Gaining respect for the .50/70 Government

by Gary R. Griffin

An early morning chill made me shiver as I clutched the cold steel barrel of the Garrett Arms 50/70 Sharps Carbine. The late November Anterless Deer hunt had begun and I was waiting for my two hunting partners to appear. The cool morning breeze ceased as the sun finally peaked over the ridge top, allowing the temperature to climb all the way up to 48 degrees - not bad for the southern Utah mountains during that time of year.

“It’s about time.” I said as they reached the spot I had been sitting in for a good forty-five minutes.

“No movement at all down below,” was the reply after a brief pause to catch a breath.

The warmer - than - usual weather would have allowed the deer the remain at the higher altitudes. We then moved on up the ridge into the aspens and out of the pinion-juniper. My two buddies harassed me again about my “poor choice of weapons.” To my recollection, one of them made a statement that it should be unlawful to hunt with such an antiquated reminder of bygone days.

“ It will only be successful in scaring the deer into the next county where our permits won’t be valid,” was their comment.

They felt confident toting their telescopic 30-06's sighted in to zero at 200 yards, requiring a slight holdover to reach clear out to 400. On the other hand, my Sharps 50/70 would printing dead center at 100 yards and required the same holdover to hit 150 yards. Knowing this, I felt myself at no less disadvantage. I had owned the carbine ever since I ordered it from my Dad’s store some 10 years earlier out of Shotgun News. Since that time, I have fired hundreds of rounds through her. I knew exactly how she’d perform.

During the early 1970's while attending High School, I became fascinate with the Indian War period and Old West cartridges. I originally wanted a carbine in .45/70, but as they were sold out, I opted for the .50/70. I didn’t know much about the 50/70 and wasn’t so sure I’d made a good choice, but after finding that it was the most common chambering, I was elated.

Shortly after the Civil War, the U.S. military had an extreme quantity of left over muzzle loading muskets. By this time, metallic cartridges had made the muzzle-loaders obsolete. The war debt had taken it’s toll on the economy and so the Springfield Armory was given the task to develop a single-shot breech loader utilizing as many musket parts as possible. E.S. Allen, the Master Armorer, devised a way to mill the lower section of the .58 caliber barrels and added a breech that pivoted to allow insertion of a cartridge. These first conversions were known as the model 1865 and chambered a .58 caliber rimfire metallic cartridge. After the decision was made to move toward center-fire priming, the bore was reduced to .50 caliber via a liner brazed into the .58 caliber barrels. Thus the .50/70 cartridge was born which used 70 grains of FG black powder and a 450 grain lead slug. This model was called the 1866 Springfield.

Sometime in 1868, the Ordnance Department reviewed the 1866 Springfield and made improving suggestions. One suggestion was to attach a separate receiver on to a threaded barrel. The breach block to simplified and a graduated leaf slide rear sight was added. Barrels from this point on would be newly manufactured for the .50/70.

The last change was that the barrel as well as the stock was shortened from the former three-band musket to a two-bander with a barrel of only 32 2 inches. Further improvements would eventually develop into the famed .45/70 trapdoor that saw service as the military long arm for over twenty years. However, for a few years the .50/70 reigned king.

Beside Springfield, other arms makers like C. Sharps, Remington and Winchester capitalize on the new “improved” .50/70 by chambering many of their to except the cartridge. In the case of Winchester, they came out with a .50/110 which was nothing more than a glorified .50/70. The .50/70 was the basis of all the larger .50 Sharps rounds used during the hay day of the buffalo hunters.

During the early 1870's the Sharps .50/70 carbine was the standard in the U.S. Cavalry. It was a strong, reliable arm that was suited for horseback. My Garrett Arms reproduction is very nicely created utilizing a milled out block steel instead of being a cast. This method is much more stronger and gives up to an attractive case hardening. The nicely blued barrel and case hardened frame match nicely with the wood. My only reservation being that the arm is no longer reproduced. Luckily, I had ordered some replacement mainsprings and other small replacement parts before the company went out of business.

Factory ammunition for the .50/70 hasn’t been available for 60 years or better, so I ordered a mold from Dixie Gun Works. It was a copy of a bullet found on a battle field and reproduce by the company at Union City. Dixie also sent me twenty brass cases that set me back a buck apiece. I was also able to find a set of dies made by Lyman for a reasonable price. This completed, all my reloading needs for the time being was met. Plumbers lead was plentiful as was fuel for my gas stove so I set to work feverishly trying to fashion some acceptable projectiles. It took some time before both temperature and mold were hot enough to throw clean, wrinkle free bullets. After I counted out 20 or 30 good ones, I shut off the stove and retired to the reloading bench. Reloading for this old timer was a dream. Up to now, I had been used to the small caliber, bottlenecked cases of my Dad’s .270, or my brother’s .300 Savage.

