America’s 50-year Ammo Upheaval.
Recently when signing one of my books for a friend, I commented we had known each other for 50 years. That got me to thinking: In what 50-year time frame do you think the most change occurred in firearms worldwide? I vote for the years between 1865 and 1915. Since this is a column and space is limited, let’s only consider rifles this time.
In April 1865, the United States Civil War was just ending. The vast majority of shoulder-fired arms used by both sides’ armies in the immense conflict or by civilian hunters at the same time were muzzleloaders. Simply stated, the shooter had to pour a black powder charge down his rifle’s barrel and then push its projectile onto the powder with either a steel or wooden ramrod. Ignition was supplied by percussion caps usually applied by hand.
Fifty years later, World War I was raging in Europe with belt-fed machine guns dominating the battlefields. They were firing metallic cartridges with smokeless powders propelling spitzer-shaped bullets. Rifles on each side were usually chambered for the same cartridges used by machine guns and fed by “stripper” or “charger” clips into 5- or 10-round magazines.
In the civilian hunting fields, repeating rifles were also the norm. In America, the lever gun designs of Winchester and Marlin dominated, but Remington and Winchester respectively had their Model 8 and Model 1907 semi-auto rifles. They took rounds such as .30 Remington and .351 Winchester, respectively.
For perspective consider this: fifty years ago the US Army had just adopted the M16 in 5.56mm. Today our army carries the M4 carbine in 5.56mm NATO. The later carbine is merely a refinement of the former rifle using the same basic platform from 1965. The differences in 5.56mm and 5.56mm NATO are bullet weight and ballistics. The case form is the same. Not much change there compared to 1865 and 1915.
In terms of American sporting rifles, again speaking generally and for the entire nation, the vast majority being used are basically bolt actions, either refinements or derivatives of Peter Paul Mauser’s Model 1898. That means they are turn-bolt actions, feeding from internal box magazines. The differences between today’s bolt-action sporters and those from 100 years ago are in detail—not in concept.
What fed this immense change between 1865 and 1915? One of the most important changes was centerfire priming of brass metallic cartridges. Most certainly metallic cartridges were not a new idea in 1865. Before then, in regards to rifles, came the .44 Henry Rimfire and an entire line of rimfire cartridges for Spencer rifles and carbines. Notably, all those rimfire cartridges used copper cases—not brass.
In 1865, the US Army’s standard-issue shoulder arm was a rifle-musket loaded from
the muzzle with powder and .58 Minié ball. Duke’s sample here is a Parker-Hale
replica of the British Model 1853 Enfield in .577. (Tens of thousands were bought
by both sides for the American Civil War of 1861-1865.)
Such a priming system was fragile and the US Army Ordnance Department quickly saw the benefit of centerfire primers. The same government organization was not so quick to adopt brass for cartridge cases, and in fact, did not until about 1881. Civilian manufacturers were not so slow. By 1870 brass-cased, centerfire primed ammunition was commonly produced by Remington, Winchester and other long defunct factories. It was all intended for single-shot rifles. Repeaters taking brass cased centerfire loads did not begin to appear until 1873 when Winchester introduced their .44 WCF for their famous lever gun model named for the same year.
After priming, the invention of smokeless propellants turned gun designers loose. Prior to the late 1880’s all firearms propellants were black powders. Black powder only burns about 50 percent of its solids in ignition, the rest are either blown out the barrel or left in the bore in the form of fouling. Winchester may have developed lever gun rifles whose magazines held a dozen rounds or more, but it’s a safe bet that by the last few rounds, in a fully loaded magazine, their bores became so fouled precision delivery of bullets disappeared.
Smokeless powders effectively eliminated such bore fouling and thus paved the way for truly efficient repeating rifles, not to mention autoloading rifles and, very quickly, machine guns. One of the earliest and most notable military rifles was Peter Paul Mauser’s Model 1889 made for the Belgian government. Its cartridge was the 7.65x53mm. The Argentines saw and liked the combination well enough they adopted it in 1891 with only minor changes.
The progression of US Army cartridges from 1865 to 1915 included (from left) the .50
Government (.50-70), .45 Government (.45-70), .30 Army (.30-40 Krag) and .30-06.
By 1915 the standard shoulder arm of the US Army was the Model 1903
Springfield chambered for the excellent .30-06.
Here is an interesting fact. In the 1950’s American engineers changed the 7.65x53mm Mauser case’s shape slightly, reduced its overall length by 2 millimeters and adapted it to .308-inch bullets instead of 0.311-inch ones. Then they named it the .308 Winchester and 7.62mm NATO.
The US Army was slower. Our first smokeless round was the .30 Army (aka .30-40 Krag today) in 1892, but in truth no rifles or carbines were issued to troops prior until about 1895. After that, however, things moved along rather quickly with the fine Model 1903 and then the even finer .30-06 cartridge three years later. In sporting rifles, the .25-35 WCF and .30 WCF (aka .30-30 today) came in 1895 in Winchester’s Model 1894. That rifle was nigh on the American standard for deer hunters in 1915.
My take is central priming, brass cases and smokeless powder developments changed rifles more in the 1865-1915 time frame than in any other like period.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino