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How did they reload in the field in the old days?

Discussion in 'Handloading and Reloading' started by NoirFan, Jan 3, 2019.

  1. NoirFan

    NoirFan Member

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    This is more of a historical question so I hope this is in the right forum.

    Suppose it is the mid to late 1800s and you are making a living on the frontier as a professional hunter, mountain man, fur trapper, road agent, caravan guide, scalp hunter, or other lifestyle which requires you to regularly use a gun far from civilization and resupply. You have an early metallic cartridge gun that fires something like the 44-40, 45 Colt, or 45-70.

    How do you reload more ammunition for your gun while in the field? Do you carry a hand press, powder, and bullets so you can do it in the wilderness? What do you do about primers? Are you doing campfire casting, and if so, where do you get lead? Or do you just forget about wilderness reloading and depend on regular trips into town to buy ammo?

    Thanks
     
  2. RandyP

    RandyP Member

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    Here is how they did it with the Ideal tool:

     
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  3. MikeInOr

    MikeInOr Member

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    I have no clue! But carrying bullets, primers, a hand press and especially powder seems like it would negate the advantage of cased ammo... one of the main ones being keeping the powder dry until it is used??? Did reloading ammo make sense on the open range? It doesn't seem like it would save much weight? It will be interesting to see what people come up with.
     
  4. Rule3

    Rule3 Member

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    Which is the same logic I use when folks talk about "bug out" bags and taking reloading equipment and separate components. Heck just bring loaded ammo.

    Maybe they loaded back in the wagon train circle or around the campfire while eating beans?:uhoh:
     
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  5. Tilos

    Tilos Member

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    Lewis and Clark used air guns :uhoh:
    :D
     
  6. FROGO207

    FROGO207 Member

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    I believe that most of them used front stuffers and salvaged their shot lead when possible if they were away from civilization for extended periods. There were some merchants that loaded/reloaded ammo in various towns for you as well as supplied the caps, powder, and lead as metallic cartridge ammo caught on. Contrary to popular belief not everybody and their uncle had a rifle and revolver on them when out and about back then.
    That campfire casting was usually to make lead round balls to shoot over.;)
     
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  7. 25-20 WCF

    25-20 WCF Member

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    Mid to late-1800s.....The professional “buffalo hunters” during the “great buffalo hunt” between 1871 and 1883 often reloaded, they didn't carry hundreds of rounds of cartridges like the 40-90, .44-77 and .45-120. Patched bullets were very common as were bullets cast of “pure” lead over a camp fire.

    Ideal tools were not made until 1885 so they missed out on most all the buffalo. From reading comprehensive sources I believe that many of the buffalo hunters simply reprimed, charged and seated paper-patched bullets ‘by hand’.


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  8. blue32

    blue32 Member

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    I don't know about trappers but the big game hunters would often reclaim the ball from the animal and cast it again.
     
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  9. splattergun

    splattergun Member

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    I would think that it's not all that different than now,. Those that wanted to reload their black powder cartridges would have the equipment to do the job. Others chose to buy their ammunition. Some new firearms included a bullet mold. A couple posts above make it sound like such a hassle to carry reloading supplies. Ain't necessarily true. Not everyone in the old west were cowboys, trappers, hunters or other itinerates. A lot were settlers with a place to store and use their equipment. Which is easier, to drive a buckboard for 2 days into town for a box of cartridges, or to sit at the table and hammer out a couple dozen rounds?
    I would have to assume that at least some of those wandering cowboys had supplies in their saddle bags, too,. hand loading BP cartridges can easily be done at a camp fire. Basic whack-a-mole reloading kits have been around since cartridge guns became popular.
     
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  10. shoobe01

    shoobe01 Member

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    There was a lot of downtime. No headlights on horses, and they also have to graze halfway through the day. So travel time leaves you plenty of time, even once food and personal/horse hygiene and other gear prep/cleaning is done. So, reloading is just another task you do. Slowly. One day you make bullets. Once a few empty cases, you load a bit, etc. etc.

    Cartridge arms still allow more shooting at a time than muzzle loading. But, small numbers. IIRC from contemporary accounts, 20 rounds tends to be plenty. No need for loading blocks and so on, just stuff the finished rounds back in the dump bag or loops where you carry them.
     
