Buffalo Cartridges of the American Frontier

By Chuck Hawks


Commercial hunting of the Western "buffalo" (actually American bison) was widespread from the early 1870's to the early 1880's. The slaughter of the bison reached its peak in 1875 and 1876, declining after 1880. The last great buffalo herd was annihilated in 1884, marking the end of an era.

Many different black powder rifle cartridges were used to kill buffalo on the American frontier. Most popular cartridges of the time, even though quite inadequate to the task, were pressed into service on the plains. A similar thing happened in Africa, particularly during the early years of the 20th Century.

There is neither time nor space in an article such as this to even attempt to describe every moderately successful cartridge ever used to kill an American bison. During the days of the great buffalo hunts on the American plains powerful, accurate, single shot rifles shooting big bore cartridges were the preferred medicine of the serious hunter. This article will briefly examine a few of the best known of those cartridges. Please understand that it is not intended to be an inclusive treatise on the subject.

As was the custom of the time, the big bore black powder cartridges were named by their nominal bullet diameter and typical maximum powder charge; often the bullet weight (in grains) was included. Thus the ".45-70" was a black powder cartridge that used a .45 caliber bullet (.458" diameter) in front of 70 grains of powder. The designation .45-70-405 would indicate the .45-70 cartridge loaded with a 405 grain bullet.

The big bore buffalo cartridges were loaded with black powder, as smokeless powder had not yet been invented. Because black powder is an inefficient propellant by volume, big cases with large powder charges were necessary and muzzle velocities were typically limited to around 1250-1500 fps.

The development of reliable, controlled expansion jacketed bullets was still in the future. On the frontier, bullets of all calibers were generally made of cast lead. The only way to increase shocking power was to increase bullet diameter; the only way to increase penetration was to increase bullet weight (and thus sectional density). In those days terminal ballistics was generally pretty simple; the bigger and heavier the bullet the greater the killing power.

And plenty of killing power was needed, for the American bison is a very big bovine, considerably larger than the average African Cape buffalo. Fortunately, while they can indeed be dangerous to humans, the bison does not have the malevolent disposition of his distant African cousin. The buffalo runners of the West simply stayed out of reach of the big beasts, usually shooting from a rest at ranges around 200 yards and sometimes more. They often used telescopic sights. These men, after all, were not sport hunters, but market hunters after hides. This also explains why the big bore double rifle, used so successfully on large African game, was not popular in the American West; it simply was not accurate enough.

According to the published research of Edward A. Matunas, an average size female bison is supposed to weigh around 930 pounds, and an average male around 1600 pounds. (The figures for average African buffalo are 700 pounds and 1000 pounds.) Very large male bison can weigh 2000 pounds, and extreme monsters weighting 3000 pounds have been recorded. Anyone hunting game that averages ten times his own weight and solves problems by running over them had better carry a powerful rifle!

It is important to remember than the intensive slaughter of the great bison herds, the days of commercial buffalo hunting, lasted only a little over ten years. Subsistence and sport hunters as well as the plains Indians had hunted bison previously, of course, but the planned extermination of the herds was not contemplated until about 1870 and was completed in 1884. It was the early buffalo cartridges that did most of the heavy killing. The final refinement of the American buffalo cartridge actually occurred after the extinction of the last great bison herd.

The excellent Winchester Model 1885 single shot rifle and Model 1886 lever action repeating rifle, and the entire line of big bore cartridges developed for these rifles, was introduced after the herds were gone and commercial buffalo hunting had ceased. The .45-82, .45-85, .45-90, .45-125, .50-100, .50-105, and .50-110 Winchester cartridges, the first of which was introduced in 1886, had no impact on the extermination of the bison. The same thing basically applies to the .40-90 Sharps (Straight), .50-115 Bullard, .50-140 Sharps and several other impressive "buffalo" cartridges.

.40-90, .40-100 Sharps (Necked)

In its day the .40-90 Sharps (Necked) was a popular cartridge both for hunting and target shooting. It is perhaps not widely realized that Sharps made target rifles as well as hunting rifles, and the company was very successful in match competition. Their match successes eventually resulted in the word "sharpshooter" (contracted from "Sharps shooter") generically meaning a good shot.

Introduced in 1873, the .40-90 used a rimmed, bottleneck case 2 5/8" long. The base diameter of this case was .506", the shoulder diameter was .500", and the neck diameter was .435" Bullet diameter was .403". The cartridge overall length (COL) was 3.44".

The .40-90 and .40-100 (Necked) were the same cartridge with different powder charges and bullets. Period .40-90 factory loads drove a 370 grain lead bullet at a MV of 1475 fps and ME of 1800 ft. lbs. This was the big game load.

