Back when I was a kid, I read a small soft-cover book about the history of the Remington Arms company. The thing that most impressed me in the book was the story of the Remington Rolling Block rifle and the vivid descriptions of many of the battles it had been in. After reading about it, I wanted one. Coincidently, they were being sold back then through the mail for as little as $6 to $8 for the action only; for $10 to $12 for junkers that were missing a few major parts; for $15 to $20 for ones that were complete, but in poor to fair condition; to as much as $25 to $30 for those in fair to good condition. I don’t recall seeing any of them being advertised as being in better than NRA good condition, which is not very desirable. Some were simply described as “wall hangers” without any specific condition. My guess was that they were less than NRA poor condition. None of the firearms previous owners (Spain, Mexico, or Egypt) were known for taking good care of their surplus firearms.
I learned from the gun magazines at the time that most of the RB’s being offered were No. 1’s (with black powder actions), but a few were No. 5’s (the same size, but they were smokeless powder actions with better steel). The majority were chambered in odd calibers. There originally was a lot of confusion between the .43 Spanish and .43 Egyptian calibers, but it was eventually agreed that they were completely different cartridges, even to the diameter of the bullet. Some of the RB’s were advertised as being in 11mm caliber. I never did find out if that referred to one of the previously mentioned .43’s or whether it was a different caliber altogether. Significantly, there was no surplus ammunition advertised with either of them like there was with the other surplus guns being sold at the time.
The newer Mexican RB’s were in 7×57 Mauser caliber, which was a common enough round. However, they all reportedly had excess headspace. That seemed very strange. Since then, I have seen a few articles by cartridge collectors which suggest this gun was chambered for a non-standard version of the German 7×57 round. They were chambered properly for locally produced, contemporary ammunition, but that ammunition was a slightly longer length (base to shoulder) than current 7×57’s. Using current ammunition in those guns gives the functional equivalent of excess headspace and can lead to head separation. The 7×57 Mauser specifications were standardized in Europe after the Mexican RB’s were delivered (there are several other theories about the source of this headspace problem, but this one seems the best to me). I had some personal experience with the dimensional mismatch in this caliber when I later bought a very nice 7mm 1893 Spanish Mauser that showed very little signs of use when I got it and absolutely no signs of abuse. However, after firing it, I found that it had “excess headspace”. I had to have the barrel set back a thread in order to use present day factory ammunition safely.
This was before I got very far into handloading, so odd calibers were definitely out. This was a good rule at the time, which I violated shortly afterward to trade for a beautiful Savage Model 99 in .22 Savage Hi-Power caliber. After buying it, I found out that the ammunition had to be imported. I am glad that I did not experience that frustration earlier.
Soon afterward, there were some magazine articles about rebarreling and rebuilding the RB’s that were flooding the market, mainly into more common calibers. Some people used them for mild smokeless cartridges like the 30-30. A few high pressure cartridges in .22 caliber centerfire were also used. The new .225 Winchester was popular with that crowd because it had a small rim, although the older .219 Zipper and .219 Wasp were also used. With any of them, the breechplate and firing pin had to be rebuilt and altered (bushed) to handle the higher pressure.
One of the more popular conversions used parts from Numrich Arms. They offered a short (about 20” to 22” or so), heavy (untapered), octagonal barrel, that was threaded for the RB’s being sold then. It was chambered in 45-70 and sold for more than what the guns were being sold for. I read one magazine article specifically about converting a surplus RB using the Numrich barrel. The first page of the article had a picture of the author shooting the completed conversion, taken at the moment of full recoil. Man, was that impressive. Just what I wanted. However, the cost of the gun, the barrel, and a gunsmith to put them together was beyond my newspaper route finances at the time. It would have to wait.
Through the years, I saw a number of RB’s on gunshow tables. Either the condition was too bad or the price was too high or both. I always looked, but never bought one. After 40 years or so, it was beginning to look like I would never own one.
Then three things happened over a period of about 4 or 5 years. First, I went to the auction of a local gunshop that closed down due to the age and poor health of the owner (he was only a few years older than me). After the guns were sold, they started to sell boxes that had lots of miscellaneous stuff haphazardly thrown into them. Some of the boxes went fairly cheap, so I ended up with a couple. One box had some kind of barrel in it, among other things. It was a round blank; not tapered, not threaded, and not chambered. It was 1-1/8” outside diameter and a little over 26” long. It was rifled, however, and it looked new inside and out. It had been stored well. When I got home, I slugged it and found it had a 0.457” groove diameter. A quick check of the rifling twist showed that it was approx 1 turn in 36” or 38”. I later learned that this is a little bit on the slow side; inbetween what is normally used for the 45-70 today (1 turn in 20” to 24”) and what is used for round-ball .45 muzzleloaders (1 turn in 60”). Besides, round-ball .45’s are usually a little smaller in diameter. There were no marks on the barrel to indicate who made it, but it looked good. I carefully put it aside until I could find a way to use it.
