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American Rifle
Rifle Magazine
January - February 2005
Volume 3, Number 1
Number 13
On the cover...
Cover photo Donald M. Jones Quail inset by George Barnett
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America’s largest mammal is surrounded by myth, legend, emotion and controversy. It is not even what it is commonly called. It is actually a bison, but for hundreds of years, Americans have called it the buffalo. If you go to a large gun show and see a collection of big-bore, nineteenth-century, single-shot rifles displayed, their owners will not label them “bison rifles.” They are “buffalo rifles.”

At one time bison were the most plentiful game animal in America. Estimates of their population in the mid-1800s range from tens of millions to over 100,000 million. Vintage accounts tell of the prairies of Kansas, Texas, Nebraska or the Dakotas being black with them. It was said that early trains crossing the region sometimes had to stop for hours or days while herds drifted
across the tracks.

Whatever the exact case, the truth is there were indeed enormous herds of buffalo in the American West. Yet by 1888 an English magazine, London Field, printed its own survey that estimated just 1,300 bison still existed “worldwide.”

Their demise can be attributed to many factors: greed and ignorance on the one hand and practicality on the other. The ignorance is typified by killing for the simple sake of killing. For some reason the sight of those amazingly large herds triggered a killer instinct in some so-called “sportsmen.” Usually these were wealthy Europeans, who felt that killing 100 or more buffalo in a day could not make a dent in the vast herds.

The Indians were not blameless either, despite what modern political correctness preaches. They often killed more than could be used when entire buffalo herds were stampeded off cliffs, killing far more animals than they could haul away. In 1876 as General Crook’s U.S. Army detachment crossed northern Wyoming to their famous Battle of the Rosebud, many officers and men were distressed to watch their large force of Crow and Shoshone auxiliaries kill hundreds of buffalo and leave them to rot.

Greed as a factor in the buffalo’s demise came with the hide hunters. Around 1870 a process for making quality leather from buffalo hides was developed. The leather thus produced was strong and long lasting. It was perfect for items such as drive belts to run machinery in large eastern factories and even the leather springs that softened the ride of that era’s stagecoaches. The British army relied on buffalo leather accouterments for 20 years.

Previously buffalo hides while in prime had been harvested for tanning to make lap robes for winter travel and sleeping robes in cold climates, but summer hides had been considered worthless. When a buffalo had been killed for meat, the hide had been discarded. With the advent of the new leather tanning process, the hide became valuable and the meat nearly worthless. This came at a time when a cowboy out West made about $1.00 a day, or back East a skilled craftsman at the Sharps Rifle Company was paid $3.50 for a 10-hour day. Therefore, the price of $3.00 to $4.00 for each prime hide, with the possibility of taking dozens or even scores in a day, can be seen as a lure for those who were otherwise unable to advance beyond common wages.

Practicality as a factor in the buffalo’s demise came from those whose vision went far beyond making money. They were the men who knew that for the United States to become a great nation, the plains had to be settled by farmers, and no one was going to prosper by farming with millions of buffalo trampling their crops. Also, not too many farmers were going to settle in lands where the Plains Indian tribes roamed wild.

The Plains Indian culture was not only based on buffalo as a staple, but also on war and raiding as manly occupations. A warrior could gain prestige in his tribe only in two ways – by excelling as a fighter or by stealing horses. Neither endeavor was likely to make life easy for farmers. Those with a vision of seeing the United States extend as one nation from coast to coast perceived a simple solution to the problem – get rid of the buffalo. Without them Plains Indians could not be self-sufficient, and farmers could plant crops unmolested by millions of hooves.

Even though the great buffalo slaughter of the 1870s was decried as it was happening, not much was done to stop it. In 1874 the U.S. Congress passed a bill forbidding the killing of buffalo for any purpose other than food gathering. President Grant did not sign it into law and several western state legislatures passed similar bills
during the decade, but little if anything was done to enforce their laws.

One of the myths surrounding the great buffalo is that they were exterminated by men who were at the same time both expert marksmen and the dregs of society. That is not 100 percent accurate on either count. While it may be true that no one succeeded as a buffalo hunter by being a miserable marksman, many began that way. In research done for my book Shooting Buffalo Rifles of the Old West, I came across a book titled The Border and the Buffalo by John R. Cook. The author admitted to missing every shot on his first day of hunting. Upon returning to camp, someone pointed out that his rifle’s front sight was loose in its dovetail and just about ready to fall out. In his inexperience, he had not noticed. On another occasion, Cook said he fired .44-caliber cartridges in his .50-caliber rifle and, of course, hit nothing then either. However, it was a case of either learn what you are doing or find another endeavor, and many buffalo hunters did become excellent marksmen, even if they did not start out that way.

