The .50-70 Government

Not as well known as the more capable .45-70, the .50 Gov’t nonetheless served throughout the early post-Civil War Wild West.

Of all the black powder, single shot, rifle cartridges I’ve worked with since 1981, the most historical is the .50 Government, aka .50-70, aka 50-1-3/4″. It was the primary reason why a few dozen US soldiers defeated a horde of Sioux warriors at what became known as “The Wagon Box Fight” in northern Wyoming in August 1867. When a couple dozen whites were besieged by combined Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne, at Adobe Walls in north Texas in June 1874, the .50-70 was one of the most fired cartridges from their Sharps “buffalo rifles.”

It was also the caliber of the Remington No. 1, “rolling block” rifle Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer personally carried when he led the famous 7th US Cavalry to disaster at the Little Bighorn Battle in southern Montana in June 1876. In fact it is doubtful if any substantial altercation between the US Army and Plains Indian tribes in the post-Civil War era did not include .50-70 caliber rifles or carbines on one side or the other or both.

All that said it is likely more .50-70 rounds were fired for hunting purposes than in combat. All of the companies making big-bore, single-shot rifles until about 1880 relied on .50-70 as one of their primary chamberings. Remington’s No. 1 “rolling block’s” introductory caliber was .50-70 and, in the legendary Sharps rifles, .50-70 was the second biggest selling chambering until 1876. Both models of rifle were prominent in the great slaughter of American bison herds during that time frame. Tens of thousands of Sharps Models 1859, 1863 and 1865 military percussion rifles and carbines were altered to .50-70 circa 1867/1868. Many of those along with ammunition were then handed out to various reservation Indians for hunting purposes. Perhaps not surprisingly, modern archaeology proved about three dozen of those “hunting” .50-70 Sharps were turned on 7th Cavalrymen at the Little Bighorn.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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