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50 Caliber Artifact

Most of the artifacts I find on the place are historical instead of archaeological.  Two, found about a half-century apart were cartridge cases from the Sharps “Big Fifty.”  Both were probably not just ejected, but rather discarded.  Each had a split along the sidewall, suggesting that they had been reloaded and re-used at least once past their “best-used before” date.

It is hard to figure out the story behind this brass.  The “Big Fifty” was introduced in 1872 as the 50-90, but with differing bullets these old empties could have been 50-100 or 50-110 cartridges.  Sharps Rifle Company folded its tent in 1881, the last of the great buffalo herds was slaughtered in 1884 (Standing Rock, North Dakota) and, by 1890 the rifle and cartridge were obsolete.  Both were found in wooded areas that overlooked spots where long shots -a bit over 200 yards- might have been possible – but the only solid inference I can make is that each was discarded after the shooter noticed the split.

Another empty from a “buffalo gun” showed up maybe 25 yards from one of the big fiftie empties.  This one could probably still be reloaded safely.  The 45-75 Winchester was the original chambering for Winchester’s 1876 rifle.  It was found in a spot that was unwooded, and coming from a lever gun, might well have been ejected for a fast second shot.  The rifle was produced until 1897, and the cartridge until 1935.  I suspect there were two different hunters using buffalo rifles long after the herds were gone. 

I have never encountered a 32 special empty – despite it being the only centerfire rifle my Grandparents used here.  I suspect they carefully hoarded each piece of brass – but on the other hand, the empty case is small, and every acre has 43,560 square feet for the years to conceal all evidence.

I still encounter haywire artifacts in the woods.  I started moving bales in 1960, and worked with twine-tied square bales.  The first incarnation wire-tie bailer was developed in 1879, so it’s hard to pin a date on that.  Occasionally tangling a foot in haywire along an old logging trail suggests that bales were brought in for a lunch for horses that were skidding logs out.  I haven’t ran across much haywire in the fields – but my explanation could be out to lunch.  Still, I think the baling wire came after the cartridge cases.

The orange artifacts are Dad’s – it’s amazing how long orange baler twine can last when it becomes one with the ground.  It’s equally amazing how long I have had to lie on the ground with a Kabar cutting it out of the rototiller.  I had to sharpen the knife 6 times before I got the last of the bailer twine cut out of the tines.

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Repairing a Rifle

I spent some of my time repairing a rifle this week – while the story might not be noteworthy to my gunsmithing friends (I started teaching college at Trinidad State in Colorado), the details might be interesting for another group.  After all, few people begin teaching in a college best known for gunsmithing, and retire from a sociology department in a midwest Land Grant.  I do have friends on both sides of the gun control issue.

An old friend greeted me with, “I’ve got something I want you to have.” a while back.  When he opened his trunk, I was handed a 50 caliber rifle.  It needed some work – the hammer was missing, the hammer screw broken off, no wedge, rust along the barrel, and, because of another broken part couldn’t be loaded.  No background check, just a private transfer from an old friend who knew I would enjoy both repairing and using his 50 caliber.

Even as a wall-hanger, the rust had to go.  So I spent several hours rubbing with steel wool and light oil.  I was pleased – the rust was almost totally surface rust, and virtually no pitting.  To touch up the blue after cleaning the rust, I used Oxpho-Blue . . . a great product, available through the mail from Brownell’s in Iowa.

The broken screw didn’t need drilled.  After a day of AeroKroil penetrating oil, I could grab a thread with a small pair of vicegrips and get the broken shaft out.  I was ready to start repairs.  The rifle was, of course, out of production but a google search showed me the parts were all available on the internet – specifically on ebay.  I could get a replacement hammer.  The screw was available from a machinist that had set up a small lathe to make them when he couldn’t get replacement parts.  A New Old Stock wedge was available.  I went to Kalispell with Renata, and bought ammunition. Five days after using a credit card and an internet connection, the rifle was almost complete.  I could check the set triggers, and there was no rust there to mess me up.  I just couldn’t load the rifle.

Today, the part I needed arrived in the mail – a ramrod, made in Thompson Falls, a few miles southwest of me, shipped from an ebay seller in Florida.  I slipped it below the barrel, and my 50 caliber Hawken was complete.  Now, I have to pour in a little black powder, patch the round ball, and shoot a rifle that was state of the art between 1822 and 1858.  I’ve always wanted a 45 Whitworth – but a 50 Hawken that came from a friend is probably more appropriate in the Rockies.