The switch from copper cases to brass


Does anyone have any information as to when the switch-over from copper cases to brass occurred in the USA? I’ve read that it was somewhere during the Indian Wars period. The switch was said to have been done because the copper cases were too soft. After firing it was hard to get the spent copper cases out so they looked to brass because it was a harder metal.



Speaking of the Cal .45 (45-70), the switch from copper to tinned brass occured officially in June 1888 (Pattern 1888) and the first headstamp was F 10 88.

There are many reasons why the switch was made. It was not as simple as the copper being too soft. And, most of the stories about sticking cases and sheared rims were exaggerated.


Mr. Meketa


Before the advent of smokeless powders when pressure became an issue. The changeover from copper to brass was because brass lent itself to more industrialised methods of construction eg drawing and cold forming where copper could only be utilised in folding processes from sheet materials so was slower to manufacture.


I was asking because I have an 1887 Springfield Trapdoor 45-70 and I want to get an example of the original cartridges. Looks like it should be a copper one but a first issue brass one would also do. I’ve found some early brass cartridges, but not that early. So far I haven’t seen any in copper.


One of the 2 on the left is an 1886, R F, which I still have but the other is gone. Even though I have never considered myself a 45-70 collector, I have accumulated a few pre-1900 specimens.


Thanks for posting the photo. How do I identify that a 45-70 cartridge is pre-1900? I assume that all copper ones will be but how will I know if a brass one was produced prior to 1900? RayMeketa stated that the first headstamp was F 10 88. I only have a few as I just started to search for one. My earliest is a UMC S H 45-70. I know that the SH stands for solid head.



All Frankford Arsenal cartridges will be headstamped with the date. Those are the best to use as a display with the rifle. You can still find loose ones and an occasional box for sale on the different auction sites. Those from 1887 and newer are relatively cheap when compared with the older cartridges, especially the Benet primed.

IDing the contract rounds can be more difficult. Winchester made cartridges were dated, for the most part, up until 1892. With the UMC cartridges I’d stick to the black powder loads (no cannelure in the case) and you’ll probably be in the pre-1900 years.

Unless someone can help more, that’s all I know.



Ray Maketa wrote:

Surely you know better than to use the word ‘all’ and not expect to be challenged. Perhaps you meant all the Frankford Arsenal .45-70 cartridges made 1887 and after will be headstamped, which should be a fairly safe statement to make, but I imagine someone could come up with an exception to even that.



You got me.

Many years ago, when I was a wee lad, Chris Punnett told me, “Never say ‘never’, and always avoid the word ‘always’.” I shoulda listened. :(

And why did you call me Shirley?



Just a small point for accuracy, the “Copper” cases are actually “Bloomfield Gilding Metal” more commonly called plain “Gilding Metal”

Also, I don’t think it has been mentioned, but the Frankford Arsenal made “Brass” cases are Tinned, not just plain brass.


A major issue in the brass versus copper cartridge case matter is the use of fulminate of mercury in the priming. Switching from copper to brass cases in center fire calibers required the continued use of copper primer cups and/or isolating the priming compound from the cartridge case and primer cup. In rimfires cartridge cases continued for many years to be made of copper because there is no way of keeping the priming compound away from the case. The fulminate will react with the zinc in the brass and kill the primer. Only after the use of fulminate was discontinued were rimfires regularly produced with brass cases. Jack


Some interesting stuff here. I’m a little slow but I’m starting to catch up…

From Wikipedia:
Gilding metal is a copper alloy, comprising 95% copper and 5% zinc. Technically, it is a brass.

I find this a little strange as it is practically all copper (95%). True brass is closer to 30% zinc (and higher).


The earliest use of brass for small arms ammunition cartridge cases in production quantities by Frankford Arsenal was during the Civil War, when that facility produced several million rounds of .50 Maynard carbine ammunition. These were externally primed, so the matter of fulminate and brass wasn’t an issue. Jack


And, there are many different brasses. Cartridge cases are generally made of yellow brass, which is usually 70% copper and 30% zinc. Then you have red brass, semi-red brass…and on and on…



Red brass is actually a type of bronze, but is considered by many to be brass or bronze. It’s basically a kind of brass, but with less zinc (5% instead of 30%) and 5% lead and 5% tin added to make the alloy. This leaves about 85% copper which gives it it’s unique reddish color. So for making cartridge cases it would be harder than pure copper but softer than normal brass. Normal bronze has a higher tin content and lower zinc so it is also red. Adding more zinc pushes it towards the yellow color.

Red brass is easy to machine and cast.


[quote=“RonMerchant”]Just a small point for accuracy, the “Copper” cases are actually “Bloomfield Gilding Metal” more commonly called plain “Gilding Metal”

Also, I don’t think it has been mentioned, but the Frankford Arsenal made “Brass” cases are Tinned, not just plain brass.[/quote]


What is Bloomfield Gilding Metal? It seems this question has never been answered and yet we keep on mentioning it.

And re: the tinned brass cases, check my first post, way back when.



Ray–I apologize for missing that you actually did say “Tinned Brass” on an earlier post.

As to what is “Bloomfield Gilding Metal”, it is what we today call just plain Gilding Metal. The term “Bloomfield Gilding Metal” is what FA original called the metal the Benet .45-70’s were made from. This information comes from HWS, Vol. 1, Page 204.



Ordnance Department manuals for the new 45 caliber rifle and carbine refer to the cartridges as being made from copper. No mention of Bloomfield or any other alloy. Boxes from 1879 refer to “Manhattan” which we assume is some sort of patented alloy. Boxes from 1880, 1881, and 1882 refer to “Bloomfield Gilding Metal”. Those are the only boxes that I’m aware of that have these notations on the label.

I have no idea what any of this means and I have yet to hear from anyone who does. It wasn’t too many years ago that detailed information on the 45 Caliber cartridges was scarce at best. Maybe the references to “Bloomfield” came from those few boxes that have it as a notation, and the name attached itself to the cartridges as a whole? That certainly would not be unique among collectors.

I’m not questioning whether or not Bloomfield is a 95/5 alloy or if was used for all of the early copper cases. I just want to know, where are the source documents to back this up?



To consider with the original question of why Brass may have replaced copper. One must also look at simple economics. The 1880’s were known as the period of “Great Copper consumption”. Many goods, even pots and jewellery were made from copper. Copper was readily available and used on a scale never before seen. The price of copper from 1870’s to 1880’s was very up and down, spiking from between 6 cents to 18 cents a pound. I think the writing was on the wall that copper was soon going to be too expensive. In the late 1890’s copper really took off going a thirty year low of 9.5 cents a pound in 1894, to 11 3/8 cents a pound in 1897 to 17.75 cents in 1899. May have been also part of the decision with the manufacturers to go with cheaper materials.


Last night I watched a TV program about coin machines. In it they said that there are not any copper coins being made in the USA. The last copper coin was the Wheat Penny. There also said that it casts more to make a penny now than what it is worth. It cost 1.7 cents to make a 1 cent coin. They wanted to do away with the penny but the American public won’t stand for it,even though you really can’t buy anything for a penny anymore.

Sorry to stray from the original thought of this thread so back to it;

So you think that they may have gone to brass because it was cheaper, even though it is mostly copper. That would mean that zinc is cheaper than copper to purchase. I don’t know if that is true or not. Pure copper would be easier to produce compared to making an alloy.

My theory is that brass is stronger and tougher than copper so it was much more durable in military use. Copper being soft was more likely to dent in mishandling and deform under pressure which would cause feeding (dents) and extraction (pressure) problems. Which puts us right back on track and back to my first statement/question.

Great thread. I’m learning a lot.