5.56 Timeline

Boer Rifleman

From 1870s on British interests in South Africa was being threatened by the expansion of Boer settlers, A small war had been fought between the two groups in 1880-81 which ended in a stalemate. The standoff didn’t last long and in 1899 a large military force was sent to deal with the problem of the Boers.

“The men of the Queen Victoria’s Regular Army were tough, well trained and believed themselves to be equal of any professional army of the world. The problem was, the Boers were not a professional army, and no one had informed them that they should agree to be beaten by the British.”

In reality the Boers were not any kind of army. It was an alliance of farmers. All of them expert horseman who owned the latest cutting edge bolt action rifles. All of them excellent shots. They knew their home turf and how to use the terrain to their advantage.

The British had no concept of the type of war they were about to wage in Africa, and if they expected a short, sharp decisive battle, they were soon to find out different. “Despite marching hundreds of miles in pursuit of their enemy, the soldiers almost never saw a Boer, yet frequently came under devastatingly accurate rifle fire, from positions so distant their attackers could not be identified.”

F.M. Crum was serving as a lieutenant in the 60th Rifles. Crum was a rifle enthusiast himself and made early comments on the marksmanship of the Boers.

“it was a new kind of war. The invisible, galloping crack shot Boer, with the modern quick firing long range rifle, was thoroughly at home. While we, to make up for our slowness of movement, often had to make long and exhausting night marches over difficult ground.”

The Boer shooting was so effective that nigh movement became the norm. “The lines of soldiers and straggling baggage trains made pitifully easy targets for the Boer marksman in the daylight.” The Brits had no means to deal with the problem. While the British had expert shots in their ranks, they had no training in long range shooting or guerrilla warfare tactics. In head to head traditional fighting the Brits showed their skill on the battlefield. On the whole, the British were out shot and outmaneuvered.

“the Boers were above us..Peeping over the crest, I counted 500 ponies and many Boers. What was the range? Major Greville thought it was 1.200 yards, I put it at more, We called for a range finder, but it had been left behind..”

Over than their shooting ability, another reason for the Boers’ success was in their use of natural cover and their personal clothing. They understood the benefit of using the terrain to its best advantage and were used to the problems of shooting up and down hill and the difference it makes in bullet trajectory. They could also judge the distance of the veldt very accurately as they lived and worked on it all of their lives. Boer clothing was useful green and brown colored jackets and pants with large brimmed hats to protect them from the hot African sun.

“…they did not waste water by daily shaving, and most had thick beards as well as being tanned from years of living in the open. As a result, they did not have that tell tale pale facial disc, which normally provides such a good target for rifleman. When hidden in scrub or dug into a ridge they were practically invisible.”

It pretty quickly became obvious that the British could not beat them militarily so they did what invaders always have to do and went after their families, destroyed their farms, burned crops and put survivors into concentration camps. “still the fighting continued, with the British taking unpalatable heavy casualties from accurate Boer rifle fire at battles such as Spion Kop, where the photographic images of huddled British dead piled in inadequate trenches shocked the nation.”

7×57 mm Mauser used by the Boers’. Cutting edge in the day and easily out performed the British service rifles. The 5 round stripper clip charger making reloading lightning fast.

The young Boer lady on this patriotic postcard is shown carrying a stylized rifle and antique bandolier. Plezier rifles (a sporter version of the Mauser) were purchased by some Boers, and apparently carried by a few women. The Boer women suffered disproportionately during the war, during which at least 24,000 women and children perished in Lord Kitchener’s infamous “concentration camps.”

The Transvaal also imported a few Model 1871 German single-shots. Unlike the German army-issue rifles (as seen here), they were manufactured at the Austrian arsenal at Steyr, and they bore no unit markings.

“One of the most unique arms to see service with the Boer republics was the single-shot Guedes rifle. Designed by a Portuguese army officer, the Guedes rifle had a distinctive tilting-block breech, and was chambered for the rimmed 8×60 mm cartridge. The Portuguese government contracted with the famed Austrian arms manufactory at Steyr in 1885 to have these rifles made, but then cancelled the order when they realized that magazine-fed repeating rifles had become the wave of the future. The rifles sat in Austrian warehouses until the mid-1890s, when the Transvaal bought at least 7,700 of them, and the Orange Free State acquired a few hundred from the ZAR (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek—South African Republic). Some of the Transvaal Guedes rifles, like some of the Martinis, were crudely stamped with a “ZAR”—but on the top, rather than the side, of the receiver.”

The surplus Martini-Henrys (both rifles and carbines) acquired by the Transvaal government were crudely stamped “ZAR”, and then sold to the Boer burghers at a price of four pounds each. Those acquired by the Orange Free State were marked with an “OVS” in the same manner.

