An Enduring Sport Combining Skill With Rifle, Bullet And Loading Press.
Within days of this writing I will be leaving for the 27th BPCR Silhouette National Championships held every summer at the NRA Whittington Center near Raton, N.M. And I’m virtually bubbling with enthusiasm. I’ve never missed one of these national championships and never intend to as long as I’m still on this planet.
In fact my interest is so strong in this game even after all these years that there are seven dedicated BPCR Silhouette rifles in the vault and over two dozen suitable bullet molds stored above a likewise dedicated lead melting furnace. (Only 1:20 tin/lead alloy goes in that furnace.) The wintertime products of those molds, alloy and furnace (along with my labor) weigh about 200 pounds. Most of them get fired away every season.
Perhaps the reason I’m still so avid after 25 years of steady involvement with this sport is because I’m not that good at it—yet. Or maybe it’s because as formulated by the NRA in the mid-1980s Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette as it is formally known is a multifaceted event. For any shooter to do well in this game he or she must be proficient in three skills.
Of course the primary one is shooting a rifle well: one capable of heaving a bullet heavy enough to knock over 50-pound ram silhouettes at 500 meters (547 yards). That means the rifles must deliver some amount of recoil which will have a cumulative effect on the shooter during a 40-round course of fire. (Including sighters a day’s match is usually at least 60 shots.)
Another factor in the game’s continuing popularity is that NRA rules have kept it from becoming an arms race. There are many strictures pertaining to equipment but perhaps the most important one in preventing gamesmanship is that rifles must have exposed hammers. The secondary but vitally necessary skill is being an extremely capable handloader. That is as opposed to more common “reloaders.”
Let’s look at that for a moment. BPCR Silhouette rules permit only black powder for propellant. (The only substitute allowed is Hodgdon’s Pryodex but equipment tabulations from the national championships show that no one has used it in years.) Although this fact was forgotten for many decades, black powder is capable of superlative precision from big-bore, metallic cartridge firing, single-shot rifles. But the rounds must be properly handloaded. Those persons desiring the “clink-sound” of a finished cartridge falling into the bin with each stroke of a reloading press handle usually find the necessary details involved in assembling match-quality BPCR ammunition mind-boggling. We can’t examine all that here but there are several books available on the matter.
The third skill needed to excel at this game is an ability to cast superlative quality bullets. Cast handgun bullets dropping from gang molds with more wrinkles than my face can still create ragged holes in 25-yard targets. High power cast rifle bullets will group well when poured by the hundreds in multiple cavity molds. The people doing well in BPCR Silhouette competition by far use custom cut bullet molds overwhelmingly with a single cavity.
Why all the fussiness? It is because BPCR Silhouette is a precision oriented game. In order to hit silhouettes in the form of pigs at 300 meters, turkeys at 385 meters, and rams at 500 meters rifles must deliver bullets into clusters absolutely no larger than 2 minutes-of-angle. And we’re not talking about 3- or 5-shot groups. The course of fire at each distance is 10 targets; in some matches it’s 15. Add five sighters, which is about average.
Therefore the rifle should be able to keep 15 rounds in a maximum of 2 MOA. Try that sometime with most any rifle on a paper target at about 300 meters with a mite of wind blowing. It’s tough. And don’t forget that sort of accuracy must be achieved from prone position off of a set of crossed sticks—not from a sturdy benchrest with sandbags. Personally my criteria for a match rifle is 10 shots in 1-1/2 MOA at 300 yards. Some guys report even better than that.
The fourth silhouette target hasn’t been mentioned yet. Those are the chickens at 200 meters and they must be shot from offhand position. Those are the targets that make or break a competitor. Here’s an example: in the last event I shot in 2012 only one silhouette fired at from prone/crossed sticks was missed. That was the very first turkey. Just a few downed chickens would have put my score at or near the top. Instead I hit a single one.
Many competitors have tried to hedge a bit on the recoil factor by going to smaller caliber rifles such as the .38-55. However, that is one of those 2-edged sword conundrums. It is true that light recoil say from a 330-grain bullet in a .38-55 allows better offhand shooting at chickens. And such a bullet does fine for pigs and turkeys. The problem is that occasionally .38-55 bullets just bounce off of rams, especially with a slightly low center hit.
After a 1/4-century of enthusiastic competitors experimenting with everything from boattail cast bullets to custom made cartridge cases, three black powder rounds have come to dominate the sport. In order of popularity they are .45-70, .40-65 and .45-90. The .45-70 is an “everyman’s” cartridge available in all rifle types, with brass made by multiple manufacturers and cast bullet designs offered in the scores. Of course .45-90s use those same bullet designs but ready to load brass is only available from Starline. My personal opinion is that .45-90s are the truly experienced rifleman’s choice due to heavier recoil. Conversely the .40-65 is for those with more recoil sensitivity. Brass for .40-65 is also offered by Starline ready to load but of course it’s a simple matter to squeeze .45-70 cases to .40-65. Trimming them slightly then trues up case mouths. Cast bullet designs for .40 caliber are fewer in number than .45s but by no means limited.
