History is always popular with a large segment of people, and for those who are both firearms and history oriented it is only natural to try to understand the capabilities and limitations of the guns related to any given era. In fact, my own opinion is that in the modern firearms scene one of the areas of greatest growth is in actually using the older cartridge guns (and replicas thereof) in their many obsolete chamberings.
One of the causes of this was the introduction and fantastic growth of several new shooting sports. One is "cowboy" type action shooting wherein the competitors shoot single action revolvers, lever action rifles, and vintage style shotguns. This type of shooting originated in southern California in the early 1980s, but now matches are being held all over the United States and in several foreign countries. Likewise with NRA's Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette competition, which centers around precision long range shooting with single shot rifles introduced prior to 1894. The inaugural match was held at Raton, New Mexico in 1985, but now NRA sanctioned matches are being put on in dozens of locations all over the country.
Besides having a purpose for using them now, another reason for the continuing popularity of antique and obsolete firearms is that there are simply so many of them floating around. Of course many reside in collections and museums, but an enormous number are still in individuals' hands. Let's look at a few of the more popular examples. For instance most of us realize that the production of Winchester Model 94s has passed four million. But, did you also know that production of the Model 1873 lasted until 1923 and passed the 700,000 mark? The Model 1892 lasted until 1941 and over one million of those were sold. Marlin was Winchester's main competition in those days, and they likewise have sold several models of lever guns collectively numbering in the millions. The handgun situation has been similar. Since 1873 over 500,000 Colt SAAs have been made in various calibers. But did you know that over 350,000 of the double action, swing out cylinder Colt New Service revolvers were made? Smith & Wesson only produced its large frame top break single action called the Model Number 3 (made in many variations) from 1879 to 1912, but total number produced exceeded 250,000.
These are just a few samples. Don't forget that these companies also made many other models in vast numbers, and that firms such as Remington, Savage, and others were striving for their share of the market. The U.S. Government also got into the act. In the early 1900s they sold off many hundreds of thousands of rifles and carbines. These were various models of the single shot Models 1868, 1873, and 1884 trapdoor Springfield in .45-70 and .50-70 calibers, or the bolt action, box magazine .30 U.S. (.30-40 Krag) caliber Models 1892 through 1898 which are commonly called Krags. These guns were all made at the Springfield Armory and are of superb quality.
Literally millions upon millions of guns were made in the era ranging from 75 to 125 years ago. So it is no surprise that untold thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of these old guns have been handed down from generation to generation. In almost all cases, if you have them, and want to shoot them, you certainly can. Varying degrees of effort may be required depending on the exact old gun. On one end I recently worked with a Colt New Service .38-40 that needed only that I buy a box of Winchester factory ammo in order to shoot it. On the other end, my .44-77 Sharps Sporting Rifle Model 1874 was a little more difficult. I had to form cases, and have a custom bullet mould made. Probably the most extreme I have gone to was to fit a centerfire breechblock (from S-S Firearms, 74-11 Myrtle Ave., Glendale, NY 11385) to a Civil War vintage Spencer carbine in .56-50 caliber. Then cases were cut down from .50-70s, and a custom mould made. It was a lot of work but the experience of actually shooting that Civil War vintage cartridge firing carbine was worth all the trouble.
So let's assume that you have Grandpa's old Model 1895 Winchester .405, or Uncle Fred's Colt Thunderer .41, or perhaps on a whim at a gun show you picked up an old military Remington Rolling Block caliber unknown like I did one time. How do you go about putting these old guns into action once again?
Well, the very first step is to see that they are given a clean bill of health by a gunsmith, AND THAT GUNSMITH MUST BE ONE FAMILIAR WITH ANTIQUE GUNS. Safety must come first. Metallurgy during the late 1800s just was not what it is today. Steels may have become stressed with use, or some guns may have been abused in their past. DON'T SHOOT THEM UNLESS THEY ARE CHECKED!
After a gunsmith has given a firearm the go-ahead in regards to safety and functioning, there are many cases when one must still confirm exactly what caliber it is. You see, back in the old days caliber was not always marked on the gun. I guess the makers assumed the buyer would know what he was getting. For instance, Remington did not stamp their military Rolling Blocks and chambered them for many different calibers from all around the world. The Sharps Rifle Company did usually stamp caliber on top of the barrel, but often neglected to mark the case length, which in some instances could be one of three to five choices. A gunsmith can do a chamber cast on unmarked guns, which when measured will reveal exactly what cartridge is required.
How did I determine exactly what cartridge my military Remington Rolling Block was chambered for? First I drove a lead slug down the barrel and measured it. The diameter was precisely .439 inch which is correct for a .43 Spanish. Next I acquired a .43 Spanish case from a friend, loaded it with a basic charge of smokeless pistol powder, and then filled the case with corn meal. When that case was fireformed in the Remington's chamber it did not change its basic shape and confirmed that I did indeed have a .43 Spanish caliber rifle on my hands.
