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RARE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR  MUSKET CARTRIDGE BOX – VERY GOOD SPECIMEN OF THE “BELLY BOX” WITH ORIGINAL WAIST BELT:  Predating the larger cartridge boxes that were introduced ca. 1779 in the midst of the American Revolutionary War, this style of Musket Cartridge Box was in use by the British Army from the early 1700’s.  Well documented with featured examples in Kochan and Troiani’s Soldiers of the American Revolution and in Robert Reilly’s article, “Together for Two Centuries…” (Military Collector and Historian, Journal of The Company of Military Historians, Vol. 45, 1993, pages 84-86), this basic pattern of cartridge box was issued to regular army units and militia alike, to include the militia units located in the English Colonies in North America that would eventually constitute the Continental Army.   

The basic design of this box consisted of three to five pieces of leather, depending on the particular maker’s pattern, which were sewn together around the front, back and sides of a wooden block, often fashioned of poplar or beech wood, and a piece of leather providing a protective flap over the top of the block.  The block was drilled with holes which carried the paper cartridges, with the number of holes varying considerably from 18 to 29 depending on the size of the block and the diameter of the holes which was  determined by the caliber of the musket or carbine with which the box would be issued.  The box was then fitted with a one or two piece shoulder sling or belt of linen or leather – the two piece slings and belts joined with either a plain, hand forged iron buckle or a metal adjustment hook.   

There is a difference in the terminology of the period that was used to describe these cartridge boxes that is germane to this particular box.   While the British Army used the term “cartridge pouches” to describe these ammunition carriers, the American Army preferred the term “cartridge boxes”, and these terms seem to be used without regard to the design of a particular pouch or box.  To further muddy the waters, while many of the cartridge carriers – pouches and boxes – were fitted with a shoulder sling, and were intended to be carried over the soldier’s shoulder, the strap passing across his chest and back and the carrier resting on the opposite hip, there were those carriers that were referred to by the troops as “belly boxes” which were worn on a belt around the soldier’s waist with the carrier, or box, positioned to his front and across his stomach, hence the name.  This “belly box” method of carrying the cartridges appears to have been quite popular with a variety of units and the preference is understandable.  The box worn on a waist belt was more secure and would not continuously bang against the soldier’s back and side on the march, it was less prone to snag on underbrush or other obstacles on the battlefield, and was less likely to be out of position or tangled in other equipment when reaching for a cartridge in the heat of battle.  Because it was snugged into position on the soldier’s front waist, he knew exactly where it was at all times.   

Further clouding this difference of pouch vs. box, and the shoulder borne carriers vs. “belly boxes”, soldiers found it quite simple to modify a shoulder mounted carrier to a belly box.  The shoulder strap, attached to the box by inserting the ends into the seam between the back panel and covering flap, and tacked to the rear of the wooden cartridge block, was intended to rise perpendicular to the carrier.  In the process of modifying the shoulder strap to a waist belt, the two pieces of the shoulder sling were folded down and out towards the ends of the carrier, leaving a tell-tale triangular fold where it was sewn to the end of the carrier and/or tacked in place, and resulting in two belt ends, one emerging from each side of the carrier.  If the carrier was fitted with a one piece sling, it was easily cut, a buckle sewn to one end and the necessary holes punched in the opposite billet to fit the soldier’s waist. 

From extent specimens, it appears this pattern of cartridge box was made with shoulder slings and, whether by original design or the result of modification by a soldier, was also worn as a belly box, as is the case with this cartridge box.   

In very good condition and showing only minimal evidence of aging, this Revolutionary War Cartridge “Belly” Box measures 10” long, 4” high, and 3” deep.  It is formed from three main panels of leather – the front, the back and the covering flap which is sewn to the top edge of the back panel.  The front and back panels are sewn together at both ends and along the bottom of the box, forming a bag into which the wooden block was placed.  There are small leather ears at each end of the box which prevent the weather from getting in under the sides of the covering flap.  The wooden block is anchored in the leather covering with a series of small iron flat headed brads on both ends and across the back.  The block is drilled with 24 holes, each approximately 2 5/8” deep and .79” in diameter – likely intended to carry .75 caliber cartridges.  The billet which kept the flap closed is still present, stitched to the inside of the covering flap.  The leather button which mated to the billet and was stitched to the front panel of the box is now missing.   

The leather is crazed and there is some surface flaking, however this evidence of wear is well within the bounds one would expect to find on a Revolutionary War piece.  The leather is supple and still very strong with no significant weak points or notable damage.   

Attached to the rear of the box are the two belt sections.  Sewn into the seam that joins the back and covering flap of the box, each belt section is folded over as described above and tacked down with iron nails and sewn to the back panel of the box.  The belt section on the right side of the box is fitted with a forged iron roller buckle with a square tongue and the iron still retains some of the original black lacquer finish.  This right hand section is intact, is supple and while the leather is crazed with some surface flaking, it appears to be full length.  The belt section on the left side of the box – the billet end - retains the full length that was employed by the soldier who wore this box and the end of the billet has been roughly shaped to a point where it fed into the buckle.  The adjustment holes are notably square rather than round which confirms that the buckle with the square tongue is original to this box.  The billet has suffered some wear due to age and use, and this section of the belt was torn when the box was found, and there was a risk the section of the belt would be separated from the box and lost.  Such a loss would significantly detract from the overall appearance and historical context of the box, so a professional restoration was executed to restore the billet and strengthen the weakened section.  The restoration was well blended and is not readily apparent from the outside of the billet.  On the inside surface of the billet, the reinforcing leather is visible, but has been finished in such as way as to blend in as much as possible.   

The leather accoutrements dating from the earliest days of our Nation had several factors working against their survival in order to be available to modern collectors.  At the risk of stating the obvious, by virtue of the fact they were the first accoutrements of their kind carried in North America, they have had to survive 200 plus years of wear and tear and have been subject to less than ideal storage.  They were also produced and available at the time of issue in smaller numbers than later generations of accoutrements.  Whether the accoutrements were issued to the pre-Revolutionary Army militias, captured from the British, or produced in the colonies, the numbers never reached the level of production witnessed during the Civil War that resulted in so much unused surplus.  And finally, the Revolutionary War accoutrements were likely to have seen continued use after the war whether it was in a regular army or local militia unit, taken home by the soldier to defend his farm, or carried out on to the frontier as the country expanded west, and in any of those circumstances the accoutrements were simply used to destruction, leaving the very few that exist today in public and old established private collections.  It is very unusual for one of these boxes to appear on the market, especially in such respectable condition.   

This rare and very collectable Revolutionary War Cartridge Box will make an important addition to even an advanced accoutrement collection and it would display very nicely with an early flintlock musket.  (0744)  $2500    

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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