Black Powder / Muzzle Loader

Mike Venturino

In the fall of 1992 the people at Shiloh Sharps were approached by a group of forensic scientists who were going to have a meeting at the Yuma Proving Grounds early in November. The were going to be allowed to use some newly unclassified radar devices to test the performance of various types of ammunition. Shiloh was invited to bring down some rifles and participate in the doings. Especially they wanted was a .50-90 So, Wolfgang Droege, previous Shiloh owner, Kirk Bryan, one of the present Shiloh owners, and Dennis Bardon, Shiloh’s custom gunsmith began making plans to attend. They also asked yours truly if he wanted to go, and I said I wouldn’t miss it.

However, I must admit to being a bit puzzled as to why they wanted to use such new—fangled radar gadgets to test such old guns. Well, when we got there we found out. It seems that one of the forensic scientists wrote an article in their newsletter saying that the Billy Dixon shot at Adobe Walls in 1874 could not possibly have happened. (Remember Billy Dixon knocked an Indian off his horse at a distance later surveyed to be 1,538 yards.)

Anyway, this particular forensic scientist did some calculations and arrived at the conclusion that a .50-90 Sharps (What Billy Dixon said he used could not have a bullet out that far. When I heard what this was all about thought, “That scientist is going to be embarrassed. He must not have fired Sharps Before. We all know they’ll throw a bullet that far.”

When we arrived at the Yuma Proving Grounds I was suitably impressed by it all. We had to have badges pinned to our shirts to move about the place, and I couldn’t take my camera out of the vehicle. A picture of the row upon row of Russian T—72 tanks would have been neat, but if I had tried we would have been thrown out. The test facility was a large bunker filled with electronic equipment, and covered with armor plate. I asked why and was told it was also the bunker from which they tested tank guns and the plate was to protect the inhabitants in case something blewup during testing. Since they weren’t too worried about our Sharps blowing up and killing the crew, we were free to roam out to the machine rest, which happened to be a modified gun carrier from a Russian T—72 tank.

This whole assembly was not about just testing Sharps. Many of the scientists brought their own weapons to gather data on ranging from .38 Special handguns to 12 gauge shotguns up to even a 20mm cannon. Finally time rolled around to try the Sharps. They elevated the gun carriage to 35 degrees and touched off a round of Dennis Bardon’s loads using a 675 grain bullet powered by about 90 grains of FFg. All the scientists running the equipment started stuttering and stammering, collectively saying, “It couldn’t be!” They just couldn’t accept that a bullet launched by black powder and starting out at a muzzle velocity of only 1,216 fps landed over 3,600 yards away!

I heard mutters of, “Shoot another one, something must not be working right.” So they turned loose another shot. This time the bullet weighed 650 grains and the muzzle velocity was 1,301 fps. Again the muzzle was elevated to 35 degrees. That bullet landed 3,245 yards downrange. The fellow who wrote the article saying Billy Dixon couldn’t have hit the Indian got real quiet and very red in the face.

From there on it was all fun. We elevated the muzzle to 45 degrees. The bullet again was 650 grains and started at 1,275 fps. It landed at 3,190 yards, but the most amazing thing was that it went up to a few feet shy of 4,000 feet and was in the a full 30 seconds!

One of the scientist there had a laptop computer and he did a bunch of tapping with the data accumulated so far and said, “Elevate the muzzle to 4 1/2 to five degrees and you’ll get a Billy Dixon shot. That was done with the same load and the bullet landed at 1,517 yards. I’d say that scientist was on the ball. Incidentally, five degrees of muzzle elevation can easily be gotten with only the rear barrel sight on a Shiloh Sharps. -

We tried one light bullet in the .50-90. It only weighed 45&gralns, and had 100 grains of FFg under it. It started out at an impressive 1,406 fps but with the muzzle elevated to 35 degrees it landed only 2585 yards away. That extra bullet weight sure makes a difference.

Next we played with a .45-110 (2 7/8 inch case). Using a 550 grain bullet with about 100 grains of Ffg. With the muzzle elevated to 35 degrees it started with a muzzle velocity of 1,322 fps and landed 3,575 yards down-range. Next we dropped the muzzle to five degrees. The small bullet started at 1,361 fps and the bullet went 1,430 yards. Interestingly, it was stil traveling 669 fps when it went into the ground.

The last Sharps we test fired was Dennis Bardon’s .40—70 Sharps Straight silhouette rifle. The bullet weighed 403 grains. I don’t have the exact powder charge at hand right now but it would have to be in the 58 to 60 grain range. The muzzle was elevated to five degrees and the bullet started out at 1,333 fps. It hit at 1,155 yards and was still traveling 688 fps.

The forensic scientists generally agree that any projectile from BBS on up needs in the area of 300 fps to inflict a fatal wound. The .50 caliber Sharps bullets which started at 35 to 45 degree angles were coming almost straight down o~it of the sky, but they were still traveling at 350to 400 fps. In other words they were still deadly even at 3,500 yards!

Others there were anxious to test their pet projects so that’s all the Sharps shooting we got done. Actually we tested 27 rounds, but most were .50 calibers and merely repeat shots to confirm results. I would like liked to have tested more of the lighter calibers at the five degree angle, but time wouldn’t allow. If I ever get to do this again I would like to take samples of every .40 and .45 caliber bullet styles available and compare them all with the muzzle elevated to only five degrees. We could certainly get some precise ideas as to the effect of bullet nose shape couldn’t we?