November 19, 2021
By Jeff John
In rearming with new cartridge-firing guns after the Civil War, many states chose different ones than the U.S. Army. Remington, Peabody and Sharps rifles armed many, and all initially competed to become the arm of the United States. A main contender for the U.S. Army’s first official cartridge rifle was the Remington rolling block, a design perfected by Joseph Rider and among the few that easily made the jump from rimfire to centerfire rounds.
Made in the millions by Remington and under license to others, it was used worldwide. While our Army ultimately went with the Springfield Trapdoor, the Navy chose the Model 1867 Remington-made rolling block carbine in .50-45, then ordered a further 10,000 Model 1870 rolling block rifles in .50-70 Gov’t made at Springfield Armory under license.
The state of New York held its own trials to replace its National Guard’s muzzleloaders. After briefly considering conversion methods, the state went with Remington-made .50-70 rolling blocks. After all, Remington was a home-state arms maker. It didn’t hurt that Remington willingly took many of the state’s muzzleloaders in trade.
New York bought 19,450 rifles in two orders. On the example shown, the Remington address on the tang indicates it was from the second batch of 4,500 rifles ordered in 1873. The state acquired 1,500 cavalry carbines as well. These rifles are usually found in good, as-issued condition, since we were at peace during their whole service life. By the time they were replaced around the time of the Spanish-American War, the .50-70 had long been out of favor as a hunting cartridge, and few were sporterized.
Almost all will be found chambered in .50-70 (a few were in .45-70, but they are rare) with 36-inch barrels, full-length fore-ends held by three bands, wiping rod and straight-grip military butt. The rear sling swivel is on the trigger guard rather than down on the buttstock below the lower tang where most other models are located.
The upswept hammer is taller than on other rolling blocks, and the New York rifles have checkering within a shield on the hammer and breechblock tab. Other rolling blocks have simple checkering patterns on those parts. The New York models also have a mechanism—designed by William Smoot for the Army trials—that drops the hammer into a safety notch when the breechblock is closed.
Those are the common features, but there is surprising variation in finishes. Some were finished in the white, some had blued barrels and case-hardened receivers, some had blued barrels and bright receivers. The barrel of this one retains most of its original blue, and the receiver shows traces of case-hardening.
The left wrist of the stock or fore-end near the receiver is normally stamped with the initials of the New York inspectors (“RPB,” “HBH” or “GH” along with “SNY” for State of New York). New York also normally marked the top of the buttplate tang with unit and rack numbers for the rifles—but not always.
This rifle has all the hallmarks of a New York National Guard rifle, but it’s completely devoid of the state acceptance marks, with only the Remington tang mark present. Since these marks were often very lightly stamped, they may have worn off from handling. It is possible it was purchased privately by a New York State shooting team member, in which case it probably wasn’t viewed by the inspectors.
The reason I believe it was specifically destined for target shooting is the rear sight has been extensively customized. It was turned around, the standing leaf ground off, the long elevation “steps” leveled with the final one turned into a ski-slope-style ramp given fine elevation steps. The ladder was re-marked with fine graduations and given a clever windage adjustable two-position slider used as a standing leaf or as an elevation sight bar when the staff is raised.
The bore is very nice with shallow five-groove rifling with lands and grooves of equal width. The high New York hammer precludes cleaning from the breech end. Shooting good groups requires the bore be wiped between shots.
The “V-inverted-V” sight picture is difficult to use for any but sharp eyes, and my best groups are in the four- to five-inch range at 100 yards from a rest.
The safety locking system adversely affects the trigger pull, which is seven pounds on my rifle but feels much heavier due to the amount of creep. As hard as the trigger is to master, if you can shoot a Russian M1891 Mosin-Nagant, you can shoot one of these.
Most gunsmiths eschew working on these rifles because of the trigger, and these rifles never were candidates as base actions for custom single-shots for competition. That’s another reason the survival rate for this variant is high, and thankfully, such an albatross also keeps their price below average.
These big rifles served well for decades worldwide. Remington’s rifle was simple, robust and capable of any chore from battle to long-range target shooting. The American team using Remington rolling block and Sharps breechloading rifles won the first 1,000-yard match at Creedmoor against John Rigby and his team’s muzzleloaders in 1874. Hunting models were popular out West.
The rifle made the transition to smokeless powder, too. In a last hurrah, rolling block rifles were called upon in World War I by France for behind the lines duty to free up valuable repeaters for the front. Remington’s last sizable military order was for 100,291 rolling blocks in France’s 8mm Lebel. Smaller quantities of 7mm rifles and carbines were shipped as late as 1921, presumably to South America. Not a bad legacy for any rifle.
New York State Rolling Block Specifications
- Maker: Remington Arms Co., Ilion, N.Y.
- Action type: Rolling block, with automatic safety
- Caliber: .50-70 Gov’t
- Capacity: 1
- Barrel length: 36”
- Overall length: 52”
- Weight: 8 lbs, 15 oz. (with sling)
- Finish: Blue barrel, case-hardened receiver
- Sights: Adjustable military-style rear, fixed post front
- Stock: Walnut, oil finished
- Price: $700-$1,000 (as pictured above)