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Enfield Paper Cartridge

February 1, 1853
Mirza Firuz Shah
Bahadur Shah II 1837–1857

Enfield Paper Cartridge



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.

Enfield Paper Cartridge 1857

The infamous cartridge difficulties combined religious sensibilities with technological change. For years the EIC had relied on a simple but inaccurate smooth bore musket. It was decided to introduce a more accurate muzzle loading Enfield Rifled Musket. One way to speed up the loading process was the introduction of a paper cartridge with the bullet sitting on the exact quantity of powder needed. The loader was required to bite open this paper cartridge to expose the powder. The original cartridges were made in Britain and had been covered in tallow to help protect the cartridge from the elements. Unfortunately the tallow had been made from a beef and pork fat. To the British users of these cartridges, this made no big deal. Hindu and Muslim users were horrified at the defiling fat. 

The EIC quickly realised its blunder and replaced the animal fat with vegetable fat but the damage had already been done. To Hindus and Muslims alike, their worst fears of being ritually humiliated had been confirmed. Many assumed that this had been a deliberate policy by the Europeans who were looking to impose their own religion on the sub-continent. Battalion after battalion refused to use the new cartridges. Some even refused to handle the cartridges when officers had allowed them the option of tearing open the cartridges instead of biting them. As far as the officers were concerned, refusing to obey an order was tantamount to mutiny as it was. Different commanders handled the situation in different ways - some with more sensitivity than others. The first shots were to be fired by (an inebriated) Mungal Pandy on March 29th at Barrackpore. 

He protested against the disbanding of a unit that had disobeyed orders to use the cartridges. He shot at a British sergeant-major and a lieutenant and then engaged them in a sword fight. He saw the two of them off but then shot himself in the chest when General Hearsey arrived in the parade ground. The authorities at Barrackpore were forutunate to have the European 84th regiment to hand so that the disarming of the Indian battalions could be done with the threat of force for any sepoys thinking of refusing to hand over their guns. Not all stations would be so fortunate.

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Ismail Mazari

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Very good information.


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