December 2, 2022
By Seth Isaacson
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Many muzzleloading rifles have a compartment on the right side of the butt: the patch box. This compartment has been around for centuries and was first popularized on German hunting rifles and then evolved on the famous American longrifles aka Kentucky rifles in the 18th century and early 19th century. Smoothbore firearms for war or hunting fowl by contrast rarely featured these compartments.
On early rifles like the Germanic wheellock sporting rifles and traditional jaeger rifles, the compartment lid was generally a sliding piece of wood. That carried over into the American long rifles of the 18th century, especially prior to the American Revolution. By the late 18th century, hinged brass patch boxes became more standard in the United States as well as Europe.
On fancier rifles, sometimes silver or German silver were used. The patch box designs varied from place to place. They generally hinge forward although some fold down. On civilian rifles, they could be very ornate, and sometimes they are useful in identifying where an American longrifle was made or even who made it. Some designs were mass-produced and used by makers from a variety of locales.
Early rifles were generally wheellocks, and even at this stage had compartments on the right side of the butts for storing some of the rifleman’s equipment. If a spanner accompanies the rifle, you’ll often find it fits neatly within this compartment. Note that Germanic muzzleloading sporting rifles in general have sliding wooden patch box lids.
Nowadays, collectors generally refer to this compartment as the “patchbox” or "patch box." How did the term emerge, and when did it first originate? In earlier writing, you will often find the compartment simply described as a “box,” and writing from the past clearly indicates the box could have a variety of uses. On early wheellock rifles, for example, the compartment was a convenient spot to store the spanner used to rotate the wheel to ready the lock for firing.
Encyclopaedia Londinensis from 1821 describes what a lady’s “patch box” from a century earlier was: a small box that would hold round pieces of fabric they used for their faces. It also explains that rifles were loaded with greased patches. In An Essay on Shooting from 1789, William Cleator explains the loading process:
“Besides the method of loading, by driving down the ball with an Iron Rammer, there are several others which we shall mention. In Germany they sometimes charge them in the following manner; a piece of thin leather or fustian is cut of a circular shape, and is so large as to cover a little more than one half the ball; this piece is then greased on one side, and being placed over the muzzle, the ball is laid upon it, and both thrust down together; by this means the leather or fustian enters in the rifles, and the bullet being firmly embraced by it, acquires the proper rotary motion in its passage through the barrel.”
Before they were popularized by American riflemen, it was the Germans that pioneered muzzleloading rifles. Even after rifles began to be commonly equipped with hinged metal patch boxes, German hunting rifles continued to use traditional sliding wood patch boxes like the ones seen on these early rifled carbines from 1680-1700.
In addition to thin leather or fustian, calico and duck were recommended by the writers of the day, and a variety of other scraps of fabric strong enough for the job were also used. Pillow ticking is one of the more common options today. A compartment on a rifle was a convenient place to store muzzleloading patches, so it’s easy to see how they became known as patch boxes.
The first printed use of the word for the compartment on a rifle that I was able to find was from the Virginia Argus in 1808 in a proposal for a rifle order which lists a patch box as one of the proposed parts. Most other publications prior and many still well-into the 19th century listed the compartment simply as the box.
Isaac Weld in Travels Through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, in his explanation of American rifles explains that the “grease and bits of rag, which are called patches, are carried in a little box at the butt end of the gun.” This travel narrative indicated both the patches and grease were being stored in the rifles.
American riflemakers of the “Golden Age” of the American longrifle turned patch boxes into an art form as can be seen in this stunning Robert Woods signed rifle from around the 1830s. Gunmakers experimented with a wide variety of designs, and while other aspects of the American longrifle such as carving, engraving, and inlays are sought after, the architecture of the butt and the design of the patch boxes is generally a primary focus.
Famed American naturalist John James Audubon c. 1810 described how a hunter loaded his rifle for racoon hunting: "… He blows through his rifle to ascertain that it is clear, examines his flint, and thrusts a feather into the touch-hole. To a leather bag swung at his side is attached a powder-horn; his sheath-knife is there also; below hangs a narrow strip of homespun linen. He takes from his bag a bullet, pulls with his teeth the wooden stopper from his powder-horn, lays the ball in one hand, and with the other pours the powder upon it until it is just overtopped. Raising the horn to his mouth, he again closes it with the stopper, and restores it to its place. He introduces the powder into the tube; springs the box of his gun, greases the ‘patch’ over with some melted tallow, or damps it; then places it on the honey-combed muzzle of his piece. The bullet is placed on the patch over the bore, and pressed with the handle of the knife, which now trims the edge of the linen. The elastic hickory rod, held with both hands, smoothly pushes the ball to its bed; once, twice, thrice has it rebounded. The rifle leaps as it were into the hunters arms, the feather is drawn from the touch-hole, the powder fills the pan, which is closed. ‘Now I’m ready,’ cries the woodsman…”
Audubon's description isn’t entirely clear but appears to suggest the hunter kept his patch lubricant, tallow in this case, inside the compartment of his rifle as well. Other sources were more clear. For example, Practical Instructions for Military Officers by Epaphras Hoyt from 1811 states: “In the butt of the rifle there is a box for grease. This must always be replenished, that the patches may be kept suitably grease for loading with loose ball [as opposed to prepared cartridges], the lock properly dressed, and every part of the rifle in complete order for service.”