Next, I ran across a gunsmith who loved Rolling Block rifles. He only lived about 3 hours drive away, so I stopped in his shop once or twice a year just to look around (unfortunately, it was nowhere near anything else). He not only restored original RB’s, he built RB actions and guns from scratch, and sold raw or partially finished RB castings that other gunsmiths could finish. They were not cheap, but the workmanship was superb.
Lastly (and most importantly) a batch of original RB actions had just been found in Sweden. They were imported by Sarco somewhere around 2003 or 2004. The actions were in very good condition and were reasonably priced. Most of them were a little different from the RB that we are all familiar with. On them, the “dogbone” (this part is sometimes called the button, stirrup, or retainer plate) between the two main axis pins on each side of the receiver, was replaced with individual screws that fitted into notches next to the pins. However, a few were traditional. I bought one of the traditional ones for a few bucks more. A plan was starting to come together.
As soon as I got it, I pulled the action down and found that it was in great shape inside and out. There was no finish remaining, but there was absolutely no sign of rust, now or at any time in the past. The ejector was the older type (a straight-bar plunger rather than the newer rotating type), which is usually talked about as being a bad thing. However, it worked great on mine. Probably the lack of rust and/or pitting made the difference. There was no pitting on the breechplate, a common problem on the earlier RB’s. Rust there required rewelding and remachining the part. The firing pin moved easily and freely, also showing a complete lack of rust in the past. A rusty firing pin would sometimes jam forward and could cause serious problems (like firing out of battery). My action had been kept well oiled and well stored for more than 140 years straight. Amazing.
After a little research, I found that the Swedes bought 20,000 completed RB rifles and 20,000 RB actions from Remington starting back in 1867. This was in conjunction with orders for very similar RB versions from Norway and Denmark. Those orders are credited with saving Remington from bankruptcy after the Civil War. The Swedes barreled, stocked, and finished the second batch of 20,000 actions locally. After those were done, the Swedes bought the rights to manufacture complete copies of the RB themselves in their Husquvarna and Gustaf arsenals. These were the ones that did away with the “dogbone”. The one that I had was part of the second batch of Remington-built actions (the ones that were completed in Sweden). It was very definitely a black powder No. 1 action, and one of the early ones.
There were some shallow handling marks (gouges) on the outside of the action, but nothing else wrong with it. I set to work removing the handling marks starting with a file, progressing through finer files, then very-fine sandpaper wrapped around a file, and eventually a fine sharpening stone. While doing that, I thought about what I wanted in a RB. Naturally, it would have to be in 45-70 and it had to be loaded with black powder. I was pretty much open on anything else.
There are plenty of places offering newly made RB’s today. Every one that I could think of was a replica of some version from the distant past and they all had metal buttplates. They ranged from heavy, long-barreled target versions (with a heavily curved metal “hook-type” buttplate) to light carbines (with a smaller, flatter metal buttplate). Previous shooting had convinced me that a “carbine style stock” accentuates the apparent recoil. I was very concerned about the recoil. Since I started taking blood thinner, anything with a noticeable kick left black and blue marks on my shoulder. That left me with the potential to throw a blood clot, possibly causing a stroke. Not cool.
I also felt that adding weight to control the recoil was not very productive. It made the gun awkward to handle, but only marginally reduced the amount of felt recoil. I came to these conclusions from experiments with a couple of Ruger No. 3’s (one in 30-40 Krag and one in .375 Winchester) that started out with their standard carbine stocks. The apparent recoil of the 30-40 in the Ruger felt much worse than when shooting the same cartridge in a sporterized Krag. I did a lot of measuring on the two stocks and found that that carbine stock had quite a bit more drop at the rear, it had less area at the rear, and it had a metal buttplate instead of a thin rubber recoil pad. All of these things accentuated the apparent recoil.
Heavy recoil was not desirable, but I could live with it when I was younger. However, after blood thinner, I could not shoot the Ruger’s anymore. That was not acceptable. I changed the buttstocks on both of them to Ruger No. 1 buttstocks (with more area and less drop), along with a fairly thick (1”) English-style, soft-rubber recoil pad. That made all the difference in the world. I could shoot them again. The felt recoil was much, much less and there was little or no bruising from shooting them.
I realized that I could do anything that I wanted with the RB parts I had. I did not have to copy anything being made now or at any time in the past. I decided that I would do everything I could to make my 45-70 RB “shoulder friendly”. I now knew that was largely a function of the size and the shape of the buttstock. One thing that was certain: I did not want any part of a metal buttplate.
After deciding what I wanted, I gathered up everything and took it all to the RB gunsmith. I asked him to give me a price to:
1. case-harden the receiver.
2. leave the barrel full diameter to about 1-1/2” to 2” ahead of the chamber, then taper it down to the muzzle from there. I did not want a heavy bull barrel.
3. leave the barrel as long as possible from the 26+” long blank.
4. thread and mount the barrel to the receiver.
5. chamber it in 45-70.
6. blue the barrel.
7. and, mount a globe front sight and a rear tang sight I had laying around.
