Magnum cartridges are an accepted part of today’s shooting world, even to the point where many firearms and ammunition companies have developed their own lines of more powerful cartridges (witness the Ultra Mags from Remington and Winchester’s Short Magnums). But the quest for more power from handguns and rifles is not new. It is as old as metallic cartridges themselves.
Back in the 1870s, in the first decade of centerfire, reloadable cartridges, various gun and ammunition companies also worked at ways of getting more powder under bullets. The term “magnum” as regards firearms had not yet been coined, but the effect was still the same. Focusing on the year 1878, mainly because I own a couple of firearms catalogs from that year, I’d like to show you what the biggest and most powerful cartridges were during the wildest time of the “Wild West.”
Starting with revolvers, there were only two 1878 cartridges that achieved true power by our modern standards. First was the .45 Colt, introduced by that company in 1873 as a caliber for the venerable Single Action Army. Then came the .44 Winchester Centerfire (WCF), which we commonly call .44-40 today. It originated as a rifle round, albeit a very weak one, and was accommodated in revolvers by Colt in about 1877. (Some sources give 1878).
Before the advent of the .45 Colt in 1873, Smith & Wesson and Colt introduced several big-bore cartridges for use in their holster revolvers. For instance, there was the .44 S&W American, .44 S&W Russian, and .44 Colt. Also the .44 Henry Rimfire was adapted from lever guns for revolver use. None of these cartridges pushed a bullet in excess of 750 fps, and all would be considered pipsqueaks today.
I’ve had the opportunity to duplicate vintage loads in vintage revolvers chambered for all the calibers I’ve listed. Here are some specifics on one example. I pulled apart a handful of original .44 Colt blackpowder factory loads by UMC. They contained 21 grains of powder under a 208-grain lead bullet. I loaded those same bullets in fresh Starline brass (Dept. ST, 1300 W. Henry St., Sedalia, MO 65301; www.starlinebrass.com) charged with CCI 350 Large Pistol Magnum primers and carrying 21 grains of Goex FFg blackpowder. From the eight-inch barrel of a Colt Richards Conversion, that load chronographed only 742 fps.
Now imagine the impact the .45 Colt and .44 WCF cartridges must have had on handgun shooters of the 1870s. Some early .45 Colt factory loads carried as much as 40 grains of blackpowder under 250-grain bullets. That charge was quickly deemed too hot, and the factories thereafter loaded 35 grains. That load easily permitted velocities in excess of 900 fps from 7 1/2-inch barrel lengths. Factory .44 WCF loads used 200-grain bullets, but they contained a full 40-grain charge of blackpowder. Again from the 7 1/2-inch barrel of Colt SAAs, velocities passed 900 fps. These two handgun cartridges were the tops in their day. A look at the size of the .45 Colt and .44 WCF cases compared to the smaller rounds mentioned helps explain their power. The .45’s case was 1.29 inches long, or the same as today’s .357, .41, and .44 Magnums, and the .44-40’s was a bit longer at 1.31 inches. The .44 S&W American case was only .91 inch, the .44 S&W Russian was .97 inch, and the .44 Colt and .45 S&W were only 1.10 inches. Colt chambered both of its super-powerful revolver cartridges of 1878 in the SAA and the then-new double-action Model 1878. Oddly enough, no other company made handguns for the .45 Colt cartridge (disregarding a few special test samples of Remington’s Model 1875), but every manufacturer of holster-size handguns of the late 1800s chambered revolvers for .44 WCF.
What about repeating rifles? Well, in 1878 there was only one cartridge that offered big-bore power from a repeating rifle. It was the .45-75 WCF, and it was the introductory caliber for Winchester’s Centennial Model, otherwise known as the Model 1876. This rather immense rifle was simply the Winchester Model 1873 toggle link design scaled up. Standard barrel length was 28 inches, and weight was almost 11 pounds, especially when its 12-round magazine was filled with cartridges. When Winchester introduced the .45-75 WCF it aimed to equal the power of the already famous .45-70 Government cartridge. To work in a repeating rifle’s action the case had to be shorter than the .45-70’s 2.10 inches; therefore, Winchester made the .45-75 WCF case only 1.88 inches. But it was of bottleneck configuration. Original Winchester factory loads used 350-grain flatnose bullets over 75 grains of blackpowder for nominal velocities of about 1350 fps. Big-game hunters of the day, including Teddy Roosevelt, considered the Winchester Model 1876 .45-75 adequate for game as large as grizzly bears and moose. Prior to the Model 1876, Winchester had chambered rifles only for the .44 Henry Rimfire and .44 WCF (.44-40) rounds. A .44 Henry Rimfire cartridge gave about the same muzzle energy as one of today’s four-inch-barreled .357 Magnum revolvers, and as we have already seen, the .44 WCF was puny enough for easy accommodation in revolvers. The .45-75 WCF was Winchester’s first cartridge suitable for true big-game hunting. Before it came along American riflemen had to rely on single shots when large or dangerous game was the quarry.
In 1878 there were two well-known riflemakers supplying big-bore blackpowder-cartridge single shots. The Sharps Rifle Co. was eminent in the sporting rifle marketplace with its Model 1874. Remington was actually building more Rolling Block No. 1 rifles at this time, but the bulk of its production was going to foreign shores in the form of military rifles. Still, Remington Sporting Rifles had a devoted following in this country due to their reputation for reliability and accuracy. (In fact, General George A. Custer carried a Remington Rolling Block .50-70 rifle to his last battle on the Little Bighorn River in Montana in 1876.)
On my desk is an original Remington catalog dated 1878. It states: “To all classes of hunting rifles previous remarks apply, except for Buffalo and other wild game usually hunted for their hides and fur. For such a heavier ball is necessary. For this purpose the .44 cal., 77 grains; .45 cal., 70 grains; or .50 cal., 70 grains are best suited.” Those three cartridges are more familiar to modern shooters by the names of .44-77, .45-70, and .50-70 and were the three most powerful cartridges for which Remington chambered Sporting Rifles in 1878 (according to the catalog). The .44- and .45-ca
liber rounds were usually loaded with 405-grain bullets in cases 2.25 and 2.10 inches long respectively while the “Big Fifty” usually carried a 450-grain “ball” in a case only 1.75 inches long. Velocity for the latter round was around 1250 fps while the .44-77 and .45-70 could best that by about 100 fps. Remington’s 1878 catalog also had this comment about handloading the three top cartridges for more power: “The cartridges for these rifles may be increased in powder charge 10 to 20 grains at pleasure.”
Remington Rolling Blocks were chambered for relatively short cartridges because of its centrally located hammer. Longer cartridges would bind with the hammernose upon chambering. The Sharps’s offset hammer presented no such problems so the Model 1874 could be chambered for any length of case. Therefore, it became known as the most powerful of rifles in the 1870s. According to a Sharps catalog, also dated 1878, the Model 1874 (actually introduced in 1871) was made in four bore sizes and chambered for 15 different cartridges. The bore sizes were .40, .44, .45, and .50. Whereas Remington recommended the three rounds detailed earlier, Sharps considered them to be “standard size” rounds and offered extra-length ones holding 90 to 110 grains of powder for each bore size. These were the .40-90 (2.625-inch shell), .44-90 (2.625-inch shell), .45-110 (2.875-inch shell), and .50-90 (2.50-inch shell). Standard factory-load bullet weights for these cartridges were 370, 500, 500, and 473 grains in the same order. Nominal ballistics of 1870s-vintage Sharps cartridges are very difficult to pin down, but my personal experience has shown that each of these four huge cartridges would heave its respective bullets into the 1350 to 1450 fps velocity range. That may sound puny to modern riflemen, but in 1878 such speeds with those huge projectiles made the Sharps Model 1874 the flattest shooting, hardest hitting rifle available from an American gunmaker.
Shooting Yesterday’s Magnums
Over the years I have been fortunate to have test-fired and hunted with a mix of original and modern reproduction guns chambered for every one of these Old West “magnums.” The experience has been educational.
My first comment is that they lacked nothing in practical accuracy over modern guns. That is, if the shooter will learn how to properly handload for them. It may be difficult for the uninitiated to believe, but I have sometimes gotten better groups at 100 yards with iron-sighted, single-shot, blackpowder-cartridge rifles than with some off-the-shelf, scoped, bolt actions fired with factory ammunition. Not always, but such performance happens often enough that I do not consider it a fluke. Likewise with Colt SAA revolvers and properly prepared blackpowder handloads. Occasionally I have achieved machine-rest groups with Colt SAA (and clone) .45 Colt and .44 WCF revolvers that had the first five shots cutting a ragged hole at 25 yards. In cowboy action events I’ve fired such revolvers for an entire day without cleaning and never missed a target.
I’ve taken mule deer, elk, and bison with several of the single-shot cartridges listed, and their knockdown power has been truly impressive. All are capable of driving a bullet completely through a one-ton bison bull. Their limitation is more in regard to range. Even the most powerful have steep trajectories by modern standards, and I consider them to be 200-yard rifles–and then only if used by expert riflemen. I try to hold my shooting with such rifles to 150 yards or so. What is amazing is just how accurate the blackpowder-cartridge, single-shot rifles can be in long-range target shooting. I first discovered this in shooting with Hank Williams Jr. on his Montana ranch. We hung a full-size steel silhouette of a bison bull at a range surveyed to be 956 yards. Then using a variety of Sharps and Rolling Block rifles (originals and modern reproductions) we learned it was no problem to bounce bullets off our “buffalo” in continuous strings of five or 10 shots. We also learned (by means of a stopwatch) that from the time of the rifle’s report to when the “clang” of a hit floated back to us amounted to a full five seconds!
Handloading ammunition for all the Old West “magnums” detailed here is a relatively simple matter. Ones like .44 WCF, .45 Colt, and .45-70 have brass available from all major ammo companies. Ready-to-load and properly headstamped brass for .44-77, .45-75, .45-110, .50-70, and .50-90 can be had from firms like Huntington Die Specialties (Dept. ST, P.O. Box 991, Oroville, CA 95965) and Buffalo Arms Co., Dept. ST, 99 Raven Ridge, Sandpoint, ID 83864. Cases for the real oddballs–like .40-90 and .44-90–can be formed from basic type brass sold by the same companies. Reloading dies and bullet molds for all the rounds mentioned here are available from reloading tool companies such as Lyman (Dept. ST, 475 Smith St., Middletown, CT 06457; www.lymanproducts.com), RCBS (Dept. ST, 605 Oro Dam Blvd., Oroville, CA 95965; www.rcbs.com), and Redding, Dept. ST, 1089 Starr Rd., Cortland, NY 13045; www.redding-reloading.com. Custom bullet moldmakers like Steve Brooks (Dept. ST, 1610 Dunn Ave., Walkerville, MT 59701), Paul Jones (Dept. ST, 4901 Telegraph Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90022), and Pioneer Products (Dept. ST, 254 Brookville-Johnsville Rd., Brookville, OH 45309) will cut any design specified by a customer.
In the chart I’ve included loads for each of the Old West “magnum” cartridges mentioned in this article. Although there was a learning curve in the beginning as regards assembling proper handloads for them, it has become relatively easy nowadays. Shooters 125 years ago may not have called any of their cartridges “magnums,” but that is precisely the performance they were striving to achieve.