Inspired by a Sporting Rifle carried by Custer, a black powder enthusiast rebuilds his model.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY MIKE NESBITT
Remington’s No. 1 Sporting Rifle was introduced around 1868. That was a rather quiet introduction and this sporter was not identified or named as such until 1874. The No. 1 Sporting Rifles were last shown in a Remington catalog in 1889 with a total production of under an estimated 13,000 rifles. Remington was simply concentrating a lot more on filling military orders from several countries, and making sporting rifles was secondary.
When the Remington sporting rifles first appeared, they were made using military receivers which had “round tops.”
The top of the receiver ring was not “octagoned” like the later No. 1 Sporting Rifles, which were appearing around 1873 at about serial number 1400. These figures, taken from Roy Marcot’s book, Remington Rolling Block Sporting & Target Rifles, are educated guesses because Remington’s records for these changes simply do not exist.
But with only about 1,400 of the round-top sporting rifles made, you can guess how interested I was when I found one at a very reasonable price. The price was reasonable because this gun had mismatched serial numbers. In other words, this rifle had been reassembled from pieces and parts long after it had left the factory. Also, the barrel had been shortened from the breech end by about 4 inches, and then lined and chambered to a non-black powder caliber.
The old rifle itself was little better than just a parts gun. However, the parts were actually in pretty good shape. And while the numbers on those parts didn’t match, they were all of the right ones. This old rebuilt rifle was certainly an outstanding candidate for restoring. The idea of restoring it put me on a path of research to help me decide what to restore it to, which caliber and such.
ONE MEMORABLE CUSTOMER Remington had in the early 1870s was General George A. Custer, and he got his rifle through civilian channels instead of as a military order. Custer’s rifle was a .50-70, which was the military rifle cartridge at the time when he got his gun, in early 1873. This rifle was a Sporting Rifle and Custer carried it with him on each of the field maneuvers or expeditions he went on, including (we must guess) to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. We have to guess about Custer’s last battle because the rifle was not found and hasn’t resurfaced since.
Remington liked Custer, and the general wrote letters back to the company telling great stories about how much he enjoyed using his rolling block, along with the fantastic shots he was making with it. At least one of those letters was reprinted in Remington’s catalog in 1876. Having very positive notes from an outspoken general like Custer was very good advertising.
That led me on a trail to find out more about Custer’s rolling block .50-70. The trail quickly led to the book General Custer and his Sporting Rifles by C. Vance Haynes, Jr. This is also a very good book that includes information on Custer’s sporterized Springfield trapdoor and on his .50-70 rolling block.
There is no purchase order available for Custer’s .50-70 “roller” and no notes describing the details of the rifle. But there are several photographs where the rifle is included. Haynes used those old photographs to look at every detail that he could and came up with some excellent information. According to Haynes, Custer’s rifle had a 28-inch barrel, combination open and peep rear sight, single set trigger, Beach front sight, half-circle “cheek” or receiver extension on the forearm, and it did have the round-top receiver.
One tiny detail that could not be determined was which fore-end cap the Custer rifle had. In the photos where his gun is shown, the fore-end cap is hidden either under fringe from Custer’s jacket or with a cartridge belt. However, going back to the Marcot book, it is shown that the usual steel nose-cap was typically in use on rifles serial numbered 700 and higher. With that, we can assume Custer’s rifle had the standard steel nose-cap.
THAT INFORMATION SET the course for me; I would have my parts gun rebarreled and chambered for the .50-70. To do so meant having a barrel made and specially contoured to fit this rifle’s receiver and forearm because I didn’t want the forearm “gouged out” to fit a heavier barrel.
And I wanted the barrel to be 28 inches long, to make my rifle
similar to the Custer rifle. The stock shouldn’t need any more work, according to my ideas, but the barrel would require bluing and I wanted the receiver case-hardened again. For this work, the gun was quickly sent to a shop that specializes in restoring
Remington rolling blocks, C. Sharps Arms Company (csharpsarms.com).
There, a Green Mountain .50-caliber barrel blank was cut to 28
inches and contoured with a taper to fit the gun. A Rough & Ready
rear sight from Montana Vintage Arms was installed on the barrel
just forward of the receiver and the original Beach front sight was put in a slot cut near the front of the barrel.
(New Beach front sights are also available from MVA; I have one on
another rolling block.) The barrel was blued quite nicely and the receiver was given a pack hardening, which looks very good. The only pictures I have of this rifle were taken after the restoration work was done and I hope you agree with me, this old
restored .50-70 roller is a looker!
In fact, this restored roller looks so good to me that I thought about not shooting it and keeping it as a showoff piece instead.
But oh no, it will be fired and probably shot quite a bit. My first shots with this restored rifle were taken with loads using 425-grain paper-patched bullets, cast from a KAL mold, over 65 grains of Olde Eynsford 2F black powder. The 425-grain paper-patched bullets were used in the old .50-70 Sporting loads and my loads are quite comfortable to shoot, and this rolling block is a
light 8½-pound rifle.
My first target was posted at just 50 yards to see what this rifle would do. The peep sight was used, set at its lowest setting. Even so, when holding the top of the front sight at 6 o’clock, the bullets hit at the top of the black.
But the five-shot group was pleasing. You might ask if the rifle hits in the same place when the front sight is flipped from the blade to the circled bead? Yes, it does; the five shot group held three shots with the blade sight and two more with the bead on the post inside the ring. I can’t complain about that.
Then my friend Jerry Mayo tried the rifle, shooting offhand at a paper plate that was set out at 100 yards. Jerry squeezed off his shot, which hit the plate very nicely, turned to me and exclaimed, “That’s a huntin’ gun!” He might have the right idea.