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America’s First Fifty: The .50-70 Centerfire

by Garry James   |  April 25th, 2016 0
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Dating back to just after the Civil War, the .50-70 centerfire gained popularity with the military and sportsmen alike.

When most people think of an American military .50 caliber, the round that comes to mind (deservedly so) is the .50 BMG. It is one of the world’s great machine-gun and long-range sniping loads, adaptable to a number of different situations and in constant service since its introduction in 1918.

Still, it was far from being the first .50 round used by the U.S. For that we have to go back well over a century to the inception of the self-contained cartridge itself. In fact, there were various proprietary .50 cartridges used during the Civil War, such as the .50 rimfire in the Remington, Ball and Palmer Carbines (though it is doubtful that any saw actual service), and some externally primed paper and metallic rounds designed for other breechloaders like the Gallager, Smith and Maynard Carbines. After the Civil War ended, the .50-70 round came into being.

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The .50-70 (center) was preceded by the .58 Rimfire (left) and succeeded by the .45-70 (right). Early military .50-70s, like the .45-70, were internally primed centerfires.

The development and widespread use of the .56-56 rimfire Spencer repeater during the war ended all doubt that the self-contained metallic cartridge was the wave of the future. With its tremendous success, as well as more limited employment of other arms such as the Henry and Joslyn, the message was clear: The percussion muzzle- and breechloaders were doomed.

Other countries were also in the process of switching over, and Uncle Sam didn’t want to be left behind. With hundreds of thousands of rifle muskets on hand, the obvious money-saving solution was to find some way to convert these arms to handle the more modern ignition system. While some excellent new-made arms were submitted for testing, the prudent thing was to adopt a method that would make use of the resources at hand.

The Yankees were not alone in this, and such nations as Britain, with their Snider conversion, and France, which adopted some muzzleloading muskets and carbines to the Tabatier system and Chassepot linen cartridge bolt actions to handle the 11mm Gras metallic round, were also going in the same direction.

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The .50-70 was (and is) a popular sporting load. From left: original late-19th century Winchester commercial load, the author’s handload and a current Ten-X round.

The American military tried many different arrangements before settling on one devised by Springfield Armory’s master armorer, Erskine S. Allin. As well as being a slick setup, there was the added incentive that Allin being a government employee meant the War Department would not have to pay royalties on the design.

Basically, the system involved a breechblock that was attached to the top of the altered rifle musket barrel. To open it, one half-cocked the hammer and pushed upward on a thumb latch to unlock the block. It would then be rotated forward to expose the chamber for the insertion of a round. The block was then closed, the hammer put on full-cock and the rifle aimed and fired. Upon reopening the block, a rather complicated rack-and-pinion extractor ejected the spent case—fast, slick and easy.

As well as being relatively efficient, the conversion allowed the maximum use of original parts. Allin explained, “It is particularly adapted to the alteration of the Springfield rifle musket [or any other], as it can be done without changing the feature of the musket or without throwing away any of its parts. All that is necessary is to cut away the barrel on the top at the breech and add the block and shell extractor, cut the recess in the breech-screw and modify the hammer. All other parts remain the same.”

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The Model 1866 Springfield first proved its mettle in the famed 1867 “Wagon Box” fight in Wyoming Territory, where a force of 31 infantrymen and some civilians fought off 2,000 Sioux warriors in a battle that lasted some five hours.

This was music to the ears of thrifty Ordnance officials. The system was adopted in 1865, chambering a .58-caliber copper rimfire cartridge that approximated the ballistics of the original muzzleloader’s paper cartridge. Because of this, even the rear sight didn’t have to be changed. Nicknamed the Needle Gun due to its long firing pin, some 5,000 of these Model 1865s were altered at Springfield before it was decided that some modifications in the mechanism and a reduction in caliber were warranted to further improve the gun’s performance.

The original muzzleloading barrels were sleeved with a liner of .50 caliber to handle a new centerfire cartridge with a 450-grain lead bullet backed by 70 grains of black powder. This loading upped the velocity by 100 feet per second (to 1,260 fps) over that of the .58 rimfire and gave greater range and accuracy, though the muzzle energy was about the same (1,488 ft-lbs). A lighter carbine load featuring a 400-grain bullet and 45 to 50 grains of black powder was also issued, and, as might be expected, the velocity and muzzle energy were somewhat reduced. Too, the old rack-and-pinion extractor was found to be lacking, and a new ejector, which involved a small spring-loaded stud set in the breech just behind the chamber, was adopted. The block itself was also slightly modified by employing coil springs for both the firing pin and latch.

Dubbed the Model 1866, 25,000 of these rifles were turned out at Springfield using Model 1863 rifle muskets as platforms. In 1867, a shorter Cadet Rifle appeared, but still no cavalry carbines, that role being handled by the thousands of Spencer repeaters still in the system and Sharps percussion carbines converted to .50-70.

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Loading a Model 1866 was simple. One first cocked the hammer.

Though the Spencer had served with distinction during the Civil War, ultimately it was replaced by the Sharps because the .50-70 round was superior to Spencer’s new .56-50 and .56-52 loads—and it didn’t use as much ammunition as a repeater. Again, post-war economy reared its penurious head.

If there were any questions about the effectiveness of the Trapdoor and the .50-70, they were dispelled following the famed Wagon Box Fight near Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming Territory on August 2, 1867.

During this legendary encounter, a force of 31 soldiers of the 27th Infantry armed with .50-70 Springfields, along with some civilians, fought off close to 2,000 Sioux, losing only five killed and two wounded and inflicting losses on the enemy estimated at 50 to 150 killed and 120 wounded.

