Trade Gun Original Loads?

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Hello all! I am curious about how 18th century trade guns were loaded during the period. Concerning guns like the Carolina and Northwest smoothbores, did the native Americans and other users mostly utilize round balls or was shot used more often? I am assuming during warfare round balls were used mostly? Would it be safe to assume most users would keep them loaded with a ball?

Just curious how these guns were actually loaded back in the day. Thanks!
 

rich pierce

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Lists of inventories at trading posts show lots of balls and sometimes swan shot which is probably BB size or so. Smaller than buckshot and larger than #2 shot. It was round shot. I think the swan shot was more common in the far north where vast flicks of waterfowl were found.
 

Notchy Bob

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@Smokey Plainsman

I don't know that you'll find complete and definitive answers to all of your questions, but there is some documentation that will contribute to the discussion.

Regarding round balls or shot, they used both. Much of the discussion of shooting trade guns on this forum centers around ball loads, but native hunters evidently used a lot of shot, as well. This is from Caspar Whitney's On Snow-Shoes to the Barren Grounds (1896), page 114:

Whitney, p. 114.png
I'm not sure his "30-bore" designation is quite right, but he was discussing the native Dogrib people of northwestern Canada, with whom he traveled. His reference to "ball in winter and shot in summer" is probably a reflection of the types of game that were hunted... Big game (e.g. moose, caribou, wood bison) in the winter and small game, birds, and waterfowl in the summer.

Isaac Cowie was a clerk for the Hudson's Bay Company starting in the 1860's. He was primarily based in Saskatchewan, and he wrote his memoirs as a book, In the Company of Adventurers. Here he describes traveling between trading posts with a native family. One of the children was armed with a trade gun, and hunted small game as they went. In Cowie's own words:

Cowie p.197.jpg

Cowie described a substantial powder charge with a relatively light load of shot, but it was very effective in the long-barreled trade gun. Cowie was a knowledgeable shooter, who was very familiar with the firearms of his day. I would take him at his word.

Samuel and Gideon Pond were Christian missionaries to the Eastern Dakotas in Minnesota starting in 1834, until into the 1850's, I believe. Samuel Pond wrote up his observations of the native people in a book, The Dakotas or Sioux in Minnesota As They Were In 1834. This book is remarkable for its sensitivity and sympathetic views of the Dakota people and their lifeways and spiritual views. Anyway, here are Samuel's comments on firearms:

"The men used smooth bore guns much more than rifles, and it was a considerable time after the percussion lock was introduced, before they learned to prefer it to flint. They manufactured shot from bar lead by melting and pouring it through a sieve of perforated bark held over water, the sieve being jarred while the lead was running, so that it fell into the water in drops" (p. 356).

So, not only did the Dakotas use shot, they actually made it themselves.

I've found less about specific loading techniques, but there is at least one quote regarding how the Cheyene Indians loaded their trade guns with ball rounds. This is from The Life of George Bent, Written From His Letters, compiled by George E. Hyde:

George Bent Quote.png

George Bent was the son of William Bent, one of the founders of Bent's Fort, and Owl Woman, who was Cheyenne. Since the Cheyenne people were matrilineal, tracing their ancestry through the mother's lineage, George was himself Cheyenne, and he lived much of his life with his mother's people.

Regarding ball loads for trade guns, there is a lot of information out there, but I don't know that it is collected in any one place in a format that is useful to shooters like us. From what I have gleaned from reading, the typical "trade ball" was 28 gauge, which would be .550" diameter. Many of the traders stocked a few other sizes in addition, but this seems to be the most commonly available. This comment from the Earl of Southesk, who traveled across the Canadian plains and wrote of his experiences in Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains: A Diary of Travel, Sport, and Adventure, During a Journey Through the Hudson’s Bay Company Territories in 1859 and 1860, seems to support that:

“My men had various guns and rifles of their own; none were worth much, except a highly-serviceable double-barreled gun belonging to M’Kay, of the best possible pattern for general use in that country. It was as thick in the metal as a rifle, and carried a bullet accurately to more than a hundred yards, and as its bore was of the size (28) universal in the company’s trade, supplies of ball could be got anywhere and almost from any person. Small as these bullets are – for being round, they had none of the expansion of a conical ball, especially a flanged one such as that shot by my rifles, which were really but little different in the gauge – they are large enough, if well directed, to kill any beast in America; stores of them, moreover, can be carried in little bulk – an inestimable advantage for the ordinary hunter.

