column By: Rick Moritz | December, 23
I have been shooting the 38-50 Remington Hepburn (38-50 RH) cartridge in its black powder format for approximately 25 years. Along the way, I feel like I have had some success and would like to share what I have found works (and what didn’t) as well as details of my loading process including bullets, powder, case forming, cartridge case management, fouling control, wads, and primers. These details generally apply to all black-powder cartridges.
There are three historic cartridges with the 38-50 designation. The 38-50 Ballard was introduced in 1876, and was 3⁄16 inches shorter than the later 38-55. The 38-50 Maynard 1882 was a twin to the 38-50 Ballard sharing a common base, rim, and length dimensions. The 38-50 Remington Hepburn shares the same case head with the 30-40 Krag and was developed in 1883, although other sources indicate development in 1879.1
The beveled rim on the 38-50 RH, was initially included to aid chambering due to the lack of any camming ability in the Remington Hepburn rifle. The 30-40 Krag case retained the beveled case head of the parent 38-50 RH case. Since the Krag was chambered in a bolt action it is not known if the beveled rim performed a function. Perhaps the beveled case head resulted in smoother feeding.
The 38-50 RH was designed for mid-range target shooting and was introduced in the Remington-Hepburn match rifles. Cartridges of the World by Barnes states that the 38-50 RH was too similar to the 38-55 Winchester and was discontinued.2 The 38-50 RH has a significant black powder capacity advantage over the 38-55 Winchester.
Cases can be made very easily from common 30-40 Krag brass. When available Winchester, Remington, and Hornady brass all work very well. I have found the Winchester and Remington to have similar weights, while the lots of Hornady brass I have used are slightly thicker in the neck and weigh a bit more reducing capacity by about 3 grains.
I originally purchased pre-formed 38-50 cases that were 2.230 inches in length, as per the standard specification. My chambers will accept cases of 2.250 inches. This led me to form my own cases. There are two forming methods that I have tried.
The cases can be made using a set of incrementally larger expanders. Four expanders increase the case mouth by .020-inch increments. Expanders will produce a case that can be loaded with black powder and fired as normal. However, they are much better after one firing and trimming. Expanded cases require a final firing with a bullet to obtain the finished form.
There is an alternative method that I now prefer to the four-expander method. Use a small charge of Bullseye or Unique pistol powder with “Cream of Wheat” and a wax wad to keep everything contained. I set up two powder throws, one with the powder and one with Cream of Wheat. Start with a small charge, four or five grains of Unique, test a few cartridges and see what works. All brass is not of equal hardness which necessitates different powder charges. After fire-forming, the cases are ready for a trim and are match ready. Either method requires first sizing in a 38-50 RH die, as the Krag’s shoulder will impact the 35-50 RH chamber before full seating.
During all of my shooting with the 38-50 RH, a case has never been lost due to splitting or case head separation. I assume the Krag case is heavier than typical black powder cartridge brass, (SAAMI Maximum Average Pressure for the Krag is 40,000 C.U.P. The Accurate Smokeless Powder Loading Guide, Number One, 1994, lists 38-55 with a pressure limit of 30,000).
My first 38-50 was built on a new in-the-box Browning BPCR rifle. I never fired the original barrel and to be honest, I do not recall if it was a 40-65 WCF or a 45-70 Govt. This was in the late 1990s, and there was limited interest in .38 calibers. This caused a dearth of available barrels. After searching I was able to obtain a 15-twist Badger barrel. Fortuitously, Swiss powder became available when I started my .38-caliber journey, which in my view was key in making the 38-50 RH shine. Although, any sporting-grade black powder would fill the role.
When first shooting the 38-50 RH I was supplied with a generous amount of free, unsolicited advice by fellow shooters. Unfortunately, they had no experience with .38 calibers but they were very certain about what weight bullet I should be shooting and the required velocity. Some suggested 380 grains as the minimum bullet weight; others bluntly told me I would need a 400-grain bullet to tip over the ram silhouettes. The majority of the advice turned out to be worth what I paid for it. I made some of my own mistakes along the way, but I also learned a lot.
