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Down Range Accuracy

By Mike Venturino
Retyped with permission of Rifle Magazine, Wolfe Publishing

Sometimes it is hard for experienced shooters of scoped-sighted rifles to accept the accuracy claims thrown about by black powder cartridge rifle (BPCR) shooters. Usually they have to see it to believe it. For instance, awhile back a friend showed up at my shooting house packing a new Sako Model 75 .300 Weatherby Magnum. It was fitted with a fine quality European scope, but at this writing the brand name eludes me.

A target was already in place at 300 yards, so he asked if he could have at it with his new rifle. I honestly don’t remember if he was shooting hand-loads or factory loads, but he said the 6 inch group he proceeded to fire was about as good as the rifle had performed to that point. The rifle with me that day was an original Sharps model 1874 .45-70 fitted with aperture sights front and rear. My friend was flabbergasted when I shot a five shot group with my 125 year old .45-70 Sharps using hand-loads filled with black powder and cast bullets fit inside his groups.

Can an iron-sighted single-shot rifle with a two-piece stock exposed hammer with a long, heavy barrel and firing black powder for propellant with home made cast lead bullets actually outshoot modern rifles?

Yep, they can and often do – not always, but often enough that it is not a fluke. Are we thinking about a custom-turned BPCR as opposed to just an off-the-shelf bolt action? No, We’re talking about off-the-rack rifles of both types. Are we talking about ordinary hunting rifles on the modern end but specialized target BPCRs? There the issue becomes a bit foggy. For sure we are talking about ordinary, bolt action big game hunting rifles on the one end. But there is not a fine line between target and hunting BPCRs. Many people also hunt with the same rifle they compete with in the BPCR Silhouette or Long Range Target games, whether the lighter rifle ends up on the firing line or the heavier one is carried afield. Besides that’s a moot point because it is a rare BPCR hunting rifle that gives up much if anything in terms of the accuracy to a target weight BPCR. The heavier BPCRs are favored for target work because they tone down recoil, not because of any inherent accuracy advantage.

What about ammunition: Are we talking about ordinary loads or highly tailored target loads? There you got me. A good BPCR can produce some astounding small groups, or can deliver amazingly large patterns. The key will be in the quality of the hand-loads fed it. Rare s the BPCR that shoots the very first hand-load combination extremely well. Variables that are regularly tested and adjusted by experienced BPCR shooters include but are not limited to: primer type, powder granulation, powder compression, bullet seating depth, bullet temper and dimensions, case neck tension, specialized bullet seating dies and so forth.

For many years my standard range for test firing BPCR hand-loads was 200 yards. Then for several more years it became 300 yards. My feeling was that since these rifles were being used for long-range competitions, they needed to be test fired at the longest possible range, and for me at home that is 300 yards. That attitude changed recently after installing a wind meter atop my shooting house.

This area of Montana is known for its high winds, especially in winter. Still I was surprised to discover that even on what was considered a “nice” shooting day, winds were running 10 to 15 mph, and sometimes sudden gusts ran the meter up to 25 mph or higher. The realization hit me that instead of learning about the differences the above-mentioned variables were making in my BPCR hand-loads, I was more often testing my ability to shoot in the wind. That’s all well and good, but to be honest, I didn’t know if fliers at 300 yards were caused by internal variables in the load itself or external factors such as wind gusts.

However, variable testing is the basic groundwork necessary when it comes to tailoring loads for a particular rifle. So my new method is to do all accuracy testing at 100 yards. That range is distant enough so that changes in groups sizes brought about by various components can be ascertained, but not so far that the wind and other exterior conditions are the predominate factors. Then after variables have been tested, adjusted or eliminated, that particular hand-load can be fired at extended ranges on specially selected days to see if the accuracy level obtained at 100 yards will be maintained as a “cone of fire” at extended ranges. That is, will a 1 ½” MOA size group at 200 and 300 yards?

All this brings us to the accuracy testing I’ve done with in the last month of this writing. Three rifles have been used for this. One is a Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing .45-70. The other two are from C. Sharps Arms: one a .45-70 and a C. Sharps .44-90 Straight. All are Model 1974’s. The Shiloh .45-70 and C. Sharps .44-90 Straight rifles were brand-new when my test shooting began, while the C. Sharps .45-70 has been with me for several years. The Shiloh carries a barrel made in that factory, while the C. Sharps rifles have Badger barrels. All have one-in-18 twist rates. Nominal specifications call for the .45-70s to have .450-inch bore diameters with .458-inch groove diameters, while the .44 has a .438-inch bore with .446-inch grooves. Barrel lengths were 34 inches for the .44, 32 inch for the C. Sharps .45-70 and 30 inch for the Shiloh .45-70.

