Typically, it begins with a phone call from an elderly female relative. “I found an old gun in the closet. I don’t want to touch it. Can you…?”
Well, sure. And most times you end up bringing it home with you and then wondering what to do with it. Maybe it’s a collector’s item; maybe it’s not. But usually, when it is a family heirloom, especially if it belonged to your father or grandfather, you want to keep it and, if possible, shoot it. The question is, how do you go about doing that?
In America, chances are that such a rifle will be a lever action, or possibly an old single-shot. Souvenir rifles from either of the world wars present their own problems, but they are generally easy to deal with. Old lever actions are considerably more of a challenge in several different ways.
The very first thing you do when confronted with such a situation is to make sure the rifle is unloaded. Maybe this goes without saying, but it never hurts to reiterate. This means ensuring not only that there is no cartridge in the chamber but none in the tubular magazine either. More than once, working the lever has produced nothing the first three or four times, then it has jarred a cartridge loose and suddenly an unloaded rifle has become a loaded one. Such are the surprises.
The second step is to take the rifle to a qualified gunsmith to ensure that it is safe to fire. Many old lever actions were made with relatively soft steel and subjected to overly powerful loads at some point in their careers. This can result in excessive headspace, making it unwise to shoot them. As well, being chambered for cartridges that were originally black-powder rounds, most have at least some degree of corrosion in the barrel, chamber or around the bolt face.
Assuming the rifle gets a clean bill of health, what now? First, let’s see what cartridge it’s chambered for. Often the caliber designation on the barrel is unfamiliar. For example, the cartridge we know as the .30-30 was originally called the .30 WCF (for Winchester Center Fire). The .38-40 was .38 WCF, and so on. With older rifles–especially the Winchester Model 1886, which was chambered for about a dozen different cartridges, most of which are obsolete–determining the exact chambering may require a chamber casting. Again, this is best done by a gunsmith.
Once you know the caliber of the rifle, you will have several different problems to deal with. If you are lucky, it will be chambered for a cartridge for which loaded ammunition is still or once again available, although it may be hard to find. The Old Western Scrounger is a good place to start looking.
Most likely, though, you will need to handload ammunition, and the difficulties this will present may be daunting even to an experienced handloader. Today, we expect standardization in every aspect of our loads and components, but in the late 1800s when many of these rifles were made, standardization was unknown in caliber designations, brass dimensions, barrel and bullet diameters, and virtually anything else you can name. So we have to approach this step by step.
Let’s take as an example a Winchester 1886 chambered for a relatively familiar cartridge, the .40-65. It is representative because it exhibits most of the problems one is likely to encounter. In the late 1800s, scores of cartridges were developed by gunmakers, and many of their designations overlapped. The same cartridge chambered by two companies might be given different names; other times different cartridges were given the same name. The .40-65 Winchester is exactly the same cartridge as the .40-60 Marlin, whereas the .40-60 Winchester is completely different.
After determining the chambering, the next thing you need to know is the actual bore diameter of the rifle. The .40s were notorious for a lack of standardization even among rifles from the same manufacturer. A nominal .40 might be anywhere from .403 to .410. The later .405 Winchester was .412, made that way to prevent owners of .40-70 Straight Sharps rifles from chambering the higher-pressure .405. The cases were otherwise almost identical. Similarly, rifles for the ever-popular .38-55 display a wide range of diameters above and below the nominal .375.
Assuming that even minimal accuracy is important to you, knowing the bore diameter is critical because it dictates bullet, mold and loading-die dimensions. Shooting a .406-diameter bullet through a .410-diameter bore usually results in key-holing bullets and a group that resembles a shotshell pattern of oblong holes. Good luck.
Slugging a bore is considerably easier than it used to be because MidwayUSA markets Slug Your Barrel kits made by Meister Bullets. These consist of a selection of smooth lead cylinders in ascending diameters. In the case of the .40s, they range from .398 to .414 inch; you pick one that is slightly larger than your bore and tap it through using some hardwood dowels. The resulting slug allows you to measure both bore and groove diameter.
