Category Archives: Montana Musings

The Other Old West Repeaters

Winchester May Have Enjoyed The Most Success
In The Market, But The “Red W” Had Many Competitors.

Elsewhere in this issue is my article on Winchester’s 19th century lever guns and the vast array of black powder cartridges developed to go with them. As synonymous as the name Winchester has become with Old West rifles and carbines, there were many other repeaters around then too. Companies with names like Burgess, Bullard, Colt, Evans, Whitney Kennedy, Marlin and others produced repeating rifles and carbines in an effort to compete with Winchester.

Some such as Marlin were reasonably successful to the point that their basic designs are still being produced today albeit in somewhat altered forms. Others such as the Burgess “wrist-pump” rifles (and shotguns) are mere footnotes to repeating arms history.

Winchester’s basic concept was simple. Six Winchester models from 1866 to 1894 had tubular magazines hung beneath the barrel, were loaded via a port on the action’s right side, and contained exposed hammers. Burgess, Colt, Kennedy and Marlin repeaters all were knock-offs of Winchesters in one way or another. All had tubular magazines beneath their barrels and exposed hammers. At least the Colt Lightning was a pump action, whereas Marlins and Kennedys were also lever actuated.

One other factor shared by all Winchester’s competitors was a particular cartridge. It was the .44 WCF, although the other companies chose to label their repeaters otherwise. Marlin was the outfit that came up with the .44-40 moniker that we all use nowadays. They weren’t about to label their guns “Winchester Centerfire.” Colt just put a big “.44 CAL” on their Lightnings. Kennedy stamped theirs “.44 CAL C.F.” meaning centerfire.

The first competitor with Winchester in regards to a repeating lever gun was a collaboration between Andrew Burgess, a firearms designer, and Eli Whitney, a manufacturer. The latter man viewed a prototype developed by the former and together they decided to buck Winchester’s premier position. As they developed their new lever gun Mr. Burgess and Mr. Whitney incorporated a patent for a cartridge lifter belonging to Samuel V. Kennedy. Thusly the name “Kennedy” was stamped on the new rifles and carbines along with “Whitneyville Armory” but for some unknown reason Burgess has been left out.

Hence these guns are known to collectors today as Whitney-Kennedys. They were made both as sporting rifles and as saddle ring carbines with 24- and 20-inch barrels respectively. Both octagon and round barrels were options for rifles but only round for carbines. Two shapes of levers are found on Whitney-Kennedys. One was a traditional type finger loop and the other is an odd S-shaped lever. A friend owns a Whitney-Kennedy with the S-lever, which I have fired some. It is very awkward to someone used to finger loop levers.

The company that came closest to rivaling Winchester was Marlin and, since Winchester Repeating Arms is a dead duck now and the Marlin Company still exists, perhaps they won out in the long run. There isn’t a nickel’s worth of difference in the function of lever guns from the two outfits except that starting with their Model 1889, Marlin lever guns throw their fired cases to the side instead of straight up. It’s a small point but significant in that a fired case will sometimes drop right back into a Winchester’s action after being tossed straight upwards.

The fact that Marlin lever guns (starting with the Model 1889) flung empty
cases to the right instead of straight up was considered a selling point.

Duke has fired a friend’s Whitney-Kennedy with its odd S-shaped lever and found it awkward.

This is a Burgess “wrist-pump-action” .44-40 belonging to one of Duke’s friends.
It is functioned by pulling backwards on the handle on the stock’s wrist.

It has often been written that Colt was scared off of getting into the lever gun market by Winchester’s threat to get into the sixgun market. If so the Colt officials weren’t too frightened because they developed a pump action rifle and carbine that not only used Winchester’s cartridges but could be fired faster than a lever gun. It was suitably named the Lightning.

I’ve owned several Colt Lightning rifles and carbines in both .38 and .44 calibers and in truth they are faster firing. In fact you can hold the trigger back and pump the thing and spray bullets all over the countryside. It’s just that you’re not going to hit much that way. Colt’s Lightning did give Winchester a good run but with its relatively fragile mechanism it wasn’t ever going to supplant lever guns.

The oddest Winchester competitor I’ve ever fired was the before-mentioned Burgess “wrist-pump” action. Talk about an odd duck. Instead of having a sliding handle under the barrel that the operator pulls rearward to function the gun, this Burgess designed repeater has its pump handle over the stock’s wrist. It is pulled back to open the action and then pushed forward to close the bolt on a loaded round. It was awkward in the extreme the first few times I tried a friend’s because my left hand instinctively tried pulling back on the forearm. By consciously willing my hands to operate in conjunction to one another I finally was able to make the Burgess rifle function. It never caught on and such rifles were probably only made as prototypes. However Burgess wrist-pump-action shotguns were made and sold in at least minor quantities.

Some Winchester competitors were little more than ideas such as the Burgess wrist-pump while some such as Marlin’s many variations were true competitors. Perhaps that competition was what kept Winchester busy during that era in coming up with new designs chambering entire new lines of cartridges.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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World War Supply

What’s A Military Arm Without The Proper Accoutrements?

Admittedly I’m a gun collector; the 70-plus World War II firearms in my vault are proof of that. But, I’m not an accouterments collector, although I have some of that stuff, too. My rationale for having cartridge pouches, holsters, helmets, hats, and such is that they’re needed for photo props.

Here’s a typical conversation between Yvonne and me: “Take these two rifles out in the pasture and photograph them on some rocks or something.” Yvonne speaking, “Give me some stuff to go with them. Guns alone don’t look good.” Me speaking, “I don’t have any stuff to go with them.” Yvonne speaking, “Then get some, dummy.”

The fly in Yvonne’s ointment is this: original World War II “stuff” is getting awfully expensive. For instance, I just checked an Internet auction site for vintage US military 1911 holsters. Good condition ones (meaning photogenic to Yvonne and I), were priced at $100 to $150. Buy many photo props at that rate and another good gun could be setting in the vault instead, which is my preference.

