Sepoy Rebellion and Paper Cartridges

One of the causes, or at least catalysts, for the Sepoy Rebellion in British India was supposed to have been paper rifle cartridges. From what I understand, a new cartridge (or new version of an older cartridge?) was introduced with a preservative/lubricant that the Muslim troops thought was derived from pig fat and the Hindu troops thought was derived from cow fat. Having to bite the cartridges and thuis “eat” the offensive materials led to resistance and then rebellion. That part is fairly common knowledge, but my question is: What was it made from? Pig fat, cow fat, bees wax, or something else?

Background for the curious: the 1853 Enfield didn’t use a “cartridge” as we understand the term. Rather, it was a paper tube containing black powder, with the projectile at one end. The user typically bit the tube just below the projectile, poured the powder down the barrel, inserted the wadded-up wrapper and projectile, and rammed the whole thing down.

My understanding (disclaimer: I’m not a serious historian) is that the problem was not the cartridge but the projectile, which had to be greased so that it could be rammed down the barrel without causing damage. Inevitably the grease permeated the paper wrapping, meaning that the person who bit the cartridge came into contact with it.

I’ve never seen an authoritative source about whether or not they were greased with animal fat, but the British field commanders weren’t complete idiots: as soon as the rumor started to proliferate they issued ungreased projectiles with vegetable fat so that concerned troops could grease their own. Unfortunately, by that point it was too late; more unfortunately, the field commanders who tried to mitigate the rumor were frequently its first victims.

That was a pretty clever rumour: something for everyone.

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This being GQ, I am going to ask you for a cite. How do you know it was a rumor or rumour ?

Because it was a spoken message passed around to do harm.

Doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. Or that it was. Rumours can be about anything unconfirmed.

However, in this case, the fact both kinds of fat were suggested indicates not.

I own a model 1853 Enfield rifle-musket. It’s a replica, made with modern machining equipment, but is pretty much identical to the original, to the point where you could even swap parts between it and an original if you wanted to. I shoot it fairly often. It’s a nice rifle, much more powerful and accurate than a lot of people these days realize.

Anyway, you may think that the term rifle-musket is kind of a nonsense word, since muskets were smooth bore and rifles were rifled. A rifle-musket is a particular type of weapon. The original rifle-muskets were smooth bore muskets that had their barrels rifled later, but even after they started producing them with rifled barrels from the start they continued to call them rifle-muskets. Rifle-muskets were all the same basic design and, importantly, the same length as the original muskets. The shorter versions often used by cavalry and the navy were called rifles.

Rifle-muskets fired Minie balls, which aren’t pronounced like the word “mini” and aren’t ball shaped either, just to add to the confusion. They are basically conical bullets with a hollowed out skirt at the back end. They are intentionally smaller than the barrel diameter so that you can easily shove them down the barrel of a musket even after it’s been fired a bunch of times and the barrel is all fouled up with black powder residue. When you shoot the weapon, the powder causes the skirt at the back to flare out, which allows it to then tightly grip the rifling. Before the Minie ball, militaries rarely used rifles since a round that was large enough to get enough grip on the rifling to be useful would also get stuck when you tried to load it down a heavily fouled barrel.

Minie balls have ringed grooves around the outside of the skirt. These are called grease grooves, and their purpose, as the name implies, is to be filled with grease. This doesn’t really help much with loading the round down the barrel. What the grease actually does is makes a nice tight seal, which allows more pressure to be built up behind the round, making the skirt flare out better and adding to the final velocity of the round as it leaves the barrel.

If you are having trouble picturing all of this, the wikipedia page has a nice picture of Minie balls:é_ball

In order to speed up the loading of the musket, they used paper cartridges back then. These weren’t like modern cartridges that get inserted whole into the weapon. Instead, they were just paper tubes that contained a pre-measured amount of gunpowder and a pre-greased Minie ball. You tore open the cartridge (usually with your teeth, as that was the fastest way and didn’t involved switching hands around and stuff like that), poured the powder into the barrel, tossed the paper aside, shoved the Minie ball into the barrel, and rammed the whole thing down with the ramrod. Then you put the ramrod back under the barrel (don’t forget this step, or you’ll accidentally shoot your ramrod at the enemy, which actually happened a few times back then), flip the rifle around, pulled the hammer back to half cocked, put a percussion cap on the lock mechanism’s nipple (often called a “cone” these days to avoid schoolboy type giggling), pull the hammer back to full cock (another term often avoided these days), aim, and fire. Then you get to repeat the whole process and shoot again.

Needless to say, modern repeating rifles are a whole lot faster and easier to shoot.

There were a lot of things that led to the Sepoy rebellion, but one of them was indeed that the grease used was thought by many to include animal-based fats (this was more rumor than fact). This was especially offensive to the Muslims and Hindus considering that they had to tear the cartridge open with their teeth, therefore biting into the supposedly offensive grease. They also changed the paper used in the cartridges, and the new paper had a coating on it that was rumored to be made from animal grease.

Grease-free cartridges were issued so that those who thought the grease might be offensive could use whatever materials they preferred. Firing procedures were also changed, instructing the soldiers to tear the cartridges open with their hands instead of their teeth. Instead of calming things down, this instead seemed to confirm the soldier’s fears that the cartridges had in fact contained offensive materials, further fueling the rebellion.

ETA: By the way, the Minie ball and its associated cartridges were fairly new. Flintlock smooth bore muskets had been in use for a couple hundred years, but in the 1840s to 1850s the design changed to rifling with the Minie ball and the change from flintlock to percussion cap. Flintlocks also used somewhat similar cartridges, but they didn’t need the grease.

The Minie ball was one of the worst things to get shot with, ever, in all of history. It produced worse wounds than the round balls before it and worse wounds than the cartridge rifles that followed it.

Old thread from 2003. Anyway the upshot it seems is yes, it is apparently pretty likely both pig fat AND beef fat were used by different British contractors manufacturing in the UK, because nothing had been specified in the contract and those were the cheapest greases available. It was basically a truly idiotic oversight rather than a deliberate slight and they were quickly withdrawn. But not before the rumor-mill damage had been done.

It was really just a little spark amidst a massive heap of pre-existing grievances, but that is how fires start.

IIRC it was a rumour because it was in the British Empire, despite US newspaper reports that it was a rumor.

I can’t believe army contractors could be guilty of such a bêtise: they have the highest ratings for personal integrity and business rectitude since Napoleon’s day through the American War of Secession down to quite recent times.

Another piece of tinder to the flames was a regulation that was instituted just before the rebellion that the Sepoy units could be sent overseas. The Sepoys believed that this would “break their cast” and was very unholy.

Between this and the cartridges, the fat was really in the fire.

This is from a well-known set piece in Finnegans Wake in a museum of English history, Wellington, and Napoleon.

I’ll get back with some glosses, if anybody wants–try working some of the double and triple meanings out, it’s a game!—but I can’t see offhand and am surprised not to see any references to the rumor and events discussed here.

Not exactly on topic, the main event more or less described here by the tour guide is a British corporal punishment of strapping a sepoy to a cannon mouth and firing it. Any confirmation of this practice?

“This is the same white harse of the Willingdone, Culpenhelp, waggling his tailoscrupp with the half of a hat of lipoleums to insoult on the hinndoo seeboy. Hney, hney, hney! (Bullsrag! Foul!) This is the seeboy, madrashattaras, upjump and pumpim, cry to the Willingdone: Ap Pukkaru! Pukka Yurap! This is the Willingdone, bornstable ghentleman, tinders his maxbotch to the cursigan Shimar Shin. Basucker youstead! This is the dooforhim seeboy blow the whole of the half of the hat of lipoleums off of the top of the tail on the back of his big wide harse. Tip (Bullseye! Game!) How Copenhagen ended. This way the museyroom. Mind your boots goan out.”

Sure there’s confirmation. There are actual photographs in Wikipedia I remember. It was an old Indian execution; like trampling with elephants. The chap was stood in front of the cannon’s mouth , if people are confused, not shoved down the barrel like a circus artiste.
Actually as far as deaths go that’s not a particularly bad one. Except for the people detailed to clean the scattered remains afterwards.

Yes, blowing from a gun was a common punishment for rebellion under the Mughals and other powers in the region, and the British used it against mutineers in 1857 as well as during other rebellions. Afghanistan apparently continued to use it until 1930.

From a historical reference on a 1856 patent carbine that was designed in 1854 the recipe for the bullet lubricant is, 1 part Spermaceti and 2 parts tallow.
Tallow being rendered animal fat that is primarily beef or mutton but not limited to exclude pig fat, what they were looking for was a solidified product at room temp and pig fat would be the least favorable in this application.
the Spermaceti is a wax from the head of a sperm whale, again keeping the composition solid.
Remember, there were very very few product ingredient label’s used in the 1800! :rolleyes:

Italics and boldface added to show **Leo Bloom’**s :smack:

Thanx GBro!

I’ll work out a gloss in a bit. That’s what infuriated the “seeboy,” who cried “Foul” and two fuck yous when confronted with the “Bullsrag”–rag/parchment with tallow and bullet combo. Willingdone then proceeds.

Wellington was dead by '52, just 30 years before Joyce was born; however he made his name as a Sepoy General — and he famously remarked that being born in a stable doesn’t make one a horse, when accused of being Irish.

Lipoleum looks to be a balm for the lips.

In the army I always fired 7.62 NATO ball ammunition. I’d assumed term ball was derived from muskets but your Minie balls reference has added an extra layer layer of complexity.

Why would you assume it was passed around to do harm? It could also have been passed around due to the sepoys’ belief that their fellow soldiers would also be horrified.

Much like those Tea Party chain emails ?

Moderator Warning

Claverhouse, I’m sure you are well aware that political jabs are not permitted in GQ. You dodged a bullet in the Walter Scott thread, but this one gets a warning. Don’t do this again.

General Questions Moderator