The Science of Long Range Shooting

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Written by: Kenny Wasserburger

It’s 1879, and since the 1874 International Match at Creedmoor there have been a lot of changes.

Edwin Perry shares, in his Third Edition of Modern Observations on Rifle Shooting (1880), some of the major changes / advancements at Creedmoor in just a short 5 years. When it comes to bullet alloys, much of what has been passed around on the internet as fact about the advent of harder alloy bullets is, frankly, nothing but conjecture. And what has been passed off as fact is in effect WRONG.

Very hard alloy bullets, were in vogue by 1879 for long range competition and were sold by Sharps and Remington. Factory ammo was no longer used by any of the big name shooters. Most had, after careful study, found that their own reloads had much better performance on the long range targets. Make no mistake about it, rapid advances in long range shooting were going on, and much of it we knew little about, until now. Rare contemporary catalogue data shows it, but no reasons as to what or why or WHO was using it. Now we have some insights, the sad part is it was always there, we just had to know where and how… to find it.

What I liked about this edition of Perry’s book, which is as different as night is to day to the First Edition, is that he does not share just an opinion: he shares what the shooters were actually using. Powder charges much heavier and the reasons why. Bullet alloys, sorry soft bullet alloy advocates, the softest bullet in use at Creedmoor by 1879, for long range was 1-14 in the Sharps Borchardt, patched with the Hyde base-pattern or method. Many were using 1-11 and the Hepburn base method. Others used 1-11 alloys, but patched with the Hyde method. Huge advancements, not just in alloy / powder charges, but also in nose shape and bullet weights are also mentioned. He goes into discourse on the need for a rifle to hold elevation (vertical) on the target, something I have never seen before in print on the subject of Black Powder Cartridge Rifles from that era. He makes mention of Frank Hyde’s methods and that his targets spoke volumes on the subject of hand loading one’s own fixed ammunition when it came to holding elevation / vertical. Talk about some eye openers! The advice given was simple, increase the powder charge until elevation required, and the vertical was reduced to the minimum, then use 1-2 grains above that! Our British cousins lamented the fact and said we used to much powder, yet we kept handing them their collective team’s asses in every international sanctioned match.

Perry states: The Men looked on as Giants in the 1874 International Match, have since been dwarfed by those willing to devote careful study to the Science of Long Range Shooting. Perry proposed a match to promote the advancement of this very thing. Proposing a long range match at that time, was nothing new to be surprised at but… The conditions / rules laid down for this match were.

September of 1879 a prize match was announced to be shot at Creedmoor, three days of long range shooting, a $5 entry fee. Specific rules were laid out, such so that the NRA adopted them! The only request was that each shooter must give a very detailed survey of load methods, bullet alloy, type of patching, style of bullet, powder type and brand, charges weighed or thrown, fixed ammunition or muzzle loaded, rifle also, used in the match. Some of the greats of the era refused to enter, since they did not wish to divulge their personal methods, Perry makes mention of this, yet no names are given. Some 33 odd shooters did enter, among them Sumner, Hyde, Garrish, Farrow, LL Hepburn, Perry, Jackson, Allen, Rathbone, Homer Fisher and many others. The results of this match were shared in this 3rd Edition and give us many insights. Even a study of the MISSES! Perry, and a good many other shooters it seems, wished to advance the Science of Long Range Rifle shooting and felt this was the exact venue in which to do so, and only by sharing of ones findings and methods, could the sport and science advance! Mention of temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and proper quality instruments to measure such, being needed also. Proper scales to weigh charges also mentioned. Even a proper spotting scope-glass!

Perry makes mention of changes in bullet shape, and weights, currently being tested and data on such, to be forthcoming in the next season. Perry also mentions that Judge Gildersleeve’s book, Rifles and Marksmanship, is at the time (1880) being rewritten due to the many advancements since the 1878 edition publishing date. Judge Gildersleeve does mention in his 1878 edition the need for thin paper and wet patching the bullet (aka the Hyde method). That is if, one did not purchase bullets already patched. (All my research shows no such 1880-81 volume to exist, so it may have never been published). All the publishing dates I can find, show only the 1878 Edition (of which I have an original copy).

Many references I have, seem to show that the 550 grain bullet, that many Modern Day Armchair Researchers seem to be fixated on, had to be of a very soft alloy, and thus draw the conclusion that it has to be of near pure lead to weigh that much. When, in fact, it is reference to a nose style and Metford mentions (in Gildersleeve’s book) that most weigh around about 540 grains. My own Money Bullet in .446 diameter, weighs in at 538 grains in 1-16 alloy.

Sadly by 1881, long range competition fell from favour. America had lost its love affair with the Long Range International Match, and foreign nations had quit sending teams. A handful of men kept at it from all accounts. The 1900 National Matches at Sea Girt saw a 45-2-7/8ths black powder Sharps Borchardt, come out of the woodwork, with paper patched bullets and win the Wimbledon Cup for the last time, with Capt. William DeVaux Foulke at the trigger. Those Modern day shooters probably thought someone had just made the moon shot with an Estes Rocket.

Focus shifted to military matches, rifles and ammunition, and to advance the accuracy of such, no longer for the pure sport of long range shooting, but for a more effect service rifle for war and the average soldier. Jacketed bullets and smokeless powder and service rifle shooting became very popular. Other match shooters, shifted to Schuetzen matches, much less powder and only 200 yards.

For years I have wondered on the so called 550 grain Sharps Long Range Bullet; have we have been chasing a ghost? So it seems. We took for fact that the 550 it was the actual bullet weight and not something else. Too much has been left to speculation and conjecture these days, when actual reference material from the era shows something else entirely.

When I first started patching bullets I felt the twisted tail method, just stupid, the Hyde base just came natural to me and made much more sense. (Perhaps ole Frank Hyde was leaning over and just whispering in my ear?).

We learn from doing and seeing: this year’s results from Phoenix / The Mile Match / Raton, would seem to show that harder alloys / thin paper / shorter patch, tend to preserve the nose shape better, reduce bullet set back, reduce elevations needed and show less vertical on the target. My results / findings, agree with Perry’s findings, the Hyde-base method work best for me.

Make no mistake Creedmoor in the 1870’s was a fast changing evolving sport, don’t get too mired in what you think was traditional for the era.

This topic is discussed further
on the Shiloh Rifle Forums:
Creedmoor 1879 – what you did not know