And that brings us to a company I recently discovered. It is called World War Supply and is a source for good-quality reproduction equipment as used by the armies of America, Germany, Japan, Britain, Russia and a bit from other nations too. World War Supply’s exact duplicate of a US military 1911 holster is a mere $26.99. And it’s not cheesy, slapped together “stuff.” It’s quality.

Many World War II rifles floating about nowadays are missing things like cleaning rods, and slings and most of them are minus storage accouterments like leather sight covers or fabric muzzle or action covers. Indeed, it was a search on the Internet for slings and cleaning rods for German K98k rifles that led me to World War Supply in the first place. There are a half dozen of those rifles in my collection now and only one of them came with cleaning rod and sling. From WW Supply I got those items so all my K98k rifles have the proper accouterments.

From there I moved on to slings and cleaning rods for my Type 38 and Type 99 Japanese Arisakas and even an original sling for my French MAS 1936 rifle. Some of World War Supply’s items are original such as that French rifle sling. However, the availability of original items is sporadic and “once gone perhaps always gone” whereas reproduction accouterments are usually resupplied when sold out.

When Duke bought this German K98k it was a bare-bones rifle. Now from World War
Supply he has fitted it with sling, leather sight cover, and cleaning rod.

World War Supply also sells a variety of fabric military accouterments such as
this holster for a Webley Mk VI and an American shotgun ammunition pouch.

Here’s another factor; the poor condition of leather and canvas items aged from 60 to perhaps 80 years. For instance, recently an old friend gave me a K98k bayonet complete with scabbard and frog. (That’s the leather and fabric holder for carrying it on a belt.) The bayonet and scabbard are fine but the frog is deteriorated to the point of falling apart. It certainly is not photogenic enough for Yvonne. I got a replacement from World War Supply, even marked the same as original German produced ones. The same was true for my 1940s vintage Wehrmacht gas mask canister. Its fabric straps were so poor that one tore in two when pulled upon to secure its lid. I paid about 100 bucks for it on the Internet but the new made one from World War Supply was also priced at only $26.99. Aside from a photo prop I’ve found it to be the perfect size for toting around magazines for several World War II submachine guns in my collection.

As people close to me can attest I have a rather strange affinity for military helmets. In fact once I told Yvonne that as a 13 year old, my two greatest desires were a tri-color collie dog and a German army helmet. It took me well into my 50s but now I have both. In fact in regards to German helmets I have one original, one reproduction and now thanks to World War Supply I also have a reproduction of the German Fallschirmjager (paratrooper) helmet. Price an original one of those sometime: they cost thousands of dollars! World War Supply sells reproduction helmets with various camouflage patterns or decal arrangements. I ordered my Fallschirmjager helmet to look like those used during the Normandy fighting of summer, 1944. Its price is only about $140. As mentioned, leather and fabric from long ago may be in poor shape. World War Supply offers new liners for many original German and Japanese helmets.

The owner of World War Supply, Mark Petricevic and I have been visiting via e-mails and phone conversations. His knowledge of World War II equipment is amazing and so is his determination to search out rare items such as a Japanese soldier’s 3-pouch leather cartridge belt and then have it reproduced in detail. World War Supply’s website not only contains a catalog of products for sale but also has a myriad of videos showing shooting and disassembly of many types of vintage military firearms plus informational articles on many World War II firearms. Mark also asked me for any ideas of candidate items that he could have reproduced. If you have any such ideas I’m sure he would be glad to hear about them in e-mail.

And you’ll be seeing in the future how I’m keeping Yvonne happy by supplying her “stuff” to photograph alongside many of my military firearms.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

World War Supply
P.O. Box 72
Ada, MI 49301
(616) 676-7277

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Where The Bang Starts

A Primer On Primers.

Primers are mysterious things which I fear we handloaders take for granted. Having virtually no intuitive ability or formal education concerning chemistry I’ve never comprehended how they work. A chunk of flint striking a piece of steel and giving off sparks I can understand but a streak of flame coming out of a metal cup holding what appears to be dried putty but only after a firing pin strike is beyond me. Yet for the handloader nothing can replace these remarkable little widgets called primers.

The very first metallic cartridges were rimfire, meaning their priming compound was held inside the case rim. That’s just as .22 rimfires are still primed. Such a system works well for small cases but proved unreliable in bigger calibers. The US Government did try it in their first .58 Government rounds circa 1865 but shortly dropped it in favor of centerfire priming in the .50 Government (.50-70). Winchester’s .44 Henry Rimfire did last several decades but an interesting fact is the Henry and Winchester rifles chambered for that round gave twin firing pin strikes as insurance against misfires.

Early government centerfire priming isn’t the same as what we have today. Primers were inside cases and held by stab-crimps. Except for those crimps the cases on the outside looked like rimfire cartridges. Firing pins actually punched deep in the base of the case to reach the primer. The government stuck with this process into the .45-70 era, only switching to outside primers about 1881. Incidentally, these inside primed cases were made of copper not brass.

Outside primers and brass cases meant reloadability. America’s first reloadable handgun cartridge came along in 1870. It was Smith & Wesson’s .44 American. My research has not been able to pin down exactly when American reloadable rifle cartridges appeared. My best guess would be Remington’s .44-77 in 1867 but don’t make any bets on it. For sure Winchester’s first reloadable, centerfire rifle cartridge was the .44 WCF (.44-40) introduced late in 1873.

In the 1870s there were two basic styles of primers in use. They are known today as Boxer and Berdan. Boxer primers are what we still use. They consist of three items: cup, priming compound and anvil. Upon firing, priming compound is mashed between firing pin and anvil in turn causing that mysterious flame to spurt out through a hole centered in the case’s primer pocket.

