The Complete Continental Cartridge Cannister Chronicles

Techniques & Tech

March 3, 2015
by Michael Barbieri Also by this Author


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By the fall of 1777, the15th Virginia Regiment had been involved in some of the toughest fighting of the American Revolution—the engagements in northern New Jersey and the defense of Philadelphia that included major battles at Germantown and Brandywine in Pennsylvania. As part of the army with Washington, they spent weeks during the fall playing a cat and mouse game with British General Sir William Howe’s army. Winter would find them encamped at a place called Valley Forge northwest of Philadelphia.

An original canister. Photo courtesy Paul Ackermann, Conservator, United States Military Academy.
An original canister. Photo courtesy Paul Ackermann,
Conservator, United States Military Academy.

Being veterans of battle did not necessarily make the 15th Virginia’s men perfect soldiers, however. In October, Lieutenant Giles Raines suffered a court-martial for “sending a soldier [William Bluford] to bring water in a tin Cartridge box.”[1] Doing so violated a direct order of 23 September that said, “The General [Washington] is informed that the Tin-Cannisters which were served out for the purpose of carrying ammunition, are in some instances applied to other uses; He therefore positively forbids such practices.”[2] Indeed, Washington had received reports that soldiers had been using the tin cartridge boxes as canteens and some officers had begun to use them to carry their shaving equipment.[3]

What were these multi-use boxes? Most people familiar with the American Revolution know about leather pouches for carrying ammunition, but not tin boxes. What did they look like? How did they work?

In order to better understand what follows, one must know how the soldier loaded and fired his weapon. To do so, he needed powder, projectile, and wadding to serve as a gas seal between the two. A little powder was poured into the pan of the lock mechanism on the side of the weapon and more was poured down the barrel. Some wadding went on top of that followed by a round lead ball. All would be pushed down with a ramrod. A piece of flint striking against steel caused sparks to ignite the powder in the pan which burned through a small hole in the side of the barrel setting off the main charge, pushing the bullet out the barrel. The process had to be repeated each time the soldier wanted to fire.

Reproduction of the 'new construction' leather cartridge box made by Roy Najecki and based on an original. Photo courtesy of Roy Najecki Reproductions
Reproduction of the ‘new construction’ leather cartridge box made by Roy Najecki and based on an original. Photo courtesy of Roy Najecki Reproductions

One could certainly carry powder in a horn, bullets in a small bag, and have some loose paper or cloth to cut or tear into pieces for wadding. But, the soldier then had to access each separate element to load his weapon. To speed up the process, armies rolled paper tubes with the ball in the bottom, poured in a measured amount of powder, and closed off the top end. This gave the soldier everything he needed to load and fire in one little package that he bit open to expose the contents. The finished cartridges would be inserted into vertical holes in a wooden block that fit into a leather pouch with a large flap to protect the cartridges from rain.[4] He carried the pouch with the block of cartridges on his right hip suspended by a strap over his left shoulder or on a belt around his waist.

Tin cartridge boxes (often called “canisters” in period documents) differed considerably from the leather pouches. A letter from Horatio Gates, president of the Board of War of the Continental Congress, provided a thorough description in 1778. He wrote that they should be 6½-inches high, 3¾-inches wide, and 2⅞-inches deep. That size would allow the soldier to carry thirty-six cartridges with one-ounce balls (.66 caliber[5]) arranged in layers of four cartridges lying side by side. Three loops, one soldered to the bottom and one on each of the narrow sides would hold a strap for carrying the canister over the shoulder. The directions said the top should fit snugly and be hinged on one narrow side so that it lifted against the strap which would force it closed after being opened. They should be japanned or painted to help protect them.[6]

In his description, Gates offered three reasons for using tin boxes:

The board are of the opinion that these cannisters are preferable to [leather] cartridge boxes, as they will infallibly secure the cartridges from rain, and their weight is so trifling as to be no burthen to the Soldier. And seeing leather is so scarce they will be a most excellent substitute for cartridge boxes.

Each of these benefits needs to be expanded upon to fully comprehend the advantages of the tin canisters.

Typical musket cartridge. Approximately 3.5 inches long. Photo courtesy of The George C. Neumann Collection, Valley Forge National Historical Park, VAFO 928.
Typical musket cartridge. Approximately 3.5 inches long. Photo courtesy of The George C. Neumann Collection, Valley Forge National Historical Park, VAFO 928.