Neither were they all the dregs of society, even though most modern literature or cinematic portrayals depict them as such. With their camps being on the prairie for months at a time and in handling raw hides daily, it is easy to imagine that when a buffalo hunting outfit pulled into a railhead in the fall, they looked pretty rough.

The truth, however, is that buffalo hunters were a cross section of American life in the 1870s. There were northerners and southerners and many emigrants from Europe. Almost all were young. As an example, one of the best known was Billy Dixon. Born in 1850 in what is now West Virginia, he quit his successful buffalo hunting business at age 24 and became an army scout. In that service he won the Medal of Honor. In later life he was a rancher, farmer, storekeeper and postmaster.

One of the later buffalo hunters, Robert Loren Chambers, entered the profession for the express purpose of making enough money to attend college. His experiences were in eastern Montana with what was considered the “northern herd,” and he hunted only 40 days, taking about 20 skins a day. He used the money to attend Wesleyan Univer-sity in Bloomington, Illinois, and spent his life as a lawyer in Kansas and Colorado.

Also worthy of note is the fact that to become a buffalo hunter one had to have some means to begin with. Besides a rifle and ammunition, a prospective buffalo hunter had to put together an “outfit.” Such consisted of tents, camp equipage, mules, horses and supplies. Perhaps most expensive of all were the wagons needed to pack the outfit about. And a buffalo hunter couldn’t do all the work himself; skinners and camp tenders were needed also.

Still there was money to be made in the profession, especially in the early days of the great hide hunt. One man named Bill James put together a large outfit in 1871. He hired another man to hunt, and a half-dozen others for skinning and camp chores. James brought in over 10,000 hides that summer, and even after paying off all debts and his help, he had $20,000 left for himself.

Without a doubt a buffalo hunter’s primary piece of equipment was his rifle or rifles. Experienced hunters had spares. For instance, hunter O.P. Hanna wrote that when he first met another well-known buffalo hunter named Jim White, the latter had three 16-pound, .50-caliber Sharps rifles in his wagon.

What exactly would constitute a buffalo rifle? Of course, any one used to kill the huge beasts was in reality a “buffalo rifle,” and there is no doubt that buffalo were sometimes killed by Henry or Win-chester repeating rifles. Still it must be recognized that despite movie portrayals, such as the one in Dances with Wolves, such were miserable excuses for buffalo rifles.

A full-grown bison bull can top a ton, and the hide over some parts of the body is fully an inch thick. A .44 Henry rimfire cartridge with 200-grain bullet at only about 1,100 fps or even the .44 WCF (.44-40) with 200-grain bullet at 1,300 fps was a puny choice, and writings left by those literate fellows out on the buffalo ranges in the 1870s didn’t hesitate to say so.

There can be no doubt that the professional hunter was best served by the big-bore, single-shot rifles of his day. The primary rifle used by professionals was the Sharps, which eventually came to be designated Model 1874, even though it was introduced in 1871. A distant second would have been the Remington Rolling Block No. 1. Remington produced its rifle in a wide variety of chamberings, both rimfire and centerfire, from .38 up to .50 caliber. The Sharps Rifle Company made its Model 1874 in bore sizes of .40, .44, .45 and .50 caliber in at least a dozen different lengths and shapes of cartridges.

What Remington had to say about cartridges for buffalo hunting in its 1877 catalog is interesting: “To all classes of hunting rifles previous remarks apply, except for Buffalo and other wild game usually hunted for their hides and fur. For such a heavier ball is necessary. For this purpose the .44 cal. 77 grain; .45 cal. 70 grains; or .50 cal. 70 grains are best suited. These should be centre-fire, on account of the convenience in reloading in the woods. The barrel ought to be not less than 30 inches to 34 inches in length, and the weight of the rifle not less than 10 to 12 pounds.”

The same thing could be said for Sharps rifles, plus the fact that set triggers (double set types in Sharps and single set in Remingtons) were also very popular. Factory records for the Sharps company still exist, and researchers have determined that up to 1876 the .44-77 cartridge was most popular followed by .50-70. After 1876 the .45-70 was tops.

Readers today may be both interested and surprised to find that virtually any style or caliber of Sharps Model 1874 or Remington Rolling Block No. 1 that saw use on the buffalo prairies is being reproduced by one or more companies today.

Although by the mid-1800s the vast herds of the great plains had disappeared, the American buffalo was not completely extinct. Some were kept on private ranches, and there was a small but significant herd sheltered in Yellowstone National Park. From those there has been a resurgence of the buffalo as a game animal in the United States, but it has not been without controversy.

