Paper Patched Bullets: Unveiling the Secrets Behind Their Success

Exploring the Intriguing World of Paper Patching Bullets

Have you ever wondered about the fascinating concept of paper patching bullets? I’m often bombarded with questions like “Why?” and “How?” along with concerns about how the fragile paper survives in the barrel. Today, I’ll provide you with a quick rundown of the concept and share my own process. Please note that while this may not be the ultimate or correct method, it has proven effective for me.

But before we dive in, I must warn you—this post is filled with images. However, worry not! To ensure optimal loading speed, I’ve compressed the images as much as possible.

Unveiling the Historical Origins of Paper Patching

The historical origins of paper patching can undoubtedly be found somewhere on the internet. When asked, I often explain that paper patching is no different from copper jacketing a bullet. Paper patching allows for higher velocities with softer lead bullets. This brings us to the intriguing world of LRML projectiles.

In a LRML barrel, there is substantial pressure behind the bullet. Given the large doses of powder and the use of heavy soft lead bullets, failure to employ a paper patch or lubricated bullet would result in lead smear down the barrel. Whether you choose a paper patch or a lubricated bullet, it makes no significant difference. Fine shooting has been accomplished with lubricated bullets, and records have even been set using them. Personally, I prefer paper patched bullets for three reasons:

  1. Mess-free experience: In my experience, working with lubricated bullets can be messy. While they work fine when you have a clean rag and time to wipe your hands between shots, I find that paper patched bullets are simply easier to handle.
  2. Lubricant drawbacks: Lubricated bullets, also called grease grooved bullets, rely on a soft lubricant typically composed of beeswax and a grease or oil mixture. Grease options may include tallow (lard) or Crisco, while oil choices range from Olive Oil to Neatsfoot Oil, and even lanolin. Numerous commercial blends of bullet lubricants are available for purchase. However, if you’re interested in alchemy and have plenty of time on your hands, you can concoct your own lubricant. I believe almost every shooter has gone down that road, just like me. In the end, all bullet lubricants easily attract dirt and debris and can become soft or run in the summer sun—messy indeed.
  3. A nod to history: As a lover of the sport’s rich history, I find it fascinating that paper patched bullets reigned supreme on the firing line during the 1860s. Perhaps this preference stems from the previously mentioned advantages.

Do Paper Patched Bullets Really Work?

Absolutely! In fact, they can offer valuable insights into what occurs inside your barrel as the bullet journeys from the breech to the muzzle. I often find my patches about four feet in front of my rifle and collect them for inspection. By examining these patches, you can identify signs of gas leakage and fouling accumulation.

LRML bullet leaving the barrel

Here’s a captivating slow-motion video showcasing an LRML bullet leaving the barrel. As the video reaches 00:08, you can clearly see that the paper patch remains intact around the bullet upon exiting the barrel. At 00:19, you can observe the paper patch separating from the bullet just before it reaches the muzzle. By 00:20, the paper patch detaches completely, allowing the bullet to soar toward the target. How cool is that?

The Simple Process of Applying the Paper Patch

So, how exactly do we wrap the paper patch around the bullet? Believe it or not, it’s incredibly simple—any caveman could do it.

Before we begin, you need to determine the accurate bore diameter of your rifle. This information is crucial when choosing both the bullet and the paper for patching. A mere difference of .001″ can significantly impact how the bullet loads and performs. Trust me; I’ve learned this firsthand. In my Kerr rifle, the bore measures .451″ at both the muzzle and the breech, thanks to Bobby Hoyt’s exceptional barrel craftsmanship. When I pass a tightly fitted flannel cleaning patch through the lightly oiled bore, I encounter perfectly consistent resistance throughout its length. After extensive experimentation, I have determined that the best results come from using a bullet and patch combination measuring .448″. This size enables easy loading with a fouled barrel while maintaining a tight enough fit to prevent the bullet from canting or leaning. A .448″ size ensures the bullet traverses the barrel length without wobbling. Although there’s much more to the bullet’s journey down the barrel, I’ll save that discussion for another day.

Now that we know we need a patched bullet measuring .448″ in diameter and that we’ll need to encase the bullet in a paper patch to achieve that dimension, let’s proceed. For this purpose, I recommend using lightweight paper, preferably 9lb AirMail paper. Papers of this weight generally measure approximately .002″ in thickness, depending on their composition, ranging from 100% rag to 100% cellulose or a mixture in between. Although 100% rag paper is my preferred choice, it’s becoming increasingly harder to find due to the improvement in cellulose paper quality and the rising cost of cotton.

Among the three papers I’ve used with excellent results, I’ve opted for a 100% rag onionskin paper measuring .002″ for these bullets. I wrap the paper around the bullet twice, resulting in a total thickness of .008″ (or .002″ x 4). To achieve the desired patched bullet diameter of .448″, I need a bullet measuring .442″. Confusing, right? Here’s where the magic lies—in truth, paper is mostly air, and it stretches. As we tightly wrap the bullet, the paper stretches around it, reducing the diameter and compressing in thickness. I hope that clarifies things a bit.

