Revised: Saturday, December 08, 2001
Synopsis: Billy Dixon’s long shot, which ended The Battle of Adobe Walls, is well documented, widely known and, undoubtedly, happened just as reported. Although some may argue the circumstances surrounding Mr. Dixon’s legendary shot, recent separate studies by Mr. Bill Falin and I and our friends Harvey Watt and Paul Armbruster and I have demonstrated one thing, at least, to our satisfaction: Given calm shooting conditions and knowledge of the range involved, we have no doubt that Billy Dixon could have toppled a mounted rider at 7/8 mile, or beyond. This is especially likely because, as Mr. Dixon explicitly states in his memoirs, he shot at a tightly huddled group of about 15 mounted horsemen.
Note: This reprint contains both Part I and Part II
As dawn broke the morning of June 27, 1874, a large band of Kiowa and Comanche warriors prepared to lay siege to a small settlement near the Canadian River in Texas, at a place called Adobe Walls. Sheltered there, that eventful day, were twenty-eight men and one woman. Most of these were buffalo killers: Those who shot buffalo to supply the lucrative European Buffalo Robe and domestic leather and meat markets. A good number of horses and several dogs were also at Adobe Walls that day.
Here Bill Falin lines up for a shot. Rifle is a custom C. Sharps, Model-1875. Chambering is 40-65 Falin, see text. Load is 20 grains of Accurate Arms XMP-5744,Fed-215, home-cast 400 grain RCBS (40-400-CSA) semi-spitzer bullets over a NECO P-Wad. Note that we have fully elevated the screw-adjustable aperture sight. In addition, note that Falin’s cheek is several inches above stock!
For several weeks prior, those then taking refuge at Adobe Walls had been trespassing on Kiowa and Comanche lands in the pursuit of rapidly diminishing buffalo herds. Those men had long-since recognized the danger presented by growing numbers of mounted braves patrolling the area; these market killers recognized that the congregating Indians were a bit perturbed with their trespassing and their activities upon tribal lands set aside by treaty. Fearing retribution, the “White-Eyes” had retreated to the shelter of Adobe Walls.
Since buffalo were the primary means of livelihood for both tribes, who could blame the Indians for their hostility? To them, the activities of these trespassers’ amounted to nothing more than a wasteful and senseless buffalo slaughter.
Among the Indian leaders at that gathering was the now legendary Comanche Chief Quanah Parker. It is significant to note that Quanah was soon to become an early example of what we now call a “friendly-fire casualty” — in one of the subsequent battles he took a bullet in the back, almost certainly fired by one of his comrades! Quanah was not alone in personal bad luck. For example, after the battle had ended, Mr. Olds (whose wife was the only woman at Adobe Walls) was scurrying down a ladder and managed to accidental discharge his rifle – bullet entered under his chin and exited from where the top of his skull had previously been.
Gathered at Adobe Walls that eventful morning were Bat Masterson, Billy Dixon and a youth named “Shorty” Bowman, Dixon’s nephew, age 12. Long after the battle ended, those three men (and others on both sides) orally recounted the subsequent events. Hollywood and many fiction writers have long-since corrupted the perception of what really happened at Adobe Walls. However, thanks to Olive K. Dixon, Billy’s persistent wife, we have his dictated account of the entire story.
(Highly recommend is: Life of “Billy” Dixon by Olive K. Dixon, reprinted by State House Press, Austin, Texas.)
Rather than offering a defense of Dixon’s voracity and a discussion of the likely accuracy of his version of the account, I will offer information that suggests just a hint of his character. Perhaps I can best do that by simply noting pertinent facts and making limited comments.
In the early fall of 1874, shortly after the Battle of Adobe Walls, Dixon joined the Army as a scout, guide, interpreter, etc. Late in 1874, the U.S. Congress and the President awarded Dixon the Medal of Honor: For Heroism at the Battle of Buffalo Wallow, where, in a protracted battle, Dixon and several troopers fought off a hostile force of unknown but large size. This badge-of-courage speaks volumes about Dixon’s valor and, I believe, his character.
(Author’s note: There is no such thing as “The Congressional Medal of Honor” fussy as I am, I feel it is an affront to every recipient when the ignorant refer to the Medal of Honor incorrectly.)
Moreover, Dixon later bought Adobe Walls, and lived there the better part of his adult life. This speaks to two things: First, he certainly had ample opportunity to verify the actual range of his now-famous shot; second, obviously, proximity to the locale where such an unpleasant event had occurred failed to intimidate him.
Unlike his acquaintance, Bat Masterson, Dixon did not seek publicity. Dixon would not even have recorded his memoirs, had it not been for the persistence of his wife – who believed her husband’s life story worthy of an accurate accounting – a gift to us all. Fortunately, thanks to her prodding, late in life he began to record his memoirs. However, he died before completion of the manuscript – pneumonia after a short illness in 1913. He was born in 1850.
Dixon’s lifelong interests revolved around the rifle and what a competent man could do with one. He was an accomplished target shooter. Those who have seen the movie Quigley Down Under and have read Dixon’s memoirs cannot avoid the impression that, in some sense, Dixon could have been the inspiration behind the Quigley character.
Dixon’s chief vice was shooting at long-range targets. He did not take up buffalo hide collecting because he could make good money at it, he took up buffalo hide collecting because he could make money doing something he loved: Shooting at long-range targets!
One other little anecdote, Dixon reports in his memoirs that early in the battle he had climbed into the loft at Hanrahan’s Store (to gain a better angle of fire and field of view?).
While it might not look it, air temperature was already climbing past 100- degrees F as we set up to begin shooting. Our biggest problem was keeping the very warm bodies from dehydrating! Crossed sticks hail from buffalo-hide collector’s era.
