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Straight Shooters Cast Bullets
Rifle Magazine
December - January 1999
Volume 34, Number 6
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 202
On the cover...
The Lone Star Remington-style rolling block rifle
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A short while back I happened upon the premier issue of Rifle from 1969. It contained an article about getting an old .50-70 Sharps carbine up and running again. I couldn’t help but smile as I read it because of all the time and trouble it took that writer to come up with shootable loads. As I remember he had difficulties in finding proper bullet moulds, brass had to be cobbled from .348 Winchester cases, and there was virtually no loading information for him to use as guidelines.

How much things have changed in 30 years! Brass and bullet moulds for the .50-70 Government are off-the-shelf items now, and the techniques for loading good black-powder ammunition are fully understood once more. Furthermore, at least one powder supplier, Accurate Arms Company, prints data for smokeless powder .50-70 loads.

In my opinion the .50-70 Government is a fascinating cartridge. Although it was official army issue for only seven years, it made a place for itself in Indian Wars history and was one of the most used rounds during the great buffalo hunt of the 1870s. It was this country’s first centerfire primed, metallic-cased military cartridge, combining a 450-grain conical bullet over 70 grains of black powder. Initial military loads were said to give 1,260 fps and were put up in copper cases. Although centerfire, they used inside primers and were not reloadable.

The first military rifle that was chambered for the .50-70 Government was the Springfield Model 1866. These were nothing more than Civil War Model 1861 muzzleloading muskets with the breeches cut away and “trapdoor” style breechblocks installed. Barrels were lined down from .58 to .50 caliber but left the full 40 inch length. By 1868 the Springfield arsenal was making new barrels and receivers but was still relying on leftover Civil War locks, stocks and other furniture. At this time barrel length was reduced to 32 5/8 inches. This was the Model 1868 and is the most commonly encountered of .50-70 caliber “trapdoor” Springfields. Later, there came a slightly modified Model 1870 in rifle and carbine versions.

Trapdoor Springfields in .50-70 caliber saw considerable action on the frontier. Soldiers armed with the new and relatively fast shooting rifles dealt the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors severe setbacks in both the Wagon Box and Hayfield fights of 1867. Also it’s a little known fact that after 1873 when the army was converting to trapdoors in .45-70 caliber, it often armed its Indian allies with the older .50-70s.

Captain French of M Troop, 7th Cavalry carried a trapdoor .50-70 infantry rifle (exact model unknown) with him to the Little Bighorn Battle in 1876. Trapped on the hilltop with the Reno/Benteen detachments, he is known to have done good work with his .50-70, and its ramrod came in handy for removing stuck cartridges from his mens’ .45-70 carbines.

As with all military cartridge developments, it did not take long for rifle manufacturers to pick up on the new round. Remington made a considerable number of civilian and military style rolling blocks in .50-70 Government. One of Remington’s more famous supporters was George A. Custer also of 7th Cavalry fame. He carried his .50-70 Remington Rolling Block Sporting Rifle to his death at the Little Bighorn.

By 1867 the Sharps Rifle Company was already converting its percussion carbines to chamber the .50-70. When the Sharps company began introducing Sporting Rifles with the Model 1869 and then the much more famous Model 1874, the .50-70 was always a chambering option. One bit of mistaken gun mythology is that the Sharps “Big Fifty” of legend was the .50-140. That’s not true because the Sharps Rifle Company never chambered for that round. Instead the term “Big Fifty” was used for Sharps .50-70s and .50-90s, and both rounds were considered fine bison killers.

Those Sharps carbine .50-70 conversions mentioned above are an interesting story. After the Civil War the federals were left with about 50,000 Sharps New Model 1859, 1863 and 1865 percussion carbines with bore sizes ranging from .52 to .54 caliber. (I have an unaltered New Model 1863 that measures exactly .530 inch across the grooves.) They made a deal with the Sharps Rifle Company to convert them to .50-70, and collectors refer to these conversions as either Model 1867s or Model 1868s, as determined by minor mechanical differences in the conversion work.

From the shooter’s standpoint, however, there are two very important variations: some were left with their original six-groove Sharps barrels while others were lined with government supplied three-groove liners. While doing the conversion work, the Sharps Rifle Company was instructed by the military to leave all carbines with bores under .5225 inch as is. Those over that diameter were lined. Original bullet diameter for .50-70 Government military loads was .515 inch, so those carbines left with original six-groove barrels could be considered “loose” in terms of bullet fit. I can’t say exactly what diameter the three-groove liners were, due to the difficulty in measuring slugs from barrels with an odd number of grooves, but can say that my Model 1868 Sharps conversion shoots okay with .512-inch bullets.

A couple of friends own and shoot Sharps .50-70 carbines left with the original oversize six-groove barrels. To get any sort of accuracy they have had to go to hollowbase bullets cast very soft and, of course, powered by black powder.

Rifling twist rates for .50-70s are also interesting. Trapdoor Springfields used a 42-inch twist, but the Sharps Rifle Company started out with a 48-inch twist that was later tightened to one turn in 36 inches. Remington also used the 42-inch twist but made some .50-70s with very tight 24-inch twist rates.