“This handy and neatly-finished gun, which was made in London at a trifling cost (₤12 if I rightly remember) could also throw shot with a power that I have never seen equalled
[sic]. Good as my Purdey smooth-bores were, M’Kay used to kill ducks at distances fairly beyond my range” (p.38)

In Small Arms and Ammunition in the United States Service, author Lewis stated that military smoothbores in the 18th and 19th centuries were typically loaded with balls 0.050" under bore size. Most (but not all) old Northwest guns now in existence seem to run about .60 caliber, so a .550" ball would have probably been about right. This seems egregiously undersized to us modern folk, to the point that some may not believe it is true, but the documentation and the artifacts (actual balls, and gang moulds) are there.

The Earl of Southesk also presented a trade gun to one of his men, and described the fellow's efforts to get it to shoot to his satisfaction:

Southesk, p.55.png

So, that ought to get you started, if you are really interested in period correct loads for your new trade gun. Good luck with it!

Best regards,

Notchy Bob
 

Capt. Jas.

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If you take into consideration that trading guns like the Carolina were not just for natives but actually for sale at local stores as an early version of what we would associate with a cheap break action shotgun or 870 express,........ In F&I period Bedford Co, VA, the militia preferred goose shot to the single ball projectile for Indian engagements. This is cited in The Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia.

For natives this quote from Lawson's 1709 account A New Voyage to Carolina..."
Our Indian having this Day kill'd good Store of Provision with his Gun, he always shot with a single Ball, missing but two Shoots in above forty; they being curious Artifts in managing a Gun, to make it carry either Ball, or Shot, true. When they have bought a Piece,and find it to shoot any Ways crooked,they take the Barrel out of the Stock, cutting a Notch in a Tree, wherein they set it streight, sometimes shooting away above 100 Loads of Ammunition, before they bring the Gun to shoot according to their Mind"
 

Notchy Bob

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@Notchy Bob, when they talk of a bore, such as the aforementioned 30 bore, the diameter is almost certainly referring to a gauge size or about 0.520 caliber.
Exactly. It does look as if he is referring to the bore size. However, most (but certainly not all) trade guns were nominally 24 bore, and many were marked as such. The most reliable chart I have shows a thirty gauge ball as measuring .538". A true 24 gauge would be .579", although by actual measurement, the bores of many of these guns tended to be somewhat larger, closer to 60 caliber. A 30 gauge gun would have been unusual.

However, it is more likely that Mr. Whitney was referring to the ball size rather than the bore size. In correspondence with James Willard Schultz, an old-time trader who married into the south Piegan tribe, Charles Hanson was advised that "The old Hudson's Bay Company flintlock guns were about the length of the powder and ball muzzleloaders that our Army used in the Rebellion of the Southern States, and the balls were thirty to the pound" (in The Northwest Gun, by Charles Hanson, p. 1). In his article "Smoothbores on the Frontier" (in The Book of Buckskinning IV), Mr. Hanson stated "Standard trade balls were sold by the Hudson's Bay Company in both 28 gauge (.550) and 30 gauge (.537)" (p.116).

So, it is possible that Mr. Whitney was referring to guns shooting 30 gauge (.537"-.538") balls, but his wording looks as if he is referring to the guns. The gist of my comment with regard to the Whitney quote was that a 30 gauge Northwest gun would have been unusual. However, knowing that it was standard practice back then to allow considerable windage in selecting a ball for a smoothbore, a thirty gauge ball might have been considered a good fit for a true 24 bore trade gun.

In any event, @Grenadier1758 's comments are appreciated!

Incidentally, Mr. Hanson's article in The Book of Buckskinning IV also mentions the shot used in these smoothbored trade guns. An order placed by the Mackinac traders in 1782 included:

Duck shot #1 Equivalent to American #2
Pigeon shot #3 Equivalent to American #4
Plover shot #4 Equivalent to American #5
Snipe shot #5 Equivalent to American #6

...and another order placed by the Northwest Company in 1801 included "balls in 32 gauge (.526")" as well as:

Beaver shot #B Equivalent to American #1
Duck shot #1 Equivalent to American #2
Pigeon shot #2 Equivalent to American #3

I think it is noteworthy that most of the shot shown in the tables above would be considered pretty coarse by today's standards. However, the native customers who bought it apparently used it to very good effect. This gets back to @Smokey Plainsman 's original question about how the old trade guns were loaded. The data provided by Charles Hanson are very informative.

Best regards,

Notchy Bob
 
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@Smokey Plainsman

I don't know that you'll find complete and definitive answers to all of your questions, but there is some documentation that will contribute to the discussion.

Regarding round balls or shot, they used both. Much of the discussion of shooting trade guns on this forum centers around ball loads, but native hunters evidently used a lot of shot, as well. This is from Caspar Whitney's On Snow-Shoes to the Barren Grounds (1896), page 114:

View attachment 169853
I'm not sure his "30-bore" designation is quite right, but he was discussing the native Dogrib people of northwestern Canada, with whom he traveled. His reference to "ball in winter and shot in summer" is probably a reflection of the types of game that were hunted... Big game (e.g. moose, caribou, wood bison) in the winter and small game, birds, and waterfowl in the summer.

