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Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
September - October 2003
Volume 35, Number 5
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 209
On the cover...
The Model 1873 Springfield was the mainstay of the U.S. Army until it was replaced by the .30 U.S. (aka .30-40 Krag) in 1892. Rifle photo by Gerald Hudson. Whitetail Deer photo by Ron Spomer.
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The Model 1873 U.S. Springfield was the rifle that brought the .45 U.S. (aka .45 Government and .45-70) cartridge to life and served as our military rifle (or carbine) from 1873 until 1892 when the .30 U.S. (aka .30-40 Krag) replaced it. It saw extensive use during the Indian wars and, after a few bugs were worked out of the early ammunition, proved to be a worthy open country battle rifle, especially during an era when travel was usually by horses, as they were as important to stop as the mounted warrior. For those of us who are fond of horses, this is hard to swallow, but it was obviously a necessary battle tactic.

The military conducted extensive tests to perfect ammunition that made it effective at over two miles (something we will discuss in a moment). In spite of being "officially" dropped after just 19 years of service, this rifle/cartridge combination saw continued use in specialty military and police applications as late as World War II, then retired a legend. The .45-70 cartridge is 130 years old but is one of today's best selling rounds.

Most shooters are probably familiar with this famous gun, and rather than give a detailed rundown (See Al Miller's "The Model 1873 Springfield" in this issue.), we'll just focus on a few of its most important features. Obviously it's a single shot with an unusual hinged breech-locking mechanism that helped it earn the nickname "trapdoor," which certainly seems appropriate.

While this action is stronger than commonly believed, it is best to use loads that are 20,000 to 22,000 CUP or less. (CUP and psi are the same for the .45-70. - Editor) This can include factory loads from Winchester, Remington, Federal, Black Hills or, better yet, handloads that generate comparable pressures and employ cast bullets that are of correct design. (Personally, I don't care to use jacketed bullets in rifles of this era, as barrel wear is increased, but some rifles/carbines with pitted bores will only shoot jacketed bullets accurately.)

If loaded with the right smokeless powders, the .45-70 can drive 405-grain cast bullets 1,800 fps or 500-grain bullets 1,500 fps from the rifle version that sports a 32 5/8-inch barrel, while staying within the prescribed pressure limit. (Loads that produce the highest velocity are not necessarily the goal but are just mentioned to show this rifle/cartridge potential if handloaded.)

The most common trapdoors are in rifle configuration, but there are many variations including the carbine with a 22-inch barrel, the Officer's Rifle with a 26-inch barrel and several others. But for the purposes of this article, it is the standard issue rifle version that is of interest. Besides its lengthy 32 5/8-inch barrel, it features a standup rear Buffington sight that is regulated from 100 yards (with it lying down) to 2,000 yards standing up and is finger adjustable for wind drift. Furthermore there are two peep holes, a "Christmas tree" and two open sights - five different sighting locations in the rear sight.

An interesting feature is that the elevation slide groove is canted slightly to the left; it leans increasingly to the left the higher the sight is raised. We can only assume this was engineered to compensate for bullet drift due to spinning. This sight was clearly designed by military personnel who had seen action and knew what they wanted in a battle rifle sight.

The 1873 Springfield rifling is unique in that it has three wide lands and grooves. They hold a soft (or hard) cast bullet firmly and keep skidding to a minimum. It features one turn in 18 inches.

The modern rifleman might pick up this rifle and feel it is long and awkward. With an overall length of almost 52 inches, it is certainly long, but it is fairly light at the muzzle and has terrific balance for offhand shooting.

The stock is oil finished with appropriate inspector's initials and dates stamped. The metalwork is beautifully polished and absolutely flawless. There are no visible mistakes, bumps or unpolished areas, and it carries a much nicer finish than is typical of military guns. The trapdoor and tang are case colored. The wood to metal fit, or inletting, is remarkable by any standard.

Many of the gun writers of yesteryear, who had the opportunity to see new, in-the-box or like-new Springfields tested at 600 yards and beyond, stated that a good rifle would shoot a “possible” at 600 yards and some would do even better. The MR1 target has a 10-ring that measures 12 inches across, and the trapdoor could drop 10 shots into this ring using the original .45-70-500 military black-powder load (.45 caliber, 70 grains of powder and a 500-grain bullet).