Original factory loads also deserve some mention. As earlier stated 450-grain bullets over 70 grains of black powder was the military standard; however, there were some variations in civilian loadings. In Winchester’s 1899 catalog, they also offered a 425-grain bullet over the same powder charge. I find it interesting to note that Winchester’s .50/70/450 load used a bullet with one-to-16 (tin-to-lead) temper, but the .50/70/425 load’s bullet had a one-to-20 temper. The Sharps Rifle Company also had some variations in .50-70 loads. In its 1869 catalog are listed a 457-grain grooved bullet and a 500-grain paper patched version. Presumably the powder charge for both was 70 grains, but that is not stated. Later the Sharps company changed its loadings to a 425-grain grooved bullet and a 457-grain paper patched design. Both were loaded over 70 grains of black powder.

In the 15 years since acquiring my first .50-70 trapdoor Springfield, I’ve owned or at least handloaded for and fired virtually every type of 1860s/ 1870s .50-70 rifle made. Along with those I’ve used the modern manufactured replicas such as C. Sharps and Shiloh Model 1874s and most recently a beautifully crafted rolling block replica by Lone Star Rifle Company (11231 Rose Rd., Conroe TX 77303). From this work I think some insights about reloading this cartridge can be passed on.

First off one needs brass. Of course, .50 Basic cases can be shortened to the 1.75 inch length needed for .50-70, but I consider that a poor route for two reasons: The .50 Basic cases by which-ever maker are expensive and nearly half the case is thrown away after making a .50-70. Second is the case walls are so thick that an expensive inside case neck reamer will be needed to thin them enough to chamber once a bullet is seated.

It is far better to just buy ready-to-load .50-70 brass. To my knowledge, right now there are three sources. One is Dixie Gun Works; the other is Bertram Bullet Company of Australia, and the third is B.E.L.L. (Brass Extrusion Laboratories Limited is in business again.) Huntington Die Specialties (PO Box 991, Oroville CA 95965) is a good ordering source for the latter two brands. I have used all three types with good results, but when my wife bought the above-mentioned Lone Star rolling block for me, I ordered 100 of the new B.E.L.L. cases and have been doing all my recent shooting with them.

Next the .50-70 shooter is going to need bullets. Cast .50-caliber bullet designs are plentiful nowadays, ranging from about 300 to upwards of 600 grains collectively from the many makers. However, considering the fairly slow rifling twist rates of most original .50-70 rifles and the rather limited case capacity, I think those in the 400- to 500-grain weight range are most appropriate. RCBS and Lyman each offer .50-caliber bullet designs nominally rated at 450 grains. These are 515141 for the former brand and 50-450FN for the latter. Mine are cast of 1/20 (tin-to-lead) alloy and fall from the moulds at 446 and 471 grains, respectively.

As to shape, the Lyman bullet is pretty close to the profile of original government .50-70 bullets, while RCBS chose to make its more of a semiwadcutter. It might not look authentic, but it sure does a great job on game. I must admit to never yet shooting an animal with a .50-70 (I have missed a couple of deer with my Sharps carbine!) but did use the RCBS bullet on both deer and elk from a .50-90 Sharps. It hits hard. Also, I’ve been with friends when they have connected on game with   .50-70s, and it seems the impact is considerable despite the exact bullet shape.

I’ve already mentioned the original size for .50-70 Government was .515 inch. Also Lyman used to offer .515-inch cast bullet sizing dies, and its older 515141 moulds used to drop bullets as large as .517 to .518 inch. I have friends who still own such moulds and dies so I know this is true. Somewhere along the way, however, the reloading tool companies have seen fit to reduce bullet diameter for .50-70 to about .510 to .512 inch. That latter figure is the largest Lyman offers as a cast bullet sizing die now, and bullets from both my current production Lyman and RCBS moulds drop at .513 inch from 1/20 alloy.

This reduction in bullet diameter specifications by the reloading tool companies is probably caused by the barrel groove diameters being given    to current production .50-70 rifles. All that I am aware of - C. Sharps, Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing and Lone Star Rifle Company - use .510 inch as their nominal groove diameter for .50-caliber barrels. Interestingly, both C. Sharps and Lone Star use Badger barrels with 24-inch twist rates, while Shiloh makes its own with a 36-inch twist.

 

Both of my original .50-70s (Sharps carbine and Model 1868 Trapdoor) will group about 4 inches at 100 yards with the .512-inch bullets, and that’s with their awful standard issue military sights. The older .515-inch bullets could possibly give a little better accuracy, but I can’t personally realize it without better sighting equipment.

