Friday, August 23, 2013

It followed me home from the pawn shop

Because I needed another rifle like I need a hole in my head.

But it was there, stuck back in a corner of their rack behind the counter two days ago. And they didn't seem to know what it was.
Is that a Rolling Block, I asked, knowing full well that it was. And it was. A bit shop-worn and neglected, but at over 140 years old, it's excusable.
The tag read: .45-70 rifle". The price: up there. My guess was that they didn't know what they had or what it was worth and they were just taking a WAG (Wild-ass Guess) and hoping that someone would bite.

To be fair, I'm far from a Rolling Block expert. I know one when I see one, but when it comes to telling the difference between the uncountable number of variations of them out there...not even on a good day. Still, if this was a .45-70, it could come in handy as a test rifle for working up loads for my more valuable and fragile Trapdoor. And it's not like it's not historic and kinda neat it's ownself.
I played with it in the store for a while, kicking it's tires thoroughly and pointing out every flaw, real or imagined, that I could find. And it was pretty easy as the stock had plenty of wear and some re-finish long ago, and the metal was either patina or bare, with a fair bit of external mild pitting on the barrel and some rust on the receiver. But the action was solid and tight, and the bore was remarkably clean and bright with some pretty good grooves. It wasn't a museum piece, but it was far from being a basket case and it looked like it'd make a good shooter.
"Don't look too interested," I told myself. I pawed it over, then set it down and looked at some videos on a nearby rack, then I toyed with it some more, trying to appear skeptically pensive. Isiah, the guy behind the counter, seemed to think that I was his only reason for existing. He really, really wanted me to buy this rifle. But I had a lot of homework to do before I was willing to commit. I needed to figure out what it was and what it was worth first. So I continued to play with it, making mental notes as to the type of sight, number of barrel bands, markings, etc. And Isiah kept pressing me to buy it, dropping the price more and more each time that I didn't take the bait. Finally he was down to almost half what the tag was asking. Well considering that some of the shop's other "gems" included a Turkish Mauser with a garbage bore and a broken extractor that didn't even get a shrug from Isiah when I pointed it out ($350.00 for that POS) and a Czech Mauser boat anchor with a stock that someone had painted gloss brown (Described as a BRNO rifle, also $350.), I figured that if they were asking that much for obvious junk, their mark-up on the Rolling Block had to be astronomical as well. I thanked him for his time and left with his "best out-the-door price" written down, telling him I might be back again that evening or the next day.

Home I went, and on the computer I got. A bit of research pretty much pegged this rifle as a Model 1871 out of the batch purchased by New York state for that state's militia back in the early 1870's. It was not, however, a .45-70 but a .50-70. This was a bit of a let-down for me, but I could at least still get brass and bullets for it so what the heck? Besides, I wanted to see how low they'd really go on it.

I wandered back in the next morning. Isiah was there, along with a woman I'd not seen the day before. His eyes brightened when he saw me. "Back for this rifle?" he asked, way too hopefully.

"I came back to check it out again," I said. "If it's a .45-70, I can probably find a use for it."

"Oh yeah, it's a .45-70," Isiah reassured me as he took the rifle off the rack.

"Great," I said. "But just to be sure, because these things are floating around out there in so many different calibers today, I brought a dummy .45-70 cartride to check it out with. You don't mind, right?" You'd have thought that I just kicked his dog by the look on his face. That pretty much told me that he either knew or suspected that this wasn't a .45-70. He took my dummy round--made that morning in my shop from a new case and bullet, with no primer or powder, and he handled it for quite a while. "This can't go off, can it?" he asked, staring at the empty primer pocket. I assured him that it could not, and when he handed it back to me, I dropped it into the rifle's chamber. It slid right in and rattled around a bit. "Hmmmm..." I said. Then I took it out and put the bullet into the muzzle. The round dropped in clean to the cartridge head.

"This is not a .45-70," I told Isiah.

"Well what is it?" He asked me.

"Could be anything," I replied. "They re-chambered these in so many calibers, almost all of which are obsolete now." I paused for a bit. "Let me think on this," I told him.
The rear sight--correct for this model rifle.

At this point, Isiah told the woman there to take care of me, because he was going to get something to eat. Apparently he'd lost interest in this deal and wasn't worried about letting me know it. Points off for rudeness, I decided.

She came over and asked me if I wanted the rifle, telling me that they wanted to sell it because it had been in the store "forever". I explained the caliber problem and told her that I might still be interested in it, however I'd come in willing to buy a .45-70 and this wasn't one. She asked me if Isiah had given me a bottom-line price, and I said yes, naming a figure that was $50.00 lower than his quoted price mainly as a tax for him walking out on me like that. Then I spent the next five minutes idly looking at the rifle before I told her that even though we didn't know what caliber it was, I was willing to consider it just as a project if she'd take a hundred dollars less than the figure I'd just named ($150.00 off Isiah's "best we can do" price.) She walked in the back a minute, then came out and said if I was paying cash, we had a deal. I handed her the cash and made myself scarce before Isiah returned. I paid less than half of their original price, which tells me that their mark-up was ridiculous in the extreme.

Now I've got the rifle back at the lair, some of the surface rust has been removed, and a nice coating of RIG applied to the metal until I can devote a bit more time to a proper clean-up. I've got some .50-70 stuff on order and I can only hope that I've assessed it correctly as a NYS militia rifle otherwise the joke here may well be on me. But even if it is, this old rifle's clearly been somewhere and done something and now it's got a good home.
The remains of it's old unit and rack numbers. Someone issued and tracked this rifle for a while.

The Rolling Block action. NYS militia rifles were known for their tall hammers.
Action open, ready to receive a cartridge.
Action closed, hammer back. Ready to fire.

Tall hammer, extended breech-block thumb-piece, and both have the "shield" pattern on it characteristic of the NYS Militia rifles.

I've already found a cleaning rod for it and ordered it. And as soon as I can make up some black powder cartridges for this, we'll have a range report.

There'll be candy-bar lunches and ramen-noodle dinners for a couple of weeks now, but I'm happy.

"Is that a Rolling Block? Can we shoot cats with it?


  1. Sweet! And nice bargain tactics too. Its usually all I can do to keep from squeeling GIMMEEEE! like a girl :)

  2. You find the neatest toys!

  3. I'd love to have a rolling block; they're tough, uncomplicated rifles. Hollywood has never really featured them the way that they have the Sharps.

  4. Anonymous12:38 PM

    What is this word NEED or which you speak?


    Good choice!


  5. Holy crap, how can you refuse a face like the one Murph's sporting? I'll donate a few cats to the cause...

    (Awesome rifle, too, BTW!)

  6. Anonymous8:21 PM

    Nice score

  7. Can't claim to be an expert here, but I do own two Geiger/Rider spaghetti repros - Navy Arms (A. Uberti) carbine .444 Marlin, and a Cherry's/Pedersoli Creedmoor .45/70.

    With no disrespect to the Sharps, the ingenious and simple engineering elegance of the RB design - inline, faster lock, slim receiver - its brute strength (there are stories of proof testing at 10x the standard propellant load before yield), and the fact that it served armed forces around the [19th century] world in a myriad of calibers - makes it a true unsung hero in my book.

    Don't know if there's historical value in yours, but it sounds like you got a sweet deal - wish I'd run across such a find. I didn't see any .50/70 on OWS, but DGW has .50 Sharps basic brass to form your own. Ken Waters' Pet Loads lists both the Lyman 515141 and -42 (450 and 490 gr)as suitable bullets, and for only $0.22 each, you don't even have to cast them yourself.

    Looking forward to a range review, or a feline casualty report...