.577/450 Martini-Henry

“Other lesser-known modern firearms that could be found in the hands of Boer burghers were the 10-shot .303 Lee Speed rifle, the 6.5 mm Norwegian Krag, some 8 mm German Gewehr 88 “Commission” rifles and a few Model 1888/90 Mannlicher rifles. Arms that had played a part in the 1881 First Anglo-Boer War were also pressed into service, but to a very limited extent. First and foremost were British Snider .577 rifles and carbines, Martini-Swinburne .577/.450 carbines, and Westley-Richards “Monkey-Tail” percussion carbines and falling block rifles. Swiss rifles, like the obsolete Milbank-Amsler muzzleloader conversion, and the Model 1878 Vetterli—both in .41 Swiss rimfire—apparently were in evidence (but with limited ammunition), as were Model 1873 and Model 1876 American Winchesters, and even Model 1860 U.S. Spencer carbines. A few Kropatschek rifles and French Model 1874 Gras rifles also reportedly saw use by Boer commandos.”

American Rifleman- 2016

Out Of Nowhere- Pegler

The Boer Wars

.225 Winchester

When the .220 Swift was brought by Winchester it was a big hit. The fastest centerfire rifle cartridge made and sold by a factory. Velocities for the Swift are still impressive now a days and was like magic in its day. Muzzle velocities over 4,000 fps was possible. The swift was used for all manner of game even though it was meant to be a varmint round. Some gunwriters of the day claiming it was good for everything from deer to Alaskan brown bear. It’s a pretty good round but I wouldn’t go that far. Especially with the bullets then available.

The problem with the 220 Swift was it gained a rep for burning out barrels at an alarming rate. That and the light weight thin jacket bullets some times coming apart and not making it to the target. Now, I think it’s debatable just how many barrels got burned out as opposed to the more likely problem being the barrels fouled out. Copper and carbon fouling from the use of the high pressure, high velocity round would have done a number on barrels made in back in the day and I wonder how many shooters, even serious ones, had anything that could truly clean up a copper fouled barrel.

Winchester decided to bring out something dialed back just a hair to remedy the “barrel burner” and still keep the velocity up. They picked the wrong time to introduce it as it was brought out with the all new and much loved post 64 Model 70…. The answer being the .225 Winchester.

Winchester took the older case of the .219 zipper ( more on that another day) and reduced the rim diameter.

40 gr (3 g) SP4,020 ft/s (1,230 m/s)1,436 ft⋅lbf (1,947 J)
50 gr (3 g) SP3,768 ft/s (1,148 m/s)1,577 ft⋅lbf (2,138 J)
55 gr (4 g) SP3,643 ft/s (1,110 m/s)1,621 ft⋅lbf (2,198 J)
60 gr (4 g) SP3,428 ft/s (1,045 m/s)1,566 ft⋅lbf (2,123 J)

These are velocities from modern loads with modern powder.

Back then, getting to 4,000 with the .225 WCF was a lot harder. You can read about some of the older gun writers doing it, but that was a lot of guessing in my opinion. The handloaders of the time did not have chronographs to test their loads. Now with modern components its doable.

The .225 was a good round and pulled back of the .220 to make the barrel last longer and give nearly the same performance. Problem for Winchester was, the .22-250. did that too, and did it earlier The .22-250 was a very popular wildcat for years before remington brought it out as a commercial round the year before the .225. The .22-250 is an excellent round and if you want a high velocity .22 varmint round it’s hard to beat. It’s easy to load for and get accurate loads and you can approach the velocities of a Swift if you are careful. The round was so well liked by Hogden himself, he named his favorite powder after his pet load for the .22-250. That is, H380. The 380 coming from his pet load of 38.0 grains of the military surplus cannister grade powder. See what kind of useless information I’m full of?

The extremely popular .22-250 and the post 64 Model 70 really put a hurting on the chances of the .225WCF ever being popular. Even the personal approval of Harvey Donaldson didn’t help the .225 much and to this day is rarely heard of and even rarely encountered. Factories to crap out a few offerings ever so often and hand loading components can still be purchased. Use of modern powder and high performance .22 caliber bullets would make the .225 an excellent round for handloaders and anyone who wants a high velocity .22 round for varmint hunting. But, ti be honest with you , there are other choices just as good and you would only be using the .225 to be different and it would take a large investment to track down a rifle chambered for it or to have one made. But, if you are a gun hipster/vintage snob like some one I won’t mention ( me) then it’s a very good round.

1946 Army Footlocker Yard Sale Find

It always pays to stop at yard/garage sales when you pass one. Even if it looks like it might just be wahmyn and baby clothes. Especially if it is some guy having one.

After stopping at one last week, this WW2 era footlocker was found and purchased for 20 yankee dollars.

At some point , some one got the bright idea to paint it some combination of purple and white. Hopefully that person is now in pain. The paint was in bad shape and had to go. So out came the scrapers and sander.