Berdan primers consist of cup and priming compound. Cartridge cases meant for Berdan primers have anvils as part of primer pockets. Because the anvils are centered in primer pockets Berdan cases have two or even three flash holes for the flame to travel through.

Obviously it was easier for cartridge reloaders to punch a spent primer out of a case having a large centered flash hole than a case having two or three small flash holes. Hence Boxer priming eventually became America’s standard. To the best of my knowledge Winchester’s cartridges always used Boxer primers. Conversely all ammunition factory loaded by the Sharps Rifle Company of the 1870s used Berdan primers. They must be pried out of primer pockets which is a slow and tedious operation.

From the beginning of the reloadable metallic cartridge era primers have been made in a bewildering array of sizes and types. In my cartridge collection are ancient .38 WCF (.38-40) and .44 WCF rounds with small primers. In my many tubs of old cartridges are a few relatively modern .357 Magnum factory loads with large primers. When cartridge propellants transitioned from black powders to smokeless types another variable was added because also in my collection is an unopened case of 1,000 Remington No. 2 primers labeled “for black powder.”

Thankfully today the firearms industry has standardized on primers. For metallic cartridges there are four basic types of primers: small pistol, small rifle, large pistol, and large rifle. But get this: large pistol and large rifle primers very slightly dimensionally. Their diameters are standard at 0.210 inch but rifle primers are slightly longer than pistol primers. On the other hand small rifle and small pistol primers are dimensionally identical, which in no way means they should be considered interchangeable.

Collectively speaking of all four types of primers we have standard- and magnum-strength ones, and standard and benchrest or match-grade primers. Magnum primers are often a source of confusion to neophytes because being labeled magnum does not necessarily indicate they should be used in magnum cartridges. Magnum strength primers produce stronger and longer lasting flames to help get some types of powders better ignited. Are they ever absolutely necessary? That’s a definite maybe. For instance the 8th Edition Hornady Handbook Of Cartridge Reloading in their section on 6.5x52mm Carcano says use only Winchester Large Rifle Magnum primers with their 160-grain, 0.267-inch bullets.

What kind of shelf life do primers have? That’s another question without a definite answer. I’ve been shooting some German military factory loads for 8x56mmR Hungarian dated 1939 and some 8x57mm rounds dated 1940. They all gave perfect ignition. Along with those I’ve fired British .303 and French 7.5x54mm military ammo both dated 1961. All the British rounds do this: the trigger is pulled, there is a click, a definite pause, and then the rifle goes boom. About one third of the French rounds do likewise. Some very clean French 7.65mm Long pistol rounds dated 1953 were all complete duds.

In this time of primer shortages some panicked buyers are picking up any sort available. If such is you be careful. Use them correctly. Primers are amazingly powerful for their size. If in doubt consult a reloading manual and don’t just take some Internet warrior’s word for what is safe.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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Not Just Bullets

Ammunition And Ammunition Feeding Facts.

Lately the news media has enthusiastically quoted some of the more idiotic politicians about the need for banning “high-capacity bullet clips” and “automatic assault weapons.” Movies likewise continually give poor representations of firearms use and knowledge.

First off, they’re not bullets. Nor are bullets held in clips. Firearms ammunition consists of cartridges of which bullets are merely one component. They are the projectile that leaves the firearm and proceeds to where ever it was pointed. That’s all.

Clips for holding ammunition do exist. They are specifically called “stripper clips” or “charger clips.” Such clips are not attached to the firearm. They are inserted into slots in the firearm’s receiver, the ammunition then pressed into the firearms’ magazine and the clip is then pushed out of the way.

There is a different type of ammunition feeding device often mistakenly referred to as “clips.” They are actually en-bloc loaders with the most commonly known type being the 8-round capacity ones needed for feeding M1 Garand rifles. An en-bloc loader stays with the ammunition (Not bullets!) when it is inserted into the firearm. With M1 rifles the en-bloc loader is ejected from the firearm after the last round is expended. Alternately, in the case of some elderly bolt-action rifle designs such as Italian Model 1891 Carcanos, Austrian or Hungarian Model 1895s, the en-bloc loader falls out the bottom of the magazine when the last round is chambered.

Magazines are from where ammunition is fed into a firearm’s chamber. There are integral box magazines such as in bolt-action rifles and tubular magazines such as attached under the barrels of lever-action rifles. Then there are detachable magazines used in all sorts of different firearms. And let’s get one fact straight.

High-capacity magazines are not new. Tubular magazines under the barrels of Winchester rifles in the 1860s could hold up to 17 rounds. It’s the detachable types used with autoloading firearms that are scaring the unknowing. They have been around for over 100 years. (Also it should be noted that with the aid of some special accessories detachable magazines can be quickly loaded with stripper clips.)

While we are on the subject let’s get terminology correct about autoloaders. At a gun show recently a fellow asked me a question about his “.45.” Trying to understand I said, “Is it a .45 Auto?” Very quickly he emphatically stated “It’s a semi-auto.”

My reply was, “Bud; don’t go politically correct on me. The cartridge’s official name is .45 Auto and that’s how the ammunition (not bullets!) is headstamped. It’s not marked .45 semi-auto!

According to the unknowing, idiotic, or simply conniving politicians, the CAR15 in the middle is the most dangerous of these three guns. In truth the Winchester Model 1892 .44-40 (top) holds a good many cartridges (not bullets!) in its tubular magazine (not bullet clip!) and, in Duke’s opinion, the 100-year-old Model 1897 pump-action shotgun at bottom is a far more deadly weapon.

These are not “bullet clips!” (above) They are ammunition (or cartridge) magazines. These are not
all bullets! (below) Some are bullets. Some are loaded ammunition or cartridges.

