Paraffin or Tallow. It’s The Group That Matters…

I have been going through my annual ammunition testing and noticed that the lubricant on Lapua, which I am experimenting with for the first time, and my tried and true Eley are quite different. Lubricant on a .22 cartridge is not, as most believe, applied to ease the travel of the lead bullet down the rifle barrel. While it does help its  primary function is to ensure smooth chambering.

The Lapua has a thin oily coating while Eley is coated with a tick waxy lubricant. The Eley website states that they use two different types of lubricants, one a beeswax and tallow mix and the other paraffin wax. So, what’s the difference?

With the thought of “What’s the difference?” I was suddenly seven or eight years old again and sitting in the old Victory Theater with a mouth full of jujubes pulling out my fillings and a lap full of popcorn. It was the days of the British Raj in India. Tyrone Power, decked out in Khaki Drill topped with a kepi replete with neck flap, roamed the Khyber Pass and a cashiered officer portrayed by Rock Hudson redeemed himself by fighting the Sepoys on the silver screen in the days of the British Raj in India. These military potboilers in what Queen Victoria, Empress of India, called ‘The Jewel in The Crown’ taught me the importance of the difference in bullet lubricants.  

It all started with the Sepoys of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry (BNI), a component of the Britain’s East India Company’s Bengal Army. The John Company’s 19th BNI had been recently armed with the new Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket, a .577 muzzle-loader that used paper cartridges. Paper cartridges were greased to make them somewhat waterproof and to ease seating the bullet in the bore. A side effect was that after firing the melted lubricant mixed with the powder and paper residue and made the fouling easier to clean. 

India was in a state of political foment when a new shipment of cartridges arrived from England.  Ringleaders of the nascent Independence Movement spread the rumor that the cartridges were greased with tallow made from beef, pork, or beeswax, not the more commonly used vegetable oil. The procedure for loading the Enfield required tearing open the cartridge with the teeth, pouring the powder down the barrel, and ramming the ball home. Loading an Enfield virtually insured that a Sepoy would touch a forbidden substance.  

The Hindu Sepoys were forbidden to eat beef, the cow being a holy animal. The Muslim Sepoys could not eat pork as it was prohibited by the Quran and vegan Sepoys could not touch beeswax. Therefore, no Sepoy could use the new cartridge without violating his religious sensibilities. While there is no irrefutable evidence that any of these materials were used on the cartridges, perception is, as political operative Lee Atwater once said, reality. 

The 34th BNI had refused to use the new cartridges and on March 29, 1857 were paraded in their cantonment at Barrackpore to be disarmed and disbanded. An agitated Sepoy, Mangal Pandey, was not going to take this affront lying down and fired upon a British sergeant-major and a lieutenant, begging the question, “Did he break caste with a new style cartridge, or did he have some older ammunition secreted away for just such an occasion?” While being subdued he shot himself in the chest but recovered just in time to be hanged for mutiny 11 days later. At the time the British looked upon Pandey as a traitor and a mutineer. However, he is a hero in contemporary India and Bollywood produced several movies about him. The  Indian Department of Posts issued a commemorative stamp in his honor. 

It is not known if the Eley Brothers supplied any of the Enfield cartridges which may have sparked the Indian Mutiny of 1857. At the time they were a leading company in the arms business heavily involved with percussion cap production and development of the first combustible paper cartridge so it is conceivable that an Eley cartridge may have been the mutiny’s catalyst. 

Eley was to become an icon in the cartridge field, so much so that it was referenced in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure Speckled Band. Holmes headed off on the case and told his trusty colleague John Watson that Holmes would be obliged if Watson would slip his revolver into his pocket as, “An Eley No. 2 is an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel pokers into knots.” Holmes must have also been a dab hand with the pistol for in The Musgrave Ritual he reportedly sat in his arm-chair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges and proceeded to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V. R. done in bullet-pocks. It is worth noting that Watson felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of their rooms was improved by Holmes’ idiosyncrasy. 

We do know that Eley uses two types of lubricants today. One a natural beeswax base and the other a petroleum derived paraffin wax. The beeswax tallow is softer, thicker and stickier than paraffin and so reduces the damage to the bullet during chambering and is used in the top of the line ammunition Tenex and Match. Unfortunately, the qualities that make it smooth loading also allow it to pick up dust and grit. This means that rifles using it require frequent and careful cleaning of the chamber. 

Paraffin, on the other hand, makes for a much cleaner feeling ammunition as it is not as viscous and being harder does not pick up debris as readily as a tallow based lubricant. It is particularly well suited for semiautomatic firearms providing the necessary lubrication but not clogging the firearm’s action as easily as the beeswax lubricant.

Being neither Hindu, Muslim, nor vegan the lubricant on my ammunition means little to me. However, the size of the group does, and so the Sisyphean quest for 3/4 minute ammunition, regardless of lubricant, continues. 

About Hap Rocketto

Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career, pronematch.com.
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