One factor that I would like to stress is that an old gun DOES NOT have to have a perfectly smooth, clean bore in order to shoot well. In fact not many guns that made the trip down through the decades, especially those fired often with black powder or chlorate primers, have pristine barrel interiors. However, I have seen many (and own more than a few) with less than perfect bores that shoot just fine, especially if the propellent is smokeless powder. With sharp, deep rifling accuracy will still be good despite a surprising amount of pitting.
What does surprise me is what will come out of the barrels of some old guns when cleaned properly. Recently I acquired an 1889 vintage Winchester Model 1873 rifle in .44-40 caliber for competing in "cowboy" matches. Its accuracy was only mediocre with groups running about two inches at 25 yards. As a test I hooked it up to my new Outers Foul Out Machine (P.O. Box 39, Onalaska, WI 54650) and electrically de-leaded it. Modern guns usually clean up in 30 minutes or so. This one took four hours and the lead removed could have been reused to cast, perhaps, a couple of .22 bullets! But: the very first 25 yard group I fired after treatment could be covered with a quarter.
A few days ago a fellow dropped by with a treasure someone had given him. It was a Winchester Model 1895 in .30-40 Krag caliber, but the bore looked dark and rough. In that caliber I knew the gun probably had never been fired much with lead bullets, but early .30-40 Krag ammo was famous for its copper fouling. We ran a patch soaked with Hoppe's new Bench Rest Solvent in it and let it soak while we had coffee. A half hour later the next patch came out bright green meaning that surely there was plenty of copper in there. When fully cleaned I bet that old rifle will be as accurate as ever.
Keep in mind, however, that no gun can perform any better than its ammunition will allow. When we get to the topic of ammo for old guns and calibers things can get confusing. Ammunition in a great many calibers has not been manufactured for decades. In some few instances such as .45-70, .44-40 or .38-40, factory ammo is still available. However, as it is loaded with jacketed bullets it should not be fired often in old guns lest the soft steel barrels be worn excessively.
As with having the old gun checked by a competent gunsmith WE MUST PUT THE SAFETY FACTOR FIRST HERE, followed closely by not wanting to wear out a valuable family heirloom. I want to use .44-40 caliber as an example. This cartridge was used in both rifles and handguns. During its early days the guns chambered for it were intended only for black powder, but it remained popular well into the smokeless era. For instance it was chambered in the Colt SAA model from about 1877 until 1941. However, that gun was not warranted for smokeless powders until 1900. Then, too, some guns chambered for it were of very strong design such as the Winchester Model 1892 lever action or the Model 1885 single shot, while others like the Model 1873 lever action are inherently weak.
The following is my basic rule of thumb: If the gun was intended for black powder by its maker, then that is what I use in it. If its maker knew that it would most likely be fired with smokeless loads then I feel free to go ahead and use modern smokeless propellants. Therefore, in my 1889 vintage Winchester Model 1873 I load my shells with black powder. With my 1911 vintage Colt SAA or 1914 vintage Winchester Model 1892 both also in .44-40 caliber, I feel free to use modern powders. For instance, I have found that Accurate No. 2 in a charge of 7.5 grains with 200 grain lead bullets is a finely accurate load for smokeless powder era .44-40 handguns. This load gives a velocity roughly equal to the old original black powder factory loads.
However, with none of those guns do I use jacketed bullets in any quantity because I want to minimize wear on the barrels. Cast bullets are my usual choice, but space will not allow extensive reloading details here. That may be another story someday. However, one thing should be stressed in referring to cast bullets for antique and obsolete firearms. You need to know exactly what the interior diameter of your old gun is before acquiring a bullet mould and sizing die. Old guns tend to run large in the bores compared to modern guns, and nothing in the world will shoot worse than an undersize cast bullet. For example, several reloading sources told me that my Winchester Model 1894 .38-55 required bullets of.377 inch. When I fired lead bullets of that diameter in it they merely tumbled. Then I slugged the bore to find it .379 inch across. So I ordered a new mould and a new sizing die of the proper size and instantly that old rifle became a tackdriver as I will discuss again shortly.
Now, if your old gun happens to be one originally intended for smokeless powders and jacketed bullets you will have it easy. A great many old calibers, even from the 1890s, were originally meant for jacketed bullets. The .2535, .30-30, .30 Remington, .30-40 Krag, .33 WCF, .405 WCF, and many others were introduced as jacketed bullet rounds. I have a Winchester Model 1895 in .405 WCF and a Model 1886 in .33 WCF in which I use 300 grain Barnes and 200 grain Hornady jacketed soft points respectively. Those guns were built with jacketed bullets in mind and it's OK to stick with them.
In all the handloading for, and shooting I have done with, obsolete and antique firearms, no modern smokeless propellant that I have ever tried has worked as well for me as Accurate's 5744. This easy to ignite, extruded powder has proven a natural for use in big bore cases with lead bullets. Without going to all the trouble (and sometimes dangers) of over-powder fillers or wads this powder ignites and burns cleanly in large capacity cartridges. No other smokeless powder has given me as good accuracy in say the .45-70 or .38-55, as 5744. For instance, with my above-mentioned Winchester Model 1894 .38-55 using a gas check cast bullet cast in an Old West mould over 5744 I have actually gotten five shot
100 yard groups of 1.50" and less. Sights were a tang mounted peep rear with a blade front. Accurate's 5744 is not available as of this writing but officials of the company assure me that work is progressing to offer this superlative powder for the "old" gun shooter once again.