He lined up to take a shot but he did not have a good purchase. When he dropped the hammer on his “Big-Fifty Sharps” (50-2½-inch), recoil toppled him from the loft. He managed to save the rifle but in the process of landing he destroyed a table and scattered all manner of debris all over the room. As he tells it, that incident provided a bit of black humor in the midst of a grim situation. His recording of that inglorious event suggests to this author that Dixon was not a man overly taken with himself.
Enough on that, my point here is to suggest that I believe we should take the written account in Dixon’s memoirs very literally. If he says his long shot happened a certain way, it very likely happened precisely that way. Forget Hollywood hype and whatever other nonsense other folks might have written, long after the fact. (Many were prevaricators who cared less for the truth.)
Every pertinent fact cited here falls directly from Dixon’s memoirs. However, I have added a few colorful details. I have taken those from an oral account told to me in 1965 by Dixon’s descendent, in recalling the story his uncle, Shorty Bowman, had told him.
To reiterate, in June of 1874, owing to fear of hostile action, most market hunters in northern Texas had gathered at Adobe Walls. Indian reprisal was certainly likely. Buffalo killers had been routinely violating lands set aside as solely for use of Kiowa and Comanche. To add insult to this injury, the White-Eyes were disrobing slaughtered buffalo and leaving much of each carcass to rot. One can well imagine the impact such activity had on a people whose culture depended so intimately upon buffalo.
An aside: Since, following the introduction of the horse, these tribes (and others) had significantly depreciated the buffalo herds long before market hunters came to the game (a little known fact), conflict was inevitable. First, the horse, then the gun dramatically improved tribal hunting effectiveness. As infant mortality plummeted, tribal populations exploded. In response, hunting pressure compounded. Even without intervention of market hunters and U.S. Cavalry, the massive buffalo herds were long-since doomed and could not have lasted to the turn of the century!
Meanwhile, others had begun removing the heavy sod. However, according to both Dixon and the oral account, subsequent investigations revealed the ridgepole to be sound! Several then, and many since, have suggested that this unpleasant awakening amounted to nothing other than Divine Intervention – if so, God really was on “our” side!
That unpleasant sound was, no doubt, a rude awakening for those sleeping in Hanrahan’s Saloon. However, it was nothing compared to the rude awakening seven hundred warriors were planning. These were the elite of a fighting group, whom experts in the U.S. cavalry routinely exalted as: “The finest light-cavalry ever assembled.” The War Chiefs devised a battle plan of pure simplicity and, considering the Little Bighorn-like odds; a plan bound to succeed.
The scheme: In the breaking light of dawn, “All the Indians in the world” would ride right down on top of the unfortunate inhabitants at Adobe Walls. (Adobe Walls then consisted of three main buildings, a well and an insubstantial livestock corral.) The Indians’ intention was to catch those at Adobe Walls in bed (many of whom were sleeping under the stars), before they had readied themselves for the rigors of the day. Thus awakened and facing overwhelming numerical odds, the buffalo killers would have no chance.
Unfortunately for the braves, when the attack came, as noted, those at Adobe Walls had already been rudely awakened. So, when a vast and hostile mounted cavalry came storming over the distant horizon, they were already wide awake; most considering whether to get an early start or try to get back to sleep. To make matters worse for the Indians, by pure chance, Dixon happened to be looking toward the horizon over which the mounted hoard rode.
Given this edge, those at Adobe Walls turned the tables. What had been planned as a surprise attack, became, instead, a surprise counter-attack. Wide awake, and alerted in plenty of time to arm themselves, take cover and establish proper rifle-rests, the buffalo killers began to take a heavy toll on the onrushing riders. Bullets from perhaps a dozen Sharps and other powerful long-range rifles began felling riders and horses long before any of the Indians could return effective fire with their relatively feeble Henry-class repeaters, muzzle loaders, bows and assorted other weapons.
Telephoto shot showing top of rifle and sights (out of focus here) and distant target. Despite wind and our limited abilities, we had no trouble hitting this target, at least occasionally. Target is dark speck (horse) with a white line (rider) protruding from top. Larger dark spots are full-grown juniper trees. We had no trouble seeing this target through the excellent aperture sights. Doping the swirling breeze was another matter! Base elevation is 4700 feet, air is extremely dry and air temperature is105 degrees F. The 400 grain RCBS (40-400-CSA) semi-spitzer bullet, launched by 20 grains of XMP-5744 at 1200 fps, will take 5.25 seconds to reach 1538 yard distant target. At 825 yards, it will raise 111 feet above line of sight. It will impact with 478 foot pounds of energy. With a constant 5-mph crosswind, it would drift 10.3 feet. A crossing horse at a full run would travel just under 308 feet during the flight of the bullet. A man walking leisurely would cover 15 feet.
Most “hiding” groups consisted of four or more men, only one or two of whom killed buffalo. The others skinned and tended various other chores. Almost certainly, far fewer than a dozen highly skilled shooters were among the twenty-eight at Adobe Walls (ammunition necessary to become proficient was very expensive). It is also unlikely there were as many as one-dozen long-range rifles at Adobe Walls (guns were very, very expensive). In any case, even twenty-odd single-shot rifles would provide precious little firepower to turn an onrushing cavalry of seven hundred!
Those at Adobe Walls suffered several wounded and three dead, along with a total loss of livestock – only those dogs that hightailed it at the onset of the festivities survived. Later, Dixon, among others, stated his belief that it was a minor miracle that they had incurred so few casualties.
To add poignancy to this aspect, we will note the following anecdotes, taken both from Dixon’s memoirs and from oral history: At the battle’s outset, Shadler’s dog had been sleeping under a wagon, where its master slept; that ill-fated mutt managed to reach cover before expiring from the effects of numerous hits. (Thirty-seven bullets, according to the oral history!) In the initial battle, the Shadler brothers were sleeping in a wagon. They never escaped its insufficient protection. Billy Tyler, who had been outside, made it to the house but took a bullet through the lungs as he turned to close the door; he survived about thirty minutes.
