......May 2006 ~~~~ Editor:  Cliff Hanger ~~~~
Making, Loading, and Shooting Paper Patched Bullets by Brent Danielson          brentd@iastate.edu

I make and use Paper Patched Bullets for elk hunting and target shooting.  They are made with Corbin swaging dies and a Corbin Series II press using extruded, pure lead wire. They are 45 caliber bullets shot from my .45-100 Shiloh Sharps exclusively with black powder. While it has once or twice been said that any gunpowder other than black powder is just a passing fad, the same is true of any bullet that is not paper patched.  Sixty million dead buffalo and countless elk, antelope, deer, etc. prove it.  So, catch up to the technology of the 19th century.  Its now the 21st century, and you are falling further and further behind.  There ain't much time left.   These bullets are an original and several replicas of the Sharps Long Range Bullet.  The original was made with a 16:1 Lead: Tin alloy.

To begin, there are three types of paper-patched bullets (let's call them PPB's for short). The Chase patch and the crosspatch methods are strictly for breach seated cartridge target rifles or for muzzle loading target rifles equipped with false-muzzles. I only use the third and most common method, the twice-wrapped bullet that is seated into a brass  cartridge. This type of bullet was used by buffalo hunters 130 years ago, and works just as well today as it did back then. It is the ultimate hunting bullet in my opinion, but if you don't believe me, ask the New Mexican elk in the photo to the left or read Paul Matthews' book "The Paper Jacket." It is, by far, the best reference book you can get on paper patching.
Swaging, casting, and buying bullets 

To begin with, you need to make or buy a bullet. Montana Precision Swaging sells parallel-sided bullets in 40, 45, and 50 calibers. They are of a slightly hard lead-tin alloy and with only cupped bases and 1e round noses. MPS will make pure lead bullets if you ask however. MPS also sells a tapered spire point bullet with which I have never been able to hit anything. It is, however, something that might work in another rifle. MPS is well advertised in the Single Shot Exchange or the Black Powder Cartridge News. Of course, you can cast bullets and lots of folks will make you a mold, but I don't cast; 'nuff said.

While I have had decent results with both .452" and .450" bullets, I decided to make my own bullets in a .443" diameter. My patching material (Eaton's 9 pound airmail paper, 25% rag) will add .007" of diameter to the bullet, making my finished projectile exactly bore diameter. I believe that most, if not all, of the original buffalo rifles shot bullets that, as patched, were bore diameter or just slightly more. I have it on the good authority of Dr. Dick Gunn that Sharps' paper-patched, long-range and hunting bullets were designed to be about .002" greater (as patched) than bore diameter, but considerably less than the typical .458" groove diameter. A drawing, by Dick, of an original Sharps 45-550 is shown in the figure below. These bullets were designed to be thumb-pushed directly into the bore of rifles with very short or nonexistent throats.

Sharps Long Range Bullet.  This was drawn from an original Sharps long range bullet such as that shown on the left side of the first photo on this webpage.  Note that over half of this bullet's nose is unsupported.  It was originally made in 16:1 Lead: tin alloy and was therefor Probably quite resistant to slumping.  Pure lead versions of this will only shoot about 1.5-1.75 for me at 100 yds. 

My bullets are loaded out as far as possible. In fact, in target rounds, I have only 0.09" of the bullet's base in the case. This is pretty close to breech seating, and it certainly allows for near perfect bullet alignment when the cartridge is chambered. Larger bullets of the .450-.452" variety, will be .457-.460" when finally patched. These bullets must be seated deeper in the case, which conflicts with my belief that more powder is better. More importantly, it also means the bullet and patch must navigate the throat in a perfectly straight line. It can be done, and is done regularly, but it is not the optimal solution in my opinion.

Determining patch length and width

A good way to get an estimate of what you need for patch length, is to wrap the bullet 3 times in a single strip of wet paper. Let it dry. Then take a razor and cut through all three wraps at one location along the edge of the bullet. Just a 1/8" long cut is fine, don't cut the entire length of the patch. Unwrap the bullet. The distance between two successive slices is twice your bullet's circumference. You will want your cutting pattern to be shorter than distance just a bit to compensate for the stretch you will produce in rolling, but do that by eye, after trying a few wraps with patches made from the initial cutting pattern. If the cutting pattern you buy is like mine, brass and too long, it is pretty easy to trim with a file or even a guillotine paper cutter. However, I don't worry overly much about exactly matching patch length to bullet diameter as I've found that patches cut with the same pattern will wrap equally well a .440, a .443, and even a .450, and .452 by simply learning to stretch the paper just the right amount. Practice helps, and I do a lot of it, but the point is, you don't have to have a different cutting pattern for every bullet diameter you want to try. I've only owned one such pattern so far.