In one respect we old-gun lovers are living in a golden era. There is so much interest now in old guns and calibers that proper reloading tools, bullet moulds, and even brass cases are in plentiful supply. On my reloading bench I have die sets for many oddball calibers such as .33 WCF, .38-55, .40-65, .40-70 Straight, .44-77, .44 American, and .50-70 Govt. made by RCBS, Redding, Lyman, Hensley & Gibbs and Rapine Associates (for about any caliber ever invented). If what you want is not a stock item for the above companies then outfits such as Hoch Moulds, (P.O. Box 138, Fruita, CO 81521) and Old West Moulds (P.O. Box 519, Flora Vista, NM 87415) will make anything you desire.
However, one thing that is a necessity for shooting the old timers is the brass case. The really lucky fellows are the ones who want to shoot guns for which brass is still made like .3840, .44-40, .38-55, or .45-70. You can even get new .50-70 cases from Dixie Gun Works. Next lucky are the ones wanting to shoot guns whose brass can be made from other existing cases. You can squeeze down .45-70s to make .40-65s, .38-56s, and .33 WCFs. You can even cut off .41 Magnum cases to make brass for the .44 S&W American. These are only samples; dozens of cases can be made from others.
A few years ago if you couldn't form existing cases to fit your old gun, you were just out of luck. But, about a dozen years ago the firm of Brass Extrusion Laboratories, Limited (B.E.L.L.) came to our aid. They began making a line of "basic" brass from which many old calibers could be formed. Their Basic .43 case could make .43 Spanish, .44-77s, and .44-90s. Their Basic .405 case could be made into .405 WCF, .40-50, .40-70, and .40-90 Sharps straight cases. About 1989 B.E.L.L. was absorbed by the PMC Corporation and as of now their situation is unclear.
However, we are not totally without cases for our old guns. A firm from Australia called
Bertram Bullet Co. PTY, Ltd. (P.O. Box 313, Seymour, 3660, Victoria, Australia) is entering the market with enthusiasm. Bertram is making several sorts of "basic" brass, but to my unrestrained joy that company is going two steps further. They are making ready to load cases in a wide variety of old calibers, and, these cases are headstamped to the specific caliber. Now, for the first time in decades one can buy brass marked .40-82, or .30-56, or .45-90, etc. I have been using Bertram brass by the hundreds for reloading such calibers as .40-70 Sharps Straight, .40-65, .40-82, .41 Long Colt, .45-90, and .50-70. Overall I give Bertram good marks. For example, some of the .405 WCF cases which I reformed to .40-70 Sharps Straight caliber have been fired over 50 times and are still going strong. There were some bugs at first, especially in regards to consistency, but my most recent batches have been just fine. Bertram brass is imported by Huntington (P.O. Box 991, Oroville, CA 94965), or The Old Western Scrounger (12924 Highway A-12, Montague, CA 96064). From the reports I hear at this writing interest in obsolete calibers is so strong that several other companies are considering getting into the antique cartridge case business.
A question I am often asked by people preparing to put their old guns into use again is, "How well will it shoot?" Of course that depends on the condition of the gun and the quality of the ammo it is fed. Another point I want to stress, however, is that the old cartridge guns we are discussing here were made in an era when quality of manufacture was taken for granted. Just because a gun was made a long time ago doesn't mean it will barely be able to hit a barn. Some of them, when handled properly, will beat a great many modern guns hands down. My original .44-77 Sharps will group five shots into less than 3" at 100 yards. My Winchester Model 1895 .405 WCF will do likewise. Remember, these rifles aren't carrying scopes either. I recently test fired a S&W #3 .44 Russian of 1870s vintage which would group five shots into 1.50" at 25 yards. Modern guns in modern calibers may shoot bullets faster and at flatter trajectories, but your old guns will give them a hard run in terms of accuracy.
If you are interested in getting an old gun back into play, there are several items of read ing material I would like to recommend. A must is Cartridges of the World by Frank C. Barnes, published by DBI Books (4092 Commercial Avenue, Northbrook, IL 60062). This reference gives history and specifications for most old calibers. It is a must when trying to sort out which old cartridge your gun might be chambered for. For the lever action lover, there is The Winchester Lever Legacy by Clyde Williamson (3145 Church St., Zachary, LA 70791). Clyde gives firsthand experience on reloading for most of the obsolete model Winchesters. Also, there's the SPG Lubricant's BP Cartridge Reloading Primer (P.O. Box 761, Livingston, MT 59047) by myself and partner Steve Garbe. This is a 116-
page soft cover book detailing reloading with black powder and cast bullets for over 20 different single shot cartridges.
Well, I think I've gotten the point across. Old guns are simply fun. They can be reloaded for and shot with safety IF THE SHOOTER WILL TAKE THE PROPER PRECAUTIONS BEFORE PUTTING THEM TO USE. By experiencing them as the early pioneers did, we shooters who are interested in history can gain some perspective of what life was like over 100 years ago.
— Mike Venturino
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