In the initial fiasco, the Indians suffered decimating losses in both horses and riders. Thereafter, albeit more cautiously, they continued attacking, organizing skirmishes throughout that day and the next, looking for a weakness or a safer means of attack – they evidently found none.
On the third morning, with cool, calm and clear weather, a group of about fifteen Indians convened a war council on a bluff east of Adobe Walls Creek. According to Dixon, the huddled riders were not far from seven-eighths mile away. The distance was later surveyed. Mr. Dixon’s stated range held up quite well – survey report 1538 yards (our Shootist brothers, John Purcell and Perry Nettle have visited the sight and report that the survey marker is in place, close to Dixon’s grave).
No doubt, these riders were arguing how to abandon their ill-fated attack with dignity – something of significance to any self-respect-ing warrior. However, at that moment, a pivotal sequence of events began to unfold. The result eliminated any concerns about dignity.
Knowing Dixon was the best Shootist there, one of the other shooters (Masterson claimed credit) pointed toward the riders and said, “Why don’t you take a crack at them with your ‘Big-Fifty’, Billy?” Evidently, Dixon knew the range well. Perhaps he had previously used that ridge for target practice, something that would have been in character. Evidently, he knew the proper sight setting because he summarily adjusted his Sharp’s rear sight and prepared to “give it a try.”
Now, finally, we get to the meat of our story. Reiterating, Dixon was a renowned rifle shot. Not only did he employ his marksmanship skills in making a living, but he also practiced the sport of long-range target shooting. Further, he had the best equipment then available and that, I must add, was equipment that would rival some of our best today. Keep in mind that some of the long-range target records set in the 1870s & 1880s stood for generations, e.g., a 1000 yard group measuring 8.6-inches fired in 1886. Dixon was not handicapped by lack of equipment. In competent hands, given a good estimate of range and calm conditions, Dixon’s 50-2½ Sharps was a formidable long-range combination. Unfortunately, we do not know the details of his load. However, almost certainly he used a paper-patched, pointed bullet weighing well over one-ounce. Also he almost certainly handloaded, using the best powder then available and due care in all aspects of cartridge production.
After adjusting his long-range sight, Dixon took careful aim and no doubt made a few fine adjustments for any slight breeze, bullet rotation, alignment of the planets, that itch behind his neck, and any other effects he might have though significant. He then touched the finely adjusted set trigger to loose a projectile. His stated target was “The group of riders.”
If his bullet was the lighter Sharps type (approximately 500 grains) muzzle velocity would have been about 1350 fps. For the (more likely) heavier type (about 700 grains) muzzle velocity would have been about 1100 fps. At 7/8 of a mile the lighter bullet would have delivered about 535 foot pounds of energy; the heavier bullet about 845 foot pounds of energy. 1538 yard time-of-flight is practically identical – about 5.3 seconds.
Meanwhile, if any among the Indians were watching, they might have seen a cloud of smoke in front of Hanrahan’s store. It is easy to imagine their mirth at the thought of some foolish White-Eyes wasting powder and lead. Then, an eternal 4.1 seconds later, if they were quiet, they would have heard the distant rumble of a Big-Fifty Sharps rifle.
About 1.2 seconds later, the impossible happened! One of the assembled chiefs took a bullet and was toppled from his horse – most undignified! Not surprisingly, the remaining chiefs recognized that little incident as bad medicine; they therefore and forthwith terminated the Battle of Adobe Walls.
Masterson claimed and Dixon believed that he had killed the rider. Indian accounts claim the chief survived after a bullet hit him above the elbow and broke his arm. Regardless, the bullet did the intended job.
What many modern shooters might not know is that black powder of that era was highly developed. Produced in England, Curtis & Harvey’s (C&H), Diamond Grade was the best in the world, likely because of a superior charcoal rootstock and extending blending time. Folklore has it that C&H charcoal came from a certain type of willow that grew only in one locale. Further, C&H could afford to prolong the blending operation because their superior product demanded a premium price. Excepting perhaps the new Swiss black powder, today’s black powders simply do not compare to the very best available to a young Dixon, circa 1870 – a matter of supply and demand. Myriad lower-quality powders were less expensive and typical shooters often used those for everyday purposes. Considering Dixon’s interests, acknowledged skills, and accomplishments, we believe he used the best-of-the-best in powder, sights, bullet casting equipment and reloading equipment.
We had no desire to shoot black powder but it is a fact that good black powder loads would be more accurate than our test load. Therefore, a demonstration that Falin’s handloads with cast bullets using smokeless powder (XMP-5744) have the intrinsic accuracy necessary to do the job would satisfy us that Dixon’s loads could have done the job. We must also note that neither Bill nor I would ever suggest that we might be as good a shot as Dixon was, perish the thought! (Further-more, we lacked a certain motivation Dixon had working for him.)
Bill points out one of thirteen hits out of 130 shots. All bullets hit point-on. Such an impact would certainly have been lethal, given a proper hit. Mr. Dixon’s heavy 50 caliber bullets would have delivered more energy — even when shooting through the much thicker air found closer to sea level.
The test rifle was a custom 34-inch barreled
C. Sharps Arms, New Model 1875 Target & Long-Range. This rifle is chambered for a cartridge of Bill’s invention – 40-65 Falin. For practical purposes, this cartridge ballistically duplicates any of the original 40-65 class chamberings. Excepting a slightly shorter length and a smaller rim, this cartridge is essentially interchangeable with the 40-63/ 70 Ballard and should chamber and shoot in guns thus chambered. C. Sharps offers the 40-65 Falin as a factory chambering. Custom dies are available from RCBS. Cases convert in one-step in the full-length sizing die.
Bill’s smokeless load duplicates pressure and velocity of black powder loads, although it does not match uniformity. His charge is 20 grains of Accurate Arms XMP-5744 ignited by Federal’s 215 primer for a muzzle velocity of about 1200 fps, under the conditions in which we were shooting (105-degrees F with no shade). Standard deviation is about 15 fps.