That sure beats my old method of finding a wadcutter bullet and either squeezing it in a vise or rolling it to get something approximating the right diameter, then hammering it through.
Once you know the bore diameter, you can start assembling the necessary tools and components. If a person is willing to plunge into the world of bullet casting and swaging, the sky’s the limit. For our purposes, though, we’ll assume you are a knowledgeable handloader who just wants to shoot the rifle, either at paper or game, and is not about to embark on a career of 1,000-yard matches.
In that case, you will need jacketed bullets that are bore diameter or cast bullets one or two thousandths of an inch larger. For a bore that is .408, for example, cast bullets of .409 or .410 should work pretty well.
If you have a bore that is a really weird size, some small bullet casters will produce special bullets, provided you buy enough of them. As well, if you can find a mold you like, many will produce bullets from your mold, saving you the trouble of learning to cast bullets (an activity that can, and has, filled entire books).
Having usable bullets, however, is only part of the battle. You also need to be able to seat those bullets in the appropriate brass, which means getting dies that are right for your particular rifle. As mentioned, the .40s are notorious for their variations. Both RCBS and Redding make dies for different diameters of the same cartridge (.406, .408, etc.). You need an expander plug that will leave the neck the right size to accept the bullets you require. In extreme cases, this means having a plug machined by your friendly lathe operator.
It is entirely possible that you will go through all this only to find that your apparently perfect cartridge will not seat in the chamber of your rifle. There are various explanations. Most common is the practice, with black-powder rifles and handguns of all kinds, of making the chamber undersize, knowing that the soft lead bullet will be bumped up in diameter by the ignition of the black powder. Smokeless powder is less abrupt in its ignition, so bumping up does not occur. Nor, of course, does it happen with jacketed bullets, regardless of the powder. Therefore, you have to use bullets that are full size to begin with, and they might not fit in the chamber.
Sometimes, reaming case necks will remove enough material to let a snug cartridge fit. At other times, more drastic measures are needed, such as reaming out the rifle chamber. If that is the case, you need to make a decision whether firing Grandad’s rifle is worth it to you. More than one lucky heir has decided to hang the rifle over the mantel instead.
Going back a few steps, let’s look at brass. Cases in .40-65 are easy to find nowadays, but such was not the case even 10 years ago. It has staged a comeback because of black-powder silhouette shooting. Even had it not, .40-65 can be readily formed from .45-70 cases, and the whole .45-70 family is relatively standardized.
A cartridge like the .40-70 Straight Sharps is another matter entirely. There were variations among original rifles and cartridges, and cases from one manufacturer or another might be the wrong length or have rims that are too thick (in which case the cartridge won’t seat) or too thin (resulting in headspace problems).
|Shooting Grandad’s Gun|
|Bullets, Brass and Dies|
|Hawk Bullets. Hawk makes bullets from pure copper and pure lead and will produce bullets with custom cannelures and nose shapes, in various weights and diameters. If you want to shoot jacketed bullets in an older rifle, Hawk is your best bet. www.hawkbullets.com|
|Huntington Die Specialties. This is the first place to look for specialty brass or bullets, and Fred Huntington always has good advice for the loader of odd calibers. www.huntingtons.com|
|MidwayUSA. This is a good general source of all conventional loading components and equipment, as well as specialty items such as the Meister Slug Your Bore kits (available in .308-.32, .35, .375, .40, .42 and .458). www.midwayusa.com|
|Old Western Scrounger. OWS is a good source of ammunition in obsolete or obscure calibers, as well as brass for same. www.ows-ammo.com|
|RCBS. RCBS features loading dies for virtually any old cartridge. It will also make dies to special dimensions to accommodate odd bullet diameters. Its Cowboy dies are specially made to accommodate lead bullets. www.rcbs.com|
|Redding. Redding offers a wide variety of top-quality specialty loading dies in virtually any cartridge you can name. Since its market is the serious target shooter, including black-powder cartridges, it offers varied dimensions to accommodate different bore diameters. www.redding-reloading.com|
In the early stages of reloading for a vintage rifle, do not attempt to reduce costs or labor by going for volume. What you want to do first is create two or three cartridges as prototypes. In fact, it never hurts to do your first few as primer-less, powder-less dummy cartridges, created solely to determine what fits your chamber and feeds through your action.
