Cowboy Smithin’ Part III – Cylinders

Posted on June 4th, 2011 by Admin | Posted in Firearms

Cowboy Smithin’ Part III – Cylinders

By: Captain Eagle, aka Dave Sample

It is time for another issue and another task on our Cowboy Smithin’ six-shooter series.  We have looked at some of the things that we do to these sixgun cylinders, and there is one last task that can help a great deal when loading and unloading your hog leg. As a rule, honing the chambers can help most of these old timers. As you know, I like to chamfer the chamber entry way, but after that we use a hone from Brownells and add some special oil to it, it makes the inside of the chambers as smooth as this old gunfighter’s head!  These hones are not too expensive, and if you order the special oil when you purchase the hone, you will have a lifetime supply for you and your saddle pals.  I always tape up the cylinder with some 2-inch masking tape to keep it from being scratched, and then I use the rubber conveyor belt inserts in my smithin’ vice.  I clamp the cylinder in the vice, and then get out the variable speed, portable electric drill and install the hone in the chuck.  First, I dunk the hone in the oil, and then run the hone in and out of each chamber to get the inside oiled up.  Then, with an up and down movement, I get the drill up to full speed while moving the hone in and out of the chambers.  I use about a slow 15 count on each chamber, and when I am done, I flush out the chambers with any kind of cleaner I have on hand. Next, I take the tape off.  Remember to keep the chambers oiled with lightweight, non-invasive gun oil.  I like the spray cans of Rem-Oil.  Well, good job cowboy!  Those cartridges should go in great now, just as if they were greased!  They will also come out a lot easier, too.

Now for the question asked by our good friend and cowboy shooter, Chucky: Why do cartridges sometimes show a dent in the primer, but don’t go “bang” like they should, sounding like a baseball hitting a bat?  This question has come up on several occasions and like most gun-related problems, there is usually more than one reason.  For example, if the hammer is not all the way back and set in the full-cock notch and is released, the tiny hole that the firing pin has to go through in the frame will not line up with the center of the primer.  This causes the firing pin to strike at a glancing blow, therefore not having the force needed to give that primer a sharp rap.  Another problem could be a bad action job that has left the mainspring without enough force to ignite the primer.  The mainspring has to be heavy enough to do the job, which is why I use new Wolff Springs throughout the whole gun.  The old leather washer trick is a very dumb one and seldom works for very long.  A third reason could be that some WD40 has gotten near the ammo and has deadened the primers.  This stuff has no business being used around any kind of ammunition.  It is very invasive and spells sudden death to primers.

That’s all for this issue.  Remember to drink upstream from the herd, and never ask a barber if you need a haircut. I’ll be seeing you down the trail.


The First Modern Replicas

Posted on June 4th, 2011 by Admin | Posted in Firearms

Great Western Single Actions – The First Modern Replicas

By: John Taffin, aka Sixgunner

The 1950’s had to be just about the greatest time ever for growing up.  We were not disadvantaged with 150-channel TVs, cell phones, VCRs, computers, electronic games, or adults who thought they had to coach us so we could play football and baseball.  Outside was for continuous activity; inside was for eating and sleeping.  Mom still stayed home and cooked three meals a day, seven days a week.  We never had to go out to eat.  Until McDonalds restaurants started, I didn’t know of anyone that ever went “out to eat.”

We did have one great disadvantage, and it is the only one I can think of, which was a lack of information available on firearms.  There were no gun magazines in the early 1950’s.  The outdoor magazines rarely published anything about handguns; in fact, the only magazine that did, and certainly not often enough, was the American Rifleman.  Paperback books started to show up from publishers such as Trend, and for 75 cents one could have “The Complete Book of Handguns.”  And even though it was complete, a new copy came out every year.

Then it happened.  It was the dead of winter, late December, 1954, and I had gone downtown to see a movie, a western of course, and stopped in at the newsstand.  There it was.  I had to blink to make sure it was real.  I know my heart skipped a beat, maybe two.  There on the rack was a new magazine called GUNS, and it was dated January 1955. I was a junior in high school and reading every book I could find about guns and hunting, and I made frequent trips to town just to check out the newsstands for any gun publications.  My search for knowledge had been rewarded.  GUNS was only the first magazine, and over the next few years it would be followed by Guns & Ammo (which began as a quarterly), Gun World, and Shooting Times (which began life as a newspaper).

During the first year of publication, GUNS carried an article entitled “A Six-Shooter For TV Cowboys.”  Westerns on TV were the rage in the 1950’s, starting with old B Westerns, which evolved into made-for-TV Westerns.  This created a demand for single-actions, not only to be used by the actors, but by shooters as well.  Colt had ceased production of the Single Action Army in 1941.  Since they had publicly declared that they had no plans to ever resurrect the old Peacemaker, the prices on pre-war Single Action Colts started to rise.

