The .50-70 Government: America’s First Big-Bore Centerfire
By: Kenny Durham
In 1866, the U.S. Military introduced a new .50 caliber centerfire cartridge that represented the latest developments in self-contained metallic cartridges. By the end of the war between the states, a foregone conclusion was that muzzle loading rifles were obsolete and a hindrance on the battlefield. The progression of the development of breech loading rifles before and during the war ensured that the replacement for the 1863 Springfield rifled musket would be a breech loader using self-contained metal cartridges. Percussion breech loaders such as Sharps, Smith, and Burnside established the breech loader as a powerful and reliable weapon. Metal cartridge-firing repeating rifles, like the Henry and Spencer, further proved the viability of the breech loader, even though the fire power of these repeaters was largely deemed by the military to be a waste of ammunition. Rimfire cartridges of the day, including those as large as .56 caliber, were lethal, but lacked the stopping power needed for battle beyond short range. What was needed was a cartridge that would exceed the ballistics of the .58 caliber rifled musket, packaged into a compact metal case.
The Great Conversion
An intermediary solution was a short .58 caliber rimfire cartridge used in the 1865 1st Allin Conversion. 1863 Springfield muskets were converted to breech loaders by milling out the top half of the barrel ahead of the breech plug, cutting a chamber, and adding a hinged breech block. This was how the first “Trapdoor” Springfield was created. The concept of a central fire, or centerfire as we now call it, had originated with the Maynard carbine wherein the brass cartridge, although ignited by a percussion cap, had a single center flash hole. All of these developments came together in 1866 when the .50 U.S. Government cartridge, or .50-70, was adopted by the military. The first rifle to be chambered for this new powerful cartridge was the 1866 Springfield, which became known as the 2nd Allin Conversion. The 1866 model was converted from the 1863 musket in the same manner as was the 1865, but it was improved with a centerfire breech block and had the .58 caliber barrel relined to .50 caliber.
The second arm to be converted to accept the .50 caliber cartridge was the 1863 Sharps percussion breech loader. The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company received a contract on October 26, 1867 to convert the abundant surplus of carbines left over from the Civil War. The Sharps conversion consisted of relining the .52 cal. barrel to .50 cal. and modifying or replacing the breech block and hammer, as well as other less significant changes. Interestingly enough, if the existing .52 caliber barrels were found to be in good repair and not oversized, they were left “as is” to fire the .50 caliber cartridge in a .52 cal. barrel. Accuracy certainly suffered, but was considered “good ‘nuff for government work” back then.
By 1868 and 1869, most of the suitable surplus Civil War arms remaining in the arsenals had been converted to .50-70. In the case of Sharp’s rifles, the company and private gunsmiths converted civilian-owned percussion Sharps to .50-70, and later to other calibers. In the movie Quigley Down Under, Matthew Quigley explains to Marsden that his Sharps has been “converted” to shoot a special metal cartridge. Although fiction, the movie and the rifle are true to history; Quigley’s rifle began life as a military percussion breech loader.
New Military Rifle Models for the .50-70
The introduction of newly-made rifle models, both for the military and sporting, established the .50-70 as the standard. For the military, the 1868 Springfield “Trapdoor” was introduced as a new model having a one-piece receiver and breech block into which the barrel was threaded. Surplus 1863 locks, stocks, and a mix of existing and new barrels were utilized from the supply of Civil War muskets in building the 1868 model. In 1869, the Springfield Armory introduced a “Cadet” rifle, which was followed with a shortened action both in rifle and in the first Trapdoor carbine version in 1870.
From 1866 until 1873, when the Army adopted the .45-70, the .50-70 was the official U.S. Service cartridge. Remington introduced its famous “Rolling Block” around 1867-1868 as the No. 1 Military rifle and carbine-chambered, among others, for the .50-70. The U.S. Army showed little interest in the Rolling Block, choosing to devote resources to the Trapdoor models. However, the U.S. Navy and Marines recognized the value of Remington’s rifle when combined with the power of the .50-70. So did the New York State Militia, which procured an altered version of the No.1 Military rifle and carbine in .50-70. Even when the U.S. switched to the .45-70 in 1873, New York State choose to keep their .50s in service and did not switch arms until the 1890’s when the .30 U.S. Army (.30-40 Krag) was introduced.
Sporting Rifles Chambered for the .50-70
The .50-70, great-grandfather of the .30-06, quickly became popular with big game and buffalo hunters.