Also, if the cutter is wider than your patch, that's fine. Don't trim it anymore. Patch width is determined by the steel ruler that is used to initially cut the paper into strips.

To estimate the correct width for the patch (and thus, for the steel rule that you will need; discussed below), measure your bullet from the very beginning of the ogive to the base and add maybe 0.15" or so, just enough that your patch will fold over the base but NOT enough that it bunches excessively in thickly folded edges near the bullet's center (refer to the photos above). Although I've heard of folks that do well with long twisted tails tucked into hollow bases (or sometimes clipped after drying), they require more paper and do not always provide a perfect bullet base. Most importantly, if a twist or bunched paper wad occasionally gets hammered into the base by the detonation of the main charge, it may stick to the bullet and cause inaccuracies. 

Cutting Patches

I use Eaton's 9 pound airmail paper which has a 25% cotton rag content. I find it at the university's book store, but you can probably get it lots of places. Whatever paper you decide on, make sure it is a common paper or get a lifetime supply of it. 

Personally, I think that this paper is about as thin as anyone would care to use. There are certainly thinner papers, but they are easily damaged when applied to the bullet or when loading the finished bullet into cartridge or rifle chamber. Thicker might be better to with stand fouling, but the bullet needs to be substantially smaller if you want a finished product that is bore diameter. Thicker papers have the additional downside in that they are just a little harder to wrap on the bullet, especially if that bullet is tapered.

To cut the patches, I have a traditional brass cutting pattern that I bought somewhere (Buffalo Arms or Montana Precision Swaging has them). They work fine, but cutting all four sides of the patch one at a time with the pattern gets old real fast. Instead, I've found that the best way to cut patches is to use a steel rule that is as wide as your patches need to be from top (bullet tip) to bottom (under the base). Finding such a rule is the hardest part, but once you've got one, you're set. I've describe how to find the proper patch dimensions in the section above, but for a 500-525 gr bullet, a rule that is about 1" wide is perfect. Lay down 5-6 sheets of 8.5 by 11" paper on a cutting board, and trim across the width of the paper from left to right with a razor, pocket knife, Exacto knife, whatever. In about 2 minutes, you can have 50-60 strips of paper 8.5" long and about an inch long in my case from those sheets. 

Then lay your typical cutting pattern over a stack of the strips (~10-12 works for me), even up the base of your cutting pattern and one edge of the stack of strips against the steel rule, then cut the diagonals along the left and right edges of the cutting pattern. I get two patches for a .45 from each 8.5" strip, plus some waste. In maybe 10-15 minutes, I can produce 250 or so patches, all while watching Monday Night Football

I've tried the guillotine paper cutter, and I definitely ain't good enough. There may be better cutters than the one I have, but I don't need anything faster than what I've described above.


I moisten my patches, 4-5 at a time, in a small bowl of plain water or water with just a touch of flour. Paul Matthews also recommends an egg white and water solution. And, of course there is just straight spit. The last is traditional and works best, but putting one's fingers in one's mouth while alternately handling lead seems not too bright for enlightened folk that hope to take this hobby into the 21st century. Plain water works well enough and is easiest. The flour or egg mixtures are likely to cause more problems than they will solve.

I prefer to lay the wet paper right up to, but not over, the ogive. This is one of the few advantages inherent in shouldered bullets such as those in the photo to the right. These were made with Corbin's LSWC swaging die. For smooth-shouldered bullets, patch alignment is more difficult and you may want to make a rolling board jig such as Paul Matthews describes in his book. I think patch alignment is very important, esp. with lighter bullets. Corbin Calls these LSWC (Lead SemiWad Cutters).  They can be shot as is, or reformed in a point forming die to make a smooth ogive bullet like the Sharps Long Range Bullet in the first photo on this page.

Anyway, align the "pointy" corner and long edge of the patch along the ogive/bullet-shaft boundary, and roll the bullet and paper away from you. With a little practice, you will learn to apply a light and even tension to the paper. When you have this down pat, the two short edges of the patch, separated only by the intervening layer of paper (caused by the second revolution of the bullet) will meet perfectly along the length of the bullet's shaft.

Then, holding the bullet by the nose in your right hand (for righties), fold the paper under by twirling the bullet's base against the tips of the thumb and fore finger of your left hand. Finally, stand the bullet firmly on its base to dry. Perfect! When you are good at this, you can do 50-100 bullets by halftime of the average Monday Night Football Game (btw, it is a little-known fact that Monday Night Football was invented for the express purpose of adding background noise to the paper-patching process, can't imagine what buffalo hunters used in its stead).