Now that Westerns had created a demand for single-actions (as much as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry would do 20 years later for Smith & Wesson .44 Magnums), someone had to fill it.  First came the Single-Six.  Bill Ruger had been very successful with his relatively inexpensively priced semi-automatic .22 in 1949, and in 1953 he came back with a .22 single-action.  Everything but the grip frame, which was nearly identical to the old Colt Single Action Army, was scaled-down to make it an easy-handling, virtually unbreakable single-action chambered in a caliber that everyone could afford to shoot.  As with just about every other kid at that time, my first handgun was a Ruger Single-Six.  What wonderful times we had shooting .22 Marlin leverguns and Ruger Single-Sixes.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, another gun company was founded, Great Western Arms Co. of Los Angeles.  Shooters wanted real Colts and they couldn’t get them, but Great Western stepped in to fill the void.  That article in GUNS was about Great Westerns.  The Great Western looked so much like a Colt Single Action Army that they actuallyused real Colts in the early advertising.  I’m not sure exactly when Great Western began, but I think I saw the first ads in 1954 when I was a junior in high school.  They were smart enough to present John Wayne with an early matched pair, fully-engraved with ivory grips.  One of the owners of the company was Audie Murphy. Young Murphy lied about his age to get into World War II, became the most decorated hero of that conflict, and then went on to make Western movies.  Some thought that he wasn’t much of an actor, but we didn’t care.  He was a real genuine hero who could definitely handle a Colt Single Action .45 on the silver screen.

In the late 1950’s, I bought my first Great Western Single Action.  I had great luck with the Single-Six .22, so I purchased a Great Western .22.  That turned out to be a mistake.  The 5-½” .22 proved to be a really poor shooting sixgun, and was definitely out of time.  Thirty-five years later, I picked up two more 5-½” Great Western .22s, which have proven to be excellent shooters and are also favorites with the grandkids.  In fact, the grandkids and I were just out yesterday morning shooting the guns, and we saved enough money shooting the .22s that I was able to fill them up with a late breakfast at The Cracker Barrel after we finished shooting.

Elmer Keith, in the first chapter of his book Sixguns by Keith (1955), commented that the test Great Western Single Action that he had received was “…very poorly timed, fitted, and showed a total lack of final inspection.  The hand was a trifle short, the bolt spring did not have enough bend to lock the bolt with any certainty, the mainspring was twice as strong as necessary, and the trigger pull was about three times as heavy as needed.”

I think the same guy made his test gun and my .22.  Later in his book, Elmer was able to say, “We are happy to report that Great Western has really gotten on the ball, and is now cooking on all four burners.  They overhauled their designed and inspection departments, put in some gunsmiths who knew the score, and are now turning out first-class single-action copies.  We have one in 4-¾” .44 Special, and it is a very fine single action in every way, perfectly timed, sighted, and very accurate.  It has performed perfectly with factory loads and our heavy hand loads, and is very accurate at extreme ranges, the real test of any sixgun.”

The Great Western Company was originally owned by a man named Bill Wilson.  These guns were totally American-made, and are not to be confused with the Hawes Single Actions, which came later.  Hy Hunter was an early distributor of Great Westerns, as was EMF, and he also later brought in the German-made J.P. Sauer & Sohn Hawes versions.  I have no idea how many Great Western Single Actions were manufactured in the less than 10 years they were in business.  It was not unusual to find them at bargain prices 10 years ago, however the prices have tripled and even quadrupled since then.  They are also not all that commonly found at gun shows.

At first glance, Great Western Single Actions look identical to Colt Single Actions with subtle differences in the hammer profile and shape of the trigger guard.  They show up on many TV Westerns, and are easy to spot when the hammer is cocked.  Colts have the firing pin on the hammer, while Great Westerns have a frame-mounted firing pin, such as that introduced by the old Christy Gun Works and picked up by Bill Ruger for use in all of his single-actions.  Unlike the Rugers, the Great Westerns have sort of an upside-down L-shaped hammer.

Great Westerns were made in the three standard barrel lengths:  4-¾”, 5-½”, and 7-½,” plus a 12-½” Buntline Special.  The standard model was a 5-½” .45 Colt that sold for $99.50 in 1960.  There was a slight additional charge for other calibers and barrel lengths.  In addition to .45 Colt and .22, the Great Western was offered in .38 Special, .44 Special, .357 Magnum, .357 Atomic, and .44 Magnum.  The “Atomic” was simply a heavily-loaded .357 Magnum and, believe it or not, the .44 Magnum was on the standard Colt-sized mainframe.  I have heard rumors to the effect that a .44-40 was also offered, and I do know that they did make some examples chambered in a .22 Hornet.