Black powder readily absorbs moisture. That quality made protection of the cartridges of prime importance so, as mentioned above, all leather boxes had at least one flap—some had two—to protect the cartridges from the rain. In spite the flaps, rain still damaged cartridges by the thousands. Tin canisters minimized this problem by having tight fitting lids that extended a half-inch down over the top of the canister.

The weight issue might seem trifling but every little bit helps when it’s hanging off your shoulder for hours on end. A typical leather cartridge box with an empty block and strap weighed upwards of three pounds. In contrast, a tin canister with its strap (it did not contain a wooden block) weighed about one pound.

Lastly, the American army suffered from shortages of everything throughout the war. Leather proved particularly problematic because it had so many uses—particularly shoes. That shoes held a high priority is evidenced by the number of times the topic came up in the Continental Congress. For example, on 20 June 1777, Congress passed a resolution that said a commissary should be appointed “to receive all raw hides belonging to the United States, and that he be authorized to exchange the same for tanned leather, or men’s shoes, at the customary rates of exchange, and have the leather so obtained, worked into shoes.”[7] Similar actions can be found throughout the war. With a shortage of leather, making tin cartridge boxes saved considerable amounts. In the event of a shortage of tin, production switched to thin sheet iron.[8] In either case, the finished canisters looked and functioned the same.

Although Gates did not mention it, the tin canisters also proved to be cheaper than leather boxes. In calculating the cost of each box based on documents that included prices and numbers, tin canisters consistently cost £0.3.3 (pounds.shillings.pence) or 0.43⅓ dollars.[9] Leather boxes ranged from just under £1 (around two dollars) to as much as £3 each (around seven dollars).[10]

Mention of the tin canisters has been found in documents dated as early as the fall of 1775 when General Horatio Gates (apparently a big fan of the metal boxes) recommended to a council of officers called by Washington that the men be issued canisters. It is likely he intended them to carry spare ammunition since he also recommended the men be issued a regular cartridge box.[11] Within a month, Congress authorized the making of 3,000 of the canisters.[12] By the spring of 1777, they had reached the army (apparently including the 15th Virginia) and Washington requested more. The greatest advantage he saw in them centered on their ability to protect the cartridges and he recommended that the canisters be filled with cartridges before being shipped to the army to better prevent the rain from damaging the ammunition.[13]

Not every soldier could be given a tin canister, however. Washington, therefore, issued orders in late August stating that they be equally divided amongst the regiments in his army.[14] At the company level, captains divided the canisters evenly amongst the messes (groups of up to six men who lived together). The captains also had orders to make sure on a daily basis that the men had their canisters and their full complement of cartridges.[15]

Since Lieutenant Raines’ court-martial takes place just six weeks after these orders are issued, it is possible that he ran afoul of the army as a result of the daily inspections. One can imagine the inspector asking to see the canisters full of cartridges and the lieutenant not being able to produce one of them. An image comes to mind of a pile of cartridges sitting in a corner of a tent on a blanket or, worse yet, on the ground. Or, it’s possible that Raines was accused of telling Bluford to remove the cartridges and get some water in the canister instead. Unfortunately, details of the proceedings have not been found but some situation—lack of proof, someone lying, etc.—led to Raines’ acquittal.[16]

No matter the use, production of the tin canisters continued. In September, the same letter that told Washington of canisters being used for unofficial purposes also mentioned that the stores at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, had about 2,000 of the tin boxes ready for distribution. Within a few days, Washington ordered that the units in the army should report on the number of arms and accoutrements, including canisters, they had. The reports did not please him:

It is with real grief and amazement that the General observes, by the late returns, how deficient of arms and accoutrements the Continental troops are. He directs, that they may be immediately supplied with muskets, and if there is not a sufficiency of [leather] cartouch boxes, that the tin Cannisters be taken from those who have cartouch boxes, to supply the defect of such as have none.[17]

Thus, the tin canisters, instead of functioning as a repository for spare cartridges in the manner Gates had intended, became the primary mode of carrying ammunition for some men.

Then, on 10 January 1778, Washington issued an order calling for the return of all of the canisters.[18] Two weeks later, only 389 of 2,141 canisters had been turned in to the commissary of military stores.[19] No explanation of what happened to the nearly 1,800 boxes not returned has been found but some may have been damaged and others lost. It is also probable that many of the men simply held onto them. The lack of further documentation concerning the return suggests that the army did not press the issue. Nor has any definitive reason been found for the recall of the canisters. It may simply have been Washington’s plan to keep them in a secure place for the winter and reissue them in the spring. The army did just that on other occasions with other pieces of clothing and equipment.[20]

With the opening of the new campaign in the spring of 1778, the need for more canisters again arose.[21] Not only did some of the full-time Continentals need cartridge boxes but so did many of the short-term men raised for the few months of the campaign season. With a shortage of leather and the low quality of much that the producers had available, tin or sheet iron canisters became desirable.[22] The tinsmiths had plenty of tin and sheet iron but production of the canisters moved slowly as the craftsmen concentrated on producing camp kettles.[23] Nonetheless, a supply of canisters gradually reached the army and large numbers began to arrive in the latter part of the year.

