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American Rifle
Rifle Magazine
March - April 1999
Volume 31, Number 2
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 182
On the cover...
The Remington Model 700LSS (Laminated Stock, Stain
Rifle Magazine
Rifle Magazine Wolfe Publishing Company
Rifle Magazine Featured Articles
Table of Contents
Product Tests
What's New
Rifle Magazine
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
.44 WCF.

Mike Venturino

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 devised.

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 National Championship.

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.

In 1990 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 popularity.

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 rifle.

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 rifles.

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.

Black Powder 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.

Makers of BPCR Silhouette Rifles

As 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.

Several 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 request.

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.

Big Game Rifle
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