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Rimfire Part 3; 1858 Remington Conversion, 56-56 Spencer Rifle, Cartridge Guns & More

Along about 1856 Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson introduced the .22 Short rimfire metallic cartridge. This round has been around for over 160 years and is the longest running production cartridge in the world. Meanwhile about 1860 Henry introduced the .44 Henry for use in their lever-action rifle. A bit anemic by modern standards but the cartridge was commercially loaded up through 1934. When Winchester introduced the their 1866 ‘Yellow Boy’ with a brass receiver and a side loading gate it became the gun of choice for those heading west and was chambered in .44 Henry.

1858 Remington Conversion

About 1870 Remington introduced the .46 Short for conversion of the Remington cap ‘n ball 1858 revolver to cartridge loading. Later when the long was introduced it fit also. The .46 Long and Extra Long where rifle cartridges and soldiered on until the introduction of the .44-40 and .45 Colt in 1873 being the first mass produced, non-military center fire cartridges.

56-56 Spencer Rifle

The Civil War was fought with some rimfire cartridges, the most prolific was the Spencer rifle in 56-56 Spencer. The Spencer was a repeating lever action rifle loaded via tubular magazines through the butt of the stock with seven rounds. Designed as a cavalry weapon rapid reloading from horseback was a must. This gave the Union cavalry unprecedented firepower versus enemy infantry with muzzle loaders. Prior to the Spencer rifle the Colt Walker and Dragoon pistols where found in saddle mounted holsters. Southern cavalry would sometime carry up to five revolvers into battle. The humble rimfire revolutionized cavalry warfare. The Southern force obtained Spencer Rifles through battlefield recovery and capture, and through smuggling. The Spencer went one after the war to serve in the western Indian wars fought post-civil war and was popular with civilians as well. The Spencer, 1866 Winchesters and Henry’s where the last of the rimfires in service before the dominance of center fire ammunition.

From Cap n Ball to Cartridge Guns

Of course, there was considerable overlap. The entry of the centerfire Colt and Winchester rounds did not replace the rimfires or for that matter the cap ‘n ball revolver and rifles overnight. It was a gradual process. During George Patton’s involvement with the Poncho Villa Expedition armed with a single-action Colt had a gun battle with Julio Cardenas, Villa’s bodyguard and revolutionary captain who was packin’ a cap ‘n ball revolver and Patton had his single action Colt in 45 Colt. To be expected most owners converted from cap ‘n ball to cartridges or obtained a cartridge gun as their financial circumstances would permit. The relatively rapid reloading was a definite advantage in a gunfight, particularly with multiple assailants. A side note: the 1911 Browning in .45 ACP was originally envisioned as a cavalry weapon. Cavalry pistols have a long history going back to flint locks and wheel lock pistols in saddle holsters.

Rimfire Cartridge Problems

Shortcomings of the rimfire are cartridge strength and they cannot be reloaded. The head is folded creating a rim and the primer compound spun between the rim folds. Folded rims have strength problems in the head of the cartridges, limiting powder pressure and thus capacity. Early .45 Colt ammunition used a folded “balloon head” cartridge until the modern solid head was introduced with smokeless loadings. Remember, the .454 Casull Magnum was developed using .45 Colt cases as was the .44 Magnum developed using .44 Special cases. Except for the .22’s and modern .17 caliber rimfires, the others suffered their demise with the introduction of the center fire cartridges on large military or commercial scales.

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