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Blasts from the Past

Blasts from the Past

Hunting with blackpowder cartridge rifles links us to a fascinating time in U.S. history.

By Dave Henderson

The two hunters, bent in stealth, padded down the winding, dry creek wash for more than a mile before stopping to get their gear in order for the final stage — climbing a crumbling wall to the prairie floor above.

One hunter pulled two .45-70 cartridges from his pants pocket and placed them in a vest pocket before adjusting the tang sight of his octagon-barreled rifle. He nodded his sweat-stained cowboy hat in affirmation of his readiness, and the pair scrambled up the steep wall.

At the top of the wash, the rolling Wyoming prairie will stretch out before them. Hopefully, a herd of pronghorns will be bedded nearby.

It was a scene right out of the 1870s: rolling grasslands and coulees stretching in all directions, not a fence, power pole or silo in sight. It would have been easy to imagine a herd of buffalo grazing nearby, or maybe a Cheyenne village with teepees in the distance.

At least, it might have been imaginable if I didn’t mention the hunters were wearing blaze-orange vests over their camo clothing and carrying replica blackpowder-cartridge rifles.

“The herd should be right above us,” said guide Scott Denny, who was born in the 1970s, not the 1870s. “It’s probably a little over 100 yards. Look for the buck on the far left when we get up there.”

Two pronghorn does abruptly appeared when we were within 30 yards of the rim. Looking down at us, the does were just curious, but that curiosity could easily be traded for a 60-mph escape at any second.

It was a “make your move or forget it” moment. Denny and I rose to our knees for a look and spotted antler tips to the left of the does. That’s our buck.

Focusing a laser rangefinder on the buck, Denny dragged the hunt a little farther out of the 19th century.

“The distance is 114 yards, but he’s not as big as I thought,” said Scott, a longtime friend and owner of Table Mountain Outfitters out of Cheyenne, Wyo.

Well, that’s his tough luck; he’s not going to get any older. I placed the sight’s 100-yard graduation on the buck’s shoulder and applied steady pressure to the trigger.

There was a delay between the rifle’s report and the sound of the 300-grain .45-70 bullet striking home. The buck shuddered, took two stumbling steps backward and collapsed.

Blasts from the PastScott’s assessment had been correct; the buck’s near-14-inch antlers were typical for the area, but we wouldn’t be checking the record books for comparison. But that didn’t matter. The pursuit had been a culmination in itself; the shot simply punctuation.

Long enamored of old-style hunting on the Western prairies, I’d taken several pronghorns, muleys, whitetails and even a buffalo with sidehammer and modern inline muzzleloading rifles. But this was my first time hunting with a breech-loading blackpowder cartridge gun. The heft, feel and accuracy of the rolling block rifle, combined with the aesthetics of the hunt, were everything I’d imagined.

It’s not that I didn’t have experience with old-time breechloaders; I just hadn’t hunted with them.

The handsome, accurate Rolling Block Target rifle I used in the opening scenarios was a replica gun made for Cabelas by Davide Pedersoli & Co. That gun is no longer available, but the company’ builds Sharps and rolling blocks for Navy Arms, Cimmaron Firearms and others.

The Sharps Model 1874 is one of the best-known firearms in U.S. history — and surely the most recognizable American firearm made in the least numbers. The Sharps Co. operated from 1871 to 1880, building approximately 12,000-13,000 rifles in a variety of styles.

The Sharps become the runaway favorite of buffalo hunters, with the Winchester High Wall single shot  a distant second. The end of the Civil War was also the end of military ordnance contracts, a fact that left Remington Arms in a precarious financial position. But it was military contracts for the Model 1 action in the late 1860s that saved Remington from fiscal ruin, as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Egypt, Spain and later dozens of other countries ordered millions for their armies.

Barrel length was a prime consideration, given the long burn rate of blackpowder. The Sharps factory charged $1 per inch of barrel over 30 inches and a dollar per pound over 12 inches. In 1878, the base model Sharps with a 30-inch barrel sold for $38. That same year, a standard Remington Model 1 with a 26-inch barrel cost $30.

The rolling block’s reputation was forged in the cauldron of war. Leonard Geiger patented the action in 1863, Remington’s Joseph Rider redesigned it and entered the gun production in 1865, well after Lee surrendered his sword at Appomattox.

Subscribe Today!What made the rolling block so popular was its simplicity. It was rugged and had very few moving parts. Even the rawest conscript could quickly learn how to use it. The lockwork is contained inside the action rather on the side. The semi-circular breech block pivoted on a large pin, hence the “rolling block” appellation.

The shooter cocks the hammer, rolls the semi-circular breechblock out of the way, inserts the cartridge in the exposed chamber, and closes the breech block. When triggered, the hammer not only strikes the firing pin, but also progressively cams under the breechblock, locking it in place at the moment of discharge.

The main parts, the hammer and the breech block, are massive and rotate on large pins. Such a simple design, combined with today’s tight tolerances, excellent steels and modern heat treating, make the Pedersolis rolling blocks  high-quality working firearms rather than just replicas. Be advised that versions of these all are priced deep into four figures, but you do get what you pay for.

With our pronghorn tags filled the first day and the bucks at meat processors, Tony and I spent the next two days wandering the rolling plains, popping jackrabbits with the 19th century guns. We connected with amazing regularity at short and long range, thanks to the guns’ precise sights and long, heavy barrels. It quickly became evident why prairie hunters of the 1800s were so effective, and what fun they must have had.

Reprinted from the November 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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