Cartridges and the Indian Mutiny

Musket cartridges circa 1858
Musket cartridges circa 1858

The Sepoys in the East India Company were first issued with the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket in 1857. Its cartridges consisted of a .577 inch ball projectile and a charge of gun powder propellant wrapped in waterproofed cartridge paper. This provided the opportunity for circulating rumours that the paper was sealed with animal grease, either beef tallow or pork lard. Before pouring the powder down the barrel followed by the paper wadding, the cartridge had to be torn open and the drill* for doing so was for the soldier to use his teeth to bite off the sealed end. It offended the religious beliefs of Hindu troops to bite into beef fat or for Muslims to bite into pork lard. These rumours became a matter for incitement and even if beeswax had been used the rumours prevailed. When it was suggested that troops could make up new batches using butter fat (ghee) or vegetable oil, it lent credence to the rumours and added to the grievances inciting the Sepoys to mutiny in 1857.

The Infantry Manual included the order to load as follows:

1st. Bring the cartridge to the mouth, holding it between the forefinger and thumb, with the ball in the hand, and bite off the top, elbow close to the body.
2nd. Raise the elbow square with the shoulder, with the palm of the hand inclined to the front, and shake the powder into the barrel.
3rd. Reverse the cartridge (keeping the elbow square) by dropping the hand over the muzzle, the fingers in front of the barrel, and place the bullet into the barrel nearly as far as the top, holding the paper above it, between the forefinger and thumb.