The .40-100 was an "Express" load, which in those days meant "high velocity." It used a lighter 190 grain hollow point bullet in front of extra powder to achieve a higher MV at the expense of penetration on large game.

.44-77 Sharps and .44-77 Remington

This pair is actually the same cartridge. The .44-77 was introduced in 1869 by Sharps for their Model 1869 rifle, and was based on the Sharps 2 1/4" rimmed, bottleneck case. This case had a base diameter of .516", shoulder diameter of .502" and neck diameter of .467". Bullet diameter was .446" and cartridge overall length was 3.05".

It was also available under the Remington name in their No. 3 Rolling Block rifle. The .44-77 was used for both hunting and target shooting.

Factory loads were provided with various bullet weights up to 470 grains. Using a 365 grain bullet, one typical factory load had an advertised MV of 1460 fps and ME of 1730 ft. lbs.

.44-90, .44-100, .44-105 Sharps (Necked) and .44-90 Remington

The .44-90 Sharps was introduced in 1873 and discontinued in 1878. All three of these numbers are based on the original .44-90 case; the .44-100 and .44-105 simply represented heavier powder loads in the same cartridge.

The .44-90 used a rimmed, bottleneck case 2 5/8" long. Its base diameter was .517", shoulder diameter .504", and neck diameter .468". Bullet diameter was .446" and COL was 3.30"

This cartridge was more popular as a long range match cartridge than as a hunting cartridge, although it was used for both. Factory loads gave a 520 grain lead bullet a MV of 1270 fps and ME of 1860 ft. lbs.

Very similar, but not quite identical, to the .44-90 Sharps (Necked) is the .44-90 Remington Special. It was designed as a match cartridge for the Remington Rolling Block Creedmoor rifle and was also introduced in 1873.

Its case had a base diameter of .520", a shoulder diameter of .504", and a neck diameter of .466". Case length was 2.44" and COL was 3.08". The correct bullet diameter was .442" rather than the .446" of the Sharps .44-90 cartridge.

Factory loads gave a 550 grain lead bullet a MV of 1250 fps and ME of 1812 ft. lbs. Although primarily a match cartridge, the .44-90 Remington had the accuracy, power and penetration to make it a good bison cartridge.

.44-100 Ballard and .45-100 Ballard

Ballard rifles were initially produced in 1861. After three previous ownership changes, John M. Marlin took over the company in 1875 and produced Ballard rifles until he founded the Marlin Firearms Company in 1881. At that point Ballard was absorbed into the new Marlin Company, which continued to produce Ballard rifles.

The .44-100 cartridge was introduced in the Ballard Model Pacific No. 5 rifle in 1876 and offered in various Ballard rifles until it was discontinued about 1880, apparently having been superceded in the line by the .45-100 cartridge.

The .44-100 was designed to compete with the powerful Sharps and Winchester big bore cartridges. Its rimmed, straight taper case measured .498" at the base and .485" at its neck. The case was 2.81" long, and the loaded cartridge had an impressive COL of 3.25". Factory load ballistics for the .44-100 called for a 535 grain lead bullet at a MV of 1400 fps and ME of 2328 ft. lbs.

The Ballard Sporting No. 4 1/2 rifle was introduced in 1878 along with the .45-100 cartridge. Ballard rifles were offered in .45-100 until they were discontinued by Marlin around 1889. The .45-100 was based on the earlier .44-100 case simply neck expanded to accept .45 caliber bullets. Its factory load ballistics called for a 550 grain lead bullet at a MV of 1370 fps and ME of 2300 ft. lbs.

.45-70 Government

By far the best known of the buffalo cartridges used on the western frontier was the illustrious .45-70 Government. Still popular today, the .45-70 was introduced in 1873 and was the U.S. Army's standard service cartridge from that time until it was officially replaced by the .30-40 Krag in 1892. The .45-70 actually continued in military service with reserve and militia units well into the early 1900's.

Like all U.S. service cartridges, the .45-70 became a popular sporting cartridge with American civilian hunters of the time. It was probably the most popular all-around big game rifle cartridge of its era, and was widely regarded as suitable for all North American game, including bison. Remington Arms, I believe, specifically recommended the .45-70 as the top buffalo cartridge for use in their famous Rolling Block rifles.

The .45-70 is based on a fat, rimmed, straight taper case measuring .500" at its base and .475" at its neck. The case is 2.105" long, and the military cartridge loaded by the Frankford Arsenal had an overall length of 2.73". The .45-70 uses .458" diameter bullets.

.45-70 was a chambering offered in many famous rifles. These included not only the famous "Trapdoor" Springfield military rifles and carbines, but also rifles from Hotchkiss, Marlin, Remington, Sharps, Winchester, and other civilian companies. Commercial ammunition was available from most manufacturers.