Tests in several similar chamberings suggest use of (milder) pistol primers would significantly improve ballistic uniformity. However, Bill had several-hundred 215 primed loads on hand and already had an idea of external ballistics for that combination. Therefore, we used his known load – to save time and effort.
We fired almost 200 shots during our test. We did not have to clean the gun once owing to powder or metallic fouling, despite the fact that the gun got hand-blistering hot and stayed that way through most of the day (did I mention that it was 105-degrees F and we had no shade?).
About XMP-5744: Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Using this powder, one can work up a safe black powder equivalent loading for almost any black powder rifle cartridge thusly: For a starting charge, choose a load that fills about 40% of the available powder space. To determine this, add XMP-5744 to a dummy case until powder level is about where base of the seated bullet would rest. Rapidly pour this charge into the case using a standard funnel. Adjust charge, as necessary.
Weigh charge. Multiply scale reading by 0.40. For example, 45-70 case with typical 405grain cast bullet seated to 2.55" OAL holds about 50 grains of XMP-5744 without compression. Therefore, a correct starting charge would be about 20.0 grains (50 x 0.4). Once a starting point is established, load a test-batch with incremental charges. For a load duplicating black powder performance, maximum charge should not exceed about 50% of usable case capacity.
Often, when using XMP-5744 at pressures and velocities lower than those generated by a typical black powder load (especially when using relatively light bullets), one will note considerable unburned powder granules in the bore. As one increases the charge, unburned powder decreases. As one reaches the charge duplicating typical black powder velocity and pressure (usually between 20,000 CUP and 28,000 CUP), this mostly disappears.
Significantly, such loads also generate sufficient pressure to properly obdurate typical (smokeless load) cast bullets. Therefore, as one approaches the correct (black powder duplicating) pressure level and velocity, three worthwhile things occur simultaneously: powder begins to burn cleanly, bullets obdurate properly (minimizing leading) and groups shrink!
Accurate Arms offers loading data for many of the commoner and several more esoteric applications of XMP-5744, including smokeless era loads at higher pressure levels. However, if you happen to own a rifle chambered in 40-70 Peabody that is in good repair you can work up a black powder equivalent smokeless load independently. Just follow the aforementioned advice. However, when working with any gun of uncertain strength, never exceed about 45% of usable case capacity, regardless of other indicators.
Owing to our inadequate compensation for bullet drift and elevation effects, we wasted 40 shots before getting on-target. Bill adjusted the sights on his rifle to vertically zero this load at the desired range, if we had been shooting at the NRA Whittington Center, Raton, New Mexico — elevation about 6500 feet. However, we were shooting in the Grand Valley, west of Grand Junction, Colorado, elevation 4700 feet. When shooting across the better part of one mile, such a base elevation difference makes a significant trajectory difference.
In addition, while adjusting the sights to the longer range (having already established a zero at 1120 yards for 6500 feet elevation) we failed to take into account the effects of bullet drift at such an extreme range. We should have thought of that. Owing to experience (shooting pistols at extended ranges), I knew his bullets would drift significantly to the right. However, it did not occur to me to mention that fact – we were very busy trying to get all the equipment and ourselves properly organized.
In any case, owing to these shortcomings, our first shots were falling low and far right. Unfortunately, the resulting impacts were occurring beyond and hidden behind an intervening low ridge – Murphy is alive and well. Finally, a significant cloud of dust from a fortunately low hit on top of that ridge demonstrated our error.
Once we had adjusted the sights to solve those problems, we started looking for mirage effects and otherwise trying to dope the wind. (Interestingly, we were near the extremes of both windage and elevation adjustments for that particular sight). Bill is very astute at observing mirage; I am not. On several occasions, the slight breeze settled into to a predictable pattern.
During one of those spells, I fired a string of seventeen shots. Bill called the wind and I did my best to fulfill his instructions, e.g., “Hold a bit high and about two horse-lengths left,” With those seventeen shot I made four hits and two very near hits – see photographs. Seven of the remaining eleven shots in that string were at the correct elevation and within about ten feet of the target. Had I been shooting at fifteen mounted horsemen grouped on a ridge for a powwow, almost certainly thirteen of those seventeen shots would have hit either a horse or a rider!
In all, we fired about 130 shots at the target after properly zeroing the gun. The majority of those shots were fired during relatively bad winds – when shooting 7/8 mile, bad wind conditions include even the slightest gusting, I could not sense the changes for which Bill was doping, some of which required moving the aiming-point more than 30 feet! Nevertheless, we made thirteen hits on the silhouette. We could not keep track of all our near-hits. Similarly, we could not keep track of where every shot went. We can say, however, that most would have represented a considerable threat to a huddled group of about 15 riders.
If the question is, “Could Billy Dixon have toppled a hapless horseman from among a group of riders located 7/8-mile distant,” we believe the answer is, most assuredly, YES.
For those unfamiliar with the legend of Billy Dixon’s long shot (refer to Part I), a brief review. At the heart of the great buffalo slaughter, a group of shooters was congregated at a settlement called Adobe Walls. That assembly was no accident; rather, it was in response to shared fears that the natives might object in a meaningful way to blatant trespassing.
The Indians planned what should have been an effective attack. In the wee hours of dawn, several hundred warriors rode toward Adobe Walls, intent on massacre. However, owing to an apparent miracle, the entire camp happened to be roused, out of bed and generally in a state of readiness. Therefore, instead of finding sleep-weary men, still in bed and generally
Harvey takes aim. Arrow sketched on photograph points to target, light patch on hillside. Note extreme angle of bore, compared to line of sight. At highest trajectory point, bullet will be about 111 feet above line of sight.
unready to fight,the attackers found a well-armed camp that was ready, willing and able to shoot back first.