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  11. MikeInOr

    MikeInOr Member

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    I think it was around 1860's when large caliber metalic cartridges first became available. I believe there were plenty of forts, trading posts and settlements where supplies including ammunition could be purchased or traded for. The 1860's is also the era when railroads started to poliferate including the transcontinental railroad which enabled the shippment of goods en mass.

    It seems like if hunting were your profession (killing buffalo to clear the way for the railroads) you should be pretty close to one shot one kill. Yes they were slaughtering buffalo by the hundreds of thousands but the buffalo hunters were pretty flush with cash as buffalo hunting was a pretty lucrative business.. I think they could afford to stock up on ammo. I also don't think you needed to fill a person with 17 rounds to stop them back then.

    I am not saying reloading ammo in the field on the frontier never happened... I just question if it was practiced very often by very many? Would a person even be comfortable reloading back then?... you know before youtube videos explaining the process.

    If you were going to Africa for a year long safari how many rounds would you take with you? Would you pack your Dillon 1050XL along with you? Or even a hand press?

    My guess is that reloading was not a very common practice in the field when metalic cartridges became available.
     
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2019
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  12. Nature Boy

    Nature Boy Member

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    I'd guess that when they came down off the mountain to trade their furs, resupply their essentials and find some female companionship, they also stocked up on ammo. I don't see the practical benefit of reloading metallic cartridges in the field, for the reasons @MikeInOr states above.

    On top of that, it wasn't until 1896 that Dillion launched its steam powered Frontier 5000, which brought reloading to the masses and revolutionized the industry for generations to come. :thumbup:
     
  13. shoobe01

    shoobe01 Member

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    "Worth it" was relative. If you are just some guy who happens to have a rifle for protection of yourself and the herd, and the occasional bunny to spice things up, you generally — once the metallic cartridge era arrived — bought ammo. Unclear to me if expended brass had value, or was tossed.

    If you shot for a living, then it added up so they generally are reported to have reloaded:
    • To save money. Think of ammo costs here.
    • Some of these were on the move, or so far away from town that it could be inconvenient to buy ammo.
    • So much time between visits to town, that carrying all loaded ammo would take more space and weight than was practical.
    • It's their job. So, the spare time is taken with hunting-related tasks, and this is an available one. Farmers/ranchers have infrastructure/harvesting/feeding, etc to take their time

    Naturally, there were exceptions. Several tales of farmers reloading in their spare time because: cheapskates or gun nerds. Or, specialist loads, weird guns, serious marksmen tuning to their needs and best gun/ammo performance. Just like today.
     
  14. fotheringill

    fotheringill Member

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    Mike- As long as you have broached the subject, Where did the Lone Ranger and Tonto keep all of their campfire items and pewter ware? You never saw either of them riding and clanging away when riding off.
     
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  15. someguy2800

    someguy2800 Member

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    Something to keep in mind as well is that shooting for recreation at that time was not really a thing except for the wealthy. Loaded cartidges, powder, and primers were expensive relative to peoples income's of the time so your average farmer or trapper or whatever would not have been pulling many triggers except to put food on the table, and you would have been darn careful about wasting ammo. One of the biggest benefits for cartridges at the time was being able to unload your rifle without wasting the charge because you can't keep a muzzle loader loaded forever.
     
  16. gwpercle

    gwpercle Member

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    Ease of reloading was the reason cap and ball percussion handguns and rifles carried on as long as they did after the invention of metallic cartridge cased ammo.
    I inherited a brace of 6 shot , Manhatten cap and ball revolvers and assumed they were 1850 to 1860 vintage , some research showed they were made in the 1880's ! Why were cap and ball guns still being made ...they were easy to load and on the frontier stores were far between and brass cased factory ammo expensive.
    To me the ultimate survival gun would be a black powder muzzle loader...maybe even a flintlock for the day you run out of percussion caps. Possibly a tool for making percussion caps would be OK too.
    Gary
     
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  17. NoirFan

    NoirFan Member

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    Do we have written sources or anecdotes on how frontiersmen who grew up with cap-and-ball guns reacted to the first brass cartridges they encountered?

