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About forty years ago I was driving through central Minnesota with a friend when we spotted a little country gun shop.  We went in, sniffed around, and when we left he was clutching a Savage 99 (I think it was) and I had a Springfield Trapdoor in the original .45-70 caliber. I also had a box of original black powder cartridges. I paid $12.00 for the rifle, mostly because some vandal had "sporterized" it by hacking off part of the fore-end.

After that box was gone (it would be worth real money now) I started to think about handloading. I got a Lyman mould and cast some bullets out of wheelweights. As I recall they were something around 350-400 grains. At the time 2400 was the typical powder recommended and what I used, although I don’t see that powder recommended for the .45-70 in either the current Speer or the Lyman Cast bullet manual. The 43rd edition of the Lyman Reloading Handbook (1964) lists 20gr of 2400 with the 300gr cast bullet and 26gr with the 405gr bullet. (I know–it should be the opposite). Before I looked this up just now I thought I remembered using 22gr of 2400. My memory may be a little fuzzy about the powder but it’s sharp as a tack about the results I got because they were lousy. The shots printed like a shotgun on the target and it was at very short range. Very discouraging.

I hardly shot that rifle for several decades until a few years ago.   Someone recommended a book by J. S. Wolf called Loading Cartridges for the Original .45-70 Springfield Rifle and Carbine, first published in 1991. It’s a cheap little paperback, badly printed on poor paper, possibly on Gutenburg’s original press, but it may be the best gun book I've ever read. Even if you don’t have and are not interested in the Trapdoor you will enjoy this book because he shows step by step how he went about solving the problem of getting these fine old rifles to shoot with close duplicates of the original military load. He used about a dozen rifles and carbines, if I'm remembering this right, and after several years and a lot of shooting he had it figured out; it’s all explained in this book.

I’ll give it to you briefly, step by step.

  1. The bores of these old rifles are full of crud, baked in decade after decade, and you can’t get them to shoot until you get the crud out. Fouling, rust, leading, and maybe a lot more. There’s no way to get it out without a lot of elbow grease. It makes a good winter project. I probably used up eight or ten .50 brass brushes and hundred of patches. I would go down to the basement once or twice a day and work at it for 10-15 minutes at a time and several months later the job was done. Wolf shows you how to tell when the job is done, and no it’s not when the bore looks shiny.
  2. The cartridge cases need to be prepared for this application. The main thing is to drill out the flash hole, and he tells you the size drill to use. The primers are magnum. He recommends Federal and I think one other brand.
  3. The bullets have to be soft lead. (That alone was enough reason for my wheel weight bullets to give lousy accuracy.) I believe he said it has to do with the shallow grooves in the Trapdoor bore.  He recommended the Mt. Baldy bullet company for this. A lot of people sell bullets suitable for the .45-70, but they’re typically cast 1:20. He says cast them 1:40. I bought 100 405gr bullets from Mt. Baldy and they were very reasonable. The company was bought out by another and they’re no longer reasonable, but probably most people don’t use a lot of these loads. When I called Mt. Baldy and said I wanted bullets for the .45-70 they asked me if I had read the Wolf book.
  4. Putting 70gr of black powder in the case fills it up to the top. That presents a problem because if you mash the powder column down with the bullet as you do in other applications you’ll deform the soft lead. The answer is a special insert for the die which mashes the powder down before you seat the bullet.
It’s hard to believe it’s the same rifle now. Last time I had it out I was chronographing the rounds and shooting at a target at the 25 yard line. To line up rifle, chronograph and target I was sitting at the bench but holding the rifle up to my shoulder as if I were standing, with no contact at all with the bench. I fired five shots like that into about 2 inches. Highly satisfying compared with the former performance. I wasn’t paying attention to the chronograph readings, but someone standing behind me watching this said there was almost no spread between the five rounds.

These old Trapdoors are a lot of fun to shoot, especially with the black powder loads. I was surprised that some of the range gun nutz don’t know anything about this rifle. They wanted to know what it was. And the smoke draws a crowd, even though the ML gang is pretty strong at this club.

Here’s a picture of the butchered 1873 Trapdoor I’ve been talking about along with a whole 1884 model I bought a few months ago.

Pat Wolf, J. S. Wolf’s widow, has been selling the book and also some of the other materials he recommends–wooden ball and brass cleaning rod tip he recommends that you epoxy to a dowel for cleaning, drill for the primer pockets, and the .45-70 dies that come with the insert to tamp down the powder.

She can be reached at:

Pat Wolf
1621 Woodville
Chula Vista, CA  91913

Phone: 619-482-1701
Fax: 619-934-0093

She’s very accommodating, sending me the stuff I ordered without waiting to get paid. Highly recommended.

Uploaded: 2/21/2004