The author's antique rifle from John Krider’s shop in Philadelphia. This photo illustrates how a rifle’s patch box can be used to store far more than patches. For instance, if one was going out on a short hunt where only a shot or two was needed, everything except powder could be comfortably stored.
American longrifles come into Rock Island Auction from time to time with dried up patch grease still in the patch boxes. Often the boxes I have found with grease still in them have been comparably shallow compartments compared to those containing tools. Some Southern rifles were made with simple holes drilled into the stock for holding grease rather than a lidded compartment. You’ll also occasionally find rifles with multiple compartments for carrying patches, grease, and/or other equipment.
An award winning Golden Age flintlock American longrifle attributed to Leonard Reedy achieved $35,250 in Rock Island Auction Company’s August 2022 Premier Firearms Auction.
You’ll find patch box sizes and depths vary quite a bit from period to period. A running joke among current muzzleloading rifle builders is that the box should fit a Snickers. You might get hungry out in the field. Though the overall size of the stock certainly played a part in determining the depth and length of a patch box, the variety certainly points to them being used in different ways.
Military contract rifles like this Virginia Manufactory 2nd Model Rifle and standard military models tended to have simpler patch box designs than their civilian counterparts in the early 19th century, but they are still attractive additions to the rifles’ overall aesthetics.
In The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1792, George Cartwright of the coast of Labrador writes, "I usually carried 14 balls in the box which is in the butt of my rifle..." A listing for a property from the estate of David Martin, portrait painter to the Prince of Wales, in 1799 contained, "A beautiful rifle-barrelled gun...with box in butt for shot..."
Some of the deeper patch boxes found in the 18th century certainly could have carried plenty of balls for a day’s hunt, and it seems some English gentlemen preferred to use them that way.
Like a lot of military rifles, the patchbox for this British Brunswick rifle was designed in part to carry tools for maintaining the firearm. The rectangular compartment is designed to hold tools, and the round compartment is for grease/patches.
In Instructions to Young Marksmen by John Ratcliffe Chapman from 1848, the author discusses Edwin Wesson’s “Improved American Rifle.” He notes the “elegant shape” of the patch box and a small box that held the “wiper” for cleaning the rifle in an emergency.
The patch box is used by many modern muzzleloading shooters for just this purpose: holding ramrod worms for pulling balls, jags for cleaning with patches, and/or worms for cleaning with loose tow along with some tow or patches depending on the shooter’s preferences.
U.S. military rifles from the first half of the 19th century also used the box to hold similar equipment, including spare nipples once the percussion system was adopted.
The Model 1841 “Mississippi Rifle” is widely considered one of the most attractive military muzzleloading rifles. Its patch box plays a large part in its beauty, but it also is a functional part of the rifle. It is designed with a recess for a spare nipple and also holds a combination tool as can be seen on this example from lot 242.
As percussion firearms became the primary form of muzzleloading rifles in the 1830s through the 1860s, another compartment design was introduced: the capbox. These can vary quite a bit in design but are generally much smaller than a full-sized patch box. Some would still have been perfect for storing a stack of patches or a fair number of percussion caps, but others were much smaller and more suited to carrying an extra nipple or just a couple of caps. You’ll even find the smaller compartments in the pommels of many percussion pistols.
The smaller compartment on this rare-four barrel combination gun is typical of the later “cap boxes” found in many percussion rifles. In addition to this compartment, this rifle also has another of the same design on the opposite side with a compass inside.
As Americans moved towards breechloading designs in the 1850s and with increasing rapidity during the Civil War, patch boxes remained part of many rifles and rifles carbines, perhaps being an almost assumed component of a proper rifle. For firearms equipped with Maynard tape primers, the compartment could be used to hold a roll of primer tape. For other rifles, they remained an excellent place to store a combination tool, spare nipple, or other small items useful for maintaining your rifle. However, as patches became less necessary after the introduction of expanding base bullets like the Minie ball, many rifles stopped featuring patch boxes.
The Sharps rifles and carbines of the Civil War featured patch boxes, but when the company switched to metallic cartridges, they were no longer standard.
I encourage you to look through the catalog for our upcoming December 9-11 Premier Firearms Auction and browse the wide variety of patch box designs used throughout the muzzleloading rifle era and into the early breechloading period. You’ll find an impressive selection of rifles from both the U.S. and Europe representing designs from throughout the centuries. Whether you prefer a simple sliding wood box lid or an elaborate multi-part brass patch box with pierced designs, we are sure to have something to expand your collection.
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The Rock Island Auction gun blog features in-depth articles on the evolution of firearms, such as this primer exploring the military arms terminology of the past.
Select Resources and Further Reading:
Kentucky Rifle Patchboxes & Barrel Marks by Roy Chandler
Kentucky Rifle Patchboxes All New Volume 2 by Roy Chandler and James Whisker
Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in Its Golden Age by Joe Kindig Jr.
Patchbox resources by Ethan Yazel at I Love Muzzleloading
Track of the Wolf Patchboxes & Cap Boxes
Muzzleloader Builder’s Supply Patchboxes
Dixie Gun Works Patchboxes & Capboxes
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