Essential Tools for Bullet Patching

Before we proceed any further, let’s ensure we have everything we need to diligently patch our bullets. Here is a list of the items I use:

  • Bamboo cutting board
  • Steel ruler
  • Wooden pencil
  • Paper cutter
  • Micrometer
  • Sharpie

Firstly, we need to determine the patch size. Ideally, the patch should wrap around the bullet twice, with minimal variation. While a mathematical formula could provide the answer, it must account for paper stretch and thickness. However, I prefer a simpler method. I take an oversized piece of paper, wrap it around the bullet a little over two times, and make a straight cut through the paper just after the third wrap begins, all the way to the bullet. Unwrap the paper and measure the distance between the two outermost cuts. I subtract a small amount from that measurement, and voila—that’s the ideal patch length.

I typically cut all my patches to a 2″ width to accommodate bullets of varying lengths. For this purpose, I require a 2″ W by 2 13/16″ L patch. Since I’m wrapping my patches dry, I do not concern myself with the paper’s orientation. Instead, I use whichever direction allows me to maximize the number of patches from a single sheet. If you’re interested in wet patching, that’s a separate topic which we won’t explore here.

Using a paper cutter, I prepare a good supply of cut patches, making sure to cut them one at a time. Some shooters prefer cutting them in stacks, even up to ten layers at once. However, I find that I can’t achieve the desired accuracy when I do so. Cutting them one by one with a paper cutter, and with proper planning, is a speedy process.

I personally cut my patches with square ends. While some may argue that they should be cut with a 60-degree angle to follow the twist of the rifling, others suggest 45-degree or 70-degree cuts. Honestly, I have never observed any difference in accuracy or patch release. What I have noticed, though, is that square cuts make wrapping significantly easier.

However, the direction of wrapping does indeed matter. In the past, when patching bullets for cartridge rifles, I didn’t notice any difference in patch direction and simply wrapped them in the most convenient way. However, with LRML bullets, which travel in both directions through the barrel, I realized that wrapping the patch in the opposite direction of the rifling caused it to loosen due to the friction between the rifling and the patch. To counter this, I now wrap my bullets in the same direction as the rifling to ensure a tighter grip on the patch as the bullet travels down the bore.

I apologize if this concept isn’t crystal clear—I may need to create a video to explain it better. In my experience, for a muzzle loader with a right-hand twist in the barrel, using a right-hand twist on the patch yields the best results. It simply makes loading easier.

The Patching Process Unveiled

Now that we have bullets and cut patches ready, along with our trusty tools, it’s time to begin wrapping. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Start by marking the beginning of the ogive on a bullet—the point where the nose transitions into the center, visible as a shine resulting from sizing the bullet to .442″. If you can’t spot any shine, lay a straight edge on the bullet body to serve as a reference. You can even transfer some pencil marks to your cutting board if needed.
  2. Take a cut patch and, while holding one end, exert some force to curl it around a wooden pencil. This imparts a slight curl to the paper, making it easier to initiate the wrap.
  3. Place the paper on the bamboo cutting board. I find bamboo boards offer ideal friction with a hint of slip.
  4. Lay the bullet on the paper, leaving about 1/4 of the bullet hanging off the board’s edge. Pay close attention to the mark indicating the start of the ogive, ensuring that the patch aligns precisely with this point.
  5. Lift the back edge of the patch (the one closest to you) and fold it over the bullet, ensuring that the straight edge remains centered along the bullet’s length. Once everything is aligned, use your thumbs and first fingers to roll the patch and bullet forward. Simultaneously, use your middle fingers to hold the patch’s end taut, keeping it as tight as possible around the bullet as you roll.
  6. Continue rolling until the patch has completely wrapped around the bullet. At this stage, give the patch a twist or two while dragging your fingers along its body to further tighten it.
  7. Finally, close the tail. With a twisted tail (my preferred method), it’s best to push the end of the patch into the twist, ensuring a secure closure. Gently press the paper together at the seam using your finger while twisting the paper around and tightening your grip on the tail.
  8. To complete the process, use a pair of high-quality side cutters to snip off the tail near its base. In my experience, this helps bind the tail together, preventing any unwrapping mishaps.
  9. If you’re wrapping a hollow base bullet, now is the time to push the tail into the hollow using a Sharpie or a suitable tool.

Voila! We’re done. The wrapping process takes far less time than describing it. Once I get into the groove, I can easily wrap twenty bullets in ten minutes. However, I usually take a more leisurely approach, managing around sixty bullets per hour. After all, what else would I be doing—watching TV?

While numerous methods for paper patching bullets exist, this caveman’s approach has yielded satisfactory results.

Update: For those hungry for more information, I’ve added a part II to this article. You can explore it here.