We briefly discussed the twist. He thought that it would work well with light bullets, but I should try it with normal (heavier) 45-70 bullets before giving up on them. He thought that conventional weights (at least the normal carbine weight bullets) might possibly work, but the only way to tell for sure was to try them. I said I would stock it myself. We talked a while longer. He asked if I was in a rush. I said no. I had been waiting 40 or more years, so a few more months wouldn’t hurt. The price he quoted was very reasonable, since I agreed to let him use it as “fill-in” work without a specific deadline. I left a downpayment and everything else with him and told him to get started.
After I got home, I started looking around for a partially inletted stock. There are lots of places that offer them (I love the Internet). I wanted one with less drop and more area at the back than normal. A stock that caught my eye was called a “high-comb” rear stock. That is also deeper than a normal stock at the rear and would spread the recoil out even more. I liked the looks of that one better than the “fish belly” (or “perch belly”) version that raises the top of the comb in a completely different way (by simultaneously taking the extra height off the bottom, giving the rear stock a curved belly). I ordered one. When it arrived, I measured the depth and width at the rear and started looking for a thick recoil pad. The extra large height of the butt meant that there were far fewer choices for recoil pads. I could not use the ones that I had used on my Ruger No. 2’s. The largest of those were too small. The one I found that fit looked rather dated (1960ish); a 1” thick black Pachmayer with close packed square and triangle holes running from side-to-side. But, it covered the wood and I figured it would be thick enough and soft enough.
After 6 or 7 months, the gunsmith called me to pick up the gun. I went up the next Saturday and he handed it to me. It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. It was worth every penny. I took it home and started stocking it. The rear stock fit pretty well, with very little fitting required. I figured the length of pull I needed and cut it off. Then fitted the recoil pad. The next step was the front stock. I did not particularly care for the shape of the front stock that came with it. It was short and kind of klunky. I had an old commercial (aftermarket) stock from a sporterized Krag laying around. It had been taken it off my Krag a few years earlier when I replaced it with a much fancier stock. I liked the Krag forearm shape better (being longer and thinner) than the one that came with the buttstock and the color was close enough to match. The Krag stock was cut off just ahead of the magazine cutout and I started fitting it to the RB barrel. It took a little more fitting than the buttstock, but not too much. The completed rifle weighs 7lbs-13oz. That is relatively light for such a gun. It handled quickly and easily.
I decided from the very beginning that I would ONLY shoot black powder through this gun. I have never tried smokeless in it (not even Trail Boss) and don’t intend to. The question was, what bullet should I use? At first, I tried a traditional 500gr RN soft-lead (Bhn 7-8), plain-base bullet sized to 0.458”, lubed with SPG, and seated over a compressed case of GOEX FFg. I did not expect much from it (based on what the gunsmith said) and it turned out that he was right. It did not work at all. It was inaccurate (with badly yawing bullets) and there was hard fouling in most of the barrel. The stock did a great job of reducing recoil, but it still kicked more than I would have liked.
Next I tried a more traditional 405gr hollow-base 45-70 “carbine” bullet. Because of the hollow-base, it was nearly as long as the 500gr bullet, but the lube grooves were bigger. It worked better, but not good enough. There was still some yawing and some hard fouling, but the fouling started closer to the muzzle. At least the recoil was better. I could live with it. I also got a sample of some “big lube” 400gr bullets to try. These have absolutely huge lube grooves, so much so that the overall length of the bullet is much longer than conventional bullets of the same weight (and even a little longer than the 500gr bullet I tried earlier). It did take care of the fouling and left a nice lube star at the muzzle, but it yawed as much or more than the others. I decided to find a shorter, lighter, flat-base bullet like the gunsmith suggested. A SAECO 300gr RN-FP was selected.
I also decided to make the mix a little harder (about Bhn 10-12), to put a “lube wad” between the bullet and the powder, and to use Swiss BP. Swiss does not foul as badly as GOEX does. It just so happens that the RB gunsmith who barreled the gun is a stocking dealer for Swiss BP. The latest combination of changes worked great. Accurate (at close ranges anyway – out to 75 yards – my eyes can’t do much better with iron sights anymore), and it had very mild recoil. There was little fouling and what was there was soft. There was a perfect lube star on the muzzle. What more could a person ask for?
I eventually did track down a barrel manufacturer that offered a .45 barrel with the same twist-rate as mine. They labeled it for black powder cartridge “express rifles”. So, I guess my RB can be considered an express rifle. I shoots a lighter than normal bullet at (presumably) a higher than normal velocity. Sorry, but I have not checked the velocity, yet. I have been too busy shooting it. I suspect that the rifling could handle a little bit heavier bullet. I recently purchased a 340gr and a 385gr plain-base, but I have not tried them, yet.
The trigger spring is very heavy, but it is smooth and crisp. I don’t think I will change it. The only thing that was changed was the trigger-return spring. It was a leaf spring that was as heavy as the mainspring. It actually slapped back at my trigger finger immediately after the trigger was pulled. I bought a lighter wire spring replacement for it that is available at a few places on the internet. It was easy to swap out and it no longer slaps back at my trigger finger.
It is certainly not traditional, but I like it and can shoot it. That is what it is all about for me.
Remington Rolling block in 45-70 caliber (the 16ga shell is just holding it up for pictures)