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     Do you know what a cartridge is? All the boys will say "Yes, of course"; but I hope they will not think I can have nothing interesting to say since I began with so foolish a question. But there are girls in the world, as well as boys, and they do not know so much about such things. I dare say that there are a great many who only know that a cartridge has something to do with a gun. Girls are apt to be afraid of guns; but I take it for granted they will like to read what I have to say. For guns are very useful, and the world cannot do without them yet awhile, till wars are over with and all the cruel wild beasts are either dead or tamed. And it is no longer considered necessary to stun people by firing them for the fun of it on the Fourth of July. I wish the Fourth of July had come in mid-winter; but I suppose no amount of cold would keep boys quietly in-doors. Not that I am afraid of guns one bit, or that I should care to keep boys everlastingly quiet; but there is always such a stunning racket.

     There have been wonderful improvements in the making of firearms during the last fifty years, and almost all these improvements have followed the invention of cartridges. I should like, if it would not take so long, to have a long talk with you about the old-fashioned guns - the first rude cannon, made hundreds of years ago, and then the needle-guns and hundreds of other ingenious and wonderful weapons which are in use nowadays.

     But we do not need to go back any further than our grandfathers' flint-locked muskets just now, for by comparing a new rifle with those you can see that there have been as great improvements in firearms as in other things that people know more about.

     Did you ever happen to see one of the flint-lock muskets loaded and fired? First you make sure that there are no sparks left in it by blowing through the barrel; then you measure out the powder and pour it in; and then you put in some paper and pound it down with the ramrod. Then the shot or the bullet must go next, and you have to put another wad over that. Then you hold it by the barrel and strike it on the ground, so as to be sure that the powder is down hard, so the spark can reach it. Instead of a light hammer, the musket has a piece of flint screwed on, and when you pull the trigger - one, two, three, fire! - the flint snaps down on the steel. But very likely the gun doesn't go off. It isn't so much matter if one were out gunning for pleasure; but it is very awkward if a big bear is coming as fast as he can to gobble you up and there isn't a second to lose.

     So after a while some very ingenious person invented percussion caps, and those were thought as near perfection as anything could be, as the first friction matches were. We never used anything else, and forgot how clumsy and awkward it must have been to have a tinder-box and flint and steel, and strike away with your cold fingers, when you had to make a fire in the big fireplace on a winter morning. But there were still great disadvantages, though caps were almost certain to go off. For instance, if you fired at that bear and didn't hit him and your  gun had only a single barrel, there would be nothing to do but run, for you never could stop to go through the long process of loading. I suppose there were a great many disagreeable situations of this kind before some one thought there ought to be a less troublesome way of loading guns, and invented the cartridge. I think that at first the quantity of powder and shot suitable for the charge were fastened up in strong paper, like a stout Spanish cigarette, and the percussion cap was still used.

     That was much better than the old way; for now, instead of fumbling for the powder-horn and the wads and bullets, all you had to do was to put your thumb and finger into the cartridge-box, strapped handily to your belt, and slip the cartridge down the barrel, ram it down, and put on your percussion cap.

     But sometimes the cartridge got wet and was spoiled, and sometimes, when they were handled roughly, they would be out of shape and would not go into the gun. They were covered with grease, to make them go easily into the barrel and protect them from dampness. The paper had to be bitten or torn off at the end next the powder, so the spark from the cap could reach it. This reminds me of something I read once in a history of India. You have read about the great Sepoy Rebellion there? India is under English government, and this was a war between the natives and the English. The Sepoys were native soldiers under the command of foreign officers, and they had been well drilled and were well armed and equipped; so they were formidable enemies, and much more to be feared than if they were as ignorant and undisciplined as the English found them. They hated their rulers, and the fakirs, the Brahmin priests, excited the common people in every way; but the most sure way was by telling them the English meant to destroy their religion.

