making the forty two replacements need to fill the crate. Once these were completed, I found after just a little trial and error that I could only fit all fifty boxes in by placing them as shown in the picture, on their ends in four rows of eleven each, with the last six turned sideways into the remaining space. Its a fairly compact package, leaving little room for the boxes to shift around. So, how did my facsimile boxes turn out? Not bad if I say so myself. They are not such close copies as to be confused with the originals, but certainly good enough to meet my needs. After making forty two of them, I'm not only a fairly accomplished box maker, but I also have a better appreciation for how tedious the work must have been for the UMC factory workers who made the company's cartridge boxes six long days a week.