Great Western also offered both pearl and ivory grips, engraving, nickel-plating, and even the installation of adjustable target sights.  The Deputy Model was a 4″ barreled version with a full-length barrel rib, adjustable sights, deluxe blue finish, and walnut stocks instead of the standard issue B-Western-type imitation stags. The Deputy was offered in .22, .38 Special, and .357 Magnum, and also rumored to be in .44 Special.

The Great Western not only arrived at the time that the TV Western was king, but it also profited by the fast draw sport that arose.  For those that participated, Great Western offered a specially-tuned 4-¾” barrel .45 with a brass backstrap and trigger guard.  It was popular enough that they soon offered a “Professional Fast Draw Model” in all calibers and barrel lengths.  A copy of the Remington Double-Barrel Derringer was also offered, chambered in either .38 S&W or .38 Special.  The Great Western Cap-n-Ball Revolver looked much like the Old Army that came from Ruger in the early 70’s, but without the top strap.

Most of the parts of the Great Western Single Action are interchangeable with the Colt Single Action Army, except for the hammer, and the hammer, trigger, and bolt screws. The threads on these three screws were changed to help prevent them from loosening as the gun was fired.  Two years after the Great Western was introduced, Colt brought back the Single Action Army and, no matter how good the quality had become, Great Western’s fate was sealed.  In their advertising, Great Western gave 14 reasons for selecting their single-action instead of another:

1) Great Westerns are made of 4130 Chrome Molybdenum steel, the same as used for stress parts in aircraft and guided missiles.

2) Barrels are made of medium carbon steel of the finest quality overseen by the man formerly in charge of manufacturing Weatherby barrels.

3) Cylinders are made of SAE 4140 Chrome Molybdenum steel heat-treated to a tensile strength of 185,000 pounds per square inch. We have run .45 overloads at 100,000 pounds per square inch.

4) Both the bolt and trigger have been improved over the original and are guaranteed for 20 years, and a frame-mounted firing pin is used.

5) Stocks are imitations stag and are warp-resistant.

6) Late model actions are carefully fitted and assembled with the smoothest and softest actions ever incorporated into a single-action revolver.

7) Mainsprings have been designed for easier cocking.

8) The sear-and-bolt spring, which often failed in original guns, has been specially heat-treated and guaranteed for 50,000 movements.

9) There are no aluminum cast parts.

10) We offer a larger variety of finish including mirror blue, case-hardened frame, chrome, nickel, gold, silver, or combinations thereof.

11) Great Westerns are the only single-actions offered in a variety of barrel lengths.

12) Great Westerns are the only single-actions offered in all popular calibers.

13) Front sights are purposely tall to allow for individual sighting in, and adjustable sights are also available.

14) The hammer is made of SAE 6150 Chrome Vanadium steel, giving greater strength and wear resistance than any other.

Of course, much of the above is advertising hype, however, I have shot approximately one dozen Great Westerns over the past 40 years, and I have never had a spring fail or a part break.  I cannot say that about Colt Single Actions or current replicas.  I have purchased Great Westerns with broken parts, whether this was from use or abuse I do not know, but one .44 Magnum had a broken firing pin (cost $7.50 to fix) and a chrome 4-¾” barrel .45 Colt was found with a split forcing cone.  I replaced the barrel with a Colt barrel.  Even though the price has gone up on Great Westerns, they can still usually be picked up for less than the retail price of an Italian-made replica.  The problem, of course, is locating one.

John Taffin, aka Sixgunner, SASS #7517, NCOWS #177, The Shootists #1

The Winchester Model 1892

Posted on June 4th, 2011 by Admin | Posted in Firearms

Classic Guns of the Old West – The Winchester Model 1892

By: Sixgunner

Most of those in my age bracket got their first basic education in the history and use of frontier firearms from the movies, both the wonderful old B movies as well as some great classics made by the likes of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and even Henry Fonda. It was only as we grew older that we realized how unsafe gun handling was as presented on the silver screen and also how badly history was treated.

As I learned of the time frame of the evolution of single action sixguns and leverguns, it bothered me greatly to see Colt Single Actions in Civil War movies and especially to see Winchester leverguns used in any movie from those depicting the War with Mexico forward. Most of the time, the leverguns used were Model ’92 Winchesters. The model number denotes the year and the Old West was pretty well gone by 1892. By then, the buffalo, the stagecoach, even the gunfighter was a relic of the past.