Therefore, the intended surprise attack literally backfired. Deadly long-range fire decimated the exposed attackers while the holed up attackees sustained relatively minimal damages. The battle lasted throughout that day and the next, with the Indians trying one tactic after another, all to be defeated by the simple expedient of powerful and well-placed firepower emanating from perhaps a dozen buffalo rifles.
But that unexpected turn is not the reason this story resonates through history. The thing that makes this story unique is what happened in the early morning of the third day; Dixon made a phenomenal shot. The pertinent details were glorified by Bat Masterson (who was there) and verified in Dixon’s memoirs. Dixon was recognized as the best shot among those gathered at Adobe Walls and was, incidentally, a Metal of Honor recipient, for an unrelated episode. Paraphrasing the recounting, as if told by Masterson: “A group of mounted Indians were assembled on a small bluff about 1500 yards away.” (Actual distance later surveyed at 1538 yards.) “They were apparently having a powwow.”
Possibly, they were discussing how to proceed with their thus-far unsuccessful attack or perhaps trying to figure out how to honorably call off the ill-fated affair.
“I says to Dixon, ‘Billy, why don’t you take a crack at them with your Big Fifty’.”
“Dixon found himself a solid rest and adjusting his rifle’s sights, according to the range and conditions. He then squeezed off a shot. About five seconds later, one of the assembled riders tumbled from his horse. That group disbanded, forth-with.”
Thus ended The Battle of Adobe Walls, not with a heated volley but with a single, vexatious thud.
Recently, Bill Falin and I did a preliminary long-range study to see if we could duplicate that shot. By firing at a life-sized silhouette of a rider, we determined that given reasonably calm conditions and a tightly bunched group of riders, making a hit was not so outlandish an idea. In fact, we were emboldened to embark upon an improved study.
Originally, we had decided that a reasonable next step was to compare the 40, 45 and 50caliber Sharps chamberings at the same long-range target, just to see if one particular caliber had any noticeable advantage. We drafted the assistance of Harvey Watt and Paul Armbruster (whom most of you have met), of Atlanta Georgia. We planned the big shoot for the summer of 1998. As it turned out, Bill was unable to join our little soirée (which fact figures in the subtitle) so we could not include his 40-caliber rifle in our second test. While Falin’s absence was a disappointment, we persevered.
We are all friends of Falin; also, Watt and Armbruster were friends but I had never met those two until they showed up at the Shootist Holiday in Raton. This was certainly an interesting way to become acquainted, somewhat similar to trial by firepower.
This time we set up a less realistic, albeit simpler, target. After a bit of searching, we found a location where we could park the lead-laden van at the shooting location and drive my old El Camino to the impact zone. There was also a convenient intervening hill and a very steep and sufficiently large hillside at the target zone.
Our target was a simple construction of cardboard, nailed to the earth and with a black square near the center. From the shooting perspective, apparent target dimensions were: 14 feet wide, 7 feet high with a 4 foot wide by 2 foot high bullseye. Actual measured target area (corrected for perspective) was almost precisely 100 square feet. Measured range was 1538 yards, give or take a few yards.
An intervening hill just to the left of the line of fire made an ideal location where a spotter could work safely. This hillside was only about 200 yards from the impact zone. Listening to the shots from that location was thrilling. We established a radio contact routine to verify impact points, assess downrange wind conditions, etc.
That day we finished setting up quite late. By then, we had had to contend with gusty winds. Worse, despite the wind, gnats were arriving in hordes and seemingly from all points of the compass – I suspect anyone in the surrounding four-state region must have noticed a significant gnat shortage that morning, owing to the pilgrimage those little pests made to our shooting site. It was all we could do to get the target set up, paint a few spotter circles on the hillside at measured separations, establish approximate rifle zeroes for the various loads and fire a few shots for photographic purposes. By the time we finished, we were well bug bitten and reasonably well fed – from swallowed swarms!
While we did the “official” target shooting with smokeless loads, we did fire a few black powder rounds, just for nostalgia and comparative purposes. With a bit of sight adjustment, we had no trouble getting consistent hits on a similar-sized area, adjacent to the target.
At the end of that day, we marked the target. This was necessary because we wanted to know how many hits we made each day. Moreover, since the idea was to try to do the “serious” shooting during calm conditions (as Dixon had), we intended to start shooting before sunrise the following day, when we hoped it would be calm. By marking previous hits, we achieved a clean slate, so to speak.
The following morning we were set up and shooting before direct sunlight found us. As it worked out, Mother Nature cooperated; we had several hours of dead calm – best conditions I have ever seen. Moreover, for whatever reason, we had few bugs. We were thrilled to have such wonderfully pleasant conditions; even the temperature was comfortable (I do not know how it could have been better). Using the adjacent test area, we made wind- age corrections. Soon we had the required vernier settings to put each rifle and each load on target and were ready to begin. Since I had done this before, and because I had done most of the shooting to get the rifles zeroed, I took up the spotter’s location behind the intervening hill. Much as I love to shoot, for me, the spotter’s job proved a much more enjoyable task. Listening to the rumble of a big Sharps rifle firing 3/4-mile away was a thrill. That thrill was topped by the sound of bullets arcing overhead, way overhead – midrange those bullets are about 111 feet above the line of sight! The crowning kick was the sound of the solid slaps, as bullets impacted the adobe clay hillside, 200 yards distant.
I was amazed at the volume of that sound. Despite the distance, it sounded like some- one slapping a ripe watermelon inside a small room. It clearly resonated above our radio chatter.
In general outline, our radio and shooting routine went thusly:
Paul, “Harvey ready to fire Big Fifty with 710.”
My reply, “OK, fire at poor old Will.”
Harvey shooting black powder load – rifle has just fired. Buttstock has rotated down, as Harvey rocks back under modest recoil. Despite relatively heavy bullet, these rifles are pleasant to shoot over crossed sticks. Even from the bench, recoil is thoroughly manageable.