    Thanks so far for the great replies! Especially the video, that introduced me to the concept of the Ideal Tool and the modern version Lyman 310. Might have to get one in 45 or 357 just for fun.
     
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2019
  18. Dudedog
    • Contributing Member

    Dudedog Contributing Member

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    They used a Lee Whack a Mole of Course:)
     
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  19. tightgroup tiger

    tightgroup tiger Member

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    44-40 was the first pistol cartridge I learn to reload. The bullets are .427 not .417 in dia.
    No wonder the bad guys always missed their targets in the old western movies. :neener:
     
  20. hdwhit

    hdwhit Member

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    I can't speak to the 19th Century, but when I first took up reloading my father was very much opposed to it because one of his friends reloaded using a tool whose description sounds like the Ideal tool shown in RandyP's Post #2. The friend reloaded 38 Special rounds with black powder and since he did this at night, he used an open flame for a light source. Based on that experience my father always thought I would blow myself up.
     
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  21. rpenmanparker

    rpenmanparker Member

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    And the silver. Don’t forget the silver for those silver bullets.
     
  22. DeepSouth

    DeepSouth Member

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    I’ve read a bit on the buffalo hunters of old myself and I believe this is correct, it almost has to be given the amount of ammo they were using. Added with the length of time they would stay out without resupplying. I will say they likely did carry hundreds of rounds, but they were shooting thousands.

    I would also note that ammo was frequently given away or at least heavily subsidized by governments (state or local maybe, not necessarily fed) for various reasons at the time as well. Sometimes to kill buffalo, maybe warring Indians, maybe warring Mormons, that I don’t recall. But I have definitely read multiple hunters accounts of getting government supplied ammo.
     
  23. 25-20 WCF

    25-20 WCF Member

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    Actual facts...in Gard’s seminal work on the great buffalo hunt, he gave examples of hunters who started their hunt with hundreds of pounds of powder and hundreds of pounds of lead. Why pay someone else to load your ammo when you had plenty of time to do it yourself? And what if the few towns were out of your cartridge when you needed it? Government ammo was great - if you fired .50-70 or .45-70. But many top hunters used different cartridges, so no subsidy for them.

    Hunting was a business, not a sport, and reducing your overhead mattered. Too, many custom loaded their ammo, using considerably greater powder charges than what one could purchase. These guys fired many hundreds of shots on each trip....


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  24. Random 8

    Random 8 Member

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    I can speak to this from direct oral tradition passed down in my family. I am a small fraction Metis, that is half breed French Canadian/Ojibwe and/or Cree. These are the people who hunted Buffalo on the plains of the Dakotas, Canada, ranging as far as Montana and supplied most of the Pemmican to early traders and settlers. Their nomadic way of life continued well into the 1880s. My great, great Grandfather married a widowed Metis woman West of Pembina after his Norwegian wife died in childbirth and they settled on his farm in ND. This was at the time when the Metis were still actively working the Buffalo West of there, and they used the farm as a staging point for the great hunt. Stories talked about great amounts of lead shipped across the Red River trail from St Paul as a trade item. Gunpowder, caps and cartridges were also shipped in to trading posts, but usually from "Britain". Once in Pembina, it was broken down into smaller strips that could be stitched into hides, tents, wagon covers, etc. There were still a couple in my Grandpa's "junk drawer" when I was growing up, they resembled the wraparound decoy weights. Grandpa showed me how he loaded .44-40 for his old hunting rifle with a simple tool. A waxed lead bullet was roughly seated, and was crimped in place with a farriers pliers with a notch cut to the appropriate diameter with a round file. I'm sure this trade and practice was common across the plains, with IL, IN, MO being sources of processed lead as early as 1812.
     
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  25. rpenmanparker

    rpenmanparker Member

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    Am I wrong about this: no matter how much lead one might start a hunt carrying, it was likely less than the weight of a single animal killed and transported back to feed the troops, RR workers, etc. Lack of refrigeration was a more limiting factor than weight of reloading supplies. If you had to be close to your customer to deliver the meat, you had to also be close enough to your reloading supplies to reload at night. Base camp and all that kind of thing.
     
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