Luckily, my old friend the late Gary Lucas, came to my rescue early in the process. Gary approached me at one of the Denver, Colorado, BPCR silhouette matches with a shoebox under one arm. He handed me the weighty box stating that I should try these and could return them when I was done. The box contained at least a dozen .38-caliber bullet moulds, some weighing less than 300 grains up to 380 grains. I started casting various weights of bullets and collecting sheets of cardboard. I made a template for the 385-meter turkey target and spray-painted the targets on the cardboard for load testing. It was an eye-opener. With my 15-twist Badger barrel, there was a limit to how long a bullet I could launch down range and maintain stability. I kept track of the bullet lengths that worked and compared them to what was recommended using the Green Hill Formula; see below.
C x D2 / L = T
C = Constant of 150
D = Bullet diameter in inches
L = Bullet length in inches
T = Twist in inches
Examining bullet holes and checking for tipping, I found what worked. I compared the twist indicated by the Greenhill formula, which confirmed why the very long bullets were tipping.
Two of my original loads for the 15-twist Badger barrel were 52.5 grains of 3Fg Swiss with a 330-grain Steve Brooks bullet 1.295-inches long. My second load was a Hoch nose pour 344-grain bullet with the same powder charge and a bullet length of 1.285 inches. I found these bullet weights and obtainable velocity were the lower limit for effectiveness on the ram silhouettes. As I recall, out of 20 ram silhouette hits one would fail to go down. Based upon the Greenhill formula, the 330-grain bullet would require a twist of 16.2 inches and likewise, the 344-grain bullet would require 16.4 inches of twist. This would indicate I had a margin of 1.2 and 1.4 inches of extra twist. At a later date, I decided that I preferred to have nearly two inches of extra twist. This might be overly conservative but I have found it to be a reliable estimate for good bullet stability.
While doing my early work with the 38-50 RH, my wife was shooting a 38-55 Winchester in a CPA Stevens 44½. I was not impressed with the 38-55 as a silhouette cartridge and felt she needed something better. The biggest issue was the lack of case capacity. This, of course, limited bullet weight and velocity. Comparing capacities, the 38-50 is capable of holding 10 more grains of black powder than the 38-55 case. As part of adding a new barrel to my wife’s rifle, I searched for faster twist options and discovered the Green Mountain 12-twist barrels. I have found these to be good-quality, button-rifled barrels.
My wife’s 12-twist barrel seemed to shoot better with heavier bullets. Initially, we used the 344 and 330-grain bullets previously mentioned but ultimately graduated to a heavier bullet. The bullet employed was a Dan Theodore “Micro-Mini Groove”, penultimate to the “Money Bullet, weighing 365 grains and 1.46-inches long. This faster twist worked much better than a 15-twist barrel. After seeing the results, I immediately ordered a No. 4 weight octagon 12-twist barrel and had it fit to my Browning rifle, replacing the 15-twist barrel.
About this time, I became better acquainted with Dan Theodore and he was keenly interested in the 38-50. When I showed Dan the new barrel he told me, “You have the proper twist, now what you need is a better bullet. I am sending you a mould.” Dan loaned me a Paul Jones mould that cast a 367-grain tapered bullet. At the time this bullet was known as the “Mini-Groove,” the next iteration after the micro-mini groove design. This bullet shape is now called the “Money Bullet,” (as the story goes, it is the bullet you use when you shoot for money.) The combination of the fast twist and the 367-grain bullet (1.425-inches long), loaded in the 38-50 with 59 or 60 grains of 1½ Swiss was like a completely different cartridge! Dan was right; I did need a better bullet. In switching wind conditions, the light 330-grain bullet was a bit drifty. The heavier Money bullet solved that issue.
This powder charge of 59-60 grains of 1½Fg Swiss will result in 1285 to 1300 fps with the mentioned bullet and wiping between shots. The use of a blow tube will result in a slightly lower velocity, approximately 25 fps. This reduction could vary depending on the lube used or barrel conditions. At the aforementioned velocities and use of a 367-grain bullet, this load is equally as effective on rams as any other black powder cartridge.
Using the Greenhill formula, the 1.425-length bullet would indicate a 14.8 twist. With the 12 twist, we have 2.8 inches of twist rate margin. A bit over the targeted 2 inches of twist I would like to see, but it has worked extremely well in matches.
