Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shooting Old Guns


Shooting a 9.4 dutch with black powder


What it Takes to Shoot the Old Ones
Ok you bought this old gun at the local gun show. The seller thinks that it was an old French military gun but he isn’t sure. Anyway you thought that it would be a good looking wall hanger and the price was right. It’s been on your wall for awhile and you never had an urge to shoot it. One day your buddy comes over and inquires about shooting it and you give him a blank stare as to what it shoots. After he leaves you get thinking that maybe you would like to try it out. After all you do some reloading and you are confident that ammo isn’t available at the local gun shop. You get your reloading manual out and there is nary a mention of your mystery gun. So you start doing some research and find out that it’s an 11 mm Grass which France brought out in 1874 and was used until 1886 when the French brought out the revolutionary 8mm Lebel the first smokeless cartridge brought out by anyone. You buy Cartridges of the World (a smart move) and it gives you a little history of the rifle and cartridge. You found out about the rifle on the web. Anyway you now know what you have and what it shoots. Now comes the fun where and how do you get ammo for it. None of the reloading manuals have info on it and you don’t see any source for dies.








The very first thing that you do is to make sure it’s safe to shoot and you are shooting the correct cartridge. Someone may have rechambered or rebarreled to another more common caliber. That happens and I have seen it. The last one was a 43 Spanish rolling block. Someone reamed out the chamber to take a 348 case necked up to the 439 diameter bullet that the 43 commonly uses. I suppose that they did that because the 348 case was easier then the 43 Spanish cases to get though that is no longer true. Another odd ball conversion that I encountered was an 11 French Gras that had the barrel set back and rechambered to the more common 11 mm Mauser round. More info on taking a chamber cast in a previous article published in SGN titled “What’s in a Name” A chamber cast can reveal those important details prior to shooting it. In this instance shooting a 43 Spanish round may have been dangerous because the case might of split. If you are not sure of the guns condition or caliber spend a few dollars to have a qualified gunsmith check it out for you. A few dollars spent that way is a lot cheaper and less painful then a hospital bill.








Once you ascertain what it is and its safe to shoot then you have just started your project. You need dies, cases and bullets in order to make functioning ammo. You will quickly find out that some of the components are very scarce or non existent. There are several makers that sell custom dies and shell holders. Huntington Die www.huntingtons.com as well as Lee www.lee.com and www.ac4.com all make custom dies. You can contact them for pricing and availability. Keep in mind they will be a lot more expensive then common dies. Brass for many of the old ones has to be made out of something else. If you don’t have the knowledge or tooling then the best thing is to buy it from someone who specializes in that. The two best sources that I can think of are Buffalo Arms www.buffaloarms.com and Bob Haley Brass (940) 888-3352, no website, for both the bullets and brass. Both make many calibers and advertise in the SGN. If you have an 11 mm Mauser or a 43 Spanish then you can buy HDS brass and bullets from Huntington Die. Sometimes you really have to use your imagination to get or make a die set. That saying about thinking out of the box can really apply here. Custom dies are very expensive sometimes costing over $200.00 and if you are only going to shoot it a few times then it may not be worth it to purchase special tooling. Making some of those cases requires sophisticated tools and techniques which may make it impractical to make them. I order a lot of my cases from Bob Haley or Buffalo Arms and then reload them from there.




50-70 Government top & 12.17 X 44

In this part I want to concentrate on the first generation of cartridge firearms meaning the black powder offerings that came out in the 1860’s and 1870’s for the most part. Breech loaders were in their infancy and many interesting if impractical ideas were generated during this time. The next installment will be the second generation such as the 6.5 Dutch etc. If you decide to make your own cases then a book such as The Handloader’s Manual of Cartridge Conversions by John Donnelly & Bryce Towsley is a good place to start. It will give you the dimensions and which case to start with as well as couple of hints on how to form the cases.







One of the early offerings was the 11 X 58 French Gras. It came out in 1874 and was the French military rifle until 1886. The cartridge is a large and powerful for it’s time while the rifle is a well made and sturdy affair common with those of the period. The only way to get brass is to make it out of 348 cases which are still available. There is quite a bit of work involved in the process such as cutting down the rim and swaging the case body. There are times when annealing may be required. If you don’t have the required equipment I advise buying the finished product from Bob Haley or Buffalo Arms. They have the necessary equipment and knowledge to form the cases. Dies can be very expensive and I made mine from the 11 X 59 Mauser set. I cut the body off a set of extra Lee dies so that I just sized the neck and did the bullet seater in a similar fashion. That saved me a couple of hundred bucks. The bullet is a standard .446 diameter which can be bought from a couple of sources. Since this is a black powder gun I advise starting with either black powder or a suitable substitute such as Pyrodex or Clean Shot. The Clean Shot has the advantage of being non corrosive for cleaning purposes. It’s very important to be sure there is no airspace when using those propellants or you could run the risk of blowing up the gun. Smokeless powders can be used but caution must be observed as these guns are well over a century old and the designs and metal technology aren’t up to today’s standards. Remember we are shooting these guns for fun not to make a magnum out of them. This missive applies to all the guns discussed in this article. I found that the Gras shot very well with the proper loads and is well worth the effort required to get it in shooting order. As a note the 11 X 59 Mauser cartridge will fit and fire in the Gras but I do not recommend that practice. The case body of the Mauser is a bit smaller and may rupture causing some problems.