Not having any data at my disposal for reloading the .50/70, I did know enough about early cartridge nomenclature to put 70 grains of FFG black powder in the case. To my surprise, it filled the shell almost to the top. Not wanting to chance skyrocketing myself through the roof in the attempt to compress the charge, I back down to 60 grains and capped it off with the 422 grain slug previously hand lubricated with Alox bullet lube. I marveled at the size and inherent beauty of the completed specimen ( they reminded me of miniature howitzer shells).

Excitement overwhelmed me and after 20 rounds were completed, I grabbed the gun and the car keys and was off to the old dump. The old dump was where we did most of our range shooting, and because of all the old junk lying around, we were never in want of something to shoot at. It was located only five minutes down a dirt road from my house ( a luxury I took for granted as now I have to drive a good half hour away from the city each way).

Pacing off a 100 yards, I let the first round fly. It didn’t kick nearly as much as I suspected! Part of it may have been because I didn’t know what to expect, or it may have been because my eyes were screwed shut. Anyway, I not only missed the target, but the whole cardboard freezer box the target was affixed to. Careful scrutiny found a large “furrow” in the dirt just left and about 3 feet low of the box. Tapping the front sight the proper direction, I settled down for round number two. This one did strike the box in the bottom left hand corner. Soon, I had it hitting with some consistently just below the black. The best three-shot group I could muster was about seven inches. I couldn’t have been more excited if I had shot sub 2” groups with my scoped .308 Winchester. Later load experimentation would have that group down around 3 inches. One nice thing about the .511 inch slug was the fact that I usually could see the hole in the paper without running up to the target.

It’s been 16 years since that summer day with the Sharps out at the old dump, and I have tried loads using black powder, smokeless and a mixture of both (or duplex loads as the reloading books call them). My overall favorite is 28 grains of IMR 4198 (Lyman lists 30 grains as maximum and I always stay about 10% under) with a 2 grain Dacron wad shoved over it to keep the powder sitting on the primer. To this is added the Dixie 422 grain Indian war slug. Velocity is supposed to be around 1250 fps, but I can only muster up about 1150. This loading is so accurate that I haven’t bothered to beef up the velocity. Switching to black powder, 65 grains will boost you over the 1200 fps mark, but I can’t group any tighter than about six inches. For those of you who might like to experiment with a mixture, be extra careful. Too much smokeless will get you in trouble fast. Start out low and carefully work up watching for any sudden boosts in velocity, recoil or primer “flattening”. Lyman advertises a load of 7 grains of SR 4759 beneath 63 grains of FFG. This was a bit to Ahot” for my liking, as I never exceed 5 grains and usually stick with 4 and about 60 grains of FFG. Average velocity for this load was about 1200. Groups were still around six to seven inches, but I did notice that the spent cases were not nearly as dirty as with straight black powder. I like this load when shooting with my Indian War Purists who like to see the smoke billow from the muzzle. I’ve never been much of a fan of Pyrodex based on the fact that my muzzle loader is a flintlock, but it does work equally as well as black powder with about the same clean-up as the duplex loads. I have found that Pyrodex works very well in all my black powder cartridge rifles.

I have a friend that works locally at Barnes Bullets. He gave me a couple of boxes of .510 jacketed soft points for use in loading the Winchester .50/110. They are only 300 grains, but shoot well. I tested them with 32 grains of IMR 4198 for approximately 1500 feet per second. I also like 39 grains of IMR 3031 for a velocity of 1460 feet per second. I would only suggest that this loading be used in replicas where modern steel is used. I wouldn’t shoot too many of them in an original 1868 Trapdoor. The old barrels are just too soft. Besides, I’m a purest at heart and the sight of a .50/70 case with a jacketed bullet stuck in it just doesn’t look right. The IMR 3031 loading gave me the best grouping at just under 2 2 inches for three shots.

I always make sure that any load for the Sharps carbine is ballistically safe and sound to chamber and fire in my original 1868 Springfield. I don’t want to ruin an old relic nor myself by accidentally loading a hot one. This is a good rule to live by in the event you have two or more rifles of various age and strength.