I was so impressed with my wife’s Stevens that I purchased one with unfinished extra fancy wood chambered in 45-70. I sold the 45-70 barrel unfired. At the same time, I ordered another Green Mountain 12-twist barrel with a No. 3½ Winchester taper along with a Shilen 22 caliber barrel.
Colorado gunsmith, Mike Lewis, re-fit the No. 4 to the CPA for irons, No. 3½ for scope, and the 22 LR for practice. This exercise exceeded my expectations. The No. 4 iron sight barrel is within 1.5 ounces of the No. 3½ barrel with a scope. They feel and hold the same, which was the intent. The weights being so close was a little bit of luck. The octagon to round 22 is the heavyweight with a Unertl “Small Game” scope at 12 pounds, 13 ounces. I use a “click-less” Fecker mount on the rear of the scope, which makes it legal for 22 BPCRA matches.
The Paul Jones Money bullet mould that I use is unfortunately no longer made. It has been used exclusively for matches for many years. As mentioned previously, Dan sent it to me to try. I obtained incredible accuracy and coveted his mould. Upon calling Dan, he informed me that someone else was going to buy it. I found out who the buyer was and convinced him it was a “life and death” matter that I have that mould. The individual graciously agreed to let me buy it from Dan. Intentionally, I did not mail the mould back to Dan and waited a few days before calling him to see if it had arrived by return mail. He, of course, informed me he had not seen the mould. I explained the Post Office must have lost it, but I would send him a check to cover the cost. I later explained to Dan that I had negotiated the purchase of the mould. We had a lot of laughs over that one!
Concern over something happening to the original Paul Jones mold prompted me to obtain a backup. David Mos made me an exact copy of the Money bullet and it works equally as well.
All bullets are pan-lubed and loaded as cast. Being able to pan lube 200 bullets at a time is a real time saver. Bullets are cast of my 20:1 alloy. All bullets are sorted by weight and kept in order from lightest to heaviest during the reloading process. They are fired sequentially during a match. I cannot say that this makes any difference but it makes me happy and the most significant variation in sequential shots is 1⁄10 of one grain.
In my view, bullets come in two styles, cylindrical and tapered. This should not be confused with the nose shape. I prefer cylindrical bullets for 200-yard and 200-meter offhand shooting. The cylindrical bullet requires deeper seating in the case, allowing for a smaller powder charge, while still engaging the rifling with the bullet. Not much energy is needed to tip over a chicken. The knock-over is not the issue, hitting the chicken is the issue. I feel the lighter recoil allows me to have better follow-through and cleaner trigger breaks. I prefer tapered bullets for my prone loads as they allow for larger powder charges and I feel the taper guides the bullet into the leade of the barrel.
All presented loads are preferentially primed with Federal Large Pistol Match primers or CCI Large Pistol primers. I prefer the Federals but I cannot see any difference in performance between the two. A .090 over-powder poly wad is also used in all loads.
• Original 15-twist Badger barrel
Steve Brooks and Hoch bullets, 330 grains and 344 grains respectively, 52½ grains 3Fg Swiss.
• Green Mountain 12-twist barrel
Dan Theodore (Paul Jones) Money bullet, tapered, 367 grains, 59 to 60 grains 1½Fg Swiss.
CHICKEN AND 200 YARDS OFF HAND
• Original 15-twist Badger barrel
Lyman 330-grain Postel bullet, 47½ grains 3Fg Swiss.
• Green Mountain 12-twist barrel
Boomer 360-grain cylindrical bullet, 48.3 grains 3Fg Swiss. This bullet is less drifty than the 330-grain Lyman Postel bullet.
John Schauf “Easy Money” 370-grain bullet (the slight taper seats deep in the case), 51.2 grains of 1Fg Swiss
There are not any real secrets to handloading black powder cartridges and the 38-50 is not any different. There are, however, some good practices and techniques to follow which will result in higher-quality ammunition. Many of the following suggestions and descriptions have been carefully tested at the range. Likewise, some things are thought to help but have not been thoroughly tested. I will endeavor to differentiate between the proven and the “I think it helps” procedures.