The most common .45-70 loads used 330, 350, 400, 405, and 500 grain bullets. The heaviest bullets were the best choice for hunting buffalo.

The 405 grain bullet was the weight chosen for use by the Army. The Frankford Arsenal began mass production of .45-70 cartridges in January of 1874. Frankford Arsenal cartridges were loaded with reduced charges of 55 grains of black powder (.45-55-405) for use in cavalry carbines, and full charges of 70 grains of black powder (.45-70-405) for full length (and therefore heavier) infantry rifles. 55 grains of musket powder gave a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1100 fps and 70 grain loads propelled a 405 grain bullet at a MV of 1350 fps and ME around 1600 ft. lbs. Period tests revealed that the 405 grain bullet penetrated 7.3" of white pine boards at a range of 700 yards, but the cartridge's rainbow trajectory limited its point blank range to about 150 yards for man sized targets.

Commercial .45-70 ammunition was loaded with bullets up to 500 grains in front of 70 grains of black powder (.45-70-500). These commercial loads proved to have superior penetration and killing power on large game. In 1882 Frankford Arsenal also began manufacturing a 500 grain bullet. The secret to the .45-70's success on very large game is the superior SD of its .458" bullets.

.45-75 Sharps (.45-70 Sharps)

In 1875 a civilian version of the .45-70 Government was produced by the Sharps Company as the .45-75 Sharps (Straight), and sometimes called the .45-70 Sharps. The Sharps Company liked the name on their rifles to match the name on the cartridge it used, a common marketing strategy at the time. These cartridges were actually dimensionally identical to the .45-70 Govt., and factory loads used a 400 grain bullet at a MV of 1330 fps and ME of 1580 ft. lbs.

.45-75 Winchester

The .45-75 Winchester was introduced with the Model 1876 lever action repeating rifle. This was an enlarged version of the famous Model 1873 action designed for use with cartridges up to 2.25" in length.

The .45-75 Win. used a rimmed bottleneck case that was shorter and fatter than the .45-70 Government. It measured .559" in diameter at its base, .547" at the shoulder, and .478" at its neck. Case length was 1.89" and overall cartridge length was 2.25".

The action of the Winchester 1876 rifle was not particularly strong, so the .45-75 was factory loaded with a 350 grain bullet at a MV of 1383 fps and ME of 1485 ft. lbs. This was ballistically inferior to the .45-70-405 and .45-70-500 as a buffalo cartridge, but its lever action rifle allowed much faster repeat shots. Teddy Roosevelt is said to have favored the .45-75 Winchester as a grizzly bear cartridge.

.45-90, .45-100, and .45-110 Sharps (Straight)

This series of Sharps rifle cartridges are all based on the same basic case trimmed to lengths of 2.875", 2.60", and 2.40". The original was the 2.875" (2 7/8") .45-110, introduced in 1876. The .45-100 (2.6" case) was added at the end of 1876 and the .45-90 (2.4" case) appeared during 1877. The base diameter of these big rimmed, straight taper cases was .500" and the neck diameter was .489". All of these cartridges used standard .458" diameter bullets.

The .45-90 was virtually identical to the .45-70 with a longer case, and .45-70 ammunition can safely be fired in .45-90 rifles. This was quite useful on the frontier, where .45-70 Government ammunition was widely distributed, and made the Sharps .45-90 a popular buffalo rifle.

All of the cartridges in this series could be used with bullets weighing 320 grains to 550 grains. The heavier bullets were the best for hunting buffalo, and the larger cases favored the heavier bullets. Factory loads for the .45-110-550 launched a 550 grain bullet at a MV of 1360 fps with ME of 2240 ft. lbs.

Frank Mayer, a well known buffalo hunter, tried various rifles but preferred his Sharps .45-90-420, which was equipped with a 20x telescopic sight made in Germany. He found that the 420 grain bullet shot flatter over ranges out to 300 yards, and killed faster than the lighter bullets he had tried. Mayer's .45-90 Sharps rifle had a 32" barrel and weighed 12 pounds.

.45-120 and .45-125 Sharps (Straight)

Introduced late in 1878 or early in 1879, the .45-120 Sharps was a very powerful bison cartridge that arrived too late to make much difference in the fate of the great herds. This huge rimmed, straight taper case was 3.25" long with a head diameter of .506" and a neck diameter of .490". COL was 4.16"!

Cases were made with two different wall thicknesses, which therefore had different maximum powder capacities. Hence the .45-120 and .45-125 designations. Externally the two were identical, and the same rifle could fire either cartridge.