Finally, because I strictly use swaged bullets, my bullets are very smooth and very lightly coated with swaging lube. As a result, I've never had any indication that my patches stick to the bullets, although it is a hard thing to know. With cast bullets, I've often wondered if a tiny bit of lube on the bullet before she is wrapped would help with fliers... Something for you casters to try and report to the BP-L mail list.

Loading techniques

I load my bullets in a single stage press - the same press that I use to swage bullets, but I used to do it all by hand with an original Ideal #3 tong tool, and later, with a pair of Lyman 310 tong tools. I still use the latter a lot for priming and neck sizing.

As with any black powder cartridge, I drop my powder through a long tube to settle it uniformly into the case. I often compress the powder further, but these are details not specific to PPB's so I skip them here. 

Just because your shooting a PPB doesn't mean that you can skip lubing the bullet. If you do, you just might wear the barrel out a lot faster than you had planned. I use Minuteman lube, but SPG and others work well. One lube that does NOT work well, however, is OxYoke, also sold as Natural Lube by Thompson/Center. This lube contains mineral oil which soaks into the paper, softening it, and destroying it, so far as the purposes of shooting are concerned. If your lube causes the paper to turn translucent or appear wet, it probably won't work. 

I apply the lube by rubbing a small amount between my fingers and thumb and then twirling the patched and dried bullet between them. Be careful to turn in the same direction that you wrapped the patch to avoid stripping the patch off.

The other lube component for PPB's is a grease cookie? Of course, some use them with those faddish, low-tech, grease-grooved bullets, but the cookie is really in the province of those that shoot according to the true faith. I find that the cookie is needed to help seal the bore when shooting my bullets that are only bore diameter after patching. If I don't, gases, blowing by at very high velocities, tear the patch, destroying it, and my hope of decent accuracy at the same time. If you are shooting groove diameter bullets that are firmly seated into the chamber throat, you may not need a cookie IF you plan on wiping between shots. 

My cookies are made from Minuteman Lube with about 20% beeswax added to stiffen it slightly. SPG or any of the other commercially available lubes work well for some folks, as do numerous home brews such as 50-50 concoctions of beeswax and olive oil or whatever. Experimentation is the key here. Historically, the lube recommended by the original Sharps company was a 1: 2 ratio of beeswax and sperm oil If you can find it, sperm oil just might work magic. In any event, I extrude my cookie material out of a lube ribbon extruder. You can get one from Montana Precision Swaging, Buffalo Arms, or make one yourself. Even easier, lay a piece of wax paper on a table, put a dollop of lube in the middle of it and two sticks of appropriate thickness on either side (I found paint stir sticks to be perfect). Put another piece of wax paper over the top and then roll the lube with a rolling pin, beer bottle, whatever, until the lube is the thickness of the sticks. 

To cut the cookie, I first place a wad cut from a paper milk cartoon over the compressed powder. This wad is necessary to keep the oils from soaking into the powder column. Then, I simply invert the case and cut the cookie with the case mouth. To seat the cookie down on the wad, I put a second wad (usually a 0.06" vegetable fiber or another milk carton wad) over the cookie. This wad keeps the cookie from sticking to the bullet's base. I push this second wad and cookie down into the case with a small dowel. Sometimes, compressed air will lift the grease and the second wad up after seating. If this is a problem, slice the edge of the cookie with a pen knife to allow gas to escape. The slice will seal back up when you put pressure to the cookie sandwich with the dowel. 

Because my bullets are so thin, I neck size all my cases to provide enough tension to hold the bullet. It is just barely enough. I do not bell after sizing and I do not crimp. I just seat the bullet with my fingers and thumb and I'm ready for the range. Whatever you end up doing, you need the neck to be large enough to get the bullet in without damaging it or the patch, and small enough to hold the bullet reasonably straight until you get it in the chamber. 

If you are shooting bore diameter bullets, load them as far forward as possible. This means you will need more powder, but so much the better to make smoke and noise, unless you're an elk, of course.

Shooting paper-patched bullets

Now that you've got'em, how to shoot'em? Well, pretty much like anything else. Load, aim, and fire. Of course, there is a trick, but it's an easy one. Wipe between each shot. If you do, you will find that accuracy is superb (1.25 to 1.5 moa with proper load development). Even better, you will be shooting each shot just like it is the first shot, the only shot, on that elk. I find that I need to wipe once with a wet patch followed by one pass with a dry patch. This might use a few more patches than you are used to, but I put my dirty patches in a net bag similar to what women use to wash their hose it, and then toss them in the laundry machine. They are better and easier to use the second time.