After firing, all brass is de-primed and washed in hot water, followed by brushing the inside of the neck with a nylon brush. Water will remove the majority of fouling but this is followed by a treatment of “Lemi Shine,” a dish detergent booster found in your local grocery store. This product removes any residual fouling and allows for cartridge case storage without oxidation of the brass occurring.
When ready to reload, all brass is full-length sized, expanded with a 0.378 expander (.001 inch over bullet diameter), and belled to allow starting the lead bullet without damage. Cases are then tumbled with ceramic media and cleanser to thoroughly clean the brass. Before priming with Federal Large Pistol Match primers, the case necks are lightly annealed to apply uniform light neck tension. The case has been expanded 0.001 inch over the bullet diameter but with the associated “spring back” the neck inside dimension is the same as the bullet. The interference fit neck tension allows for adequate, light, uniform bullet friction (see BPCN – Issue 118).
All bullets are ladle-cast using 20-1 alloy (Pb-Sn). During bullet casting sessions two bullet moulds are used. This allows for a bit more cooling time which allows the sprue to be cut very cleanly leaving a nice smooth base. Using a plastic mallet to lightly tap the mould handles adjacent to the bullet mould before pouring the lead will help consistently close the mould, giving more uniform bullet weights.
All bullets are pan-lubed. I do not own a lube sizer and find I can pan lube 200 bullets in the amount of time it takes to melt the lube. Certainly, lube sizers do a great job, but I have no experience with them. All bullets are loaded as cast.
Cases are charged with either 1½ or 1Fg Swiss powder as described earlier. I use a powder throw, scale, or both to weigh the charges. I have found that exact charge weight is not a critical issue if I have run a few Incremental Load Development Tests to determine the “sweet spot” at which I should be operating, (see The Black Powder Cartridge News – Issue 115, Fall 2021). Cases are charged with powder using a vibrating drop tube. Tests have shown this drop tube is equivalent to a drop tube four feet in length. This results in a high loading density which I think is conducive to uniform ignition and velocity. Wads are poly, but a bit thicker than the normal 0.060 inch. The material is sold by various plastic supply houses as 3⁄32-inch (equivalent to 0.090 inch) material. This is seated directly on the settled powder charge with a wooden dowel.
Now we have charged cases and lubed bullets ready to load. I keep specific notes for each load, which includes some simple math giving me the distance from the case mouth to the wad as well as the overall loaded length. First, the powder charge is compressed by the amount specified in my notes, typically 0.150 to 0.200 inch. I highly recommend using a powder compression die. If you are using the bullet to compress the powder you will distort the bullet, which can result in misalignment of the bullet with the chamber of the rifle.
Bullets are seated using a modified Forster Ultra Seater for 220 Swift. These seaters have a sliding spring-loaded body that holds the cartridge case and bullet in alignment during the seating process. The 220 Swift die was selected as it has enough length and sufficient diameter to allow reaming using a 38-50 RH chambering reamer. Total run-out is typically less than 0.004 inch and is normally between 0.000 inch and 0.003 inch. I think straight ammo is important and I have planned a test on this for the future. The test will be to determine how much run-out is acceptable and at what point accuracy begins to deteriorate. Run-out on my ammo is measured on the last band next to the bullet nose. If the run-out is measured close to the case mouth the values will be much lower and perhaps misleading.
A 38-55 WCF neck sizer die (yes, a 38-55) is used to remove the case mouth flare to allow for easy chambering.
This may seem like a lot of loading steps, and it is. To speed up the process I use a progressive reloading press that allows for sizing, and a two-step belling process before cleaning with ceramic media. During the loading process, powder compression, bullet seating, and removal of the flare at the case are completed by one pass through the press. I do not use the powder throw that came with the progressive press as I do not think they are recommended for black powder for safety reasons. I only use a powder throw recommended for black powder.
Using the specified handloading methods I have an accuracy standard that is 10 shots from the prone position that can be covered by a five-ounce tuna can, (3.375 inches in diameter). The tuna can represents 1.6 minutes of an angle at 200 yards. I, of course, try and pick calm, consistent days to complete my testing. Unfortunately, my 38-50 RH does not shoot the mythical “minute of angle.”
