March - April 1999 Volume 31, Number
2 ISSN: 0162-3583 Number 182
cover... The Remington Model 700LSS (Laminated Stock, Stain
Rifles for BPCR Silhouette Competition
What it takes at 500 meters!
A selection of older
lever actions includes, left to right, the Winchester Model 92 .38 WCF, Winchester Model
94 .32-40, Marlin Model 94 .38 WCF, Winchester Model 86 .40-65 WCF and Winchester Model 73
Back in Rifle No. 104 (March-April 1986), I
reported on the inaugural match of a brand new shooting sport being developed by the NRA.
It was called Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette. Basically stated, the new game
called for shooting the same course of fire as high-power silhouette. That is, the targets
were to be metallic cutouts of chickens, pigs, turkeys and rams placed at 200, 300, 385
and 500 meters, respectively. The major difference, however, was in the rifles used. They
had to be single shots (or approved replicas thereof) introduced before 1896, and the
calibers chambered in them had to be from the same era loaded only with black powder (or
Pyrodex) and cast bullets. Hence, this is probably the most handloader-oriented sport ever
The first ever BPCR Silhouette match was held
in September 1985 at the NRA's Whittington Center near Raton, New Mexico. A total of 34
competitors attended. The next September we did the same thing with about 50 shooters. The
NRA was then satisfied the game had potential, so for 1987 the first ever official
National Championship for the sport was held with 71 attendees.
Also in 1987 the first NRA sanctioned local matches were held in Denver. The second
location nationwide to hold sanctioned matches was the Park County Rod & Gun Club of
Livingston, Montana. That was in 1988; I know exactly because I was match director.
How the sport has grown! By the mid-1990s the National Championship became so attended
that the NRA Whittington Center had to enlarge its silhouette range's firing line from 40
to 64 points. The biggest year so far was 1996 with 347 shooters, the most attended
silhouette national championship of any type the NRA has ever hosted. From those two local
clubs shooting NRA sanctioned monthly matches in 1988, the sport has grown from coast to
coast with dozens of clubs hosting shoots. Montana and California alone have no less than
five ranges each holding regular contests.
Looking back over the story forwarded to Rifle after attending the inaugural match, I
cannot help but grin. That event was won by a fellow named Ed Middleton of Kansas. His two
day score was 32 hits out of 80 possible (40 percent). The 1998 National Champion, Steve
Brooks of Montana, hit 91 of 120 targets (75.8 percent), a new national record.
Incidentally, Ed Middleton is still active in BPCR Silhouette and a Master Class shooter.
Also in that report I said that the since the 200-meter chickens had to be fired at
offhand they were difficult, "almost impossible" to hit. As of this writing, no
one has yet scored 10 out of 10, but scores of 7 and 8 are fairly common now. (A young
fellow named Brian Shackleford of Oklahoma, who was in grade school when this sport was
started, hit 9 of 10 chickens in a 1998 match.) Ten hits in a row on pigs, turkeys and
rams are common now.
Something else I smile at when re-reading that first report on this game is the mention
that we early shooters had no idea if a black powder powered .45-70 bullet of 400 to 500
grains would topple those 50-pound rams. In fact, to be on the safe side, I took a .45-100
to that first match. We shouldnÕt have worried; the .45-70 was perfectly adequate, and so
are .40 calibers with bullets as light as 380 grains.
Back at that 1985 match I did an informal equipment survey, catching 25 of the 34
shooters. This was more complete than it appears because several shooters were sharing
rifles. From that survey I learned that 15 of those 25 people were shooting .45-70s (60
percent). No more than two shooters each were using such calibers as the .40-65, .40-70,
.40-90, .45-100, and one was even firing an original Remington Rolling Block .44-90.
By far the most popular rifle type was the Model 1874 Sharps (originals and modern
domestic and foreign replicas) with 10 users. Remington Rolling Blocks were second with
five shooters, and original Trapdoor Springfields were third with four being used. Only
two fellows were firing Winchester Model 1885 High Walls.
Another item I find extremely interesting, in looking back at that first match, is that 15
of 25 shooters fired Pyrodex, and most of us firing black powder wiped the barrel with a
wet patch after every shot. This was because of the hard fouling left by black powder. At
the shooter's meeting after the first day's firing, most attendees voted to open the sport
up to duplex loading. That means putting a percentage of smokeless powder under the black
powder in order to help keep the barrel clean after every shot. Others were adamantly
against this as there was no way to police the amount of smokeless powder being used, and
besides the original nineteenth century users of such rifles had no smokeless powder
crutch to lean on.
Conversely, at the 1998 BPCR National Championships
only five of 284 shooters fired Pyrodex, no one wipes after every shot anymore, and in
fact some competitors fire the entire match without cleaning. The duplex issue has been
dead for years. The reason for all this is that in having an incentive the competitors got
to work and solved the hard fouling problem with specially blended bullet lubes, primer
experimentation and handloading techniques such as pouring the powder into the cases
through a drop tube.