As mentioned in the beginning, there are seven dedicated BPCR Silhouette rifles in my vault and they are perhaps a good reflection on the above paragraph. Four are .45-70s, two are .45-90s and one is a .40-65. Another reflection given by those seven rifles is my predilection for western history as opposed to technological advances of the late 1800s. Four of those seven rifles are Sharps Model 1874s, two by Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing, one by C. Sharps Arms, and one original with a modern barrel. Three are rolling blocks, two by Lone Star Rifle Company and one an original with modern barrel. Those Sharps and Remington originals are both target rifles from the 1870s, and two of my most prized possessions.
Others in the BPCR silhouette community in general also have their preferences. Some shoot only high walls; original Winchesters or newly made ones by a number of manufacturers. Others dote on Remington No. 3 “Hepburns” or Ballards or even trapdoor Springfields. Of course all those original actions are fitted with new barrels. Shiloh’s introduction of their reproduction Model 1877 Sharps in 2013 will add a new choice for rifle buyers.
Competitors argue the matter of “best” action type back and forth. Some say that a small hammer centrally hung in the action will allow the most precision. They charge that a large central hammer (rolling block style) or any size side hammer (Sharps ’74s, ’75s and ’77s) will cause disturbance on firing. Proponents of the latter style actions say barrel quality is a far greater concern, as is ammunition assembly. Also there’s the factor of shooting a rifle one is drawn to as opposed to picking one esthetically displeasing just to add a point or two to scores. Of course that is my mindset.
There are some blanket statements that can be made about these rifles regardless of action types. One concerns rifling twist rates. Almost all .45-caliber rifles in use have 1 turn in 18-inch rifling twists. Mine do except the original Sharps with new barrel (Krieger). It has a 1:17-inch twist. I can’t tell any performance differences between the 17- and 18-inch twists. Some competitors are trying .45 calibers with 1:16-inch twists and reporting good results. Most .40 caliber barrels being used in the sport have rifling twists of 1:16 inches but some 18-inch-twist barrels are used too.
Regardless of rifling twist or caliber the majority of BPCR rifles have 30- to 32-inch barrels. Many are round but an educated guess is that the majority are octagon or 1/2 octagon and 1/2 round. Interior barrel dimensions are likewise fairly standard regardless of exact manufacturer. Rifling depth is 0.004 inch, groove diameter of .40s is 0.408 inch, and 0.458 inch for .45s. Bore diameters are 0.400 and 0.450 inch in the same order.
Concerning triggers, an educated guess would be that at least 90 percent of rifles used in the sport wear double-set triggers of one style or the other. When set most release with less than a pound of pressure. Double-set triggers do allow precise shooting but they will also allow shooters to develop poor habits such as tapping the trigger instead of pressing it. Some of the better shooters are perfectly happy with single triggers as long as they break smoothly. Four of my rifles have double-set triggers; three have single triggers. My highest score ever (33×40) was fired with a single trigger rifle—the original Remington rolling block with new barrel.
Virtually all BPCR Silhouette competitors nowadays are using one form or another of Soule-type tang-mounted peep sights. A Soule sight has windage adjustment in a drum just above the sight base. It can be easily moved without un-shouldering the rifle and has precise windage increments of only 1/2 MOA. Front sights used in this game very greatly in exact styles—say as in fixed or wind-gauge types. One factor they all have in common is that they take interchangeable inserts featuring apertures, posts, crosshairs, etc. It’s also a safe bet that the insert type used most often is one size or another of aperture.
Also in the past few years a scoped division of BPCR Silhouette has become its own separate sport. Format and ranges for the targets remain the same but rifles are allowed to wear long-tube type optics without click type adjustments. Rifle weight can also increase from iron sight’s 12 pounds, 2 ounces, to 15 pounds including scope and mounts. Scoped competition was instituted because the game was losing shooters whose aging eyes couldn’t cope with iron sights anymore. Interestingly, it is rare for scoped scores to outdistance iron sight scores by very much if at all. Scopes allow you to see targets better but the shooter must still do a good job of firing and following through.
In this upcoming trip to Raton I’m going to rely on my original Sharps and Remington. Both are .45-90 caliber, both have Krieger barrels and both fire the same handload well. How I do will depend on how well I can squeeze their single triggers and follow through afterwards.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino
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