More twist must be better, right? Perhaps not. There are always limits associated with rifle shooting. Bigger calibers might be better at bucking the wind. However, at some point, the recoil is beyond the comfortable limit and nothing is gained. Twist rates of 10 inches for a 38-50 have been tested. Only one 10-twist barrel was used, due to financial limitations, but the results were not as good as the 12-twists with bullets in the 360 to 370-grain range.
Faster twist rates can cause more dispersion as a result of the inherent bullet imbalance. Cast bullets typically have a small air pocket near the center of the bullet. Short of using a swaged bullet, this air pocket is a bullet imbalance that can increase group size. Faster twists can also cause greater aerodynamic jump (or precession) that can cause the bullet to not only drift in the wind, but also have a vertical impact change due to the wind. With faster twist rates the vertical change is greater than a slow twist barrel.
I spent a fair amount of time with the 10-twist barrel and found that I could not shoot as well as I could with a 12-twist barrel. Your results may vary. However, given a choice, I would take a 10-twist over a 15-twist.
Wiping between shots, or any other mechanical fouling removal, will work better under all conditions than a blow-tube. I am not anti-blow tubes; I think they are great. They fit in your pocket and are the epitome of a simple process to control fouling. The shortcoming is they don’t work well in very hot, dry conditions.
In the past, wet arsenal patches were used with a nylon brush to control fouling. I have recently moved to a method of using microfiber patches cut into 2-inch squares. These are also used wet, using a solution of 90% water and 10% water-soluble oil. Patches are squeezed with a kitchen tool called a “ricer.” Due to the thickness of the patches, I find a .30 caliber jag works well in the .38-caliber barrel. Only two patches are necessary and the bore is in consistent, shootable form. After pushing the second patch down the bore and before loading, the chamber is mopped to remove any residual liquid. A 38-50 case has never been separated but I do this out of paranoia as I have separated 45-90 cases using this method. A reasonably dry chamber eliminates the separation.
A benefit of microfiber patches is that they can be washed and reused. They work better after being washed a few times. Certainly, it qualifies as the “Scotsman’s Method” of fouling control.
The recoil from a 38-50 is going to be less than other adequate black powder cartridges. The limiting factor for any competitive silhouette cartridge, after accuracy, is the ability to unseat a ram. This requires energy. Compared to a 45-70, the recoil is about one-third less. In a 60-shot match with sighters, this can add up by the end of the day. Compared to a typically loaded 40-65, recoil is about 15-20% less.
There is, however, a negative as it relates to the reduced recoil of the 38-50. Light recoil can lead to cradling the rifle, rather than using a strong grip. When experiencing vertical stringing I immediately switch to a stronger hold and the vertical dispersion dissipates.
As part of the match load development process, I start by performing an Incremental Load Development test (see The Black Powder Cartridge News – Issue 115, Fall 2021) test normally with Swiss 1½Fg powder. If I have a new lot of powder, I also run an ILDM test. I have not found that the same charge from different lots of powder gives the same velocity.
If I have not shot for a while, such as in the winter, I take my 22 BPC rifle to the range and practice at 100 yards on the NRA 25 Yd. Slow-Fire pistol target. The black bull is 5¼ inches in diameter with a 1½-inch 10-ring, and the 9-ring is 2½ inches. The target designation is B-16. When I can keep my scores, from prone, in the mid to high 90s I feel I am ready to begin my ILDM tests.
After completion of the test, I load enough cartridges with the selected charge weight that I can complete three, 10-shot groups from prone at 200 yards. If I am using a bullet with a history of good performance then I am usually ready to go. If the results are not satisfactory, I start over with a different bullet and repeat the process.
The 38-50 has a lot to offer as a silhouette and mid-range cartridge; accuracy, good performance on rams, high-quality brass, and low powder and lead quantity requirements. Included is light recoil, which is an advantage during 60-shot or multiple-day matches.
If you enjoy side-lock double shotguns and four-weight fly rods, a 38-50 might be for you. As the famous elephant hunter W.D.M. Bell once said, “It is far more a question of where the bullet is applied than of the diameter of that bullet.”3
1. Barnes, Frank C. Cartridges of The World. Northbrook, IL: DBI Books Inc., 7th Edition 1993
3. Bell, W.D.M. Karamojo Safari. Long Beach. CA: Safari Press, 2011