Wolfe Publishing Group

    Starting Out with the .50-70

    The .50-70 is old, very historical and easy to get along with.
    The .50-70 is old, very historical and easy to get along with.
    We could say that a lot of things started with the .50-70. Born in 1866, it was our country’s first centerfire cartridge in general use by our military, and it served our nation officially until it was replaced by the .45-70. The .45-70, of course, was introduced in 1873 but a lot of .50-70s remained “on duty” in the field for several years afterward. All of this time it was well-recognized as a sporting cartridge and is credited with taking a leading role in the buffalo harvest, especially during the early 1870s. Some noted historical figures selected the .50-70 as their personal choice, “Buffalo Bill” Cody and George Armstrong Custer being among them. Today the .50-70 seems to be enjoying a comeback in popularity. For someone just getting into the sport of black powder cartridge shooting, the .50-70 is a very good cartridge to get started with.

    We call it a very good black powder cartridge to start with because of a short list of needs for getting outfitted and having characteristics that are all on the positive side. First, brass is readily available, primarily by Starline as well as some other sources. Starline brass is very good and will last a long time, especially with black powder loads. Bullets or bullet moulds are also rather easy to get. The most commonly used bullet style is the copy of the old Government bullet, a 450-grain grease-grooved job that should be sized

    The .50-70 is also easy to paper patch, giving excellent results.
    The .50-70 is also easy to paper patch, giving excellent results.
    from .510 to .512 inch for modern barrels. That bullet mould is made by Lyman (No. 515141) and several other mould makers offer similar styles. Reloading dies are also easy to find and are listed in categories that do not command premium prices. These points simply mean that a shooter can get equipped to reload ammunition for the .50-70 without a tremendous strain to the pocketbook.

    Also, let me mention that most of the components can be found at Buffalo Arms Company. I get a lot of my own supplies from Buffalo Arms (buffaloarms.com) and my recommendation for them is made with no hesitation. Wander through the company’s online catalog if you are in need of black powder cartridge supplies.

    While new .50-70 caliber rifles might not be encountered every day, there are some very good ones currently available. The most recognizable are the Sharps replicas and I’ll mention those made in other countries plus the American-made rifles by Shiloh Sharps and C. Sharps Arms, both out of Big Timber, Montana. Another way to get a good .50-70 rifle is to rebuild one of the old military rolling blocks by Remington, or simply buy a vintage .50-70. Getting a new rifle, however, gives you the advantage of having a new barrel. Remington Rolling Blocks were favored by many old-time shooters, as well as the Springfield Trapdoor military rifles.

    Many of the old barrels were rifled with a 1:42 rifling twist, and that is on the slow side. Most new barrels for .50-70s use a rate of twist at one turn in 26 inches. The 1:26 twist does quite well, and I have a custom barrel made by Oregon Barrel Company with a 1:32 rifling twist, which is working very nicely.

    While I include this information just to cover all of the bases, most of us have had no trouble with shooting our .50-70s with 450-grain bullets out to 200 yards and farther.

    John Weger’s rifle, copying a rare, round-barreled Hartford.
    John Weger’s rifle, copying a rare, round-barreled Hartford.
    One fellow I’ll be “picking on” in this story is John Weger. I have known him a few years, and I watched him as he selected his first Sharps rifle. Before he placed his order, he had partnered with me on more than one occasion where he borrowed a rifle of mine. His final decision was to go with a .50-70, an 1874 Sharps Hartford Model with a round barrel from C. Sharps Arms (csharpsarms.com). That’s quite a rifle, and while it was being made for him, which takes only a few weeks from C. Sharps Arms, John was gathering the tools needed for loading .50-70 cartridges.

    One of Mike’s .50-70 rifles, this one is called the Camp Gun.
    One of Mike’s .50-70 rifles, this one is called the Camp Gun.
    John was lucky enough to find some used reloading dies as well as a used bullet mould for the .50-70. Getting those items saved him a little bit of money, and instead of buying a lube-sizer for preparing his bullets for loading, he lubes his unsized bullets in a pan and then loads them into the cases. In John’s rifle, shooting unsized bullets is working very well, and with cast bullets on the soft side (tin-to-lead alloy of 1:20) there is no wear to the rifle’s barrel.