In the 1980s, Montana had a season for buffalo on a drawing basis, the purpose of which was to cull the animals exiting Yellowstone Na-tional Park. That hunt was eventually shut down by well-meaning but ignorant activists from all over the nation. The simple truth was that, in the early part of the twentieth century, the National Park Service in Yellowstone ranched the buffalo to increase their numbers, which they did until the Park herds became too numerous for the amount of grazing available.

When buffalo left the Park it was due to hunger, and the folks of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Depart-ment of the state of Montana did what any thinking people do when a herd grows too large. They culled it. The animal activists who objected to those “buffalo hunts” (actually controlled shoots) did not seem to realize that stopping the hunts and hazing the animals back into the Park only sentenced them to a slow death by starvation.

The reason I make such definite statements about the matter is that at that time my residence was only a couple hundred yards away from the Park’s northern boundary. While people as far away as New York felt they should have a say in preserving one of America’s natural treasures, we who lived in the area saw that the wisdom of correcting the National Park Service’s mistakes would result in a healthier buffalo herd.

Now, in the early years of the twentieth-first century, buffalo ranching has become so popular that the price of the animals is very low, and private hunts have become common. These range from pathetic excuses for hunting – where the animal is kept in a corral until the day of the hunt and then released into relatively small pastures – to actual free-chase hunts on huge tracts of land.

Buffalo that have been raised and live in close proximity to humans can appear very docile. For 13 seasons I worked in one or another capacity in Yellowstone National Park and saw buffalo on almost a daily basis. Generally they stood around calmly letting people photograph them from short ranges. Usually they ignored the crowds, but occasionally one would rampage, injuring or even killing the tourists.

From my exposure to buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, my opinion was that they were poor excuses for game animals. My feeling was that we are supposed to hunt, not just shoot some critter that stands blithely there and allows itself to be killed. Their meat can be wonderful, and I could see the purpose in culling them for that reason, but to call it hunting seemed a bit strange.

But, like so many others, my opinion was based on limited information such as what I had witnessed in controlled settings like Yellowstone National Park. I had never seen buffalo in conditions where they mostly see humans who are about to shoot at them. That was until early 2001 when I was invited to hunt on the Sandhills Ranch Properties of Nebraska. The amount of land in that endeavor amounts to some 200,000 acres with some individual pastures being 10,000 acres. Their buffalo are wild, only handled by humans as young calves, when they are vaccinated for disease, and never fed supplementary food during the winter. They are wild animals and behave as such.

The first time I hunted buffalo there, my guide and I crawled in the snow to a small rise, and he peeked over and then quickly ducked back down. I honestly thought he was putting on a show for my benefit, because from my own experience with buffalo, I felt you could stand up and do jumping-jacks without disturbing one. How wrong I was! When I stuck the top of my head over the rise, that bull saw me from 100 or so yards away and left at a dead run. I was stunned, and before my hunting partner and I could connect with two bulls on that hunt, we spent more time on our bellies in the snow.

The next year I returned to shoot a cow buffalo for meat and was again amazed by their wildness and even more so by their toughness. Once while trying to find the small herd we intended to take cows from, they spotted our SUV from about a mile away in that open sandhills country. The entire herd left in a rush.

On that trip there were four in our party intending to shoot three cows and a bull. All of us spent considerable time on our bellies in the snow and sand in order to get close enough for a shot with one sort or another of a Shiloh Sharps rifle. Also I saw well-shot cow buffalo stand docilely showing no sign that a 500-grain slug had just passed through its vitals. The bull that was shot actually took a .50-caliber, 650-grain bullet through the spine without it touching the spinal cord itself. That critter walked over five miles before the hunter and guide found it and finished the job. (Remember, I said this was a free-chase place.) We know the bullet hit the spine because the bull was sectioned in half afterwards and the bullet’s path traced.

Literature left by original buffalo hunters refer to the lung shot as being best because an animal that can’t breath well can’t run well. They said a heart shot animal would run upon being hit and perhaps cause a stampede, which in turn caused them to lose their “stand.” That’s not a factor today, and the heart shot is perhaps the best option. Lung-shot animals may not leave, but they will brace their feet and soak up a lot of lead before dropping.

One thing that modern buffalo hunters must beware of is that often the buffalo rancher knows little or nothing about rifles. Stories abound of ranchers only familiar with scope-sighted rifles telling hunters armed with iron-sighted, vintage-style black powder cartridge rifles to only take neck or head shots. Then a poor hit results in an all-day chase. The hunter armed with a vintage-type rifle is far better served with shots in the heart/lung area.

At this writing my meat supply is getting low, so by the time this article is in print, I will have visited the Sandhills Ranch Properties again to hunt buffalo. This time the rifle of choice will be an original Sharps .45-70 that is documented to have been sold to a hardware store in Dodge City, Kansas, in the 1870s. I doubt this will be the first time its sights have rested on buffalo.

Big Game Rifle
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