Sunday, December 20, 2015

Famous Guns: Lucretia Borgia

Take a look at the two rifles in the image below:

Click on the image to enlarge.

The one we are going to study today is the one at the bottom. "Wait a minute", the reader says. "The rifle at the bottom seems badly damaged. Heck, it is even missing part of its stock!" Well, there is a bit of history associated with this particular firearm, which is why we are going to read about it today. First, here's another close up of this rifle:

Click on the image to enlarge.

It is a Springfield Model 1866 trapdoor rifle, otherwise known as the Springfield 2nd Model Allin Trapdoor Conversion Rifle, firing a .50-70 black powder cartridge. As you can see, there is extensive damage and wear or the rifle and the barrel is even a little bent. However, that doesn't mean that this rifle is worthless. In fact, it may be more valuable than the one above it, because of the fame of its original owner. Here's a picture of the person that owned this rifle in the past:

Public Domain Image

Yes, that is the famous American legend, William Cody, a.k.a Buffalo Bill Cody, holding the same rifle when it was in much better condition.

Even though this rifle is a single shot model, Buffalo Bill preferred using this to the faster firing lever action .44 Henry Rifle and the Sharps 'Big Fifty' rifle. Buffalo Bill Cody never revealed how he came upon the rifle, but it is believed that he was issued the rifle when he served in the US Army during the Civil war and took it with him when his service ended. This is certainly possible, as thousands of Springfield Model 1866 rifles were issued to US troops during that time.

Buffalo Bill used this rifle in many encounters with Native American tribes, as a scout and as a commercial hunting rifle, when he worked as a contractor to supply meat to the railroad workers. It was used in a famous shooting contest between him and William Comstock, to see who could shoot the most buffalo in a given time. After this contest, people began calling William Cody as "Buffalo Bill".

So, why the name "Lucretia Borgia"? Well, the real Lucretia Borgia (or Lucrezia Borgia) was a famous Italian lady, from the powerful Borgia family, who were very politically connected and even had a few members serving as popes and cardinals in the Vatican. The Borgia family had origins in Spain and became prominent during the Renaissance period in Italy. Lucretia Borgia was known as a beautiful woman, with a reputation for being deadly (she was alleged to have poisoned several people). Many stories were written about her, including a famous play by French playwright, Victor Hugo, called Lucrezia Borgia. This play was staged at various places during the US Civil War, including Leavenworth, Kansas, where Buffalo Bill is alleged to have seen it.

For hundreds of years, it has been common tradition for men to bestow female names to their favorite tools and possessions, and Buffalo Bill was no exception in this regard. Buffalo Bill saw his rifle as beautiful, but deadly. So, when it came to naming his rifle, he named it after a famous woman who was known to be beautiful and deadly: Lucretia Borgia! In fact, he had the name inscribed in the lock plate of his rifle, where it may still be seen today. This seems to have been his favorite rifle as he mentioned this rifle in several interviews and in his autobiography and has even been photographed with it.

As to how part of its stock disappeared, there are a couple of stories associated with it. One story is that Buffalo Bill had shot an elk or a bison with his rifle and tried to finish it off with a blow to the animal's head, but the stock broke when he did this. Another story says that when he was employed as a hunting guide to Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, he loaned this rifle to the Grand Duke to use. Apparently, the Grand Duke got a little excited after shooting a buffalo during the hunt and threw his rifle in the air to celebrate, but failed to catch it on the way down and his horse stepped on it after it hit the ground.

Lucretia Borgia may be seen today on display at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum in Cody, Wyoming.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

High Quality Winchester Model 1873 Rifles

A long time ago, we studied lever actions and one of the most famous lever action weapons was the Winchester Model 1873 rifle.

Winchester Model 1873. Click on the image to enlarge. Image courtesy of

This rifle was extremely popular with settlers and cowboys in America and became known as "the gun that won the west". It was manufactured for 46 years between 1873 and 1919 and during this time, 720,610 rifles were made. Bear in mind that the entire population of the United States was around 70 million people at that time, so this means it was an extremely popular rifle.

The reader should note that this was not a long-range rifle at all. The cartridges it used weren't very powerful and accuracy was not the best -- your average Model 1873 rifle couldn't put 5 shots into a dinner-plate sized target at 100 yards. So what was good about this rifle that made it so popular then? Well, it was a rugged design, and it used the same cartridges as revolvers, so that the user only needed to carry one type of cartridge for both weapons. Also, many users didn't need pin-point accuracy and the rifle was powerful and accurate enough to be used to hunt deer or for self-defense. The lack of accuracy and power was more than made up for by its ability to shoot rapidly and the large capacity of its magazine. It was also relatively cheap.