Not only has the
hard fouling problem been solved, but in the process, collectively, we BPCR Silhouette
shooters have learned just how amazingly accurate such rifles can be when properly
handloaded. For example, a rifle delivering more than 2 minutes- of-angle (MOA) accuracy
out to 500 meters is not even competitive anymore. Those fellows winning the bigger
matches are getting groups more in the one- to 1½-MOA range.
Back in the late 1980s, the one factor that
was holding back growth of this sport was the availability of suitable rifles. When the
sport began, not one rifle manufacturer was producing anything ideal for this game. Shiloh
Rifle Manufacturing of Big Timber, Montana, was closest with their fine quality
reproduction of the Model 1874 Sharps. However, this sport had its finer points which
necessitated rifles be made expressly for it.
For instance, NRA rules from the very beginning called for rifles to weigh no more than 12
pounds, 2 ounces, including sights. Also there were stringent stock measurements such as
width, length and depth of buttplate, buttstock drop and so forth. All these rules were
formulated by the NRA's silhouette committee in an effort to keep the sport traditional
and to keep it from deteriorating into an arms race like so many other shooting sports
have over the years.
There were also factors related to accuracy in the actual construction of the rifle
barrels that needed to be addressed. Because of black-powder fouling, rifling grooves need
to be deep. We have come to consider .004 inch to a side, or .008 inch total groove
diameter, as the norm. Chambers need to be on the tight side. The explosion of black
powder in a rifle's chamber will cause the bullets to slug up into any space. Sloppy
chambers and/or loose or excessively long throats allow the bullet to become deformed
before it even starts down the barrel. Of course, a barrel meant for lead bullet match
shooting, especially with black powder, must be smooth. If rough, a barrel not only leads,
but the roughness also accumulates fouling much more quickly than a smooth one.
The rifling twist rate is also extremely critical to the BPCR Silhouette shooter. Back in
the 1980s Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing produced their .45- and .40-caliber barrels with a
one-in-20-inch twist rate just as the original Sharps were built. Original Winchester
Model 1885 High Walls in .40-65 WCF used one turn in 28 inches. Competitors quickly
learned that longer, heavier bullets held accuracy better out to 500 meters. Therefore, in
general, bullets of 500 grains and more have become the preferred weight among .45-caliber
shooters, while the .40-caliber fans have settled on bullets of 400 grains and more. Such
bullets measure from 1.30 to 1.50 inches in length. This meant barrels had to have tighter
twist rates. For .45 caliber, one turn in 18 inches is considered standard now while most
.40-caliber barrels have 16-inch twists.
Back in the early days of BPCR Silhouette there was a lot of scrabbling about by
competitors to "discover" the ideal cartridge. The majority of shooters were
satisfied with .45-70. It had the power needed and produced perfectly suitable accuracy
from a good rifle. However, others were not so happy with it. Recoil with 500-plus grain,
.45-caliber bullets is fairly heavy, especially from the prone position that 99 percent of
BPCR shooters have adopted for their pig, turkey and ram shooting. Others just didn't want
to use a cartridge quite so common.
Ron Long, a Denver-based shooter and
single-shot riflesmith, pioneered the use of the .40-65 WCF. Back in its original era, the
.40-65 was more a short-range express-type round using bullets of 260 grains in factory
loads. Ron rifled his barrels with tighter twists and started loading the .40-65 with
bullets of 400 grains or more. The fact he won several national championships with his
.40-65s didn't hurt the cartridge's popularity.
Others of us liked the idea of being more
traditional. I, for one, started using the .40-70 Sharps Straight in 1989. Basically it
gave the same ballistics as the .40-65 WCF and proved to be capable of extremely fine
accuracy. However, its drawback was in that one had to buy fairly expensive custom brass.
Conversely, the .40-65 WCF could be made by simply full-length resizing common .45-70s in
a .40-65 die.
Other shooters tried things like .50-90 on the heavy side, down to .38-55 on the light
end. Both have been made to work to one degree or the other but have drawbacks. The .50
calibers simply give too much recoil to ever be a widely popular BPCR round, while the
.38-55 sometimes has problems toppling those heavy rams. Hits around the edges usually
take them off while all too often dead center .38-55 hits simply make them ring.