Soon a static pop, owing to shot, comes over radio. About more than three seconds later, an echoing Kaboom, not particularly loud but clearly audible. About one-second later, sound of spinning bullet arcing overhead, fuda, fuda, fuda, fuda, fuda.After about one second later, sound of the bullet impact, WHAP. My comment, “All right, you have a hit at 10 O’clock, about two feet from bullseye.
When a shot missed paper, the spotter at shooter line was treated to a special thrill. More than five seconds after the shot he would see a dust geyser. Believe me, it takes getting used to waiting long enough to have a drink of water for a bullet to reach the target!
Of 42 shots fired, 5 found the bullseye, 27 more hit paper and 6 more went into a 2-foot high, six-foot wide area just above the upper left target quadrant. While odd, I do not suppose that clustering of misses was statistically significant.
The remaining 4 shots were wild misses, which I attributed to bad bullets – at least two of those sounded wrong while passing overhead. However, overall, if we had lowered the sights just three feet, we would have had 4 more hits (2 shots would have dropped off the bottom but 6 would have come onto the top). Windage was also imprecise as none of the shots hit within 3 feet of the right edge of the paper. The impact rectangle of those that were on paper was just under 6 feet high and 11 feet wide.
Recounting: using iron sights and firing over crossed-sticks at a 14 x 7-foot target at 1538yards, we had a total of 32 hits out of 42 shots. To put this into perspective: the target was 10 x 5-MOA, 76% of the shots went into an 8 x 4 MOA rectangle.
At the time, I knew we were getting a good number of hits. Nevertheless, I was surprised when I counted the holes. While it was happening, I was thinking we were getting about 50% hits. I suppose that is a psychological thing; one tends to give more notice to misses.
Bullets were home-cast. We only eliminated those that were obviously flawed. We expected great things of the 570-grain, 45-cali-ber spitzer and the similarly efficient 710grain, 50-caliber spitzer. However, the legendary 500-grain, 45-caliber round nose was
Here Harvey prepares to shoot while Paul Armbruster waits to spot impact. In reality, there is no hurry at the spotting scope; it takes bullet more than 5 seconds to reach target. Spotter can sit down after shot is fired. If he hurried, there is no reason the shooter could not do his own spotting.
the most accurate smokeless load tested. We fired 15 of those and had 13 hits! – an astonishing 87%. In our small sampling of the 50caliber bullets, the 610 shot just as well as the 710.
However, that does not prove the longer, more efficient, spitzers are inferior. In subsequent testing, I was able to achieve measurably better accuracy using a 5% heavier charge with the 710-grain bullet. Looks like we will just have to go back and do it again. I hate that, don’t you know!As a well-intentioned parting gesture, we fired a volley in honor of our absent friend (Falin), who was largely responsible for our little adventure. I positioned the camera, set the self-timer and took my place alongside my new friends. As the tone of the timer changed, we prepared to fire in unison.
It was a good idea, except for one thing. Yours truly failed to consider the sinister result of lining up on that side of the camera. Because I am left-handed, I was facing away, providing an unintended backside view that was not particularly photogenic. However, after reviewing the picture, it occurred to me that the front side view of this particular group is little better! Anyway, that photograph did suggest a reasonable subtitle.
Further load testing was completed during the Shootists Holiday in June 1999. Several Shootists took turns firing at the white-buffalo gong, which is a life-sized steel silhouette hanging in a small clearing on the otherwise juniper-covered hillside at 1120 yards.
We were able to hit the buffalo with surprising consistency. Further, the 50-90 proved to be a far better choice than the 45-110. Not only did it make a higher percentage of hits but also the occasional miss was much easier to spot, owing to the larger dust geyser created. This effect is hard to understand because the 570-grain, 45-110 bullet was arriving with more energy and momentum, compared to the 610-grain, 50-90 bullet. Nevertheless, the 5090 did raise bigger splashes with both the 610grain and the 710-grain bullets. Evidently, even when shooting at dirt, frontal area matters.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about shooting at the buffalo was the sound from a hit. Even with a six O’clock wind, this “gong” was obvious – loud enough to be heard through normal shooters’ conversation by anyone who had removed his earplugs.
For observers, the routine soon became: plug your ears with your fingers; chant, “kill the buffalo;” wait for the shot; pull your fingers out of your ears; then listen to the echoing of the shot as you silently count one thousand one, one thousand two, … one thousand six, then cheer in response to the impact clang.
Listening for and then hearing that impact was so much fun that I soon had trouble finding anyone who wanted to shoot, everyone
Paul shooting black powder just for nostalgia., Here we were shooting at a spot on hillside beside target. We wanted to save the target for better conditions. Note that smoke is already blown well left of line of fire; wind was sufficient to drift bullet 50-feet leftward.
In an extended morning of shooting and despite some rather serious winds, we managed to pepper that silhouette to the point that we could no longer count the , impact splashes on what had begun as a fresh coat of white paint. When the wind held reasonably steady, we had no problem making hits with either Sharps rifle. Just for a change, I tried a series of offhand shots.
Fortunately, I had several witnesses because I managed to hit the buffalo two out of four tries with each of four rifles:
1. 30-06 Garand, firing handloads (impact produced a barely audible clang);
2. 44-90 Meacham Highwall, 460-grain cast @ about 1350 fps, black powder (sight would not provide required elevation, so I had to aim at a tree trunk at upper edge of target clearing);
3. 45-110 Shiloh Sharps, 570-grain cast @ about 1100 fps;
4. 50-90 Shiloh Sharps, 610-grain @ about 1100 fps.
As noted in Part I, I believe Dixon knew beforehand exactly what sight setting to use – the manner in which he discusses the matter suggests that he had already taken a few potshots at the bluff in question. He did have dead calm conditions and he did have good ammo. Importantly, he was most assuredly a fine Sharps-shooter. With all that in mind, I am more convinced than ever that if Dixon had not drawn blood that long ago and fateful morn it would have been another miracle.
Regardless, firing such bullets across the better part of a mile has a special charm. My guess is that if you get a chance to play this game, you will not regret the experience. Meanwhile, please pass the ammunition.