However, in 1875, Winchester began to offer higher grade versions of the Model 1873 for sale. Every Winchester rifle barrel was test-fired in the factory, as part of the manufacturing process. Rifle barrels that shot with exceptional accuracy were set aside for special orders. These exceptionally accurate barrels were then handed over to the best workmen in the factory, to make customized models of the Model 1873. These rifles were made with set triggers, case hardened parts, extra-fine quality of finish, high quality walnut stocks with checkering, fancy engravings on the metal parts etc. The best quality barrels were engraved with the lettering "One of One Thousand", or "One of 1000". The second best quality barrels were engraved with the lettering "One of One Hundred".

Three Winchester "One of One Thousand" rifles and a "One of One Hundred" rifle.

Winchester catalogs from that period were quoted as follows:
"The barrel of every sporting rifle we make will be proved and shot at a target, and the target will be numbered to correspond with the barrel and be attached to it. All of these barrels that are found to make targets of extra merit will be made up into guns with set-triggers and extra finish and marked as a designating name, "One of One Thousand," and sold at $100.00. The next grade of barrels, not so fine, will be marked "One of One Hundred" and set up to order in any style at $20.00 advance over the list price of the corresponding style of gun."

The price of an ordinary Winchester Model 1873 rifle around 1880 was around $20. The "One of One Thousand" rifles were sold at a list price of $100 each and the "One of One Hundred" models were sold for around $40 each. Considering that the price of one acre of best quality farmland in Kansas was $11, these higher quality firearms were quite expensive and only rich people could afford to buy them.

While the fine walnut stock with checkering, case hardened parts and set triggers were standard with these higher-end rifles, the factory also offered custom upgrades for extra. For instance, a person could add special upgraded walnut stocks, long range sights, silver or gold finish, custom engravings and monograms etc. Since many of the owners of these higher-quality rifles were quite rich, these rifles were often upgraded with these extra options.

Winchester only manufactured 132 rifles of "One of One Thousand" quality (some sources say 133 or even 136 rifles.) The "One of One Hundred" rifles are even rarer, only 8 were ever produced, as per the Winchester factory records.

In 1950, Hollywood produced a popular western movie called "Winchester '73" starring James Stewart, where the story involves a "One of One Thousand" rifle. As part of marketing this movie, Universal Pictures published advertisements in many papers, for a contest to find the remaining "One in One Thousand" model rifles. Due to their efforts, 61 "One of One Thousand" rifles of Model 1873 and 6 more of the Model 1876 have been located. Of the "One of One Hundred" rifles, only 6 of the 8 that were manufactured, have been found.

When the "One of One Thousand" rifles hit the market, they were priced at $100 each. Today, one of such rifles could easily sell for over $100,000 or more. The "One of One Hundred" models are even more expensive, since only 8 were ever made, therefore the selling price of one of these is much more. By contrast, an ordinary Winchester M1873 from that period sold for around $20 then and would sell for around $3,000 - $4,000 today.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

5.56mm vs. .223 Ammunition Revisited

Many months ago, we studied the differences between the 5.56mm. and the .223 cartridges. In that article, it was mentioned that the dimensions of the 5.56x45mm. NATO cartridge and the .223 Remington cartridge are almost identical. One reader of this blog, Mr. Mark Rohrer, recently commented in that article that he did the math and found out:
.223 in. and 5.56 mm are NOT the same diameter; .223 in. maths to 5.6642 mm and that is a significant difference of 0.1042 mm.
And if you do the calculations yourself, you'll notice that he's right (click here to verify, or you can calculate it yourself by knowing that 1 inch = 25.4 mm., therefore .223 inches = .223 * 25.4 = 5.6642 mm.). Also, if you do the calculations to convert 5.56 mm. to inches, you'll find that it is approximately .219 inches, not .223 inches.

So what is going on here? If .223 inches is bigger than 5.56 mm., how are the dimensions of the two cartridges nearly equal? This article explains everything about this mystery.

First, we go back to another article from a couple of years ago, where we studied how cartridges get their names. It was mentioned there that in the US, we tend to name cartridges after the groove diameter of the rifle barrel, rather than the diameter of the bullet, at least since around 1950 or so. On the other hand, in Europe (except in the UK), they tend to name their ammunition after the bore diameter of the rifle barrel. Since the specifications of the 5.56x45mm. cartridge came from Belgium, that means that the 5.56 part refers to the bore diameter of the barrel. And since the .223 was developed in the US off of a Remington cartridge, .223 refers to the groove diameter of the barrel.

So what is the bore diameter of a rifle (e.g. M16) that fires the .223 cartridge. Well, it just happens to be .219 inches, which translates to about 5.56 mm. when you convert it to millimeters. And the groove diameter of the same rifle barrel is .223 inches. So now we see where the 5.56 and .223 figures come from.