It might be interesting to note that although I’ve been a .45-70 reloader since 1972, these were my first rounds fired through a .44-90 Straight. Therefore, a custom mould for the .44-90 Straight was ordered from Steve Brooks (1610 Dunn Ave., Walkerville, Mt 59701). It drops a Creedmoor-style bullet 1.47 inches long with four wide, deep grease grooves. From 1-20 tin-to-lead alloy, these bullets weigh 525 grains and have noses measuring .438 inch with a body diameter of .446 inch.

The most recent .45-caliber rifle mould added to my assortment has been a Mos brand as sold by Ballard Rifle Company (114 W. Yellowstone, Cody, Wy. 82414). It too is a Creedmoor style but with three grease grooves. Nose diameter is .448 inch with a body diameter of .458 inch. Bullet length is 1.40 inches. Weight with the same alloy is 530 grains. This is the bullet design currently shooting best in both of the .45-70 Model 1874 rifles.

The accompanying load chart (excluded for this re-type) will show the other particulars of the BPCR hand-loads, but here is a little about test procedure. Two, five-shot groups were fired with each hand-load through each rifle, and the rifles’ barrels swabbed with wet and then dry patches between groups. A single fouling shot was fired before the five shots for group, and it was not counted as part of the groups because a BPCR usually puts the first round from a clean barrel somewhere other than in the group. In firing these three rifles, a group was fired from one, then it was cleaned and put back in the rack to cool while another was fired, and so forth. Therefore, the two groups with each rifle and each load were not fired at one sitting. Each rifle was fired for group about every half hour. Also I want t stress that one eye was kept on the wind meter during the afternoon. It ranged from 11 to 25 mph, but I tried to shoot when it was hovering between 15 and 20 mph.

The biggest group fired came with the Shiloh .45-70, and it was still only 1 ¾ inches. The first shot was the flier with the last four printing into only 1 1/8 inches. The next group from the Shiloh had the first four shots into only 3/8 inch. That’s right, 3/8 inch! The fifth shot went high and made the group 1 1/8-inches. The C. Sharps Arms .45-70 made a 1 1/8-inch group and then followed it with one of 1 3/8 inches.

The .44-90 did very well too. The first four shots in its first group went into ¾ inch. The last one was slightly left and made the group 1 ¼ inches. Remember those winds! The next group was very interesting. Its first four shots were also in ¾ inch. The fifth shot dropped 3 ¾ inches low! Looking through the spotting scope, I was just plain distressed. That is until I opened the breechblock and only half a case popped out! For some reason the case, which had been used much previously as .45-90 before being formed down to .44-90, had torn in two. After the front portion was fished out of the chamber, another round was fired. It made the group jump 1 ¼ inches.

Now I want to stress that these certainly were not the first groups fired from these rifles. Several other bullets were tried in the .45-70s, and several powder charges, different types of wads and different primers were test fired through all three rifles. Many of those preliminary groups were as good as though. They were and now it’s time to try them at longer range. Incidentally I have tried both the C. Sharps .44-90 Straight and the Shiloh .45-70 on metallic silhouettes out to 500 meters with these loads with extremely good results, but still want to test fire them on paper targets.

By the way, during the same week this Sharps shooting was happening, I was also finishing up a project on the .308 Winchester using a pre-64 Model 70 Feather-weight I have owned since 1980. Dozens of five-shot groups were fired at 100 yards with a variety of powders and bullets. Not one grouped under 1 ½ inches and most went over 1 ½ inches dispite the aid given by a 2-7x Leupold scope. So yes, BPCRs definitely can sometimes outshoot scope-sighted bolt actions.

With many thanks to:
Roberta Montgomery
Managing Editor Wolfe Publishing Co.
2625 Stearman Road, Suite A, Prescott AZ 86301

Text and Pictures Copyright 1998 - 2004 © by Jon “The Montanan” Erdmann All Rights Reserved