A few years ago I acquired a .500 Nitro Express and made the mistake of assembling about a hundred rounds of ammunition. They were within SAAMI specs for the cartridge but steadfastly refused to chamber. I had to pull them all apart and start over. Now I make sure I have a couple of fully functional cartridges to use as templates before embarking on mass production.
Most of the foregoing dimensional discussion involves diameters, but with lever-action rifles with tubular magazines, length is equally critical. Generally speaking, there are constraints with levers that simply don’t exist with bolt actions. Naturally, with a tubular magazine you are limite
d to either flatnosed or bluntly roundnosed bullets to ensure that recoil does not cause a cartridge in the magazine to touch off the one ahead of it.
Similarly, you need to crimp the bullets solidly in place so recoil will not push the bullet down into the case. This means you need bullets with their cannelure (or crimping groove) in exactly the right place for the overall length you need for your particular rifle to feed properly. With most lever-action rifles that use lifters to feed, cartridges must be one length exactly. Too long, obviously, won’t work, but neither will too short because the cartridge sitting on the lifter will allow the next cartridge in line to back its rim onto the edge of the lifter and jam it in place.
If you conclude from all this that the shooter of a vintage lever action should find the specs for the original ammunition and try to duplicate it exactly, you are quite right. Once you have some workable ammunition you may want to experiment, but not at first.
There are some odd situations regarding specific cartridges. One rifle you might encounter is a .32-40, and for many years .32-40 brass was impossible to get (and it’s still difficult). Since it fathered the .30-30 family, one can make usable brass from the .30-30 or .32 Special, but it will be about a tenth of an inch short. This, however, can work to your advantage.
Jacketed bullets intended for the .32 Special have their cannelure too far back, so crimping them in place creates .32-40 ammunition that is too long. If you make .32-40 brass from .32 Special brass, the reduced length allows crimping of these bullets, and their extra length brings the overall length back to what it should be.
Making .32-40 brass this way presents a problem if you are loading your ammunition with black powder, but not with smokeless, which does not require all that space.
Since most casual shooters of inherited rifles will want to take the easiest route, most will stick with smokeless powders. Loading data for old rounds is not widely available, although with the advent of Cowboy Action shooting and new powders for that purpose, it is easier to find than it used to be.
If I were starting out to work up a load for any of these old black-powder rounds, I would start with two powders: Hodgdon’s IMR Trail Boss and AA5744. Both are right at home with lead bullets, low velocities and, most important, low pressures. They will give you ammunition that is accurate and fun to shoot with very little recoil and no danger. Later, if you want to put your rifle to more serious use, you can move on to powders like IMR 3031 and H4895 (my favorite).
Experienced handloaders, accustomed to working up hot, accurate loads for a modern bolt action, need to alter their mindset considerably. Forget high velocity. Adjust your accuracy expectations. Primarily, your ammunition needs to feed and chamber reliably, which limits your options considerably, but you also need to keep in mind the steels used. Even if the barrel says “high-pressure steel,” our idea of high pressure is not the same as theirs was in 1906. And then there is the action.
Caution is the word, and due regard for the capabilities of a nice old rifle. They were all made to shoot, and most will still do so with a little help. Once you get into this, you may find that it is far more interesting than working up yet another quarter-inch load for a bolt action.
And the next time a widowed aunt calls? You’ll run to the phone.