This information has come from enough credible sources that it has never been questioned, but I have never owned or fired a rifle (or carbine) with a good enough bore to duplicate this. I have certainly owned trapdoors that were accurate enough to hunt big game, but they wouldn’t stay in 12 inches at 600 yards. When a rifle became available that was in exceptional condition with an absolutely perfect bore that shined like a mirror and original tooling (or cutting) marks could be seen, I was excited to see what a like-new trapdoor was really capable of.

Before we discuss the long-range shooting results of this particular rifle, let’s review a small part of military tests and what a heavy .45-caliber rifle bullet is capable of at long range. In May 1879 after having considerable battle experience with this rifle and cartridge, the military conducted some interesting tests that began at Springfield Armory. The objective was to determine just how effective 405- and 500-grain .45-caliber cast bullets were at extreme distances if launched at an enemy in a volley of fire. More specifically, would they bounce off or offer enough penetration to matter. At 1,500 yards both bullets zipped through 3 inches of hardwood and kept going.

The tests were moved to the beaches of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, where the distance could be extended and bullets easily recovered in the sand. A huge target was assembled (44 feet wide and 22 feet high) and angled so incoming bullets, at sharp downward angles, would enter straight into the face of the target, rather than hitting at an angle. The target consisted of six layers of spaced one-inch hardwood boards.

The 405-grain bullets almost completely penetrated the targets at 2,500 yards, or 1.42 miles. At the same distance, the lower muzzle velocity 500-grain bullets zipped through all six boards and buried themselves another 6 inches in the sand. (A noted gun writer once commented he could catch rifle bullets with a baseball mitt at 1,000 yards. Maybe he could, but he would certainly have a large hole in his hand if they were .45-70 bullets. It’s a good thing he didn’t say they would bounce off his leather belt.)

The tests were extended to 3,200 yards and the 500-grain bullets still went through three inches of hardwood! At 3,500 yards, or just 20 yards short of 2 miles, the heavy slugs penetrated 1 1/2 inches of wood. At 3,680 yards the bullets’ downward fall to the target was about 80 degrees, but penetration was still more than one inch.

The shooting skills of soldiers varied tremendously, as some had little training or experience before signing on, and the military limited practice sessions and the number of rounds used in practice. The recoil of the .45-70-500 load, especially from the lighter Model 1873 carbine, intimidated those not used to recoil. On the other hand, there were soldiers who were shooters before they joined and took their job seriously, practicing intensely at every opportunity and mastered this rifle in every respect. They were good enough to make it really hot for an enemy at 1,000 yards and beyond. In fact, following the above experiments, battles followed wherein soldiers fired a volley of shots at extreme distances with their Springfield rifles and successfully kept enemies at bay.

When we review today’s factory .45-70 loads, there is really nothing to choose from that resembles the old Government 500-grain cast bullet loads. Federal and Winchester offer loads containing 300-grain jacketed bullets at something around 1,850 fps, while Remington offers a similar load and a 405-grain softpoint at 1,330 fps. These loads are low pressure, generating between 18,000 and 20,000 CUP, which are certainly safe in Springfield rifles but are not particularly great long-range numbers and, as previously mentioned, I hesitate to use jacketed bullets in this particular rifle. While Black Hills Ammunition’s Cowboy load featuring a 405-grain cast bullet at 1,250 fps is a good factory load for trapdoor rifles, the 500-grain cast bullets give better accuracy at longer ranges. This was certainly the case on military ranges at 600 yards and beyond, and in my rifle.

Just for clarification, +P type .45-70 ammunition that exceeds SAAMI recommended pressure limits and is loaded with cast bullets from Garrett Cartridges, Core-Bon and Buffalo Bore generate far too much pressure for use in the Springfield rifle. This leaves it to the handloader to develop either smokeless or black-powder loads with cast bullets, at least if we want to duplicate military long-range load ballistics.

After some initial accuracy testing, I settled on two bullets that included the RCBS 45-500-BPS (part 82085) and the Redding/ SAECO 881. The RCBS bullet weighs 510 grains, when cast from wheelweights and has four grease grooves and a plain base. It could almost be called a spitzer but has a small, flat nose or meplat of .145 inch. It is a beautiful bullet that has become popular with long-range black powder cartridge competitors and was designed specifically for this purpose. The SAECO bullet weighs 501 grains when cast 20 parts lead to one part tin and is, for all practical purposes, identical to the 1881-era military bullet. It features three grease grooves and a plain base. I cast my own bullets from the RCBS mould, while bullets from SAECO 881 were obtained from Mount Baldy Bullets (PO Box 835, Cody WY 82414). Both bullets were lubed with LBT Soft Blue lube when used with smokeless powder loads, and SPG lube was applied to bullets fired with black powder. All bullets were sized to .4585 inch. (Lyman mould 457125, a 500-grain bullet, is probably as close as we have to the original military bullet.)