For the past three years, I have been hunting elk in Colorado while carrying Harvey Watt’s, 34-inch barreled, 14-pound, 50-90 (50-2½-inch) Shiloh Sharps. This was toward the goal of fulfilling our lifelong dreams – mine, to take a big game animal with a Sharps rifle (don’t tell Harvey!); his, for anyone to get blood on his Sharps.
I routinely hunt with my brother, Stan and my sons, Jody and Joey. This year, my younger cousin (25), Lee Wynkoop, joined us on his first big game hunt – he killed a good “first” buck.
These past four years the weather has been against us. On Black Mountain, where we often hunt, success depends greatly upon snow. When it is clear and warm during elk season, the elk move down the sides of the mountain, in response to hunting pressure on the higher, National Forest lands.
Typically, a considerable portion of this migration occurs before season starts because so many nimrods insist on going
Closer view of target. Patched-together cardboard contraption is nailed to Mother Earth with 12-inch spikes and worked quite well. Various bullets arrived with sufficient momentum to penetrate into shale bedrock below 8 to 12 inches of adobe clay. Referring to Billy Dixon story, noteworthy point is that you could not crowd very many mounted horses into a target area of this size.
out early and “scouting the area”. “Scouting the area” is a euphemism for, “Attempting to run all the game out of the area,” a technique that clearly works. Every year, one or more of us talk to one or more such hunters who complain that they cannot understand where all the elk went because they saw plenty while they were “scouting the area”!
The good news is that the Department of Agriculture has closed most forests to ATV use, at least in Colorado. That device just gives a greater number of so-called hunters more ability to run more elk out of more remote areas.
An aside, several years ago, as a friend and I were comparing notes on this issue, he told his tales of woe and then I recounted a similar tale of how on the last day of hunting season in 1986 I had finally found fresh elk tracks! I was sneaking along through junipers and gaining on my quarry (which is feasible, given that type of local). I had actually gotten close enough to smell elk when, although miles from the nearest road, I heard that dreaded sound – “bin-bin-bin-bin” – the first indication of that dreaded folly, an approaching ATV.
I stopped and fretted; nothing I could do; ATVs are legal on lands that are under Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversight. Finally, several minutes later, along came my hero, riding his mighty machine, while smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer, with a rifle across his lap
– a true hunter! He passed not 50 yards from me, as I stood in the open among those wide-spaced junipers, yet he never saw me – a mighty hunter, indeed! Most serious hunters have had enough similar experiences to have gained a positively bitter hatred of those miserable machines and those who use them so carelessly.
Anyway, at that point of my story, my friend interrupted to say, “Well, at least I have finally figured out what ATV stands for,” then, after a pregnant pause, he finished the thought, “Asshole Totin’ Vehicle.” In the hunting field, I cannot argue.
Back to the story, if the weather is good, the majority of elk on Black Mountain (home of the largest elk herd in the world!) move to private lands on the perimeter of that mountain. If the weather turns colder, and especially if it snows about 18-inches or more, things get better. First, the elk that are still up on the mountain are easier to find and track. Second, those elk that have moved to the relative sanctuary of private lands surrounding that mountain are pressured toward lower lands (to obtain food), where more public (BLM) areas exist. Hence, when it snows heavily, “hunting” is more apt to result in “finding”.
This past fall, we hunted the west end of Black Mountain, in the Fortification Creek drainage. On Wednesday, my son, Jody, and I climbed to about 9500 feet at the head of Middle Fork. Enough snow existed at the higher elevations, and especially in the shaded north-facing slopes, to mark tracks. We had been sneaking through timber and openings, while keeping each other occasionally in sight. We had just joined, stopped for a breather and whispered that we were apt to see elk at any moment because we had been seeing fresh tracks – “Just as well here as anywhere.” As we began to move again, we made the mistake of staying together. Of course, that is when it happened.
We jumped a small herd from their beds. Those headed straight down the mountain. By running down slope, we tried to reach a vantage point ahead of the herd. Second mistake, one of us should have stayed put. As we got ahead of the herd, by a parallel route, the elk turned and went right back up the mountain – I had never seen elk do that before. Historically, elk in that area, once jumped, move right down the mountain until reaching private land, only a few miles away. Not this year though. They were staying up and going higher! and even cows and calves refused to cross even the slightest opening, preferring to skirt around it, also a new habit, for elk in that area.
In any case, we never got a shot but we did see more tracks higher. For that reason, we all hunted high on the mountain the following day. My brother, Stan, headed north, across the bottom, to circle up the far side of the basin and hunt his way back. The rest of us headed east, up a forest service trail south of the basin. This trail sidles along the south-facing slope of the ridge separating South Fork from Cottonwood Creek (the next drainage to the south).
Our goal was to follow that trail until we got to an old seismograph road that crosses the upper reaches of Fortification basin, running south to north, at about 9500 feet. I was unsure where this trail crossed that old road and Stan had said it might be hard to find (it turns out that the trail simply joins the old road) so I was watching for signs of the old road above us on the slope of the ridge, to our left.
When we came to a little drainage, I was concerned that we might have missed the road and I saw what I thought might be it, so I cut away from the trail to check. It was a steep hillside and I realized old road. I turned to parallel the contours until I would again join the trail and the youngens. Then I found a bunch of FRESH elk tracks in the light blanket of fresh snow.
I got the boys’ attention and motioned them to join me. They did, while complaining vociferously (albeit quietly) about having to climb a cliff. Shoot, it was a bit of a hill but certainly not a particularly steep hill; I didn’t even have to use my teeth. They just don’t make hunters as they used to, rather embarrassing for those who raised some such.