Now if you look at the specifications of the bullet in a .223 cartridge, the diameter of the bullet is actually specified as slightly larger than the groove diameter of the barrel. In fact, the diameter of the bullet is specified as .224 inches (or 5.70 mm. in metric). Now look at the actual dimensions of the two cartridges as specified by C.I.P standards. First, we have the specifications for a .223 cartridge:

Dimensions of a .223 cartridge per the C.I.P standards. Click on the image to enlarge.
Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License by Francis Flinch.

The dimensions of this cartridge are specified in mm., in the above image, so we can easily compare it to the next image, which happens to show the specifications of a 5.56x45mm. cartridge per the C.I.P standards:

Dimensions of a 5.56x45 mm. cartridge per the C.I.P standards. Click on the image to enlarge.
Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License by Francis Flinch.

As you can see, the external dimensions of the two cartridges are almost identical. In particular, note the diameter of the bullet (marked in both images as ⌀G1), which happens to be 5.70 mm., which translates to .224 inches (actually, both images show it as "5,70", but in some European countries, they use the comma where we use the decimal point and vice versa, so they write "5,70" where we write "5.70". Also, in engineering drawings, the convention is to use the diameter symbol (i.e.) ⌀, to denote the diameter of the object at that location.)

From the above images, the reader can see that not only are the bullet diameters identical, so are the external dimensions of most other parts of the two cartridges as well. The differences between the two really have to do with the internal dimensions, case thickness and pressures generated, as this article that we studied previously explains.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Early Cartridge Technologies: Skin Cartridges

In our last post, we looked at tinfoil cartridges, which was one way to make cartridges more resistant to water. In today's post, we will look at another material that was also used to make cartridges more water resistant: animal skin. We will study skin cartridges today.

Skin cartridges

First, the name is somewhat misleading because skin cartridges were not really made of skin. They were actually made of animal gut, mostly cattle, sheep and pig intestines. The intestines were first soaked in a weak solution of potassium hydroxide (i.e. lye solution), which would remove the fat and inner mucous membrane from the gut and prevent further putrefaction. The intestines were then beaten thin and stretched over formers made of wood or metal to dry out. After drying out, the intestines would form seamless cases that could be filled with black powder. The cases were formed as conical shapes, so that they could be easily dropped into the chambers of a revolver or a rifle for faster loading. The cases were then treated with combustible chemicals such as potassium nitrate, so that they would burn during ignition and leave very little residue behind in the chamber. After filling the cases and adding the bullets, the cartridges were then treated with a little shellac varnish to make them water resistant.

Skin cartridges were used mainly in Colt revolvers and also in the Sharps rifle. They were famously used by Colonel Berdan's sharpshooters during the Civil war.

Skin cartridges made by D.C. Sage. Click on the image to enlarge.

Two inventors, William Mont Storm and Julius Hotchkiss developed separate patents to improve skin cartridges. An example of cartridges made using Hotchkiss' patent is shown above. The Mont Storm patent shows an improved way to make cases, as well as using gutta-percha dissolved in rectified naphtha or chloroform, instead of shellac to provide the waterproof varnish. The Hotchkiss patent uses a different technique to improve the toughness of the animal gut so that it doesn't split easily and it also dispenses with the thread wrapping that was sometimes used by others to strengthen their cases.

Over in England, Captain John Montagu Hayes of the Royal Navy received British patent # 2059 of 1856, for a skin cartridge. The patent specification reads in part, "A skin or membrane (prepared from the gut of animals, as pigs, or birds, or reptiles) is used instead of paper for cartridges, which are made without a seam. A covering or network of thread may be used to strengthen the cartridge." (this thread wrapping is what was improved by the Hotchkiss patent in the previous paragraph)

 A skin cartridge of British manufacture, made by Eley Brothers. Click on the image to enlarge.

The above images shows a skin cartridge made by the British cartridge manufacturer, Eley Brothers, who we learned about in our last post. Like the tinfoil cartridges we studied previously, this cartridge partly uses the Colt-Eley patent: it has an outer wrapper made of paper, with a tape to quickly pull the cartridge out of its outer paper wrapper. The paper wrapper is clearly visible in the image and the skin casing is inside it.

The above image shows five American made skin cartridges for .36 caliber revolvers. From left to right, we have cartridges for Remington, Savage, Colt Navy, Colt Navy and Colt Pocket revolvers. 

In America, major manufacturers of these cartridges were Johnston & Dow, Hazard Powder Company, Elam O. Potter and D.C. Sage.

Skin cartridges made by different American manufacturers. Click on the images to enlarge.

Like the other combustible types of cartridges, skin cartridges rapidly fell out of fashion when the first metallic cartridges were invented.