     One of the stories which had most effect just before the insurrection was that the cartridges with which they had been supplied were greased with lard and beef-fat. Now part of the Sepoys were Mohammedans and the rest Hindus, and, while the first have the bitterest prejudice against pork, the Hindus worship cows and consider them very holy creatures. So everybody was enraged, and, though their English officers tried to pacify them, it was no use and soon the awful war began. You will read about Lucknow and Cawnpore and Delhi some day, if you have not already. It is odd that guns should have something to do with causing a war, as well as being a means of stopping it.

     And now something about the cartridges in use nowadays. They have little copper cases, with the bullet in sight at one end, which is open, and the other end closed, after the fashion of a thimble, only a great deal longer in proportion to the width, or, I should have said, diameter; for that is the right word to use when one speaks of the distance through anything round. Sometimes the closed end is flat and sometimes rounded, with a little projection. Inside this little point is the cartridge's percussion cap - that is, it is filled with the same substance as a percussion cap. It is an innocent-looking gray powder, that is set on fire when the hammer of the gun strikes it. This explodes the gunpowder, which is packed next inside the copper shell, and that sends out the bullet. Some of us have tempers very much like this. We are not patient, and something happens that strikes our weak point, and the anger blazes up like gunpowder; and very often some horrid cross words fly out of our mouths and hurt somebody very much, just as the bullets do.

     Now you see how easy it is to load and fire guns and pistols. They even make them throw out the shell of the cartridges when you open the barrel to put in new ones. Sometimes there is a row of cartridges waiting like a procession in the stock of the gun, and you can fire almost as fast as you can take aim. In other pistols and guns the charges are in a circle in a steel chamber next the breech; and as you lift the hammer it makes the empty shell move round and a full one take its place. If you can get one just the right size, an empty cartridge shell is very nice to keep over the point of a pencil, if you carry one in your pocked, for it keeps it from being broken.

     I enjoyed very much going through the United States armory at Springfield, not long ago. One of the officers took me through the workshops, and I wish, if you like such things, you had been with me; for there were such curious machines for cutting and shaping the wood and steel and making all the screws and pegs for fastening the guns together. And after I had seen all this, from the big engine which moves all the wheels, great and small, up to the last polishing of the finished gun, we went over to the arsenal, and saw the rifles arranged in long shining lines, thousands upon thousands of them. It had been very interesting to watch the making of them, and as they were stacked up there they certainly remind you of the pipes of a great organ; and I thought of Mr. Longfellow's beautiful poem written about this very place. But it was very sad to think they were made to kill men with. When one sees guns and pistols in a shop, they may only be waiting for bad marksmen to carry out gunning; but there is no delusion about these, and I hoped, as I walked along the aisles of the arsenal, that these guns might stay in their places until they fall to pieces with rust and old age and that there might never be any more war.

     I am not going to preach you a solemn little sermon about the danger of handling firearms carelessly. If you are sensible boys and girls - and I know you are - you know all those cautions as well as I; and if there should happen to be a heedless, silly fellow, he will best be taught carefulness by getting hurt.

     I should like to write a story sometime about a cartridge. They are such harmless looking bits of copper. One would not think they could do any more mischief than a screw or an iron bolt, and it is hard to believe that so much harm and trouble may be shut up in one. I think I should have the story about a man who carries some with him one day when he goes hunting, and one cartridge is left in his pocket. After a time it wears a hole through and drops on the floor. The man is to miss it and know it was there in the morning and that he has not been out of his house, but he thinks: "Oh! no matter. I will not trouble myself to get down on my hands and knees and hunt for it. It can't do any harm. One of the servants will find it, perhaps."

     But I shall say in my story that, instead of some grown person's finding it, who will know what it is and put it away carefully, the man's own little child picks it up and plays with it, and finally throws it into the grate on the fire. Then it bursts, and a piece of it strikes him in the eye, and he is very ill, and finally the doctor is to say that he must always be blind.