Factory loads drove a 500 grain lead bullet at a MV of 1520 fps with ME of 2561 ft. lbs. A 550 grain bullet could be given a MV of 1500 fps and ME of 2749 ft. lbs. by 120 grains of black powder. One account I read stated that the recoil of the big cartridge was surprisingly mild. The reported 19 pound weight of Sharps rifles so chambered may have had something to do with this.

.50-70 Musket (.50 Government)

The .50-70 was the U.S. Army's service cartridge from 1866 to 1873, when it was replaced by the .45-70. It was the first centerfire cartridge adopted by the Army, and was a big advance over the previous .58 Rimfire cartridge.

It was first adapted to the U.S. 1866 Rifle Musket, then the improved 1868 Rifle Musket, the further improved 1870 Rifle Musket, and the bolt action single shot Ward-Burton 1871 Rifle Musket. There were also carbine versions of some of these. All except the Ward-Burton design were converted percussion arms. In addition a number of civilian rifle manufacturers built rifles in .50-70. Most notably, Remington chambered their 1870 and 1871 Rolling Block rifles for the .50-70 cartridge, and Sharps offered it in the 1867-69 Conversion Carbine and later chambered the single shot rifle that became the Model 1874 in .50-70.

The .50-70 used a rimmed, internally primed, straight taper case that measured .565" at its base, .535" at the neck, and was 1.75" long. The COL was 2.25" and it used .515" diameter bullets. The U.S. Frankford Arsenal load for rifle muskets used a 450 grain bullet in front of 70 grains of black powder (.50-70-450). The reduced recoil carbine load used a 430 grain bullet in front of 55 grains of powder (.50-55-430).

Factory loads gave a 450 grain bullet a MV of 1260 fps and ME of 1488 ft. lbs. A 425 grain bullet was driven at a MV of 1275 fps with ME of 1535 ft. lbs. The .50-70 was quite popular and had a good reputation as a buffalo cartridge. It offered superior energy and penetration compared to earlier military cartridges.

.50-90, .50-100, .50-110 Sharps

In 1872 Sharps introduced their 2 1/2 inch case for .50 caliber bullets. This was in the form of the .50-90 Sharps, soon known as the "Big .50". The same cartridge was also called the .50-100 and .50-110 when loaded with lighter bullets and more powder.

The .50-90 Sharps came about when buffalo hunters clamored for more powerful loads with increased killing power. The .50-90 became one of the mainstay cartridges of the buffalo runners. Its case is a rimmed, straight taper type with a base diameter of .565" and a neck diameter of .528". Case length was 2.5" and COL was 3.2" It used .509" diameter bullets.

Factory loads gave a 335 grain lead bullet a MV of 1475 fps and ME of 1630 ft. lbs., or a 473 grain bullet a MV of 1350 fps and ME of 1920 ft. lbs. A 550 grain bullet could be driven to a MV of about 1275 fps and ME of 1985 ft. lbs.

Cases for reloading and bullet molds are still available as of this writing for the .50-90 Sharps. Some of the Sharps Big .50 rifles remain in use today, and Shilo Sharps Rifles of Big Timber, Montana is once again offering new Sharps rifles in .50-90 caliber.

Sharps put both their .40 and .50 caliber cartridges on a "special order only" basis when they went to the .45-90 cartridge series for their regular production rifles. However, the Sharps Big .50 remains one of the most famous of all the American buffalo cartridges.

Conclusion

The day of the vast North American bison herds may be gone forever, but modern hunters can still enjoy shooting and hunting big game with some of these historically noteworthy cartridges. It is even possible to arrange a bison hunt in North America, as the great bovines have expanded their numbers to the point that some must be culled and there are now several huntable populations.

Shilo Sharps Rifles produces a high quality line of U.S. made semi-custom rifles based on the 1874 Sharps action. These are available in most of the popular old Sharps calibers, including .40-90, .44-77, .45-70, .45-90, .45-100, .45-110, .45-120, .50-70, .50-90, and several others. Brass for most of these Sharps cartridges is available from Bertram Brass and American; Shilo Sharps will supply reloading dies as available. Huntington Die Specialty is also a source for dies and cases.

The .45-70 Government is by far the most popular of the old cartridges. Browning, Dakota, Remington, and Ruger have produced modern single shot rifles in .45-70, and there are several imported reproductions of the 1873 Trapdoor Springfield, Remington Rolling Block, and 1874 Sharps single shot rifles on the market. Marlin offers their new Model 1895 lever action repeating rifle in .45-70, and Browning and Winchester have done limited runs of modern Model 1886 rifles in .45-70. .45-70 factory loaded ammunition is available from the Big 3 ammo makers as well as several smaller concerns. Brass, reloading dies, and bullets are available everywhere shooting supplies are sold.




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Copyright 2003 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.

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