November 19, 2021
By Jeff John
Gen. Hiram Berdan barnstormed the world, electrifying all with the power and range of his unique .42-caliber brass-cased, bottleneck cartridge firing a paper-patched bullet in his new turn-bolt rifle. Almost every country adopted some manner of the basic bottleneck cartridge firing such a bullet. Many were in the equally new Remington rolling block or other single-shots, while some embraced the bolt action that would soon dominate the world.
However, in the United States the thought of a cartridge less than a half-inch long was unthinkable. The fundamental changes to long-range ballistics Berdan’s cartridge delivered were initially unappreciated. Cartridges made of brass were equally unproven. Copper cases had known weaknesses such as softness, poor expansion/contraction and often burst in the chamber. Such weaknesses should have caused copper to be abandoned early, but U.S. troops used them well into the .45-70 era. Only Britain’s iron head/brass foil-wrapped Martini-Henry cartridge was dumber, although it did bring with it the Boxer primer.
In the meantime, the value of a cartridge-firing rifle was proven during the Wagon Box fight against Red Cloud and the Lakota Sioux in 1867. And the stumpy little .50-70—which drove a 450-grain bullet to around 1,100 fps and capable of fine accuracy out to 100 yards or so—excelled at short-range buffalo hunting. As smallbore ballistics became better understood, a switch to a longer-range cartridge saw development of the .45-70 Gov’t. Arriving in 1873, it quickly dominated civilian sales. After a scant seven years, the .50-70 was replaced, but troops in sleepy parts of the country would carry the .50 into the late 1870s and early 1880s.