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Shooting Cartridge Ammo Nomenclature Part 2; .56-56 Spencer Rifle, 50-70 Government Centerfire & More

By the time of the civil war the rifled barrel was in ascendancy, though some units still sported smooth bore muskets. Claude-Étienne Minié, created a conical elongated and hollow based bullet for firing through a muzzle loading and rifled barrel. Conical bullets and rifling stretched combat out over 300 yards instead of the 40-yard musket limitation. The expanding gases on ignition would force the skirts of the hollow based bullet out to engage the rifling allowing both bore obturation (sealing) and spin stabilizing. In the United States it was the minni ball. Across the Atlantic the Brits employed the Minié ball during the Crimean War (Charge of the Light Brigade and all the other stuff).

Shooting the .56-56 Spencer Rifle

Northern solders had ‘skirmishers’ armed with a breech loading Sharps rifle shooting paper cartridge fired by caps. But Northern cavalry received a weapon described by the South as ‘that damn Yankee rifle you load on Monday and shoot through to Sunday’ (could be a misquote, but you get the idea. Remember muzzle loaders were still the dominate weapon of this conflict.) This was the Spencer, a rifled, 7 shot cavalry carbine that was loaded with a metallic modern style rim-fired (the priming mixture was in the rim not in the center) cartridge. Resembled a big twenty-two that was it progenitor, introduce in the same time period by Smith & Wesson and still around after a century and a half. The .56-56 has a unique nomenclature. The two numbers refer to the case diameter at the base, the second to the mouth diameter. The bullet weighed in at between 350-360 grains (22.7-23.3 grams) with a 42-45 grain black powder load. The bullet varied between .54 to .555 inches (quality control during this period was a bit lacking.)

50-70 Government Centerfire

When the war ended the United States Army adopted the 50-70 Government centerfire being the first US military cartridge used in early trap doors and Remington Rolling Block carbines and rifles. The name represents a 50-caliber bullet propelled by 70 grains of black powder. The solid head center fire cartridge allows for a more powerful loading. This is in contrast to the early 44 Henry 1860 used in Henry lever action manufactured by Winchester. The 44 Henry was a folded rim, rimfire cartridge with about 26-28 grains of powder pushing 200-216 grain .446-inch diameter bullet. 28 grains produced moderately low performance, restricted by the weak action of the Henry rifle and low-pressure restrictions of the folded rim cartridge. It was used in cartridge conversions of cap ‘n ball revolvers and was chambered in Colts, Smith & Wesson, 1866 Winchesters and for a while in the 1873 Colt Army.

45-70 Government Cartridges

1873 was a good year for American firearms manufacturers. The army adopted a new round, the 45-70 Government or 45-70-405. Caliber 45, 70 grains of black powder and a 405-grain bullet weight. Winchester introduce what was to be the ‘rifle that won the west’, the 1873 Winchester, and a new cartridge the 44-40. The 44-40 was a centerfire cartridge .44 caliber (actual diameter was .427 inches) backed by 40 grains of black powder. Colt adopted into their 1873 Army/Peacemaker along with the 44 Henry for legacy users, and introduced the 45 Colt, sometime referred to as the 45 Long Colt to differentiate it from the shorter 45 Smith & Wesson both referred by the caliber and designer/manufacturer. The British meanwhile adopted the falling block Martini-Henry in 1871 chambered for .577-450 Boxer-Henry. Say what? First the cartridge was a necked down .577 Snider cartridge necked to .45 caliber.

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