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After cocking the hammer, a soldier lifted up on the breech latch to free and open the “trapdoor.”

The infantrymen, commanded by Capt. James Powell, were serving as an escort for woodcutters gathering material for construction of the fort. After spotting Red Cloud’s warriors, the soldiers created a defense by circling 14 wagons.

The Indians, used to going up against slower-firing muzzleloaders, attacked, expecting to be able to rush the defenders after they had expended their first round. Unfortunately for them, the men were armed with new Model ’66 Springfields chambered in .50-70 and kept up a withering fire for some five hours, after which the Indians withdrew.

Even though the 1866 in .50-70 was considered a successful arm, some modifications were deemed to be in order. The extractor still left something to be desired, and a new version was designed that involved a spring-loaded claw set into the receiver at the hinge of the breechblock. Too, it was decided to shorten the gun’s barrel and adopt an en bloc receiver that could be screwed onto the rear of the barrel. Other mods involved a new long-range rear sight and larger cam latch.

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After opening the “trapdoor,” a cartridge was inserted.

In 1870, the first carbine version of the Allin conversion appeared. It, too, used bits and pieces of Civil War muskets, but the barrel was shortened to 22 inches, the half-stock fitted with only a single barrelband, and a bar and ring were attached to the left side of the stock opposite the lock to enable the use of a carbine sling. Some 11,533 were ultimately produced.

The Springfield was the favorite rifle of one of the American West’s most important and colorful characters, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. In his autobiography, Cody acknowledged the .50-70’s ability on a particularly successful 1867 hunt in Fort Hays, Kan.

“I immediately told one of our men to hitch his horses to a wagon and follow me, as I was going out after the herd, and we would bring back some fresh meat for supper. I had no saddle, as mine had been left at the camp a mile distant, so taking the harness from Brigham, I mounted him bareback and started out after the game, being armed with my celebrated buffalo-killer, ‘Lucretia Borgia,’ a newly improved breechloading needle-gun, which I obtained from the government.

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Once the cartridge was inserted, the breech closed and the gun was ready to go.

“…And I pulled the blind-bridle from my horse, who knew as well as I did that we were out for buffaloes, as he was a trained hunter. The moment the bridle was off, he started at the top of his speed, running in ahead of the officers, and with a few jumps brought me alongside of the rear buffalo. Raising old ‘Lucretia Borgia’ to my shoulder, I fired and killed the animal at first shot. My horse then carried me alongside the next one, not 10 feet away, and I dropped him at the next fire.

“As one buffalo would fall, Brigham would take me so close to the next that I could almost touch it with my gun. In this manner I killed 11 buffaloes with 12 shots.”

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Custer’s first .50-70 was a sporterized Model 1866 Springfield. He is shown with Russian Grand Duke Alexis, whom he accompanied on a buffalo hunt.

Another big fan of the .50-70 was Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Unlike Cody, his Springfield was a stock military rifle, and he carried a sporterized Model 1866 for a number of years, most famously during a buffalo hunt organized by the U.S. government for Grand Duke Alexis of Russia (at which Cody was also present with “Lucretia”).

Later, Custer favored a sporting Remington Rolling Block in .50-70 as his principal longarm, and it was this rifle he carried with him at the Little Bighorn. His Springfield still exists. However, the .50-70 Rolling Block is lost to history, probably ending up being taken along as a prize of war with Sitting Bull’s forces when they removed to Canada following the battle.

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Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer was a big fan of the .50-70. Here he poses with his favorite Remington Rolling Block sporting rifle. This was the longarm he had with him at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Along with the Springfield and the Sharps, the Remington was a favorite platform for the .50-70 cartridge both in military and sporting rifles. It was a top contender in the U.S. rifle trials, and though possibly a superior arm to the Needle Gun, it was squeezed out, most likely at the behest of some penny-pinching bureaucrat.

Still, a number of .50-70 Rolling Blocks, manufactured at Springfield Armory, were issued to the U.S. Army in both rifle and carbine form, and others, made by Remington, were used by the U.S. Navy, militia and National Guard units.

Even during the heyday of the .50-70, it was recognized that .45 caliber was ballistically a better choice. Most Europeans were adopting “smallbore” .45 or 11mm loads, and it was finally decided that the U.S. should follow suit.

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Other military arms than the Model 1866 Springfield were chambered in .50-70. These include the Model 1871 Rolling Block (top) and converted Sharps Carbine (bottom). As well, many sporting firearms were offered in the popular caliber.

In 1873, a new model of Trapdoor (so named because of the appearance of the breechblock) was introduced. Unlike its predecessors, it was not made from altered muskets, but was fabricated completely anew. Also unlike the earlier guns, it was not finished bright, but had blued metal parts with a case-hardened tang and breech and black oil-quenched breechblock. Many of the parts were the same as those of the 1870 models, so Springfield was able to use some of the tooling for components on the older guns. The gun was offered in Rifle, Cadet Rifle and Carbine versions, among others.

The .45-caliber cartridge for which the guns were chambered employed the Benet internal priming system and a drawn case with heavy copper content. Bullet weight was .405 grains, and the powder charge was 70 grains for the rifle (muzzle velocity: 1,350 fps, muzzle energy: 1,590 ft-lbs) and 55 grains for the more diminutive carbine. Thus the famous .45-70 was born, though it didn’t completely phase out the .50-70, which remained a popular hunting round well into the 20th century. Currently, it is gaining renewed popularity with hunters and target shooters. I have several different types of .50-70s in my collection and have found them all, particularly the Model 1871 Springfield Rolling Block, to be extremely accurate. After 150 years, there’s still plenty of life in the old round yet.

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