Anyway, I shoed them the tracks and we started to mosey on up the hillside. Then, somehow, we became separated again. I counted where eighteen elk had bedded and found the exit path, heading west along the side of the ridge. I waited and finally heard the sounds of someone in distress about some minor problem. Turns out that Joey had just climbed to the top of a particularly steep spot when a tree branch had reached out, grabbed his hat and slung it a short ways down the mountain. (Jody and Lee insist it could not have gone more than 100 yards; nevertheless, for some reason that upset Joey.)
Hearing those sounds of distress, I waited a bit longer. However, I was hunting and one must keep one’s priorities, don’t you know. I began carefully and slowly following the tracks. Those elk continued west, following the side of the ridge.
Soon, as I sneaked through the timber trying not to make any noise, I could smell elk. While waking on leaves and twigs having the character of potato chips and that are covered by crusty snow sneaking is not so easy! I soon found more beds. That first group of elk continued west along the side of the ridge, holding nearly a constant elevation until benching out, then they turned to follow the ridge top, as it sloped gently down. I had little hope of being able to catch those and get a shot, considering the heavy timber and noisy conditions; furthermore, I wanted to continue higher. Therefore, I continued to follow the ridge contour, while working to slowly gain altitude. Thus, I circled end and was soon alongside South Fork, working along the north-facing slope and heading east.
Minutes later I came upon more elk beds, then more fresh tracks, then I saw a small herd moving up slope. Soon I jumped another herd and found beds of more than a dozen. Snow was deeper (up to 12-inches or so) and crustier and I was having plenty of trouble sneaking.
I was also having fits with boulder fields on that steep slope. I would carefully pick my way across one, go a few hundred yards through moderate timber and come to another. With snow cover, those boulder fields are treacherous, at best.
I jumped another herd and almost got a shot at what turned out to be an illegal bull – this area, like most of Colorado, requires 4-points on one side or a 5-inch brow tine. I was marveling that these groups all moved up slope – very unusual – when I came to yet one more boulder field. This one was a particular problem, owing to steepness and almost complete snow cover.
I pondered the situation for a moment, I could drop down the slope a ways, to cross where this teardrop-shaped boulder field pinched very narrow, or I could circle through fallen timber, to cross above it. Since I intended to gain altitude anyway, I decided to circle around that deathtrap.
Just as I started carefully climbing higher, up the west side, I saw a bull skirting across the top, perhaps 200 yards above me, in the deep shadows. I could not get my sights on him and could not tell for sure if he was legal (although I am certain he was). In the process, I had cocked the hammer and stopped. I pulled a spare round from my pocket and held that between fingers of my right (non-trigger) hand. I then heard a herd on the other side of the boulder field, perhaps 100-yards above me.
As luck would have it, I had stopped where a small grove of pines blocked my view across the opening. I carefully and slowly moved to get a clear view. After three small steps, I saw him. About 90 yards above me, a 42-month bull was walking out into the other side of the opening, obviously concerned about keeping up with the lead bull. Equally, he realized his error – continuing onto that snow-covered patch would have been near suicide, even for an elk.
E.G., several years ago, in a boulder field not ½ mile from there, Stan killed a cow, using only his hunting knife! That elk had tried to cross such a patch, which was clear of snow, tripped and cold-cocked itself!
As this bull slowed and then stopped, I took a small step to center his silhouette in a small window in pine bows that otherwise obscured my view.
I raised the Sharps, pulled the rear trigger, to set the main trigger, and as the sights settled behind the shoulder contemplated what to do for about 0.2 seconds! Should I shoot high, to drop him with a spine shot, so that he would not lunge out into that deathtrap, YES; should I wait for a shot at one of the other, perhaps bigger, elk that were still back in the timber (after all, since the lead and second elk were both bulls, almost certainly all were), NO! I made a slight sight correction and applied the required ounce of pressure.
I never really heard the muzzle blast or felt the recoil. I saw the barrel raise, partially obscuring my view, as the gun and I rocked back. Then, I heard the echo of the shot, as gun and I rolled back forward. Then, just as the sights came back to rest on the bull, I saw that bullet hit. The bull dropped like a sack of potatoes. As he hit the ground, I had the action open, the spent case in my shirt pocket, a fresh round chambered, the action closed, the hammer cocked and the trigger set – familiarity and practice matter.
Within a second, the bull began to struggle, weakly kicking and rolling down the far side of the boulder field. Twice, as it tried to regain its footing, I almost hammered it again but it collapsed and rolled further, before I could drop the hammer. Then it was over. I had done it, a lifelong dream fulfilled, thanks to Harvey Watt and one fine rifle. Paul Armbruster deserves kudos too; he and Harvey cast that bullet as a team effort.
As my bull was in his death throws, I watched out of the corner of my eye as five other bulls, one a real monster, rambled down the other side of that bolder patch, crossed the bottom of South Fork and headed up the relatively open slope on the far side. Had I wanted to, I could have had at least one more elk and if I had had a modern scoped rifle, I could have dropped the big boy, as he stopped at about 500 yards to look back. Didn’t matter to me one bit, I had my elk and I had taken it with a Sharps with one clean shot. If you were outdoors at 8:06 AM (RMST) the morning of November 8, 2001, you may well have heard my immodest shout of joy.
That 610-grain home-cast spitzer had done a splendid job, breaking the spine, cutting the top of both lungs and ruining no meat. We hunted the next day (I was just along for the hike and to try to figure out a good route to get to the elk with the family mules (as opposed to the family jewels). Saw more elk and Stan came within a hairs-breadth of taking a very good bull. Such is hunting.
All elk we saw that last day were traveling toward the top of the mountain, I am wondering if we are not seeing a new habit developing among elk in that area. Perhaps hunting pressure on private land pressure is getting high enough that the elk feel safer in the heavier cover provided in the National Forest. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, Jody reports that this elk is very, very tasty. I let my boys keep the majority of the meat for taking care of it. I will get a few packages – with the meat from deer that I brought home from the Texas hill country (another hunting story), that will be plenty for a year.
Gut, Gut and Butt, our parting shot. What more is there to say?