The Sharps “New Model 1869” and the Remington No.1 Sporting Rifle were the first rifles offered to the general public chambered for the .50-70. In 1872, General George Custer ordered a No.1 Sporting rifle from Remington in .50 caliber, and reported to Remington his extreme satisfaction with the performance of the rifle and the power of the .50-70 cartridge in a letter dated October 5, 1873. In 1872, Sharps introduced a longer version of the .50 caliber cartridge by extending the case length from 1-3/4 inches to 2 inches, allowing the loading of a 500-grain bullet. Also, in 1872, Sharps introduced the “Big 50,” which had a case length of 2-1/2 inches. Soon, both Remington and Sharps added many other cartridges in a variety of calibers to their line. But the .50-70, due to its military genesis, remained popular because of the availability of ammunition and on its own merits as an efficient cartridge.
The standard loading for the .50-70 was 70 grains of black powder and a 425-gr. bullet; powerful medicine for 1866, and still no slouch today. At first glance, especially when compared to the .45-70, the .50-70 looks fat and stubby and is good for only about 100 yards or so. But don’t let looks fool you. Below is an excerpt from the aforementioned letter from General Custer reporting to Remington on his Yellowstone expedition:
“During the three months I carried the rifle referred to on every occasion and the following list exhibits but a portion of the game killed by me: Antelope 41; buffalo 4; elk 4; blacktail deer 4; American deer 3; white wolf 2; geese, prairie chickens, and other feathered game in large numbers. The number of animals killed is not so remarkable as the distance at which the shots were executed. The average distance at which the 41 antelopes were killed was 250 yards by actual measurement. I rarely obtained a shot at an antelope under 150 yards, while the range extended from that distance up to 630 yards.”
Now, I dare say that General Custer, in all his glory, probably did not get his 630-yard antelope on the first shot, and I rather suspect that more than one of the prairie chickens that the General ground-sluiced may have exploded in a ball of feathers! But surely, the lethality of the .50-70 can’t be questioned. The “knockdown” power of a .50 caliber bullet versus the same weight in .45 caliber is substantially more. The ballistically superior .45 (given the same weight) will tend to pass through an animal, leaving it standing in many cases. The “50s” had the reputation of “kicking the slats” from under anything they hit. Such is the case in the photo of Butch Ulsher and Dick Hansen with the buffalo shot with Dick’s .50-70 Highwall. One shot from the .50-70 dropped the buffalo in its tracks.
Shooting the .50-70 Today
As with other cartridges that were once considered obsolete, the .50-70 is being rediscovered, too. The .50-70, because of the low ballistic coefficient of the 425-gr. bullet, is not the best choice for competing in black powder cartridge rifle silhouette matches or target matches. However, a few shooters have ignored these limitations and shoot .50-70s anyway. Why shoot a .50-70 today when there are so many other cartridges? Because it’s a great cartridge for hunting and it is just plain fun to shoot! Rifles in .50-70 are harder to find than are .45 caliber chamberings, but Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing, Ballard Rifle Company, and C Sharps Arms all list the .50-70 as one of their standard chamberings. Also, many Springfield Models 1866, 1868, 1869, and 1870 can still be found in excellent shootable condition. My 1866 2nd Allin Conversion is a prime example. I found it at a local gun shop in excellent condition. The bore is like new and it is as accurate as it was the day it left the armory. The same can be said for many Sharps conversions and Remington Military Rolling Blocks. However, prices of the once obsolete originals keep creeping higher and higher. Also, original sporting rifles, such as the Remington No.1 pictured are still around. Incidentally, two big game animals fell to this particular rifle last year and a buffalo hunt is in the offing. Another option for getting a .50-70 is to have a rifle rebarreled, such as the case with the 1885 Winchester owned by Dick Hansen. The neat compact Highwall equipped with the old Lyman scope is a most formidable hunting rifle out to 200 yards.
Loading the .50-70 – Dies, Bullets, and Powder
As with rifles chambered for the .50-70, loading components are hard to find, but easy to obtain. Lyman and RCBS make loading dies and bullet moulds for the .50-70. Cases are available from BELL, correctly head-stamped “50-70 Govt.” BELL brass cases are excellent and, with proper care, should last indefinitely. My cases were obtained from Buffalo Arms Co. I also use a Lyman bullet mould #515141, which is a reproduction of the 425-gr. Government bullet. Lyman also makes a 500-grain round-nose, flat-point bullet (# 515142) suitable for the .50-70. RCBS offers a 450-gr. flat-point bullet (#50-450) designed for the .50 caliber lever-action cartridges that works good in the .50-70, too.
The Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook provides loading data for the .50-70, listing a variety of powders and Lyman bullets. Accurate Arms Co., Inc. also provides loading data for the .50-70 using XMP 5744. The powders used in testing were Goex FFg black powder, Pyrodex RS, and Accurate Arms XMP 5744. My schedule unfortunately did not allow time for me to experiment with Hodgdon’s new Triple 7 Propellant in FFg equivalent, but doing so is certainly in my future. Hodgdon provides loading guidelines for using Triple 7 in black powder cartridges. As always, black powder is my first choice and most often the best choice to use in these old cartridges. Concerning smokeless powder, Accurate Arms XMP 5744 is an obsolete black powder cartridge shooter’s dream come true. XMP 5744 is unlike any other smokeless black powder brands because it works great in the .50-70 and many other big-bore, large-capacity cartridges in which using smokeless black powder is not recommended.
When using new brass cases for the first time, as in this instance, the first step is to run them through the sizing die to ensure that they are fully-sized and round, especially in the mouth area. Next, the cases were primed and charged with powder. Using XMP 5744, each charge was weighed. However, with the Goex black powder and Pyrodex loads, the cases were charged from a Lyman 55 black powder measure through the 24″ long drop tube supplied with the measure. The measure was set to dispense 65 grains of Goex FFg, which fills the case up to within 0.350″ from the mouth. With this much powder, the charge must be compressed approximately 0.220″ to allow the bullet to be seated to the correct (desired) depth. In this case, I used the neck-expanding die as a compression die. The same powder measure setting was used with the Pyrodex loads, with the volume being the same as the Goex charge. With the Goex black powder and Pyrodex loads only, a 0.030″ Walter’s Wads fiber wad was used between the powder and bullet. Next, the bullets were seated to the correct depth, and finally, all rounds were given a slight crimp to remove the belling of the case mouth.
At the Range
All four rifles shown in the photo were fired for testing. The Sharps carbine and the Remington Sporting rifle were fired with black powder loads only, using the Lyman 425-gr. bullet. In the 1866 Springfield, black powder and Pyrodex loads were fired using the Lyman 425-gr. bullet. The 1885 Winchester Highwall was used to test all smokeless powder loads and some of the leftover ammunition from the buffalo hunt. The Sharps carbine was fired from the kneeling position at a 100-yard distance, and a ten-shot group produced a pattern of fairly evenly-distributed hits over an 11-inch area. Shooting from cross-sticks would no doubt tighten up the group. The Remington, fired from a bench rest, placed five shots into a 3-1/2″ wide x 2″ high group. This old rifle has a bore that has seen meticulous care over the years. The 1866 Springfield produced good results with the black powder loads, with a five-shot group size that measured 1″ vertically, but strung out to 7″ horizontally due to some stiff wind. However, the Pyrodex loads produced dismal results. Ten shots were fired at 100 yards, with only eight striking the target, resulting in a group 16″ wide x 7″ high.
The smokeless black powder loads in the Highwall produced excellent hunting-load accuracy, with group sizes running about two inches and under. All of the loads tested were based on the suggested minimum starting loads, as is prudent in any loading situation, especially with vintage rifles. The hunting load that Dick Hansen has developed for his .50-70 Highwall is not only accurate, but a potent pill averaging 1312 fps with the 425-gr. bullet. There is no good reason to push the limits of velocity and pressure in a vintage rifle. However, in a newly-manufactured rifle chambered for the .50-70, a hunting load in the range of 1300 to 1350 fps is easily achievable. This “grandpa” of a cartridge may be old, but it can pack a real wallop.
See Ya at the Range!
|Federal 215||Goex FFg||65.0||425-gr. Lyman||SPG||1283|
|Federal 210||XMP 5744||27.0||425-gr. Lyman||Lyman BP Gold||1169|
|CCI 200||Pyrodex RS||65.0 (by volume)||425-gr. Lyman||SPG||1143|
|Federal 210||XMP 5744||25.2||450-gr. RCBS||Reliable #12||1151|
|Federal 210||XMP 5744||24.0||500-gr. Lyman||Lyman BP Gold||1145