In 1988 the NRA started
keeping tabulations of who was using what of rifles, calibers and
handloading details. Until 1993, .45-70 users outnumbered .40-65 shooters
by a factor ranging from 3 to 1 1/2 to one. The only other cartridge used
in any number was .40-70 Sharps Straight, but only a dozen to 18
competitors (a maximum of 10 percent) ever relied on it. Then in 1993,
.45-70 and .40-65 shooters were evenly matched, and in every year since,
.40-caliber shooters have significantly out-numbered those firing
.45-caliber rifles.One other round deserves mention. In 1996 Dave Gullo of
Idaho won the national championship using an original Remington-Hepburn
rebarreled to .45-90. Since then that somewhat heavy recoiling caliber has
gained some notice, representing five percent of attendees at 1998's
The rifle types in use
according to the NRA tabulations is also interesting. Except for one year
(1990), the Model 1874 Sharps (by foreign and domestic makers and a few
rebarreled originals) was the most commonly used rifle type until 1998.
That's understandable since Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing was already
producing the basic Model 1874 when this game got started. All they had to
do to make suitable BPCR Silhouette rifles was add a slightly heavier
barrel, tighten up their rifling twist rates and add the .40-65 WCF
chambering. The demand for BPCR Silhouette rifles is one of the reasons
for their current 4½-year back-order situation.
various versions of the Remington Rolling Block actually outnumbered Model
1874 Sharps slightly. This was because shooters could pick up either cheap
military rolling block actions or Italian made replica actions and have
gunsmiths rebarrel them. After the prices on actions began to rise, this
practice dropped off somewhat, although the various types of rolling block
rifles have constantly remained in the top three rifle types as judged by
The Winchester Model 1885 High Wall as a BPCR
Silhouette rifle started out rather slowly. In 1990 only 14 of 133
shooters fired High Walls. However, since so many high placing shooters
were firing them their popularity increase was assured. In 1998 for the
first time various types of Model 1885 High Walls were the most commonly
encountered rifle at a BPCR Silhouette National Championship. This
popularity was certainly helped by the appearance of Browning's Model 1885
"Sil- houette" version in 1996. By 1998 almost 10 percent of
all competitors at the national championships were using that particular
Although the three basic rifle types listed above have
been tops in the sport, many other historical single shots are seen at
matches all over the country. Original Remington-Hepburns, Ballards,
Maynards and even Trapdoor Springfields are commonly encountered. Almost
universally such rifles are retrofitted with new barrels specifically cut
for this sport.
In fact just about every original rifle of
whatever action type I have encountered at silhouette matches has been
rebarreled. It seems that nowadays most are carrying tubes from Badger
Barrels (PO Box 417, Bristol WI 53104). These are cut-rifled, hand-lapped
barrels and are installed on the rifles being used by a great many winners
of state, regional and national championships. In fact Browning is
purchasing Badger barrels for their silhouette version of the Model 1885
and shipping them to Japan to be installed there where the rest of the
rifle is built.
One place where serious BPCR
Silhouette competitors have learned that they cannot cut corners is with
sighting equipment. A tang-mounted, vernier-style peep sight is a
necessity, as is a front sight taking interchangeable inserts. These
sights must be built with extremely tight tolerances; any slop in the
machining process results in large groups at distance. A mere .01 inch of
movement in the rear sight results in a change of the bullet's impact of
nearly 6 inches at 500 meters!
By far the most popular type of
rear sight in use in this game is the "Soule" style. This tang
sight has the windage adjustment in the base with positive adjustments as
small as MOA. At the 1998 BPCR Silhouette National Championships the most
used rear sights by a factor of over two to one were those built by
Montana Vintage Arms Company (61 Andrea Drive, Belgrade MT 59714). By a
factor of over five to one that same company also supplied the most front
sights. Windage adjustable front sights are popular but not considered
necessary. What is considered necessary by the vast bulk of competitors is
a spirit level to keep rifle canting from being a problem. Also, that same
vast bulk of competitors report using aperture inserts in their front
sights as opposed to the other options such as post or crosswire.
Evidence that sighting
equipment is considered so important to accurate shooting by the
competitors is the fact that a set of top quality front and rear sights
costs from 50 to 75 percent of the price for most of the above-mentioned
So what would a typical BPCR Silhouette rifle be today
in the hands of a serious competitor? Despite the action type or exact
caliber chosen, it would have a 30- to 34-inch barrel that is heavy enough
to bring total rifle weight up to between 11 or 12 pounds. The barrel
configuration would usu-ally be full octagon or full round, but seldom
half and half. Most likely the barrel would be a custom product
retrofitted to the action by a gunsmith or company catering to BPCR
Silhouette shooters. The action would carry set triggers. The buttstock
would have a wide shotgun style buttplate in order to help the shooter
handle recoil during long strings of shots from the prone position. Also,
the buttstock would likely have a pistol grip. The rear sight would be one
or another maker's Soule style vernier tang sight, while the front sight
would most certainly be a type accepting interchangeable inserts and
having a spirit level. The rifle would be extremely accurate even by
modern bolt action, scope-sighted standards.