There are many excellent smokeless powders that allow us to duplicate the velocities of the .45-70-500 loads. What is interesting about the accompanying data is that none of the loads listed exceeded 20,000 CUP and some were as low as 17,000 CUP. Low chamber pressure is something I have come to greatly appreciate in that it produces little muzzle blast, is easy on rifles and adds to reliability. To round out the shooting session, 68.0 grains of GOEX FFg black powder was loaded behind the 501-grain SAECO bullet in a Winchester case, which is compressed, and produced almost 1,300 fps.

After assembling a quantity of ammunition and sorting out the loads that were shooting best at 200 yards, I retired to a grassy plateau just north of my house with a variety of long-range targets, a Stukey’s portable shooting bench and Midway sandbags. In the morning calm, with virtually no wind, it was perfect conditions for this type of long-range testing. A distance of 600 yards was measured using a Leica Laser Rangemaster LRF 1200, and a 4x8-foot sheet of particle board faced with cardboard was set up with a target tacked on the upper half.

The first load tried consisted of the 501-grain SAECO bullet driven by 28.0 grains of Accurate Arms XMP-5744 for just over 1,300 fps. For all practical purposes, this load duplicates the original .45-70-500 black-powder load and has an extreme spread of 21 fps. After standing up the Springfield’s rear sight and elevating its “slide” so the lower peep hole was set for 600 yards, five shots were fired at a bright green diamond-shaped target that was 12 inches tall. At each shot, a large dust cloud would rise behind the 4x8-foot particle board, but I had no idea where the bullets were actually landing. After firing five shots, I let the rifle cool while I made a trip downrange. All five shots were neatly clustered into a group that measured just over 14 inches in diameter and was centered nearly 2 feet above the target. I was happy, but I also knew both the rifle and I could do better!

Next, I experimented with targets ranging from black, white and even orange that included round, square and diamond shapes. Slightly better groups were obtained with the U-notched Christmas tree sight than with the small peep. (When the front sight blade is centered perfectly in the peep hole, the top of the base can be seen, which slightly distorts the round hole sight picture.)

Accuracy with both bullets was excellent, and they each showed the potential to put 10 shots into less than 12 inches. An interesting observation, however, was that the RCBS 510-grain bullet shot several feet to the left when compared to the 501-grain SAECO bullet driven with the same powder charge. As previously mentioned, the SAECO bullet driven 1,300 fps grouped almost 2 feet high with the rear sight set at 600 yards, while the same bullet driven 1,500 fps printed several feet higher, and the sight had to be lowered to get groups on paper. (And, yes, I double-checked the distance!)

It is interesting to note that the 600-yard velocity of the 501-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 1,300 fps is 889 fps. The same bullet with a muzzle velocity of 1,500 fps drops to 943 fps at 600 yards. The point being that the load with a 200 fps muzzle velocity advantage is reduced to a mere 54 fps at 600 yards.

The trigger pull of the Springfield was heavy and no matter how much effort was put into carefully squeezing it, when it broke, it was causing the rifle to move even when held firmly on the sandbag rest. So it was adjusted before the next shooting session.

A few days later, another calm morning, a 10-shot group was fired just as the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon. Several minutes were deliberately taken between shots to allow the barrel to maintain a moderate temperature. The load consisted of 44.0 grains of Hodgdon Varget, a Winchester Large Rifle primer and the 510-grain RCBS bullet, which produced 1,508 fps. As I loaded the 10th (last) cartridge, I wondered what the group looked like and felt confident that no shots had been “pulled.” But as the last shot was fired, I knew the sights were just a whisker high when the trigger broke, and I dropped my head in disgust and waited the few seconds for the bullet to thump the wooden panel and return the report.

I made the trip to the target where one bullet struck high opening the 10-shot group to 14 3/8 inches tall, which was almost certainly the last shot fired. Without this “pulled” shot, the group measures 9 inches tall and 8 1/2 inches wide. I am satisfied this rifle will stay within 12 inches at 600 yards and will do better with continued experimenting of bullets and powder charges. In fact, I have already expanded the tests to 1,000 and 1,500 yards, but we are out of space and those results will have to wait for another day. But the fact remains, the ancient 1873 U.S. Springfield rifle really shoots, and I’m having a terrific time!

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