Isaac Cowie was a clerk for the Hudson's Bay Company starting in the 1860's. He was primarily based in Saskatchewan, and he wrote his memoirs as a book, In the Company of Adventurers. Here he describes traveling between trading posts with a native family. One of the children was armed with a trade gun, and hunted small game as they went. In Cowie's own words:

View attachment 169854

Cowie described a substantial powder charge with a relatively light load of shot, but it was very effective in the long-barreled trade gun. Cowie was a knowledgeable shooter, who was very familiar with the firearms of his day. I would take him at his word.

Samuel and Gideon Pond were Christian missionaries to the Eastern Dakotas in Minnesota starting in 1834, until into the 1850's, I believe. Samuel Pond wrote up his observations of the native people in a book, The Dakotas or Sioux in Minnesota As They Were In 1834. This book is remarkable for its sensitivity and sympathetic views of the Dakota people and their lifeways and spiritual views. Anyway, here are Samuel's comments on firearms:

"The men used smooth bore guns much more than rifles, and it was a considerable time after the percussion lock was introduced, before they learned to prefer it to flint. They manufactured shot from bar lead by melting and pouring it through a sieve of perforated bark held over water, the sieve being jarred while the lead was running, so that it fell into the water in drops" (p. 356).

So, not only did the Dakotas use shot, they actually made it themselves.

I've found less about specific loading techniques, but there is at least one quote regarding how the Cheyene Indians loaded their trade guns with ball rounds. This is from The Life of George Bent, Written From His Letters, compiled by George E. Hyde:

View attachment 169890

George Bent was the son of William Bent, one of the founders of Bent's Fort, and Owl Woman, who was Cheyenne. Since the Cheyenne people were matrilineal, tracing their ancestry through the mother's lineage, George was himself Cheyenne, and he lived much of his life with his mother's people.

Regarding ball loads for trade guns, there is a lot of information out there, but I don't know that it is collected in any one place in a format that is useful to shooters like us. From what I have gleaned from reading, the typical "trade ball" was 28 gauge, which would be .550" diameter. Many of the traders stocked a few other sizes in addition, but this seems to be the most commonly available. This comment from the Earl of Southesk, who traveled across the Canadian plains and wrote of his experiences in Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains: A Diary of Travel, Sport, and Adventure, During a Journey Through the Hudson’s Bay Company Territories in 1859 and 1860, seems to support that:

“My men had various guns and rifles of their own; none were worth much, except a highly-serviceable double-barreled gun belonging to M’Kay, of the best possible pattern for general use in that country. It was as thick in the metal as a rifle, and carried a bullet accurately to more than a hundred yards, and as its bore was of the size (28) universal in the company’s trade, supplies of ball could be got anywhere and almost from any person. Small as these bullets are – for being round, they had none of the expansion of a conical ball, especially a flanged one such as that shot by my rifles, which were really but little different in the gauge – they are large enough, if well directed, to kill any beast in America; stores of them, moreover, can be carried in little bulk – an inestimable advantage for the ordinary hunter.

“This handy and neatly-finished gun, which was made in London at a trifling cost (₤12 if I rightly remember) could also throw shot with a power that I have never seen equalled
[sic]. Good as my Purdey smooth-bores were, M’Kay used to kill ducks at distances fairly beyond my range” (p.38)

In Small Arms and Ammunition in the United States Service, author Lewis stated that military smoothbores in the 18th and 19th centuries were typically loaded with balls 0.050" under bore size. Most (but not all) old Northwest guns now in existence seem to run about .60 caliber, so a .550" ball would have probably been about right. This seems egregiously undersized to us modern folk, to the point that some may not believe it is true, but the documentation and the artifacts (actual balls, and gang moulds) are there.

The Earl of Southesk also presented a trade gun to one of his men, and described the fellow's efforts to get it to shoot to his satisfaction:

View attachment 169892

So, that ought to get you started, if you are really interested in period correct loads for your new trade gun. Good luck with it!

Best regards,

Notchy Bob

Thanks so much, Notchy! I really enjoy your detailed writings. Much appreciated!
 
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I've read somewhere that both powder and shot was carried mixed in a bag hanging from the shoulder. A hand full of the mixture was dumped down the barrel, a pinch of powder in the pan and the gun was ready to shoot. I don't remember any mention of wadding to hold the mixture in place but I do remember that a piece of shot could block the touch hole. Of course I'm trying to remember from years ago and could be leaving something out. Or it could all be BS.
 
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Hot Dipped tin sells tin powder measures copied from originals sold with the gun. Gun often came with a worm and a measure and ammunition was often ‘a hundred shots’.
The measures were in the 65-75 range, about a hundred shots to a pound of powder
 
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