    Mike’s rebuilt rolling block with a 1:32 rifling twist barrel by Oregon Barrel Company.
    Mike’s rebuilt rolling block with a 1:32 rifling twist barrel by Oregon Barrel Company.
    Somewhere in his shop, John had a ½-inch gasket punch and that’s all he needed to start punching wads out of empty milk cartons. Having some card wads can be considered essential to black powder cartridge shooting, and one advantage to outfitting a .50-caliber rifle is that a common ½-inch diameter punch usually works fine.

    With those few gathered tools or items, John was ready to start loading. Yes, he did get a batch of Starline brass and some Olde Eynsford (OE) FFg powder, plus some large rifle primers. For starting loads, he began by using 60 grains (by volume) of  OE FFg and even that load needed a little bit of compression to properly seat the bullets. He compressed the powder only enough so the bullet, when seated over the card wad, had no air
    John proudly showing a 100-yard target scoring 50-X.
    John proudly showing a 100-yard target scoring 50-X.
    space beneath it. Then, with a box of 20 loaded rounds, John was ready for his first shots with that new .50-70 rifle.

    His ammunition shot okay, for starters. John was able to get his gun’s peep sight zeroed in fairly close as well as getting the set trigger adjusted to where he likes it. Yes, there is a break-in period for new barrels and John used this ammunition for that too, wiping or cleaning the barrel after every shot. Shooting those cartridges also gave John some fireformed brass to reload; for accurate black powder cartridge ammunition, fireformed brass is the best.

    With the fireformed brass, shooters often don’t need to resize the cases, not if the loads are to be used in the same rifle. Instead you clean the cases (a standard step for all black powder reloading) and then bell the mouth of the cases just a little so they can easily receive the bullets. After priming the cases, put in the powder charge, compress it with the card wad and then seat the bullets with your fingers. The final step is to crimp the mouth of the cases on the bullets very lightly, just enough to hold the bullets in the cases.

    That’s how John loaded his ammunition with fired brass and somewhere along the line he increased his powder charge to 65 grains (by volume). Increasing the powder charge added

    Shot from a benchrest, here’s a tight group from Mike’s heavy .50-70.
    Shot from a benchrest, here’s a tight group from Mike’s heavy .50-70.
    a little bit of speed to the bullets, although higher velocity wasn’t the main idea. The added powder with the additional bit of compression helped make his loads more consistent, producing better groups on the targets.

    John was able to prove how well his new rifle was shooting at the very first BPCR match he entered. It was one of our Old West Centerfire Matches with targets at 100 and 200 yards, and the shooting is done while sitting behind cross-sticks. We were shooting side by side and he almost stole the show by taking 2nd place. Of course, I had to comment, “Not too bad, for a beginner!” John just grinned and he will certainly treasure the Ralph Heinz print (donated by C. Sharps Arms) that he picked as his shooting prize. Let me add that where he really pulled ahead of most other shooters (including me) was out at 200 yards.

    This isn’t a story just about John and his rifle; the .50-70 is really a fine black powder rifle cartridge for someone just getting into BPCR shooting.

    It has some excellent advantages because rifles using this cartridge are generally easy to handle, the recoil is not severe and the ammunition is not terribly temperamental to reload. Performance-wise, it will hold its own out to, and perhaps beyond, 600 yards. In addition to that, although there is no factory-loaded ammunition available, custom loads and all necessary components are easy to get. The same goes for loading tools and bullet moulds. In fact, it could be said that there is nothing really difficult about a .50-70.


    C. Sharps Arms, Inc.
    PO Box 885, Big Timber MT 59011
    (406) 932-4353

    Buffalo Arms Company
    660 Vermeer Court, Sandpoint ID 83852
    (208) 263-6953

    The Gun Works Oregon Trail Barrels
    247 South 2nd Street, Springfield OR 97477
    (541) 741-4118

    Lyman Products Corporation
    475 Smith Street, Middletown CT 06457
    (800) 225-9626

    GOEX Olde Eynsford powder
    6430 Vista Drive, Shawnee KS 66218
    (913) 362-9455

    Wolfe Publishing Group