In spite of increased production, the fate of the tin and iron canisters changed in 1778. In June, Washington ordered that they should only be given to men without leather boxes. Once those men received leather boxes, they should return the canisters to be filled with cartridges and stored with the spare ammunition under the control of brigade quarter-masters until the “time of Alarm or when the Troops are actually going to attack the Enemy.” Those canisters given to the men should go to “the Non Commissioned Officers only or some of the most trusty soldiers.”[24] No longer would large numbers be equally divided amongst the regiments.

The canisters did see concentrated use in one particular branch of the military, however. During the summer, the army formed a corps of light infantry out of “the best, most hardy and active Marksmen … draughted from the several Brigades.”[25] Because the light infantry operated in quick, agile movements on the front, rear, and flanks of the army, the compact and light weight tin and iron canisters would be useful to them. Therefore, orders said that “The tin Cannisters are to be put into the hands of those men who are in the Light Infantry.”[26] Aside from this corps, however, tin and iron canisters would no longer see wide-spread use.

The army had found what it considered a more suitable alternative to the tin canisters. In the summer of 1777, a new style of leather cartridge box, often called the “new construction” cartridge or cartouche box, had been developed. Essentially a modified copy of the standard British cartridge pouch, it held twenty-nine cartridges and featured, in addition to the heavy outer flap, an inner flap of supple leather that buttoned tightly over the cartridges. Production began that winter but in limited numbers due to shortages of leather and the leatherworkers concentrating on making shoes and other accoutrements.[27] By fall of 1778, large numbers of the new constructed cartridge box began to arrive but Washington kept them in storage “untill a sufficient quantity is procured, to supply the Army in General.”[28]

The arrival of large numbers of the new leather boxes sealed the fate of the tin canisters. In July, 1779, Samuel Hodgdon, one of the men charged with supplying the army, wrote that the army had received a full supply of the new boxes “which upon all occasions are judg’d the best”[29] and “universally admired.”[30] As for the tin cartridge boxes being sent to him, “I am utterly unable to say any thing at present hope they will answer some valuable purpose, but am inclined to think they will not answer since the Army is well supply’d with Leather.”[31] Furthermore, “I am afraid these will be on my hands for which reason beg you would not forward any more untill I have informed you the Disposition of these.”[32] By the end of July, in spite of large numbers still being sent to the army, the canisters only saw use with the light infantry.[33]

The heyday of tin and iron canisters had passed. From 1780 on, although anywhere from 1,000 to over 2,000 continued to appear on returns of items in the stores, they do not seem to have seen much use in the field. Leather boxes, particularly the new constructed version, continued to be the preferred method for carrying ammunition.

Given the advantages of the tin canisters, why did the army prefer the leather boxes? At present, no answer to that question has been found in period documents. However, some understanding may be arrived at through the “experimental archaeology” of the reenacting hobby. Once I had found the description written by Gates, I asked Carl Giordano, a tinsmith who reproduces the canisters (, to make me one based on that account. Comparing the functionality of both the tin and leather boxes, I found that the cartridges are easier to access in the leather boxes than they are in the tin canisters, particularly when the supply in the canister gets low. Reaching into the relatively small opening of the canister and retrieving a cartridge from a horizontal cluster of them is more difficult than getting one out of the wide-open leather boxes where the cartridges sit in individual holes. The additional time and aggravation in accessing a cartridge might be something that brought disfavor onto the canisters, particularly when the new constructed leather boxes became plentiful.

Two original canisters are in museum collections, one at the West Point Museum and one at the Bergen County Historical Society in River Edge, New Jersey. In addition, a fellow historian John Rees told me of two more original boxes in private collections.[34] All four are nearly identical but there are some differences between the description that Gates wrote and the existing examples. The size is the same but the covers on the originals are hinged on the back instead of on a side. In this position, it opens against the soldier’s body rather than the strap. Secondly, the bottom edge of the canister that rides against the soldier’s hip is curved rather than forming a right angle. Lastly, the hinge and the strap loops are riveted to the body of the canister rather than just soldered.