There were still pockets of relatively rough country left in 1892, especially in the Southwest, still are, and the Model 1892 Winchester filled the bill for survival quite well. At least for a short time, Rangers, both Texas and Arizona style, picked up on the soon to arrive Model 1894 Winchester in the more “modern” .30 Winchester Centerfire, or .30WCF, or as most of us call it, the plain old .30-30. The Winchester ’73 is usually thought of as the “Gun That Won The West” while the Model 1892 gave shooters a much stronger action in the same chamberings.

Many of shootists of the Old West packed a Colt Single Action with a Model 1873 in the same chambering. As the Old West began to disappear, the Model 1873 was often replaced by the Model 1892. Interestingly enough, the .32-20 was very popular in both the Colt Single Action and Bisley Model as well as the Model 1892 in the 1890’s and beyond. Apparently, many felt the larger calibers were no longer as necessary as they had been.

When Oliver Winchester’s son-in-law journeyed West in the early 1880’s to meet with a young Utah gunsmith by the name of John Browning, neither could have had any idea of the great effect that meeting would have on rifle production. Winchester got Browning’s designs for what would become the 1886 levergun and 1885 Hi-Wall, and in just a few short years, Browning would miniaturize the Model 1886 with the result being the slickest little levergun ever, the Winchester Model 1892.

Who can ever forget the classic scene in Stagecoach as John Wayne (Ringo) twirls his large looped lever Model ’92 and stops the coach? Or the greatest scene of all Westerns, Rooster Cogburn with his ’92 in his right hand, Colt Single Action in his left, and with teeth clenched around the reins as he goes forth to meet the Ned Pepper gang inTrue Grit? Sandwiched in between these two, those of us old enough will remember seeing Lucas McCain use his large lever Model ’92 to great effect each week in The Rifleman. The real star of all of these scenes was the Model ’92.

In the past few years, the replica Model 1892 has been imported from Brazil, Italy, and Japan under such names as Browning, Cimarron, EMF, Navy Arms, and Winchester. All well made, good shootin’ leverguns regularly seen at cowboy shootin’ matches around the country. One also finds many competitors who have searched the used gun market to come up with authentic Winchester Model 1892’s. The real ‘92’s are not cheap, but I have been able to come up with a pair, one for $400 and the other at $600. Check that out against some of the prices of the replicas, and especially the replica 1866’s and 1873’s!

More than one million Winchester Model 1892’s were produced from 1892 to 1931, so it should be three times easier to find a Model ’92 than a Colt Single Action. The three main chamberings, just as in the Model 1873, were .44 WCF, .38 WCF, and .32 WCF, or as they are better known today, .44-40, .38-40, and .32-20. Two other chamberings are found — the .25-20 and the very rare .218 Bee. During the 1950’s, many 1892’s were converted to .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum. The originals ended production before the advent of either Magnum, so none were ever produced in these chamberings nor in .45 Colt.

With a 20″ barrel, the Model 1892 weighs around six pounds, and it is an easy handlin’ levergun, probably the best ever. In addition to a round-barreled 20″ version, as most encountered will be, there are also 24″ rifles and 30″ muskets with barrels that are round, octagon, or half round/half octagon. Take-down models will also be encountered. Stocks are normally of the straight grip variety of oil-finished walnut. Front sights are usually a post or bead with the rear sight a buckhorn or semi-buck.

In addition to being a great gun for Cowboy Action ShootingTM, the Winchester Model 1892 in .38-40 or .44-40 makes a fine close range deer rifle when properly loaded. Older manuals have loads for the .44-40 in the Model ’92 that eclipse the .44 Magnum. For turkeys and the like, the .32-20 and .25-20 are just about perfect where their use is allowed by the game laws.

My two Model 1892’s are both 20″ carbines, one in .32-20 and the other, .38-40. The first cost me $600 and has plenty of character on the outside and a perfect bore. The .38-40, at $400, has been refinished and the bore had some pitting making it a so-so shooter. It has now been re-barreled by gunsmith Keith DeHart using a Douglas barrel of .401″ groove diameter and contoured to match the original barrel. Both guns not only shoot like those we dream about, they also fairly reek of nostalgia.

As with most guns we buy, the doors of our minds are then opened for more purchases and more money to be spent. I am on the lookout now for a Model 1892 .44-40, and then a .25-20, and then ……

.50-70 Government

Posted on June 4th, 2011 by Admin | Posted in Firearms

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.  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.

Loading Procedures

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!

Load Data
Primer Powder Charge (grains) Bullet Lube Velocity
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