Another oldie that can be made to shoot by forming 348 cases is the 12.17 x 44. It is the centerfire version of the 12 X 44 Rimfire military cartridge. Brought out in 1867 it was never a military offering though sporting rolling block rifles were made for it. Basically it is a 348 case shortened and straightened out using a bullet of .502 in diameter. I found such bullets at Midway www.midway.com or you can use cast bullets for the 500 S & W that are lubed but unsized. You can get by using 500 S & W dies for your loading. The only place I have seen these rifles is at Sarco www.sarco.com a good source for obsolete weapons.






Another old caliber in rolling blocks is the 11 mm Spanish Reformado. It preceded the more common 11 X 53 Spanish. It came out in 1867 and was replaced in 1871. As a note the bullets were brass covered and frequently turned green giving the Reformado the nickname of 43 Spanish Poison. While similar it isn’t interchangeable with the more common round. Brass can be made from 348 cases and 11 mm bullets can be used. The dies can be a shorty set such as I have or you might find that another 11 mm set might work. I found with the low pressures associated with these calibers neck sizing usually works ok.







Sometimes you find a 43 Dutch Beaumont rifle floating around at a gun show and may want to purchase it for shooting. While it has a couple of strange features it is worth shooting. There are 2 versions of this cartridge the shorter one came out in 1871 while in 1878 it was slightly lengthened and a 457 bullet adopted. It is said to be similar but not identical to the 43 Egyptian. If you are unsure of which version you have then I advise you to do a chamber cast and a bore measurement. The later version can be used with 458 bullets ok and the reworked 50-90 Sharps cases that are available from Starline. The body is a bit small in diameter but will be ok due to the low pressures associated with this cartridge. Dies can be bought or try a 45-75 die for neck sizing and bullet seating. To do a chamber cast the best material to use is Cerrosafe which can be bought at Midway or Brownells. It has a very low melting temperature and if properly used gives an accurate chamber cast. Prior to doing a chamber cast be sure to have a plug of some kind in the barrel just in front of the chamber. A bullet works fine and you can get a little of the rifling for a bore measurement as well. Thoroughly cleaning the chamber is also important for good results.





The Italian Vetterli rifle was adopted in 1870 being similar to the Swiss version that was originally a rimfire. Like most guns of that period it was well made and sturdy. The cartridge was one of the smaller military offerings of the period but can be made to shoot accurately. Cases can be made from 348 brass and bullet diameter called for is .422. However mine is 412 so 41 mag or 405 bullets work best. The best way to make 422 diameter bullets is to swage down 44 magnum bullets. Ch Tool & Die can make a bullet reducing die for such work. You will need that also for the Italian revolver of the same period. I don’t know of any commercial source for 422 bullets and a mold would be very expensive. The 44 magnum unsized bullets will not fit in either gun. For further info on these guns and components try www.obsoleteammo.com .








The 577 Snider was the British first foray into the breech loading gun market. It used a system devised by Joseph Snider an American which converted the Enfield muzzle loader into a cartridge weapon. From the start they knew that is was a stopgap measure and was used from 1867 to 1871 when it was replaced by the 577/450. The mini ball that was used in the 58 caliber can be used and are available from various sources. They generally weigh from 450 to 500 grains making them an impressive slug. Molds are also available from several makers and they should be cast soft for best accuracy. The shock of the powder going off blows out the skirt which grips the rifling for accuracy. The brass can be made from a brass 24 gauge shell by shortening it. Bob Haley has ready made cases that can be reloaded by using a Berdan primer which he also sells. The special decapping tool is available from Huntington Die. Jamison made regular boxer primed cases but unfortunately they took a government contract and they won’t be available for at least a year. My dies came from Lee and they work fine. For a light bullet I use Hornady’s 58 caliber round balls and they work fairly well.








The 577/450 Martini Henry replaced the Snider and was used until the 303 British came out in 1888. It is an elongated and necked down version of the Snider round. If you have 24 gauge brass casings then you can make them or buy the Berdan primer version from Bob Haley. Like the 577 Jamison made some boxer primed cases and if you have them then you have a prize as they won’t be available anytime soon. I have used both cases with satisfaction with Lee dies. Smokeless loads can be used if you are careful. Bullet diameter calls for 455 but I use 458’s with complete satisfaction. The original bullet weighed 480 grains but bullets from 300 to 500 grains can be used. The heavier bullets tend to have frisky recoil. Like many of the guns discussed in this article slugging the bore will determine which the best diameter to use in it. Tolerances weren’t as tight as they are today and bores are frequently oversize. The 45-70 Trapdoor Springfield was a big offender in that regard.