Saying auto, which is short for autoloader, does not indicate how a firearm functions except that it automatically chambers a fresh cartridge after a fired case is ejected. Then there are two separate divisions of autoloaders: semi-autos and full-autos. A semi-auto fires one round with each press of the trigger. A full-auto fires as long as the trigger is held back or until its magazine is empty. A further division could be the select-fire types in which a button or lever converts them from semi-auto to full-auto and vice versa.

True assault rifles are select-fire. They were designed so that accurate aimed fire could be delivered by a soldier in semi-auto mode but then in emergencies the firearm could be switched to full-auto. The Germans developed such a weapon in the 1940s primarily for use against the Soviets, whose military tactics included massed human wave attacks.

Select-fire and full-auto firearms are tightly restricted by the Federal Government (and also some state governments) and have been since 1934. Tightly restricted means each legally owned one is registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives and each purchaser undergoes a background check that takes months before each purchase is approved.

What the news media and ignorant and/or conniving politicians are raving about are actually facsimiles of assault rifles capable of semi-auto fire only. As such they do not come under the purview of the Federal Government. Most of them look ugly and/or ominous. Ugly they indeed are when compared to beautifully crafted custom bolt action or single-shot rifles. As for ominous, they are actually no more deadly than a trap or skeet shooter’s repeating pump-action or semi-auto shotgun.

Also a watchword being bandied about now in reference to firearms is “need.” As in who needs one of those ugly assault rifles? I wish I had thought of this following sentiment but actually read it in a local Montana newspaper letters column. The second amendment to the United States Constitution is listed in the Bill of Rights. It is not a “Bill of Needs.” Nor does it mention hunting. By the “needs” formula since I don’t hunt anymore I wouldn’t need firearms at all.

If people give politicians the ability to determine their needs, they will eagerly do so. Already in New York City a politician is trying to tell people how big their soft drinks can be. Let politicians allow what is needed and they will determine how much everyone needs from toilet paper to ear rings to information. Needs is a sticky Pandora’s Box that should never be opened in a free society.

But, I am digressing from my topic. It started out by trying to give some detailed knowledge to the ignorant so they at least could have a vague idea as to what they are afraid of and therefore what exactly they wish to ban.
It is doubtful if any of them will read it here. At least I got it off my chest.

This is ammunition in a clip, often called a stripper clip.

By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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Reloading Die Versatiltiy

Understanding Ammo Dimensions Can Prove Economical To Beginning Reloaders.

While in the process of helping a friend’s widow sell his reloading gear a potential buyer said this, “I want a set of dies that will only load .38 Specials because I already have .357 Magnum dies.” That’s not exactly how things work. A set of dies for loading a shorter straight walled case will always work for loading a longer straight walled case of the same dimensions.

For example, a set of .38 Long Colt dies can be adjusted to load .38 Specials and .357 Magnums. A set of .38 Special dies can also load .357 Magnums but a set of dies marked only .357 Magnum will not serve for the shorter rounds. Why? Because a seating/crimping die marked for .357 Magnum can’t be turned far enough into the reloading press to crimp on shorter .38 Specials. The die bottom hits the shell holder before the crimping shelf in the die will contact .38 Special case mouths. The same may possibly be true for case mouth belling dies marked only “.357 Magnum.” Resizing dies so marked do work just fine for the shorter cases.

Just for information here are the case lengths for .38 Long Colt, .38 Special, and .357 Magnum in the same order: 1.03 inches, 1.16 inches and 1.29 inches. Shell holders and bullet diameters are the same for all three. Here are three more examples: .44 Russian, .44 Special and .44 Magnum in the same order are 0.97 inch, 1.16 inches and 1.29 inches. Again dies marked for the shortest case will work for all three, dies marked .44 Special will work for .44 Magnum but ones marked for the magnum length cases will only be suitable for it. And repeating myself again, shell holders and bullet diameters are the same.

Sometimes there are minor details, which must be addressed. Take .45 S&W “Schofield” and .45 Colt for example. Dies for the former round can be used for loading the latter with proper adjustment and both cartridges can use the same bullets. However, shell holders for the two cartridges are different because .45 S&W case rims are about 0.010 inch wider than .45 Colt rims.

The same is true of straight walled rifle cases. When jumping into black-powder cartridge reloading I already had .45-70 reloading dies. So when a .45-90 was acquired all that was necessary was to turn my .45-70 dies 0.30 inch up in the press, which instantly transformed them into .45-90 dies. Case lengths for those two cartridges are 2.10 and 2.40 inches and case head dimensions are exactly the same. Then I bought a rifle chambered for .45-100, which has a 2.60-inch case and same case head. Thinking I had it made with the .45-70 dies they were turned up in the press and I ran into trouble. The die bodies were too short so their threaded portions ran out before they could be adjusted high enough. By that time I had also acquired .45-90 dies and being a bit longer they worked fine when adjusted for the 2.60-inch .45-100 case.

In the realm of bottleneck rifle dies there is less versatility but still some items will work for several cartridges. Let’s take .222 Remington neck-sizing dies for first example. That particular neck-sizing die will serve for .223 Remington and .222 Remington Magnum. Of course the die must be adjusted properly in the press for each case length.

Neck-sizing dies for .308 Winchester will work for .30-40 Krag and .30-06 but not for the longer .300 Magnum cartridges. The width of a .308 case at the beginning of its shoulder is nominally 0.454 inch. Cases for .30-06 are nominally 0.441 inch at that point so they will fit and .30-40 Krag dimension there is only 0.419 inch. However, the various .300 magnum rounds are much larger at that point: ranging from 0.490 inch up. (Except .300 H&H) There is one important caveat with bottleneck cases and neck sizing dies. They must be carefully adjusted so that case shoulders are not set back. Doing so will create the same condition as excess headspace.

How do you avoid setting back the case shoulder? Lubricate a case neck heavily and run it into the neck-sizing die. There will be a visible lube ring showing how much of the case neck is being sized. Adjust the die until the lube ring is just shy of the case shoulder and all should go well.

