When I first had the idea of writing a column about calibers originally designed for military use that became popular among civilian hunters and shooters, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find enough material. I needn’t have worried. In fact, after having spent way too much time agonizing over what I’d leave out, I decided to turn this report into a two-part series to be completed next week.
I’ll begin this stroll through the history of military small arms very shortly after end of the Civil War. The advent of the general use of metallic cartridge cases and the war-driven advances in mass production combined to allow the United States to distill what had been a hodgepodge of shoulder-fired weapons down to one standardized rifle that fired an equally standardized cartridge.
The first attempt to do so was a flop. Near universal dislike for the .50-70 Government caliber rifles first issued to troops in 1866 generated immediate research into a replacement. Thus it was that in 1873 the Springfield Armory began producing a new cartridge, the .45-70-405. (This nomenclature describe a .45 caliber case capable of holding 70 grains of black powder and a 405-grain bullet.) It was designed specifically for use in the company’s Model 1873 trapdoor single shot rifle, which was introduced simultaneously.
The new rifle became standard issue for the army and was offered to the civilian market as the .45-70 Government later that same year. It was an instant success both in and out of uniform, despite a rainbow trajectory that limited aimed fire at man-sized targets to about 300 yards. In 1884, Springfield began producing Model 1873 rifles with breeches strong enough to handle a ballistically superior 500-grain bullet, which allowed for massed volley fire at ranges well beyond those possible with other infantry weapons of the time.
The .45-70 remained the standard issue military rifle until 1893. The caliber is alive and well today among civilians in both blackpowder and smokeless powder variants. Several companies offer the .45-70 in repeating actions and at least one sells a revolver chambered for it. It’s still a relatively short range caliber to be sure, but it hits hard enough to have dispatched every big game animal on the planet.
I’m concentrating on rifle calibers, but I know I’ll hear about it, if I don’t at least make mention of the .45 Long Colt. The army began offering the .45 Long Colt as an option to the Smith & Wesson .45 Schofield in 1873 and continued to do so for 14 years, before it was eliminated in favor of the .45 Schofield.
The .45 Long Colt fared much better in the civilian market, quickly becoming the most popular revolver cartridge of the late 19th Century. It maintained this position despite competition from the .44-40 Winchester, which could also be used in a Winchester rifle chambered for it. At the time there were several rumors why the .45 Long Colt wasn’t used in rifles. The truth was that Colt would not share its patents with other manufacturers, so Colt’s patents had to expire before the production of rifle versions of the caliber could
The .45 Long Colt is popular today for target shooting, hunting and self defense. It’s available in western style revolvers, in lever action rifles and in short-barreled, heavy-frame revolvers which can also fire .410 shotgun ammo.
Now let’s take a quick step across the pond and see what was going on in Great Britain at the dawn of the 20th Century. The British were quick to see that smokeless powder was the wave of the future and that .30 caliber rifles were the most efficient way to utilize it. So after a couple of false starts, Great Britain adopted the .303 Lee-Enfield 10-round bolt action rifle in 1895 and continued to use it until 1957. The Commonwealth nations quickly followed suit, and a few of them still use the .303 Lee-Enfield today.
The design of the .303’s bolt makes it one of the fastest cycling bolt actions of all time. In fact, the world record for aimed bolt action fire was set in 1914 by a British musketry instructor who placed 38 rounds into a 12-inch target at 300 yards in one minute.
It’s ironic that Shakespeare, who penned the line, “What’s in a name,” was English, because there’s a lot in a firearm’s name in Great Britain, Australia and a few other Commonwealth nations. For example, the .303 Lee-Enfield is a very popular civilian hunting and competition shooting rifle throughout Europe and Asia. It’s so popular in fact that when Australia tried to ban “military calibers,” beginning shortly after WWII, Australians responded by converting their .303 Lee-Enfield rifles into wildcat calibers that were equivalent to their “military caliber” parent in everything but name.
Join me next week, when civilian use of some current military calibers gets exciting.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]