The 45-75 and 50-95’s were made for the Winchester model 76 with the idea that they would provide more power without the ammo being too long for a lever action. They were marginally more powerful then a 45-60 which is nothing but a 45-70 shortened. The 45-75 can be made from 348 cases that are reworked and the 50-95 is best served by using a 50-90 Sharps case. A 300 grain bullet of the appropriate caliber works fine in either rifle. I would hesitate to shoot the originals because of the value and if I did I would use black powder. However Uberti makes a real nice knockoff which can be shot with sensible smokeless powder loads.







The 50 Navy rolling block pistol came out in 1867and was different then the 50 Army. The army version had a larger rim and a bottleneck while the Navy version was a straight walled offering. The Army can be made by shortening the 50-70 to .6 and using a 300 grain .512 diameter bullet. The Navy version that I made were from a 500 Linebaugh case shortened to the same .6 and using the same bullet which are available from Buffalo Arms if you don’t mold them yourself. I found that it was a fun gun to shoot and fairly accurate although it shot high.








The 10.4 Italian service revolver came out in 1874 and was used in the model 74 revolvers as well as the Glisenti revolver. Both black powder and smokeless loads were available. Cases can be made from 44 special shortened to .9 and possible rim reducing. You can check your individual gun for that determination. The dies I use are a 41 magnum bullet seating die to size the cases and a short version of the 44 special dies to seat the bullets. Bullets are 422 in diameter and have to be swaged from 44 caliber slugs. CH tool & die can provide the necessary tooling. I have used both jacketed and cast with good results. To be honest you can’t drive jacketed bullets fast enough to expand at safe pressures so you are just as well off with the cast verity. I found that this gun is very accurate at 15 yards though it hits high. Like many of the revolvers of the period the sights are crude and the double action trigger is so heavy that single action is the only way to go.








The 11 mm French revolver came out in 1873 and was replaced in 1892 by the 8mm Level revolver cartridge. Brass can be made from 44 special shortened and the rim thinned quite a bit. Bullets are generally in the 430 diameter range though that may vary. I would slug the bore to get the proper diameter for your gun. When loading I would stick with black powder or one of the substitutes available as it isn’t designed for high pressure loads.







In 1892 the 8mm Lebel round replaced it. Like its predecessor it was underpowered as a military handgun. Cases can be made by shortening and forming 32-20 cases. Bullet diameter is .330 and they weigh around 115 grains. They would have to be cast via a special mold if you can find one. Possibly one of the listed sources can help out though I make my own. Some people use the 8mm Nambu bullet which while slightly smaller in diameter can be used though may not be as accurate. I use my Nambu dies to neck size the case and seat the bullets.








The 11.75 Montenegrin Austro-Hungarian revolver is a massive hinged frame affair based on the Gasser system. It weighs around 4 & ½ lbs and a set of wheels should come with it. Anyway I got brass and bullets from Bob Haley and used my custom shorty dies to load the ammo. The brass is from an extensively reworked 45-70 case and I used 446 diameter bullets that weigh in at 300 grains.








The 9mm Jap was the Japanese revolver cartridge from the 1890’s. To make ammo for it you can shorten 38 special cases and cut down the rim as needed. I have used standard 9mm bullets weighing 115 or 125 grains with good accuracy for that gun. There is no need for jacketed bullets as velocities aren’t that high and will keep the cost down a bit. Keep the loads light and you should be in good shape.







Is it worth the time effort and expense to make ammo for these obsolete guns? Keep in mind you will have to expand a lot more effort and time to do a fractional amount of shooting and it will cost more. Frequently when I do a test batch of ammo for one of these weapons I seldom shoot more then 50 rounds at a time frequently less. I may spend a good part of the day testing the loads by chronographing and target shooting but may only shoot two or three guns. Another thing to keep in mind is that many of the cartridges headspace on the rim but many old guns have excess headspace so when being sized you should size them just enough to easily chamber. That will extend the life of the cases by several firings and make your shooting more enjoyable. Taking notes and pictures is time consuming where if I had a more modern gun I could shoot more and observe less. Is it worth it? You bet!!!! I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bob Shell

5 comments:

Alex said...

Yeah. First and foremost, safety should be considered so checking if the gun still works is important. After that, it's a matter of finding the right ammo for the particular model.

It's a matter of patience sometimes. It can be pretty frustrating to find a gun with no ammo, or one that's no longer working. On the other hand, it's quite nice to discover a gun that still works.

Alex Galletti

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