This subject of reloading die versatility or lack thereof was driven home to me in 1968. I acquired my first .44 Magnum revolver but after firing a few full power factory loads I determined it would serve most of the time as a .44 Special. Not knowing better when I bought dies they were labeled “.44 Magnum” and would not seat and crimp bullets properly in .44 Special cases.

In the same year I acquired my first .45 ACP Model 1911 and Colt SAA .45 but being in college could not afford reloading dies and bullet molds for both rounds. So I bought dies and mold for .45 ACP and also used them for loading .45 Colts with dies properly adjusted of course. That system worked well for several years until I prospered enough to buy genuine .45 Colt reloading dies.

Today I have scores of die sets able to handle most any eventuality encountered in my reloading but an understanding of case dimensions and interchangeability helped me get through the lean years.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

montana 1

The Redding die set (top) is marked .44 Spl/Mag so it can’t be used to reload the
shorter .44 Russian. The RCBS die set (bottom) is marked .44 Russ/.44 Spl. However its
dies can also be adjusted to reload .44 Magnum.

montana 2

In addition to loading the .308 (left cartridge), a .308 Winchester neck-sizing die can
also be used for neck sizing .30-40 Krag (middle) and .30-06 (right).

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The Rifle Musket

The Lethality Of Warfare Is Brutally Escalated By Minié’s Invention.

It sounds farfetched to say the configuration of a simple piece of lead revolutionized warfare with a result being hundreds of thousands of dead and seriously wounded soldiers. It is true. The war was the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 and the piece of lead was the Minié Ball.

Here is a very brief history of that chunk of metal. For hundreds of years, European armies had been blazing away at one another with smoothbore muskets of large caliber firing round lead balls. General wisdom has them not being capable of reliably placing a ball on a human target past 50 yards. (Actually, some can do much better than that, as I have witnessed. We’ll cover such in a column in the future.)

Military tactics during the smoothbore musket era called for soldiers to pack themselves in a dense mass, fire a volley at the enemy in their likewise tightly packed ranks and then charge with bayonets fixed. The bayonet was considered the battle’s determining factor.

Be sure there were rifles in existence, and they were used to limited good effect in the American Revolution of the 1770s/1780s but they were not the final answer on battlefields. The reason was that they were too slow to reload and had no provision for bayonets. If a rifleman with an empty weapon came face-to-face with an enemy soldier having a bayonet attached to a 5-foot-long musket his only hope was the opposition was taking prisoners that day.

In the 1840s, a French officer named Minié discovered if the musket’s barrel was rifled and its projectile was conical with a hollowbase, it could be loaded like a smoothbore musket but give precise bullet placement like a rifle. Gas produced by gunpowder’s explosion filled the Minié ball’s hollowbase, swelling it to fill the rifling grooves. When everything worked properly, after taking the rifling Minié balls flew to where a musket’s sights were aimed—more or less. Early on it was felt an iron plug was necessary in the Minié ball’s base to insure expansion. Before long the plug was found to be superfluous.

By the 1850s, all modern armies, meaning mostly those of European nations, were wielding what came to be called “rifle-muskets.” Generally speaking their calibers ran from .577 to .69. By the time of our Civil War, the US Army’s rifle-musket caliber was .58.

According to U.S. Firearms 1776-1875 by David F. Butler, .58-caliber rifle-musket ammunition consisted of a 60-grain powder charge encased in a paper cartridge with a 500-grain Minié Ball. In use a soldier tore off the base of the paper cartridge, poured the charge down his musket’s barrel, and rammed the Minié ball on top, lastly placing a cap on the nipple. The 40-inch barrel of a Model 1861 rifle-musket gave about 1,000 fps velocity.

montana 1

Although Duke has owned many replica rifle-muskets and one original, the sample he has kept
is this Parker-Hale reproduction of the Enfield Model 1853 .577.

Long Range?

According to some sources rifle-muskets of the Civil War were accurate to 1,000 yards. That is utter nonsense. An experienced rifleman with a properly sighted rifle-musket had a moderately good chance of hitting an opponent as far as 300 yards. He would have been deadly at 100 yards. Because officers on both sides of the Civil War were still trained in antiquated tactics, such level of precision was suitable to produce the horrendous casualties for which that conflict is infamous. The key words in this paragraph are “properly sighted” and “experienced rifleman.”

The Model 1861, predominant in the Civil War, had a simple leaf-type rear sight with a tiny nub atop the barrel for a front sight. The sight leaves were meant for 100 and 300 yards but some versions had a third leave for 500 yards. Being made in the hundreds of thousands by a host of manufacturers—both North and South—a particular Model 1861’s zero could be most anywhere. A knowledgeable rifleman could likely get his musket’s sights zeroed for a specific distance and been a terror on the battlefield. Most troops shot them as issued and hoped for the best.

The unknowing might have visions of Civil War troops casting their Minié balls in molds while sitting around campfires. Perhaps that happened to a limited degree, but according to Butler’s book US Army .58-caliber Minié balls were made by the swaging method in government owned facilities, then lubed with a mixture of one part tallow to eight parts beeswax. Next they were assembled in paper cartridges to the tune of about one-half billion between 1861and 1865.

Even with the considerable manufacturing ability of the northern United States not enough rifle-muskets were available. Both Northern and Southern armies also used literal boatloads of Enfield Model 1853 .577-caliber rifle-muskets purchased from England. With such similar bore sizes American made paper cartridges worked in them too.

As I am wont to do occasionally, in the 1990s I went on a bender. It was focused on rifle-muskets to the tune of about a dozen modern replicas made in England, Italy and Japan along with one original. That one was a Colt Model 1861 “Special” so called because Colt was given a dispensation to make some manufacturing changes to the government’s specifications. When my “binge” ended only one rifle-musket was kept. That was the English made, Parker-Hale replica of the Enfield Model 1853. It exhibited superior workmanship and carried the best sights. With some experience I was able to put a Minié Ball on a man-size target at 300 yards more often than not if using a solid rest.