Because I have also used a canister made in the fashion of the existing versions, I can speculate on the reasons for the differences between the suggested and existing forms. For one, the lid hinged on the back seems to make opening the canister and fitting my hand inside a bit easier. In addition, the lid hinged on the side occasionally pinches the fabric of my outer garment thereby preventing the lid from closing. With regard to the straight versus curved bottom edge, I found my “prototype” canister occasionally hangs up on my hip and tips away from vertical. In an extreme case, it might well dump the cartridges. The curved edge allows the canister to slide down the hip much better. Rivets secure the loops better as hard use or poor construction may cause the solder to break.

The tin canisters certainly did offer some advantages over the leather boxes but clearly not enough to supplant them. However, they are of a convenient size and construction and it is understandable how the soldiers would adapt one to serve some other function as the court-martial of Lieutenant Raines charged. That functionality may partially explain why only four examples are known to exist when the army had thousands made. One can conjecture that the soldiers held onto them and, over the following decades, people lost the canisters or they simply fell apart and became trash. Of course, there may well be others in homes today where the people have no idea what they are—just some sort of old tin box.

Lieutenant Raines or Private Bluford may have kept a canister when they left the army. Raines served only until the end of 1777 resigning his commission in December.[35] Bluford, on the other hand, remained with the army and served out his three-year enlistment. He spent the winter in Valley Forge and fought with the main army in the actions of 1778 and 1779 including Monmouth. He then served as a wagon master for a period after his term with the Virginia line.[36] Both men died in 1800.


[1] General orders, 19 October 1777. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 3g Varick Transcripts, Letterbook 2, Image 281. (accessed 3 January 2015).

[2] General orders, 23 September 1777. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 3g Varick Transcripts, Letterbook 2, Image 249. (accessed 3 January 2015).

[3] Charles Carroll to George Washington, 27 September 1777, Paul H. Smith, et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 (25 volumes, Washington: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), 8:21-22.

[4] Technically, “cartridge box” refers to just the wooden block holding the cartridges but writers generally used it in the broader sense to mean both the block and the pouch.

[5] George Smith, An Universal Military Dictionary (London, 1779; reprint, Ottawa: Museum Restoration Service, 1969), 77.

[6] Archives of Maryland. William Hand Browne, ed. (Baltimore, Maryland Historical Society: 1897), 16:559.

[7] Journals of the Continental Congress.

[8] George Washington to Board of War, 1 May 1778, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745‑1799, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington, DC, 1934), 11:334.

[9] For example, see Pay Orders, “Transcript Journals, 1775-1779,” 14 March 1776; 9 April 1776; and 29 April 1776; Item 2, Vol. 3, 352, 420, and 471, respectively; Papers of the Continental Congress: 1774-1779 (National Archives and Records Administration Microfilm Publication M247, Roll 15). Each of these orders includes the number of canisters and the total price in both pounds and dollars.

[10] Paul Noyes, Petition, “Petitions Address [sic] to Congress, 1775-89,” 8 February 1786; Item 42, Vol. 5, 467; Papers of the Continental Congress: 1774-1779 (National Archives and Records Administration Microfilm Publication M247, Roll 15).

[11] Horatio Gates, “Answers to queries about winter campaign,” 15 October 1775. Letter. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799. (accessed 7 July 2013).

[12] Resolution, “Transcript Journals, 1775-1779,” 11 November 1775; Item 2, Vol. 1, 99; Papers of the Continental Congress: 1774-1779 (National Archives and Records Administration Microfilm Publication M247, Roll 15).

[13] Washington to Board of War, 7 July 1777. Letter. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 3a Varick Transcripts, Letterbook 2, Image 336-7. (accessed 3 January 2015).

[14] General orders, 28 August 1777. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 3g Varick Transcripts, Letterbook 2, Image 220. (accessed 3 January 2015). A regiment consisted of 400 to 500 men divided into eight to ten companies.

[15] Nathaniel Greene, Division After Orders. George Weedon, Valley Forge Orderly Book of General George Weedon of the Continental Army under Command of Genl. George Washington, in the Campaign of 1777‑8 (New York, NY, 1971), 27-8.

[16] General Orders, 19 October 1777, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.

[17] General Orders, October 13, 1777. Fitzpatrick, Writings of George Washington, 9:362-363.

[18] Weedon, Valley Forge Orderly Book, 189.

[19] “Return of Tin Cartridge Boxes Delivered to & Received from the Different Divisions &C. of the Army … Artily Park Jany 24. 1778”, Miscellaneous Numbered Records (The Manuscript File) in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, 1775-1790’s, Record Group 93, National Archives Microfilm Publication M859, reel 69, item no. 21101.