Of course, I wish I didn't have to wipe between every shots, but I have yet to find a way to avoid it and still achieve acceptable accuracy. Meanwhile, I continue to experiment with new bullets (including my new replica of the original Sharps 45-550 long range bullet; top photo), different oils in the cookie (jojoba???), and different paper (thicker?), but until then, wash your hands before eating and your bore before shooting. 

Of course, you are going to want to carry these things in the field, maybe more than just the one in the chamber too. The nay-sayers will tell you it can't be done. They're nuts. First, if you really worry about water or dampness destroying your not-so-delicate patches, you can waterproof them with Blair's #105 Spray Fixative (found in most art supply stores and departments - avoid Krylon's equivalent - it is reported to cause the paper to stick to the bullet - a BAD thing). To apply the fixative, saturate a paper towel with the stuff and roll your patched and dried bullets on the towel until the patch is well soaked. Stand the bullet on its base and let dry again. Then, apply the lube. Personally, I don't do this anymore. Just don't need it.

To carry cartridges in the field, I put three or four in my vest. It's a surveyor's vest made by Filson, and the left breast pocket has 4 compartments meant to hold pens or whatever it is that surveyors need. They hold bullets, even really really long ones, very well, and very accessible. If I need to carry more, and I usually do, I put them in a case that I made from three pieces of ½" PVC indoor water pipe cut to 4.5" lengths and then duct taped together to make a cigarette-sized pack. More duct tape, doubled over, forms a flap that can be rubber banded down, and a bottom. These things are all but bombproof, and they bang around in my fanny pack until needed. A little paper toweling or foam rubber shoved into the bottom of each tube will cushion the bullet's tip and prevent it from sticking to the duct tape.

Reading patches

In diagnosing the performance of my various loading experiments, I find it very useful to find the paper remnants and "read" them. The outer wrap, and often the inner wrap, will be sliced by the rifling right down to the bullet's base. If the rifling is fairly shallow relative to the thickness of the paper, the inner wrap will be intact. The patch should also be quite clean and white. If it, or for that matter, the strips of the outer patch, are torn, then there is a big problem somewhere. Either the patch was damaged when it was loaded, or by fouling or a rough bore as it travels the length of the barrel. Whether the rifling slices through just one or both layers of the patch seems not to matter with regard to accuracy on the target. If the outer layer of the patch is charred or badly discolored, there are probably hot gases blowing by the bullet before the pressure wave obdurates the bullet to completely fill the bore. This is bad and requires bigger bullets, thicker paper, or better grease cookies.

Generally, the paper from the first shot will be in fine condition because everything is nicely smooth. Rough fouling will, however, cause damage to the patch as it is chambered or as it travels the length of the barrel. I find that there is just a small amount of tearing on the second shot, but by the third of fourth tearing is severe and accuracy is terrible. Blow-tubing helps, but it is not a panacea. Watching for patch tearing will tell you when you need to clean. 

If you can't find any patch material, there are three possibilities. The first is that you can't see them for all the smoke. The little devils can be hard enough to track down and capture, even when you know where they hit the ground. Have a friend watch from off on the side. The second possibility is that the patch was consumed before it cleared the muzzle. Pretty doubtful, but severe fouling or blowby can cause this. More cleaning, better grease cookies, thicker paper, or larger diameter bullets may help. 

Bullet and burned patch.  This picture was sent to me by Larry Pletcher.  It dramatically shows evidence of blowby.  Gasses, from the initial microseconds of ignition, blow past the base of the bullet and up the grooves.  This burns through the paper like a hot torch.  This is bad news.

Third, the paper may be sticking to the bullet. The only way to be sure, is to dig a few out of the backstop. If this is the case, try a little lube on the bullet BEFORE applying the patch, or avoid all patch-wetting additives but water.

Shooting dirty AND accurately is the holy grail for the paper patching rifleman. Better papers and lubes might help us achieve decent accuracy while shooting dirty, but until we have the famous powders of yesteryear, I think we will continue to be required to wipe every 1-3 shots. Until we find the grail, (and please, please, please let me know if you do), we have something to strive for (btw, for me, "dirty and accurate" means no worse than 2 moa for 20-30 rounds). 

Meanwhile, catch up to the 19th century before the calendar roles over to the 21st. And, don't miss!

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