     And I think I shall end the story by saying a great deal about some people who are careless about doing wrong. They leave wicked words and thoughts and actions after them. You can always find these wherever they have been, and other people always find them, for you cannot be wicked without making somebody else worse too. Some little child may notice your doing wrong and find your sin, as the boy did the cartridge, and be blinded at length by the wickedness he plays with at first quite innocently: so that he cannot understand about the light of goodness and kindness.

     So, instead of scattering sins for people to find, we must be always doing kind things and saying kind words and giving away pleasant looks and smiles; and these will fall into our friends' hearts and lives, like the seeds of flowers into the ground, and spring up and blossom. And do you know that a seed of goodness planted int his way never dies? For if it blooms in one heart it must plant its seeds and bloom in another heart, too. This world seems very hard and sad to some people, so we must put into it all the good we can.


"Cartridges" appeared in The Independent (26:15) on August 13, 1874. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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Fourth of July: United States national holiday celebrating the signing of the "Declaration of Independence" on 4 July 1776.
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Sepoy Rebellion ... Lucknow and Cawnpore and Delhi: The Sepoy Mutiny in India of 1857 took place when Indian troops rose up and captured Delhi. This sparked an entire revolution which took the British a full year to put down. The main confrontations between the British and the Sepoys occurred at Delhi, Cawnpore, and Lucknow, with the city of Lucknow serving as the final "mopping up" point. In Hinduism, cows are held sacred. This belief dates from the Vedic period and associates the cow with certain deities, hence the reverence paid to the creatures. The killing of a cow is thus equated to the sin of killing a Brahman (member of the highest, priestly, caste). (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica; Research: Chris Butler).
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Mr. Longfellow's beautiful poem: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was an American poet, perhaps best known for his long narrative poems such as The Song of Hiawatha (1855). He was probably the best-known and most respected American poet of the nineteenth century. "The Arsenal at Springfield" appeared in Graham's Magazine in 1844.

"The Arsenal at Springfield"

This is the arsenal. From floor to ceiling,
     Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms;
But from their silent pipes no anthem pealing
     Startles the villages with strange alarms.

Ah! what a sound will rise, how wild and dreary,
     When the death-angel touches those swift keys!
What loud lament and dismal Miserere
     Will mingle with their awful symphonies!

I hear even now the infinite fierce chorus,
     The cries of agony, the endless groan,
Which, through the ages that have gone before us,
     In long reverberations reach our own.

On helm and harness rings the Saxon hammer,
     Through Cimbric forest roars the Norseman's song;
And loud, amid the universal clamor,
     O'er distant deserts sounds the Tartar gong.

I hear the Florentine, who from his palace
     Wheels out his battle-bell with dreadful din,
And Aztec priests upon their teocallis
     Beat the wild war-drums made of serpents' skin;

The tumult of each sacked and burning village;
     The shout that every prayer for mercy drowns;
The soldiers' revels in the midst of pillage;
     The wail of famine in beleaguered towns;

The bursting shell, the gateway wrenched asunder,
     The rattling musketry, the clashing blade,
And ever and anon, in tones of thunder,
     The diapason of the cannonade.

Is it, O man, with such discordant noises,
     With such accursed instruments as these,
Thou drownest Nature's sweet and kindly voices,
     And jarrest the celestial harmonies?

Were half the power that fills the world with terror,
     Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts,
Given to redeem the human mind from error,
     There were no need of arsenals or forts;

The warrior's name would be a name abhorrèd!
     And every nation, that should lift again
Its hand against a brother, on its forehead
     Would wear forevermore the curse of Cain!

Down the dark future, through long generations,
     The echoing sounds grow fainter and then cease;
And like a bell, with solemn, sweet vibrations,
     I hear once more the voice of Christ say, "Peace!"

Peace! and no longer from its brazen portals
     The blast of War's great organ shakes the skies!
But beautiful as songs of the immortals,
     The holy melodies of love arise.

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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, with assistance from Chris Butler, Coe College.

Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
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