The Springfield, which according to serial number, was made early in 1870, is in excellent condition. There is very little pitting on the metal, no major dings in the stock, and the bore is mirror bright. I haven’t owned this beauty nearly as long as the Sharps, but have already grown quite attached to it. With any of the before mentioned loads, the longer barrel shoots an average of fifty feet per second faster.

One duplex loading I liked for the Springfield was 4 grains of Hercules Green Dot over the primer with 50 grains of FFG. I always use a wad with a duplex load loaded with less than 60 grains of black powder. This is because of the possibility that the smokeless and black powder might mix during the normal transport of the ammunition. This loading produced a velocity of about 1200 fps, the original velocity for the cartridge. I started out with 62 grains of FFG over 6 grains of Green Dot, which chronographed at 1410 fps, a little too hot. Twenty-eight grains of IMR 4198 shot well with an average group size of 4 inches (3 shots). Part of the reason for the larger group was due to the front sight being quite a bit thicker than the fine German silver on the Sharps carbine. The sight was purposely large because it also doubled as the bayonet lug, which secured the blade tightly to the barrel. At a hundred yards, the front sight completely covered the black on the target. Although various hardness of lead performed well in the reproduction Sharps, the Springfield liked a diet of soft lead. The softer lead would swell to fill the three shallow, wide groves necessary to accurately spin the bullet. I did shoot a couple of jacketed, 300 grain Barnes bullets down the bore, a habit I don’t want to get into, just to see what would happen. They grouped good enough for hunting, but printed about a foot high. All in all, I was pleased with the 128 year old Indian War veteran.

Velocity around 1200 fps may seem slow by today’s standards, but these large, lead slugs pack mega- momentum. On one occasion, I was out cutting wood for my father. During a water break, I pulled the Sharps carbine out and fired into one of the spruce rounds expecting to recover the slug for inspection. To my surprise, the slug went clean through more than a foot of solid spruce and across the flat into a nearby hillside. From then on, I gained a lot of respected for the penetrating ability of the .50/70 and those large, heavy bullets. I wouldn’t hesitate in the least to use it on game heavier than deer at short range.

As the subject is back to deer, I will continue my hunting story. Three O’clock that afternoon found me trudging across ravine after ravine chasing three does who seemed to know I had a shorter range weapon in hand. My companions had already filled their tags, which only amplified the ridicule I was receiving. I took it all in stride knowing full well that sooner or later I would find one within the range of the old .50/70. One of them came upon me lying on my stomach watching several does grazing in a field some 250 yards off.

“Come on, try a shot,” he said, wanting me to hurry and fill my tag so he return to town and a hot meal. I smiled knowing that it would be pure luck to hit one and an insult to the creatures to even try.

“Here, take my rifle and shoot one,” he begged, but I declined.

It wasn’t that the rifle wouldn’t kill cleanly at that range, or that the bullet wouldn’t carry the distance, but rather the fact that a 422 grain slug traveling the speed of sound has a rather curved trajectory - not unlike the arc created by throwing a baseball. Even though my pet came with a graduated, ladder rear sight, I would have to guess the range within + or - 25 yards to score a hit. Picking myself from off the rock, I agreed to go back to town. I’ll come back tomorrow and finish the hunt by myself.

I did not have to wait until the next day. As we were driving back down the dusty road, three does jumped down off the hill and disappeared in the ravine below. Knowing the road looped around to where the deer were running, we circled to the top and I got out of the pickup. Sticking three shells between my fingers ( a practice extremely common among soldiers 125 years ago), I levered the action of the Sharps, jammed a shell in and waited. The wait wasn’t long. The lead doe emerged from out of the ravine very much surprised to see me. Whirling, I fired. The doe went down as if struck by lightning at a range of about 30 yards. The heavy, lead slug struck her in the neck, traveled completely through her body and angled up and out her back just behind the last rib. The 422 grain slug also struck a 2 inch branch on a nearby tree, severing it completely. As I was cleaning the carcass, the spent bullet, which had lost only 10 grains of it’s original weight (I put in on the scales when I returned home), was lying nearby on the ground.

Yes, I bypassed the .308 in my gun cabinet and went straight for the Sharps. I had faith in her ability to bring home the bacon and she has yet to disappoint me weather on the shooting range or in the field. My two hunting companions didn’t bother me anymore after seeing the ease of which the Sharps carbine dropped the deer. I could tell they were developing somewhat more respect for the old - time cartridge by they way it was being eyed over on the way back home. I think the hunting world puts too much emphases on trying to choose the best optics, or the fastest - sub minute - of - angle weapons. Instead, I prefer returning to the basics.

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