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03-07-2008, 02:17 PM
High-caliber prices for cartridge boxes

Cartridge boxes became popular in the 1860s with the invention of the repeating rifle and carbine. Much like sports fans collect baseball cards, firearms aficionados look to add rare cartridge boxes to their collections.

The boxes come in a variety of materials. The earliest usually were made of tin. In the 1860s, two-piece paper boxes became more popular and gradually evolved into today's standard one-piece construction with a fold-over lid. These one-piece paper cases were coated with wax to make them water-resistant. In the 1960s, Remington made plastic boxes to help further protect against water damage.

Some of the most collectible cartridge boxes come from the Civil War period. While the federal arsenals of the North produced cartridges during the Civil War, they pale in comparison to the present-day value of cartridges manufactured by the Confederacy. The Richmond Arsenal of Virginia, also known as the Richmond Laboratory, was the Confederacy's largest ammunition production facility. One of only three known .41-caliber LeMat's revolver cartridge boxes manufactured at the Richmond Arsenal sold for $23,000 in 2005.

The most-sought cartridge boxes come from two New Haven, Conn., companies: The Volcanic Firearms Co. produced the highly coveted sliding box for the rocket-propelled bullet. Their labels were glued to the inside lids of tin boxes. The Henry Rifle Co. made an extremely rare 100-round two-piece box with a deep purple cover with stamped gilded lettering and leaf and vine motifs.

A box in good condition of either Volcanic or Henry cartridges can sell for $25,000 or more.

The Winchester Firearms Co. was the largest manufacturer of cartridge boxes. In 1906, Winchester began to put date codes on most of its boxes, usually on the right side. These codes represent when the company may have made specification changes instead of the production date, as many collectors assume. On the left side of the box usually is a file code, which tells when the ammunition was loaded.

As hunting and target shooting grew in popularity after the Civil War and Indian Wars, cartridge makers began using images of game, dogs and ducks, as well as other graphics to lure sportsmen to their product. The Peters Cartridge Co., founded in Cincinnati in the late 19th century, made fine cartridge boxes that had labels with sporting themes. Peters was one manufacturer of "Christmas Tree" boxes, which are extremely rare and collectible because of their premium sporting graphics.

Due to company mergers and spinoffs, it is virtually impossible to find an example of every type of cartridge box made.

As in all fields of collecting, condition is paramount. These boxes sell best when they are full and sealed.

Wes Cowan, founder and owner of Cowan's Auctions Inc., Winton Place, can be seen on PBS' "History Detectives" and "Antiques Roadshow." He can be reached at info@cowans.com.