.50-70 Government

Bullet

Powder

Charge

(grains)

Velocity

(fps)

Extreme Spread

(fps)

Comments

Lyman

|

|

|

Goex

GOEX Cartridge

Pyrodex Select

XMP-5744

65.0

70.0

48.0

28.0

1,203

1,222

1,224

1,233

14

21

23

37

best load

close to original military load

good ballistic consistency

RCBS 50-450FN

|

|

|

GOEX FFg

GOEX Cartridge

Pyrodex

XMP-5744

65.0

70.0

48.0

28.0

1,177

1,187

1,235

1,258

10

17

15

18

best load this bullet

 

 

higher velocity with heavy bullet

Notes: Rifle used was a Lone Star Rifle Company rolling block with a 28-inch barrel. Velocities taken with PACT Mark IV Timer set in chronograph mode with start screen at approximately 6 feet. All loads put in B.E.L.L. brass with Federal 215 Large Rifle Magnum primers. All bullets cast of 1/20 (tin-to-lead) alloy, sized to .512 inch and lubed with SPG. All case mouths crimped firmly on the bullet.

Be alert - Publisher cannot be responsible for errors in published load data.

 

There is one problem I’ve encountered with the Lyman .50-70 reloading dies, although I should admit that I’ve only had experience with this one set. The sizing die was cut to squeeze the case walls down for .515-inch bullets and doesn’t give a really tight grip on .512 inchers. Furthermore, the case mouth expanding die of my .50-70 dies measures only .506 inch and when run into a fully sized case doesn’t actually touch the inside of the case mouth. I’ve compensated for this problem by simply giving the bullet a firm crimp when seated and have been using this system for 15 years. If I bothered to get a set of reloading dies made to the proper specifications, who knows how well my .50-70s might shoot?

That brings me to the latest .50-70 rifle. In 1998 my wife said she would like to buy me a special gun for a present. I picked the above mentioned Lone Star rolling block. It was ordered as a hunting rifle with a 28-inch octagonal barrel that measures one inch across at the muzzle. With color casehardened action and buttplate coupled with extra fancy wood, this rifle is a showpiece.

The day the new Lone Star .50-70 arrived I couldn’t find my .50-caliber wad punch but did have exactly eight of the Lyman 515141 bullets sitting around. I already knew the B.E.L.L brass would hold either 65 grains of GOEX FFg or 70 grains of GOEX Cartridge when drop-tubed into the cases. Primers were Federal 215s, and lube was SPG. Four each of those powder charges were loaded.

The first three shots with the FFg charge at 100 yards cut a triangle of only 1 1/2 inches. Three rounds with GOEX Cartridge cut a slightly bigger triangle of 1 3/4 inches just to the right of the first group. I had one round left of each load and fired them into the group. All eight shots could be covered with a 3 1/4-inch circle. That, of course, was with the buckhorn rear sight and silver blade front.

That shooting was almost a year ago, and time constraints have not allowed me to shoot the rolling block since. However, with hunting season approaching I decided to give it another try. Rounds were put together holding the two black-powder charges mentioned above under Lyman 515141 and RCBS 50-450FN bullets. To round things out, both bullets were coupled with 48 grains of Pyrodex Select, and from consulting Accurate Arms Company’s data pamphlet, I also picked a charge of 28.0 grains of XMP-5744 smokeless powder.

It should be stressed that under no circumstances do I recommend using smokeless powder for reloading .50-70 Government loads to be fired in 1870’s vintage rifles - especially “trapdoor” Springfields. However, for modern manufactured ones such as this Lone Star rolling block or Sharps produced by either Shiloh or C. Sharps, there is no problem in using smokeless powders if the loads are based on suitable data.

It appears my fine rolling block .50-70 is one of those rifles that just shoots everything well. No fouling shots were used, and the barrel was swabbed out with wet and then dry patches after each five shots. All 100-yard groups amounted to round clusters of about 3 inches give or take .5 inch or so. Also it was gratifying to see that all group centers were right at point of aim. Groups in the 3-inch range might not impress modern riflemen, but considering they were fired with a buckhorn rear sight and silver blade front and without any sort of target type handloading techniques, I was happy with them. By the way, the best shooting load still was that initial concoction tried before that consists of 65 grains of FFg with the Lyman 515141 bullet.

For the non-black-powder shooters I’d like to point out that the XMP-5744 loads shot just as accurately as either black powder or Pyrodex and, to my surprise, gave tight velocity variations despite the fact no sort of case filler was used. This powder never fails to amaze me with its performance in large capacity cartridges originally designed for black powder.

There’s one other interesting point to mention. Note that with both black-powder loads the Lyman bullet gave higher speeds than the heavier RCBS bullet. That seems like the natural thing, but when we got to Pyrodex and XMP-5744, the reverse was true. Evidently the heavier bullet aided combustion with those two slightly harder-to-ignite (compared to black powder) powders.

After 15 years of handloading the .50-70 for a wide variety of rifles, both old and new, I have to say that in my opinion it’s one of the easiest of the old big-bore, black-powder, single-shot rounds. There are no tricks or special techniques needed for loading good .50-70s. In fact they behave well despite the less than perfect reloading dies I described above. Some competitors even use .50-70s in the black powder cartridge rifle silhouette game and do well with them.

To me the round is a short-range game thumper, and it appears from this recent shooting that all I have to do is pick up my .50-70 rolling block and head out with it come hunting season. The handloading efforts were no big deal.

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