Cartridge Rifle Silhouette as a sport is one of the great success stories
of competition shooting. From an experiment in 1985, it has grown to a
force to be reckoned with in the gun industry 13 years later. Besides the
above-mentioned firearms introductions, GOEX, the only American
black-powder manufacturer, introduced a "cartridge" grade of
powder in 1994. It was specifically aimed at this sport. Lyman, RCBS and
Redding/ SAECO have all introduced specific BPCR Silhouette bullet moulds.
Also, several one-man bullet mould shops are catering to the BPCR
Silhouette crowd; 1998's National Champion Steve Brooks (PO Box 104, Big
Timber MT 59011) is one such.
Since 1996, attendance at the
national championships has been down slightly, but that is more about
dissatisfaction with how the NRA is handling that event (which is another
story) than with lack of interest in the game itself. The number of state
and regional championships are up as are the number of local monthly
matches being held. There's even an East/West challenge two-day match
being held in Kansas every May.
There has always been
something fascinating to shooters about knocking over steel targets. Its
addictive in itself, but add the factor that in BPCR Silhouette you can
often call your shots before the bullet even gets there, and the game
really hooks you.
of BPCR Silhouette Rifles
might be expected when a sport experiences such dramatic growth as
BPCR Silhouette, several companies have introduced specific rifles
for the game. Browning's Model 1885 "Silhouette" has
become very popular not only because it has a reputation for good
accuracy, but also because it comes from the box with a vernier tang
sight and a spirit level/interchangeable insert front.
Dixie Gun Works (PO Box 130, Union City TN 38281) is another company
offering a rifle specifically for the BPCR Silhouette crowd. It is a
Sharps Model 1874 replica made by Pedersoli in Italy. With its
heavyweight, 30-inch full octagon barrel, weight is between 11 and
12 pounds sans sights. Both Browning and Dixie consulted with quite
a few experienced shooters before introducing their BPCR Silhouette
rifles, and consequently they got things like rifling twist rates,
groove depths and stock configurations right. Both of their rifles
are available in either .45-70 or .40-65 WCF.
other small companies have sprung up around the country whose sole
product is the BPCR single- shot rifle, and naturally they all have
special silhouette models. Down in Texas there is the Lone Star
Rifle Company (11231 Rose Road, Conroe TX 77303). Their product is a
very high-grade reproduction of the Remington Rolling Block. In fact
if Remington built something on the rolling block action in the
1870s or 1880s then Lone Star will re-create it today. They will
chamber for any authentic cartridge of that era and offer custom
options such as double set triggers, engraving, fancy woods and so
forth. I had them build a BPCR Silhouette rifle for me with 32-inch
Badger .40-65 WCF barrel, double set triggers, presentation grade
wood and engraving with my initials inlaid in gold. It's a showpiece
but also will usually group five shots in 4 inches at 300 yards.
Another small company that concentrates on one rifle
type is the Meacham Tool & Hardware Company Inc. (1070 Angel
Ridge Rd., Peck ID 83545). Their product is a high-grade replica of
the Winchester Model 1885 "High Wall & Low Wall."
Again options are any of the black-powder chamberings of the
nineteenth century plus several versions of double set triggers,
fancy woods and stock configurations.
Steve Garbe, who
has been three-time BPCR Silhouette National Champion became
president of the Ballard Rifle & Cartridge Company LLC (113 W.
Yellowstone, Cody WY 82414) at the beginning of 1998. He fired one
of his products at the 1998 nationals and came in second place
overall. Although his company is producing almost every variation
found in the Marlin/Ballard single shot of the late 1800s, they also
offer a specific silhouette Ballard. Again the chambering can be any
black-powder cartridge of the era, and they will fit either barrels
of their own manufacture or ones by Badger at the customer's
Back east, the CPA Corporation (2071 Squirrel
Hill Road, Schwenksville PA 19473) turns out a replica of the
Stevens 44 1/2 single-shot rifle. Although not actually from the
pre-1896 era, this model was given a special dispensation by the
NRA's sil- houette committee because there was such a dearth of
suitable rifles in the early 1990s. It is not seen in great numbers
at silhouette matches around the country, but several shooters do
place respectably with them.
Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing
(PO Box 279, Big Timber MT 59011) is a somewhat larger company than
the ones mentioned above, but like them they have one product - the
Model 1874 Sharps replica. Several of their rifle configurations
will fit into the NRA's weight and size restrictions. Shiloh will
chamber their guns for any cartridge for which original Sharps were
made plus the .40-65 WCF and .38-55.
Also located in Big
Timber, Montana, is Montana Armory (formerly C. Sharps Arms, PO Box
885, Big Timber MT 59011). They offer a replica of an original
Sharps prototype called the Model 1875 and, more lately, a true
Model 1874. Again several of their rifle styles are suitable for
BPCR Silhouette. They use Badger barrels and will chamber for
anything offered in the late nineteenth century.