The era of rifle-musket supremacy in military affairs lasted only about 20 years. By the end of the Civil War, they were made obsolete by metallic cartridge firing rifles. In that brief time span they changed warfare forever.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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The .38-40 WCF

The SECOND best Old West handgun cartridge.

A few months back I wrote a column saying I consider the .44 WCF (.44-40) as the best of all Old West handgun cartridges. This column is about the second best. In my opinion that was the .38 WCF (.38-40). This time we’ll consider rifles and carbines too.

First off, you must understand that the .38 WCF is nowhere near .38 caliber. It is actually .40 caliber using 0.400-inch bullets. Why Winchester named it .38 is a mystery. Furthermore, why it was introduced in the first place is another mystery. Its original black powder factory loads used 180-grain 0.400-inch bullets compared to the .44 WCF’s 200-grain 0.425-inch ones. Velocities were roughly comparable; say about 1,300 fps from the 24-inch barrel of a rifle and about 900 fps from a 7-1/2-inch handgun barrel. Neither one has a great advantage over the other.

I’ve read the .38 WCF was introduced by Winchester in 1874 as the second chambering of their Model 1873. That is incorrect. It was the second chambering offered but the year of introduction was 1879. Colt didn’t get around to chambering it in their revolvers until 1884. Another interesting fact is that Colt continued to chamber it in their large-frame revolvers such as the New Service and Model 1878 double actions. Very few other handgun manufacturers of that era made .38 WCF revolvers. S&W did so with their New Model No. 3 and later N-frame Hand Ejectors but the totals produced were meager.

Regardless, .38 WCFs sold well. It was the Colt SAA’s third most popular chambering among the 1873-1941 first generation of production. That amounted to a bit over 50,000 counting standard SAAs and Bisley versions together. Back about 1993, Colt reintroduced the .38 WCF in the SAA’s options. I had one of the very first and have owned several others. Two are permanent keepers: one with 5-1/2-inch barrel and one with 7-1/2-inch barrel. Whereas First Gen Colt SAA barrel/chamber mouth dimensions are all over the map, all Third Generation ones that I have personally measured are uniformly 0.400-inch across the barrel’s rifling grooves and 0.401-inch at the chamber mouths. Mine are among the most accurate .38 WCF handguns I’ve ever fired from machine rest.

Not to forget lever guns. Winchester continued .38 WCF as one of the Model 1892’s chamberings, Marlin adopted it into their Models 1889 and 1894 and Colt put it into their pump-action Lightnings. It is my opinion that the .38-40 moniker came from Marlin’s caliber inscription. Colt only labeled Lightnings “.38 CAL.” Winchester never put anything but .38 WCF on theirs. Taken collectively there have to have been hundreds of thousands of .38 WCF/.38-40 long guns manufactured.

Browsing through my lifelong records revealed that I’ve owned an even dozen .38 WCF handguns and an even dozen rifles and carbines. All of the handguns were Colt SAAs except for a New Service. All of the long guns were lever guns except for one Colt Lightning Pump Action. Additionally there were three Marlin Model 1894s listed, three Winchester Model 1873s, three Winchester Model 1892s, and two Cimarron Arms replicas of Model 1873s. I don’t remember there being a lemon among all 24 of the .38 WCF firearms owned by me.

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Duke bought this Winchester Model 1873 in 1985. It was the first of a dozen .38 WCF rifles and carbines owned. He still has it. Beneath it the three versions of large-frame revolvers which Colt offered .38 WCF as a caliber option include (from left to right) New Service, Model 1878 Double Action, and Single Action Army.

About 5 years ago, I began trimming back my Old West firearms collection and reinvesting the funds in World War II firearms. When the excess was cut out there were still three Winchesters and three Colt revolvers left in this caliber. The Winchesters consist of Models 1873 and 1892 rifles and a carbine of the latter version. Two of the revolvers were mentioned before. The other is a New Service with 5-1/2-inch barrel.

Some people consider the .38 WCF/.38-40 a difficult cartridge to handload. I don’t. That’s because I recognize the inherent problem I will encounter. That is the bottlenecked case and in the older days of its existence there were no standards by which all companies cut their chambers. Generally speaking rifle chambers were looser than those cut into revolver cylinders. For a modern handloader to successfully resize cases so they fit in all chambers requires a die that sets their shoulders back significantly. Some modern reloading dies do not accomplish that. My set dated by RCBS in 1983 does and my rounds fall in all my .38 WCF chambers.

What else is required for successful .38 WCF shooting in lever guns is a very stout crimp of case mouth to bullet crimping groove. I learned that fact the hard way by fully loading up my Winchester Model 1873’s magazine so that its spring was compressed to the max. Upon firing the first round I heard a “plop-plop-plop” sound. It was the noise made by all bullets in those cartridges being pushed back into the cases. Each one had to be laboriously fished out of the magazine by hand.

After firing many thousands of rounds of .38 WCF handloads I’ve come to favor one bullet design above all others. It is RCBS 40-180CM. It weighs 180 grains of one part tin to 20 parts lead alloy, and shoots the sort of groups shown in the accompanying photographs. Most recently it has usually been loaded over 5.5 grains of IMR’s Trail Boss powder. That bullet design has one other benefit. It shoots extremely well from my Kimber 1911 .40 S&W.

As said earlier, the .38 WCF is actually a .40 caliber. When government agencies and Smith & Wesson all conducted expensive research and development for an autoloading handgun cartridge more powerful than 9mm Parabellum the result was .40 S&W. It is the nothing more than the ballistic twin of our ancient black powder .38 WCF put into an autoloading case.

