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Picture Page

 September 2006

A progression of U.M.C. .38 S&W boxes, Part 1:

Over the next few months, I will be discussing a series of boxes made by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. I have chosen boxes made for the .38 Smith and Wesson cartridge for a couple of reasons. First, because of the popularity of this cartridge with other firearms makers beginning almost immediately from when it was introduced in 1876, large quantities of the boxes would have been produced and shipped, and existing stocks of the boxes and labels would have been used up quickly. As a result, changes in the labeling would have shown up on the boxes quickly. On the other hand, for those cartridges that had less production, label changes might lag months or years behind those with high production. My second reason for selecting .38 S&W boxes is that they are much more common, due again to the large numbers that were produced and the numbers that have survived. Consequently, it is relatively easy to find variations, so it doesn't take a fortune to assemble an interesting group. All of the boxes discussed will be of  two-piece half-split construction, covered with black marbled paper, and have pasted-on top labels and wrap-around side sealing labels.

This first box is quite early, based on its square-corners, which was the style used by UMC up until about 1883. The S&W 38 Single Action 1st Model (aka Baby Russian) Revolver pictured on the label was produced for only two years, from 1876 to1877, after which it was replaced by the 38 Single Action 2nd Model Revolver. This box would not have been produced very long after 1877, as Smith & Wesson would have wanted to get the new model revolver on the label as soon as possible after its introduction. The top label references Albert C. Hobbs' October 31st, 1876 patent, which covered the positioning and securing of the primer anvil in the primer cup. He held an 1871 patent with Jerome Orcutt for a primer that positioned the anvil, which was a flat round disk, on its edge in the cup, but the anvils were not securely fastened in the cups and tended to tip to the side, resulting in misfires. I discussed this primer on my September 2005 picture page. A patent improvement in 1874 modified the anvil to have six or eight flat sides, but this apparently did not prove to be a satisfactory solution. The 1876 patent placed the anvil flat on its side in the cup, with cutouts around the edge to allow the fire from the primer ignition to pass by the anvil, and with the sharp edges of the anvil holding it in place in the cup. This is pretty much how a primer patented earlier by Oliver Winchester (1874) was constructed, but Hobbs still managed to secure his patent on this similar design. A label pasted inside the top of this box reads 'In reloading these shells, use WESSON PRIMER'. U.M.C marketed the Hobbs primer as the Wesson primer, and referenced the Hobbs 1876 patent on the labels of these primers. See my August 2005 picture page for a picture and discussion of a Wesson Primer tin. Considering that the .38 S&W cartridge was developed for use in the Baby Russian, and with the signed Smith & Wesson statement on one side of the side-sealing label and their signature on the other side, I would assume this ammunition was made especially for them, perhaps to be sold exclusively by the retailers of their revolvers. The ends of the sealing label are marked simply '.38 S.& W.'. This box is empty, but the cartridges it originally held would have been unheadstamped and of folded head construction, with a long grooved bullet, as shown with the box below.

This next box would have been produced  shortly after the box shown above. It has rounded corners, which were used on UMC boxes beginning in 1883 and continuing well into the 1900s.  The label is laid out similarly to the one above, except that this one pictures the Smith & Wesson .38 Single Action 2nd Model revolver, which was produced between 1877 and 1885, and  incorporated an improvement in the ejection mechanism over the earlier model. At the time this box was made, the recommended primer for reloading the fired cases was the UMC No 0, as is noted on the front label. Since it is already addressed on the label, there was no need to include an inside label regarding the correct primer to use, so this box has none. On April 18, 1882, A.J. Hobbs, son of A.C., received a patent for a primer which had an anvil of similar construction to his father's 1876 patent design, but which had a projection on its face against which the priming compound was struck to ignite it. The patent was assigned by Hobbs to U.M.C., and this anvil design continued to be used, with improvements, by U.M.C. and Remington Arms for over 100 years. It would have been the anvil used in the full line of U.M.C. numbered (0, 1, 2, 2 1/2...) primers, although the tins for these primers only reference A.C. Hobbs' September 14, 1869 patent, which covered the process of sealing the priming composition to make it waterproof and avoid contact with the metal surfaces inside the primer. I have included a larger picture of a few of the cartridges from this box in the picture below. They have an outside-lubed, grooved bullet, and a folded head case with no headstamp. It is interesting to note that this unheadstamped cartridge with the long single grooved bullet has always been called the .38 Merwin & Hulbert. Obviously, the .38 S&W and the .38 M&H started out as the same cartridge. The M&H revolvers were manufactured in small numbers from about 1876 until the early 1880s, so while the .38 Smith & Wesson cartridge evolved with that company's revolvers, making the transition from outside lubricated bullets to inside lubricated and from black powder to smokeless, ammunition for the Merwin & Hulbert revolvers continued to be produced as it originally was designed. As late as 1916, Winchester was still listing its .38 M&H cartridges which had this grooved bullet, but these may have been stock on hand that had been manufactured years earlier. One of the cartridges in this picture has been sectioned to show the construction of the head, which includes a reinforcing piece shaped like a donut that slips down around the primer pocket and against the inside of the head to prevent the case from rupturing at the rim when it is fired. It is difficult to see the primer anvil very well in the sectioned head, so I have included a couple of enlarged  views of the anvil; it is a roughly-made bow tie-shaped piece of brass which appears to have been tinned, giving it a silver color. The projection on which the patent was based is understated and is not so apparent as it is in the patent drawing. I have to assume this primer is the UMC No 0 as noted on the box, indicating that it was probably made in 1882 or later. As the round cornered boxes were introduced by UMC in 1883, and the Model 2 revolver was not made after 1885, then this box was most likely made during the three year period from 1883 through 1885 or shortly thereafter. The side labels are marked in the same manner as the box above.

I will continue with pictures of more in the UMC series of .38 S&W boxes next month.


I give up! What is this one?????

Regardless of how good at identifying unheadstamped cartridges you tell yourself you are, you will occasionally encounter one that seems to be intent on proving your self assessment incorrect. I always have three or four in my collection at any one time that defy my efforts. Eventually, I'll throw in the towel and admit that I'm stumped, and that's when I appeal to the other collectors out there to lend a hand. Someone typically comes through for me, often serving me a dose of humility with such statements as 'You should have known this one' or 'Even a beginner should be able to identify this'. Such will probably be the case with this one, which I have been trying to identify for another collector to no avail. The dimensions are:

Bullet at case mouth   .428"

Mouth   .465"

Base   .485"

Rim   .540"

Case Length   .741"

Overall length   1.252"

My initial gut feeling was that this was just another variation of the British .450 revolver cartridge, but the tapered .741" case and that long flat nose bullet are making it hard to convince myself that it is. The case is unusual, having the general look of a folded head type with a raised ring. However, it appears that the head is a separate piece that has been fit into the rim, and the rim then folded over it to hold it in place and form a seal. The folded edge is uneven, as can clearly be seen in this enlarged picture, and results in a slightly off-center primer. So, knowledgeable readers, what is it?



A great Frankford Arsenal .50-70 box.......






Here's a really nice box of .50-70 Government cartridges made at the Frankford Arsenal in July of 1872, around the time Army trials got underway for the purpose of finding a replacement for the .50 Springfield rifle. In spite of a number of good quality repeating rifles that were included in the trials, the result was the selection in the Spring of 1873 of the .45-70 Springfield Trapdoor rifle, which was little more than an updated, smaller caliber version of the rifle they already had. The cartridges in this box are inside primed, utilizing the Benet primer, which continued to be used at the Frankford Arsenal as the standard for .45-70 cartridges until August of 1882.