Introduction to the .50-70 Government Cartridge
The .50-70 Government (aka .50-70 govt) cartridge holds a prominent place in the annals of firearm history. Introduced in the post-Civil War era, the .50-70 played a critical role in the development of modern firearms and ammunition.
Invention and History
The .50-70 Government cartridge was first introduced in 1866 by the United States. It was originally a black powder cartridge developed by the Springfield Armory, a key institution for developing military weaponry for the U.S. This development came in the wake of the Civil War as the country was transitioning to cartridge-based firearm systems from muzzle-loaded firearms.
The ".50-70" designation indicated the cartridge's caliber (.50 inch) and powder charge (70 grains of black powder). The cartridge originally had a 450-grain bullet.
Although initially, the .50-70 Government cartridge was loaded with a 450-grain lead bullet, it wasn't the only bullet weight that was used. Variations included bullets as light as 425 grains and as heavy as 500 grains. The bullet diameter was typically .515 inch.
The original 450-grain bullet was a hollow base design. This type of bullet was designed to expand under the pressure of the ignited powder, filling the rifling grooves in the barrel and thereby increasing accuracy. However, hollow base bullets can be less stable in flight, which may limit their effective range.
Solid base bullets, which are more aerodynamically stable, were also used. They offered improved long-range accuracy, making them a preferred choice for sharpshooters and long-range competition shooters.
In terms of bullet shape, round nose bullets were the most common for the .50-70, in part due to their ease of manufacture and their adequate performance in a variety of roles.
The .50-70 Government cartridge utilized three types of priming systems throughout its history: the Benet primer, the Martin primer, and the Boxer primer. Each of these primer systems brought unique characteristics to the .50-70 Government's performance and came with its own set of advantages and drawbacks.
The Benet primer was an internal priming system named after its creator, Colonel Stephen Vincent Benet, an officer in the U.S. Army Ordnance Department. With this system, the primer was housed within a folded brass "cup" at the base of the cartridge case. The priming compound was ignited when the firearm's firing pin struck the base of the cartridge.
One of the major advantages of the Benet primer was its simplicity and cost-effectiveness in manufacturing. This made it an attractive choice for mass-produced military cartridges. It also provided reliable ignition, which was crucial in battlefield conditions.
However, the integral nature of the primer in the Benet system proved to be its key disadvantage. Since the primer was not a separate, removable component, Benet-primed cartridges were difficult, if not impossible, to reload. This was less of an issue in military use, where spent cartridges were typically discarded, but it limited the appeal of Benet-primed ammunition for civilian use, particularly among shooters who prefer to reload their own ammunition.
The Martin primer, named after Lt. Col. John T. Martin, was a modification of the Benet system and likewise used an inside-primed system. The Martin primer, however, incorporated a separate anvil placed in the primer cup before the priming compound was added and the cup was closed.
The primary advantage of the Martin primer was its improved reliability over the Benet system. The separate anvil provided a more consistent ignition of the primer compound and allowed for a lighter blow from the firearm's firing pin. This refinement led to improved performance, particularly in terms of ignition reliability.
Nonetheless, the Martin primer, like the Benet primer, was not easily reloadable due to the integral nature of the primer. This limited its appeal to civilian shooters and reloaders, although it was less of a concern for military use.
The Boxer primer, which is the most common primer we see today in centerfire cartridges. Developed by Colonel Edward Mounier Boxer, represented a departure from the inside-primed systems of the Benet and Martin primers. Boxer primers are fully removable and replaceable, making cartridges using this system much easier to reload. The Boxer primer consists of a single flash hole with the anvil as part of the primer itself.
The primary advantage of the Boxer primer is its ease of reloading. Since the primer is a separate component that can be replaced, shooters can reuse the cartridge case, making this system more economical for civilian shooters. This characteristic has contributed to the Boxer primer's enduring popularity, and it remains the most common priming system in use in the United States today.
However, one disadvantage of the Boxer system is that it is somewhat more complex and thus more costly to manufacture than the Benet or Martin systems. This was more of an issue during the 19th century, when these systems were first being developed, than it is today.
The .50-70 Government was not created in a vacuum; it had its roots in earlier firearm technology. Its immediate predecessor was the .58 caliber muzzle-loading rifled musket used during the Civil War. Soldiers in the war often complained about the long reloading times and poor reliability of the .58 caliber muskets. The .50-70 Government, a centerfire cartridge, was designed to alleviate these problems, offering faster reloading times and increased reliability.
Firearms Using the .50-70 Government Cartridge
Several weapons utilized the .50-70 Government cartridge, with most being long guns due to the cartridge's size and power. In 1866, the .50-70 Government was adopted by the US Army for use in the newly converted Springfield Model 1863 muskets, which were renamed as the Model 1866, also known as the "Second Allin". This firearm was a direct product of the Springfield Armory, sharing the same place of birth as the .50-70 cartridge itself. Other notable firearms include the Remington .50-70 Rolling Block rifle and the Sharps Rifle models. Indeed the cartridge is sometimes referred to as the .50-70 Sharps after the famous Sharps .50-70 lever action rifle.
The .50-70 cartridge's reign as a primary service round was relatively short. The .45-70 Government cartridge (aka .45-70 Govt), introduced in 1873, supplanted it. The smaller and faster .45-70 cartridge offered improved ballistic performance and range, and also a significantly lower production cost, which made it more practical for widespread military use. Despite this, the .50-70 remained in use in civilian circles for many years, primarily among frontiersmen and buffalo hunters, who valued its power and reliability. Some still fire these rounds for historical firearms shooting events today.
Performance and Ballistics: How powerful is the .50-70?
The .50-70 cartridge was a significant advancement over the muzzle-loading technology of its time. It typically fired a 450-grain bullet propelled by 70 grains of black powder (hence the name .50-70), at a muzzle velocity of around 1,260-1,275 feet per second. This resulted in a muzzle energy of about 1,600 foot-pounds. It was noted for its substantial hitting power, making it an effective round for the big game hunting and warfare of its time.
The .50-70 Government had an effective range of around 200 yards, beyond which the bullet's drop and the black powder's smoky discharge made aiming difficult. However, within its effective range, the cartridge was highly lethal.
The .50-70's accuracy was considered good for its time. It was used successfully in long-range competition shooting at Creedmoor, the famous rifle range in New York, in the late 19th century.
While the .50-70 Government cartridge may seem outdated by today's standards, it played an essential role in firearms and ammunition development. It marked the transition from muzzle-loading firearms to the cartridge-based systems we're familiar with today. Despite being supplanted by the .45-70 Government, the .50-70's significant impact on military and civilian firearm use ensures its place in the history books.
If you have recently acquired a rifle that uses .50-70 Government, read our Guide to reloading 50-70! The article talks about reloading and where you can find .50-70 load data. Buffalo Arms occasionally produces .50-70 ammunition. Check to see if they've got it in stock here.
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