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Duke’s current Colt SAA .38 WCF with 7-1/2-inch barrel shot this 12-shot group (above) from machine rest at 25 yards. Duke’s Model 1873 Winchester shot this group at 100 yards (below).

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Duke’s favorite .38 WCF bullet mold is this one by RCBS. It works just as well in .40 S&W.

By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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Buying Full-Autos

It’s Expensive, But NOT All That Hard In Most States.

Since I began acquiring an array of World War II and Korean War vintage full-auto machine guns and submachine guns in 2008, many people have written or asked me in person if the process isn’t a morass of red tape.

Actually it is not. Full-autos are illegal in some states. I don’t have a full list of which states do and do not allow them. Everyone needs to check their own state’s laws on that one. On the federal level, full-autos are not prohibited. They are restricted. Each one in private ownership must be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Private citizens don’t have to buy a “license” to own full-autos. Dealers must have what is called a Class III Federal Firearms License in order to trade in them. However, individuals such as myself must follow a specific process to buy one that is already in our home state. First we find the one we want to buy and make the deal. Then the seller whether an individual or dealer must fill out what the BATFE terms a Form 4 with his and the buyer’s names, addresses, etc. Also the firearm’s pertinent information must be listed such as manufacturer, serial number, caliber, etc. Then the Form 4 is given to the buyer. (These forms can be printed right off the BATFE’s website.)

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After Duke went through the paperwork needed to possess this vintage German
MP40, he started on a roll and now has eight more full-autos.

Once the buyer has the Form 4 he fills in his specific portions such as for what purpose he is buying a full-auto. My answer for nine has always been “to enhance my World War II firearms collection.” Next the buyer must attach a passport photo taken within the last 6 months.

Then the buyer must get his chief local law enforcement officer to sign it. The LEO isn’t giving permission per se but simply saying, “I have no information that the transferee will use the firearm or device described on this application for other than lawful purposes. I have no information that the receipt or possession of the firearm or device described in item 4 would place the transferee in violation of state or local laws.”

Of course this above step could present a stumbling block in some locales. I have heard that some big city chief LEOs do not sign for full-autos as a rule. Evidently it must not be too big a problem because I haven’t heard a lot of people screaming about it. Also the buyer must submit fingerprint cards from the local law enforcement agency.

The final step is to include a check for $200 and then mail the Form 4 to the appropriate address. The payment is a 1-time transfer fee. It is not a yearly fee. Then the waiting starts because each Form 4 is vetted individually. You do not get an automatic pass just because you already have full-autos on Form 4s. For my nine the wait has been as short as 6 weeks and as long as 6 months. If you get impatient you can call the BATFE office and ask them your application’s status. That won’t hurry matters along but you can at least ask. The approved Form 4 will be returned to the seller and then and only then can the buyer take possession of the firearm. The Form 4 must stay with the firearm always.

What if the full-auto you have located is in another state? Matters are only slightly more complicated. If you are the holder of a regular FFL or a Curio & Relics type FFL (C&R) then the seller can ship the firearm directly to you after he receives the approved Form 4. If the individual holds neither type of FFL then the seller in another state must ship the firearm to a Class III dealer in your state where the above described application process begins.

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Note the white envelope under Duke’s hand as he shows off his M1 Thompson submachine gun.
It contains the Form 4, which must always remain with the gun.

When in New Zealand in the year 2000 I was surprised to learn that some fellows had full-autos in their collections. Then it was distressing to hear that they could not be fired—at all—never! Such is not true here. Some shooting ranges do not allow full-autos but where legal it is OK to shoot them. On my own home range here in Montana I’ve set up a modest submachine gun range inside my rifle range.

It is also legal to travel out of state with your full-autos but you must have a Form 5230-20 from the BATFE to do so. Again it can be printed right off of their website. Once filled out it can then be mailed or faxed to them for approval. I did this for the first time just this past summer and my approved forms were back in 2 weeks. Here is one warning: When traveling with full-autos you must stay in states that allow them! So knowing what you are doing can prevent troubles.

I am often asked “Isn’t it awfully expensive to shoot those things?” Yes, it can be very expensive to shoot full-autos. Someone once said to me, “Machine guns are the fastest way there is to turn money into noise.” That may be true but no one who has ever fired one of mine came away with a frown. They always are smiling. My stock answer to this question is “Who has the time to shoot them very often? They’re not so expensive when time constraints only allow you to take them out a few times a year.

Like many of you, I was hesitant to enter into the full-auto world. After buying the first one, a German MP40, I was on a roll that has probably ended now: not because it is difficult to buy and own one but because I’ve spent as much money as I can afford on them!
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino


After Duke bought his first full-auto he couldn’t stop himself. These four of the nine which he now has in his World War II collection include (from left) British STEN Mk II 9mm, Russian PPsh41 7.62x25mm, US M1 Thompson .45 ACP, and German MP40 9mm.

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No Bucket List?

It’s Empty.

Bucket List has become a trendy term since the 2007 movie of the same name. For non-movie going readers it means things one would like to do before “kicking the bucket” or in plain terms: before dying. Recently Yvonne was talking about something on her Bucket List when she stopped and looked at me oddly for a minute before saying, “You don’t have a Bucket List, do you?”

Just about everything I wanted out of life, just about every realistic dream I entertained has come about. While still in my teens I discovered Montana while on a camping trip from my birth state of West Virginia and vowed to make it my lifelong home. It has been for nigh on 40 years now.

Horses were pretty rare in the part of West Virginia where I grew up. No matter what I was doing if the chance to see one arose I stopped and watched it. A couple of times as a youth I actually got to sit atop one. It was scary. Fate saw to it that by age 20 I was getting paid to ride other peoples’ horses. After several thousand miles on horseback in the states of Montana, Wyo. and Idaho my butt polished the seat of my handmade saddle till it shone. The finest horse I ever rode was named Duke, wherefrom I gained my nickname. He’s buried here on our property. Age and health problems put a stop to my riding 20 years ago but we still have four horses and Yvonne rides a bit.