[20] Samuel Hodgdon to Timothy Pickering, president Board of War, 10 October 1778. Letter. Letters Sent by Samuel Hodgdon, 07/1778 – 05/1784. Supply Records Numbered Record Books. National Archives Microfilm Publication M853, reel 33, v. 111, no. 127-8.

[21] Armies in the northern regions of North America typically went into “winter quarters” during that season of the year. They would begin a new campaign in the spring.

[22] Congressional Resolution, 19 March 1778. Samuel Hazard, Pennsylvania Archives, Series I, vol. VI (Philadelphia: Joseph Stevens & Co., 1853), 375.

[23] War Board to George Washington, 9 June 1778. Letter. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799, Image 985. (accessed 4 January 2015).

[24] General Orders, 17 June 1778. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 3g Varick Transcripts, Letterbook 3, Image 269. (accessed 5 January 2015).

[25] After Orders, 8 August 1778. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745‑1799, Fitzpatrick, Ed., 12:300.

[26] Ibid., 331.

[27] War Board to George Washington, 9 June 1778, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.

[28] Samuel Hodgdon to General Maxwell, 12 October 1778. Letter. Letters Sent by Samuel Hodgdon, 07/1778 – 05/1784. Supply Records Numbered Record Books. National Archives Microfilm Publication M853, reel 33, v. 111, no. 163.

[29] Samuel Hodgdon to Major Pearson, 6 July 1779. Letter. Letters, no. 234-5.

[30] Samuel Hodgdon to Major General Gastelow, 6 July 1779. Letter. Letters, no. 237-8.

[31] Hodgdon to Pearson, 6 July 1779, Letters, no. 234-5.

[32] Hodgdon to Gastelow, Letters, no. 237-8.

[33] Samuel Hodgdon to William Cooke, 29 July 1779. Letter. Letters. no. 37.

[34] Over time, John Rees and this author have exchanged considerable information and messages concerning tin canisters. I am indebted to him for some intriguing discoveries and thoughts.

[35] Compiled service records of soldiers who served in the American Army during the Revolutionary War. National Archives Microfilm Publication M881, 15th Virginia Regiment, roll 1085, 13. (accessed 10 January 2015).

[36] Compiled service records, 15th Virginia Regiment, roll 987, 5, (accessed 12 January 2015).


  • Mike,

    Interesting article. Your reference to the 1777 “new style of leather cartridge box” caused one of my few brain cells to fire off, vaguely recalling an exchange between Washington and Heath around this time that touched on this subject and which might provide further insight as to where the idea came from.

    In a fascinating exchange of letters between the two men, on June 7, 1777, Heath wrote to tell Washington that “The carteredge [sic] boxes which have commonly been made for the army are made of the most miserable materials, and in case of storms commonly serve only to waste the ammunition which is carried in them. Colonel [Light-Horse Harry?] Lee, undoubtedly may be called a martinet in military matters is desirous that the boxes for the three regiments which are to be posted here may be made of better leather. He has brought me a sample. The first expense will be considerably more than that of the present model, but in a long run they will be much the cheapest as they will with proper care last the war, whilst the other will scarcely last one campaign.” [1]

    In response, Washington wrote back on June 27 in agreement, “I have long found the ill effects of the wretched cartouch-boxes generally in use, and am very glad to find that Colonel Lee has found out a kind that will preserve the ammunition. You will direct him to have them made, and I should be glad of one by way of pattern.” [2]

    On July 13, Washington wrote to Heath again warning him in preparation for an excursion that “Let every party that you send off be fully supplied with ammunition, which should be delivered to the officers, and carried with their baggage. If it is put into their cartouch-boxes, it will probably be damaged by weather before they arrive at the place of destination.” [3]

    Fascinating and enlightening topic as I would have thought tin would have won out. Not so!

    [1] Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Seventh Series (Boston: John Wilson and Son, 1904), 4:104-105.
    [2] Ibid., Fifth Series, 4: 61-62
    [3] Ibid., 66.

    1. Greetings Neighbor,

      Indeed, that exchange is the beginning of the “new construction” leather box.

      And, that exchange features troublemaker William–not “Light Horse” Henry–Lee.

  • According to Paul Ackerman at the West Point Museum, a pattern for the tin canister at that museum has been created. In a display of 18th-century frugality, the pattern fits a standard 10″x14″ sheet of tin with minimal waste–one sheet for the body and strap loops and another sheet for the top and the hinge.

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