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Winchester early interface with smokeless powder
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August 27, 2023 - 6:36 pm
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In reading further in Harold Williamson’s, “Winchester – The Gun That Won The West” I better understand the depth of the historical transformation that occurred in the later 1800’s and early 1900’s.  This large scale transformation involved the advent of smokeless powder.  Interesting to note was the widespread popularity of shooter and hunters loading their own cartridges and shotshells with black powder.  There was a significant period of time where black powder and smokeless powder were in simultaneous use.  

Williamson states, “While adding smokeless loads to its ammunition line, Winchester did not reduce the manufacture of black-powder metallic cartridges and components.  Including loaded and empty primed cartridge cases, bullets, blanks and other components, the catalog for 1914 listed approximately the same 375 items that had appeared in 1890.  This is not astonishing considering the hundreds of thousands of guns in use which were designed for black-powder ammunition.” 

Winchester was very comfortable supplying components and tools for handloaders to load their own ammunition and they profited substantially.

The advent of smokeless powder was an evolution.  The initial smokeless powder was a much cruder product than was was ultimately refined.  Regarding the handloading of smokeless powder, Williamson writes, “… in 1898 the Company made every effort to discourage the practice.  While this attitude may have been colored by a desire to increase the sale of factory-made ammunition, the main reason was based upon the increasing number of accidents suffered by shooters using handloaded smokeless cartridges.  As a large number of accidents involved Winchester firearms, the management was especially interested in taking steps to eliminate them.  In the catalog for 1898 the Company, under the heading, “Reloading Smokeless Powder Cartridges Impractical,” explained its attitude:

“We are constantly in receipt of letters of inquiry regarding the the reloading of smokeless powder rifle ammunition, and we, therefore, make the following general statement:  It has been the common experience of persons using reloaded smokeless powder cartridges to have a large number of shells so reloaded rupture in the gun.  Extensive experiments carried on by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and by the Ordnance Department of the Untied states Army, which shells, guns, and smokeless powders of every known manufacture, have alike failed to find a remedy for this difficulty.  Experiments show that after the first firing with smokeless powder, the metal of the shell undergoes a slow but decided change, the exact nature of which the best experts have as yet failed to determine.  No immediate deterioration attends the shooting of smokeless powder: for, by reloading and shooting immediately, the shells may be shot many times with no sign of rupture.  If, however, the fired shells are not allowed to stand for two or three days, no matter whether they are cleaned or uncleaned, wet or dry, loaded or unloaded, the result is always the same , namely, the metal becomes brittle, and rupture of the shells at the next discharge is probable…. For this reason the Winchester Repeating Arms Company cautions it patrons again the reloading of smokeless powder rifle ammunition, and wishes to do its utmost to discourage this practice.”

The above would have been sobering to read in 1898 and surely must have helped reinforce the attitudes of those who preferred black powder.

Of course, we know that the problems referenced in 1898 were steadily worked out  and Williamson notes, “Within two years more careful analysis of the effects of the amalgamation of the primer residue removed the principal danger from ruptured cartridges due to defective metal.”  However, the coast was not clear.  Williamson goes on to state, “Meantime the use of the double-based smokeless powder had become more prevalent.  This brought a new danger from overloading.  Winchester, therefore, continued to warn against handloading of smokeless cartridges by pointing out in the catalog for 1900:

“The main smokeless powders on the market differ so greatly in their various qualities and characteristics that their use may be attended with very great danger through improper loading.  Many smokeless powders, excellent powders in themselves and perfectly safe and satisfactory if used in proper amounts and in the cartridges for which they are designed, may become dangerous when used in other cartridges or in the wrong amounts.”

“Smokeless powders vary greatly in bulk, density, rapidity of combustion chamber pressure and charge required, and for this reason it is very unsafe to load smokeless powder, unless the means of determining the chamber pressures are at hand… Thirty grains of one powder might be a perfectly safe and satisfactory load, while thirty grains of another powder in the same cartridge might burst the strongest nickel steel barrel.  Many things tend to increase the chamber pressure to an extent little to be expected by the novice.  An increase of but a few grains of powder charge will sometimes produce the most astonishing results, and what previously a perfectly safe load, may thus be rendered a very dangerous one indeed.”

The above was very interesting to me.  I much better understand why many held off switching to smokeless powder for a prolonged period of time.  I also better understand the many members here who stick with black powder only for their M1873 and M1876 rifles.  In reading Mike Venturino’s book, I noted that was his preference as well. I also understand how very uncomplicated loading back powder cartridge reloading was then (and now).  In it’s simplest sense, you couldn’t put too much black powder in a cartridge case.  Not so with most smokeless powder.  We don’t know the numbers, but we know it was enough to cause Winchester concern – that is, the explanation for why some Winchesters are no longer among what we refer to as, “surviving specimens” – they needed to be junked as a result of their owner being a smokeless powder handloader Frown

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August 27, 2023 - 6:56 pm
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From what I remember Venturino’s book does not cover the Model 76 with smokeless loads.  It took me many years to shoot my 76’s with smokeless.

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August 27, 2023 - 8:10 pm
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Chuck said
From what I remember Venturino’s book does not cover the Model 76 with smokeless loads.  It took me many years to shoot my 76’s with smokeless.

  

Chuck – 

You are correct.  Venturino states, “The only Old West lever gun cartridges which I feel always should be reserved exclusively for use with blackpowder or Pydrodex are the Winchester Model 1876 chamberings.”

However, I suspect he would alter that now.  I say that because at the time he wrote his book, the various Italian clones of the M1876 were not out yet. 

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August 27, 2023 - 8:19 pm
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What this explanation doesn’t make clear is why the same mercuric primers previously used with BP didn’t cause the same case damage.  Two reasons: the BP fouling diluted the primer residue, & most reloaders cleaned their cases as soon after firing as possible.  But changing to corrosive chlorate primers created another problem: certain bore damage, unless cleaned with water almost immediately.

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