Speaking of property, when Yvonne and I married in 1978 we were just a step above the proverbial poor church mice. Therefore, it was a source of great satisfaction that only 8 years later we had prospered enough to buy this piece of Montana, the center of which is laid out almost perfectly for a shooting range to 300 yards. Along the way I’ve also had a very nice, heated shooting house built. Everything I need is always there at hand, from cleaning patches to chronographs. Having a private shooting range was one of the biggest items scratched off of my Bucket List.

There was one downside to finding this piece of land. We had to move from the small Montana town where another of my life’s dreams had come true. That was owning and operating my own movie theater. Growing up in Williamson, W. Va., in the ’50s and ’60s one of my fondest memories is of the Cinderella Theater. Anyway, Yvonne and I ran our small movie house for 6 years and I still kid her about being the best “popcorn girl” I ever had. Even in those days a small town movie theater wouldn’t make anyone rich but it was a most pleasant way of making money.

As a lifelong serious student of World War II history some of my Bucket List dreams were to fly in a B-17, visit the D-Day beaches in France, and stand atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. I’ve done all of that. Additionally I’ve visited the area of Belgium where the Battle of the Bulge occurred and walked on the Guam beach where my uncle, James Virse landed as part of the US Marines’ invasion forces in 1944. (He was 18 years old at the time.) At Pearl Harbor at different times I’ve stood on the Arizona Memorial and on the battleship Missouri where the Japanese surrender was signed in 1945.

My Bucket List item as regards a career was to be a full-time gun’riter, which I’ve been now for over 31 years. Coincidentally with that I’ve been able to own and shoot an amazing variety of firearms, most of which I only fantasized about someday encountering. Dozens and scores of Old West guns such as virtually every type of single-action Colt revolver, Smith & Wesson Model No. 3s, Winchester lever guns, Sharps and Remington buffalo rifles and most of the modern replicas of those historical guns have resided here at one time or the other. Quite a few still do. I handload ammunition for all.

Back at the turn of the century I attended a local gun show where after a single pass through it I stopped at a friend’s table and said, “I’ve got all the Old West guns in here already so my money is safe.” About then I looked down at his table to see a WWII vintage K98k 8mm Mauser. “How much is something like that?” I asked. What he told me was a mere fraction of what I was used to paying for Old West guns. I bought it. It’s still here and in the ensuing 12 years another 75 or so WWII firearms have joined it. American, British, Russian, German, Japanese: most of their significant rifles, pistols, carbines and even submachine guns from 1939-1945 are in my vault. I handload ammunition for all of them too.

My greatest dream was to meet the perfect girl for me. That happened in 1977 and I credit her with giving me the sort of life where an empty bucket list is possible. Certainly there will be more guns bought in the future and perhaps even a tour to the Pacific Battlefields of Guadalcanal and Tarawa if I can get my bum knee lined out. Still, as things are now, my bucket list is vacant.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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From a pre-teen it was on Duke’s Bucket List to fly in a World War II B-17
bomber (above). He flew on this one in 2007.

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One item that was high on Duke’s lifelong Bucket List was having his own private
shooting range. He does; it goes out to 300 yards and he has a heated house to
shoot from during those long, cold Montana winters.

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It was on Duke’s Bucket List to shoot as many different guns as possible in his lifetime.
He has done so to the tune of many hundreds. This photo is just a part of the ones
residing in his gun vault currently. Duke is standing in front of one of the invasion
beaches used by the USMC when taking the island of Guam back from the Japanese
(below). His uncle landed in the first wave somewhere behind him.

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The Best Old West Handgun Cartridge

The .44 Winchester Centerfire.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve tried to shoot every revolver type that someone would have packed in a holster during the last 50 years of the 19th century. Such shooting has encompassed handguns from .36-caliber cap-and-ball “Navy” Colts to the big-bore double actions of the 1890s. In regards to metallic cartridges I’ve handloaded tens of thousands of rounds with both black powder and smokeless powders ranging from .38 Colt up to .45 Colt. In between have been .38 WCF, .41 Colt, .44 S&W American & Russian, .44 Colt, .44 WCF, .45 Schofield and others.

In my humble but experience-based opinion, one of those many rounds stands above all the rest both in regards to its historical perspective and modern application. That is the .44 WCF (Winchester Centerfire) more commonly known today as .44-40. Such an attitude might surprise some readers because cartridges like the .45 Colt are held in near reverence.

Evidently, I wasn’t the only one to draw such a conclusion. Consider this: during the time frame mentioned above no other handgun manufacturer cataloged .45 Colt revolvers. Virtually every maker of “belt revolvers” offered them as .44 WCF. (Belt revolvers were what we would call “holster guns” today.) Remington had the Models 1875 and 1890, Merwin & Hulbert had a couple versions of their unique twist-frame design, Smith & Wesson made both single- and double-action top-break versions of their Model No. 3 in .44 WCF and even Colt put the round in all of their big-frame revolvers introduced after 1873. Another gun’riter far more famous than me, the late Col. Charles Askins once wrote that he saw no reason for Smith & Wesson to introduce their .44 Special because the .44 WCF was already well established.

Ironically, for a cartridge, which I consider a most excellent one for revolvers the .44 WCF was actually developed for rifles. Winchester did that in 1873 for the rifle and carbine named for the year. It was their first round using a brass case with external primer; meaning it was reloadable. From the beginning standard factory loads used a 1.31″ long, slightly bottlenecked case with 40 grains of black powder under a 200-grain, roundnose-flatpoint bullet. From, a 24″ rifle barrel velocity was supposed to be about 1,300 fps.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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