After a couple of hours of using up sandpaper like it was free, the foot locker was ready for some proper colored fresh paint.

Storage containers in back also came from yard sale and will be talked about later this week

The inside had seen no abuse so there was no need to paint it. The footlocker was in great shape other than the paint. These things are very cool and useful. It is never wrong to buy one if you have the chance.

The Birth of the Winchester Model 70

Most of this week I was working on some posts about the Model 70 Winchester, my favorite bolt action rifle. I had about half of a long article going when I checked my email today and saw that Rock Island Auction had already finished one. Well that was a lot of work for nothing. Waaa Waaaaah Sad trombone.. So, instead of finishing that first post, here is the RIA article. Or about half of it. Follow the link at bottom to read it all and I will be back with more Model 70 stuff to show you and talk about next week.

From the RIA Gun Blog

The earliest version of the Winchester Model 70 borrowed heavily from its short produced predecessor, the Model 54. Designed by Thomas Johnson and developed in the early 1920s, the Model 54 became the first bolt action rifle made by Winchester and continued production until around 1935. Bolt action rifles had gained popularity in America after World War I since soldiers coming home were well acclimated with them after using their service M1903 and M1917 rifles. Between 1925 and 1941, around 50,000 of these guns were manufactured. The Model 54 came in several different caliber variations with the most popular being .30-30 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield, but customers could also place special orders for other calibers. The gun’s main purpose was for hunting, but was also customized and used in shooting competitions.

The original Model 54 was a dangerous and poorly produced rifle. Originally designed without the necessary gas escape ports, it could present an explosive hazard to its user. This blunder was corrected on later productions of the model, but the gun still fell short with the public. The main reason the Model 54 was never found success was due to the obvious flaws in its bolt and safety design. The wide throw of the bolt and placement of the safety did not all allow for telescopic scopes to be mounted on to the gun which turned away a wide array of civilian and military customers. The trigger was loose due to the cheaper materials used in the gun, causing inaccuracy and a relatively weak action. To say the least, customers were not pleased by the rifle’s performance.

Beyond the shortcomings of the rifle, the fact that it was sold in the Great Depression Era in America also contributed to lower sales. Something had to change in order for the Model 54 to make a profit for Winchester.


Rare Winchester Model 54 Deluxe Heavy Barrel Bolt Action Rifle in 250-3000 Savage Caliber

The Winchester Model 54 was a bust and in the hopes of redeeming their name in the bolt action rifle market, Winchester knew they would need to come up with a firearm that knocked its customers’ socks off. In 1935, attempting to use parts and the machinery purchased for the previous gun, they released a much improved version of the bolt action and called it the Winchester Model 70 rifle. The gun was so well made that it is considered one of the finest bolt action rifles made in America. The first incarnation of the Model 70 hit the market in 1936.

The rifle came in 18 cartridge varieties and additional variations were available through special order. The standard Winchester Model 70 offered a 24”, 26”, or 28” inch barrel. Perhaps the best feature of the rifle that made it superior to other guns was the Mauser two lug extractor bolt with controlled round feeding, which was smooth and made for faster firing. The early versions of the gun were equipped to accept stripper for quicker reloading relative to other options on the market. The entire gun was made from steel and wood. The finished pieces were true works of art.

Highly engraved Winchester Model 70

Elaborate Relief Engraved, Gold Inlaid African Big Game Themed Winchester Model 70 Bolt Action Rifle in .458 Winchester Magnum. Avaliable this December.

Hunters, competition shooters, and other sportsmen took a liking to the accurate and efficient Winchester hunting rifle. The first production run was short lived due to the outbreak of World War II, which changed Winchester’s military production efforts. The U.S. military adapted a small amount of Model 70 rifles for training and some use in combat during World War II,  but the government already had on hand thousands of M1903 and M1917 rifles from the first World War, as well as new contracts for thousands of new M1903A3 guns, resulting in little need for another bolt action rifle. In fact, during the Vietnam War, in an attempt to use all available resources, the US government gave troops the Model 70 rifles from World War II for actual use in combat. Despite the advancements in military arms over the last 30 or so years, the Model 70 proved to be an excellent sniper rifle for the Marines with its reliable accuracy and long distance power.

After World War II, small alterations were added to the Winchester Model 70 making the early 1940s era a transitional time for the gun. From the late 1940s to 1963, several different models and chambering adaptations were added. The Varmint, the African, the Alaskan, and the Featherweight are just a few of the variations that came about during that era. Around 600,000 Winchester Model 70 rifles were made in that time span; substantially more than the 50,000 Model 54 rifles produced during its 16 year run. The Model 70 a tremendous hit and the premier bolt action hunting rifle even while it was still undergoing changes.

The “New” Winchester Model 70

The Model 70 was made in the exact same design until 1964, but there was new, less expensive competition emerging in the market such as the Weatherby Mark V and the Savage Model 110. Winchester had to find a way to produce the Model 70 in a cheaper and quicker way while still maintaining quality if they wanted to stay on top. The new gun had drastic changes that made fans of the Model 70 quite unhappy. The most controversial was the switch from the controlled round feed with a claw-like extractor to a push feed bolt with a small hook extractor on the right locking lug. People didn’t trust the little hook would be reliable compared to the claw-like extractor used in the previous design. The original hand cut barrel and rifling was changed to a cheaper and easier process of using a forged barrel. Winchester began to cut costs on the deluxe features by adapting a pressing method instead of cut checkering on the wood of the gun. Some materials used went from steel to aluminum to reduce costs further. One improvement was the anti-bind feature which actually helped the bolt become smoother. The addition was referred to by Winchester as the “guide lug” which was essentially a lug on the bottom left of the bolt that that ran on a track inside the receiver. This kept the bolt at the correct angle to prevent binding.

The changes from the original design to the new production is why the Winchester Model 70 rifle is referred to by gun enthusiasts as “pre-64” and “post-64.” Getting a Model 70 made before these changes occurred is much more pricey and desirable due to age, quality, and nostalgia.

Model 70 Super Grade

Factory Engraved Gold Inlaid Winchester Custom Shop Custom Grade Model 70 Super Grade Model 70 Bolt Action Rifle. Avaliable this December.

In 1968, Winchester took note of the public’s disdain in many of the changes and started adding back elements of the original rifle throughout the next decade or so. In the 1990s, Winchester released what was called, “The Model 70 Classic” which was a callback to the original Model 70 design and features. The most requested feature was added, which was the return of the controlled feed ejector bolt. The gun was well-produced and some may say an improved version of the original with the addition of the anti-bind bolt feature. The changes Winchester made to redeem the new Model 70 contributed to the rifle retaining its name as the finest American hunting gun.

If you would like to read an in-depth description of the evolution of the Winchester Model 70 and all its variations, purchase a copy of the book The Rifleman’s Rifle by Roger Rule. It provides a thorough overview of all iterations of the Model 70.

Link to read the entire piece and see more pictures below.


Gun that fired the first shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill up for auction

My connection is still flakey. But I caught a few seconds to share this pretty cool bit of news.

The gun that fired the first shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill is heading for sale Morphy Auctions in Denver later this month.

The Revolutionary War musket belonged to John Simpson, a Private in the 1st New Hampshire Regiment who fought during the historic battle in Charlestown, Massachusetts on June 17, 1775.  

As the British troops advanced, Simpson fired his weapon prematurely – disobeying the famous order given to American soldiers not to fire “until you see the white of their eyes”.

Having been passed down by Simpson’s descendents for almost 250 years, the historic weapon will now be offered for sale for the first time, and is expected to sell for up to $300,000.

The musket will be sold along with John Simpson's original military commission dated March 17, 1778 (Image: Morphy Auctions)
The musket will be sold along with John Simpson’s original military commission dated March 17, 1778 (Image: Morphy Auctions)

“We have the privilege of auctioning a firearm that symbolizes one of the most important battles leading to American independence,” said Dan Morphy, President of Morphy Auctions.

“It will be exciting to see whether the Simpson musket ends up in a private or institutional collection.”

The battle of Bunker Hill was one of the most significant early battles of the Revolutionary War.

During the Siege of Boston, British troops attempted to fortify the hills surrounding the city, where they met with resistance from 1,200 colonial troops determined to defend the position.

Although the British eventually captured the hills, the victory cost them a large number of casualties – twice as many as the American troops – and proved that the inexperienced militiamen were more than a match for their experienced soldiers.

They remained more cautious in their tactics for the rest of the war, an approach which some historians believe helped the Americans forces to their eventual victory.

The historic musket has passed down through six generations of John Simpson's family (Image: Morphy Auctions)
The historic musket has passed down through six generations of John Simpson’s family (Image: Morphy Auctions)

Following the battle, John Simpson was the only American soldier court martialed for disobeying an order and firing too early.

However, he was only lightly reprimanded and went on to serve with distinction during the war, rising to the rank of Major before returning home to his family farm in New Hampshire.

His trusty musket was then passed down through generations of his family, creating a remarkable unbroken line of ownership, and has been described as “arguably the most significant, positively identified Revolutionary War long arm in existence”.

Not only is John Simpson’s name forever linked with the Battle of Bunker Hill, but his descendents played an even greater role in shaping the history of the nation.

Simpson’s grandson was Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War hero and 18th President of the United States; and his great-grandson was Meriwether Lewis, who explored the Western territories of the country as part of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The Morphy Auctions sale of Extraordinary, Sporting & Collector Firearms takes place in Denver, Pennsylvania on October 22-23