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Pedersoli’s Rolling Block Replica and the
I have been active in historical reenactment for years and one of the characters I do is a little known professional bison hunter named Jonah William Campbell. Campbell began in the profession during the years just after the Civil War and was present at the Battle of Adobe Walls in 1874. Oddly, he made his greatest income from the trade running a bison bone collecting operation from 1874 until 1881. The great bison herd extermination took place from roughly just after the Civil War and was over by 1886.
It is important to remember, however, that when we talk about this period of U.S. Old West history the bison extermination should be divided into two major segments. American bison herds were divided into different populations. The Southern Herd ranged throughout the Southwest and extended its northern range into the southern part of present day Nebraska. It migrated south into Texas in the winter and worked its way north in the early spring. The Northern Herd grazed and migrated along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains out into the plains of the Dakotas and Nebraska. These herds were massive and their ranges did not overlap because of the pressure they put on local resources.
The Southern Herd was exterminated first because it was much larger than the Northern Herd, railroad access was earlier, the winter climate was less oppressive and most settlement took place in Kansas before advancing into the North. Essentially, the Southern Herd was annihilated by 1875 and it was no longer feasible to run the big buffalo hunting operations after 1874. Campbell was most active during this period.
Of more interest to historical gun enthusiasts is the fact that Campbell did not prefer the legendary Sharps rifle. He began with a muzzle-loading Springfield musket-rifle, but his first cartridge rifle was a Trapdoor Springfield or “needle gun” like Bill Cody’s. As conditions changed and he saw a need for a long range, big bore rifle he chose a Remington Rolling Block.
I chose a very simple Pedersoli (www.davide-pedersoli.com) Rolling Block replica design as is marketed by Traditions as my example of Campbell’s rifle. The rifle is in .45-70 caliber with a 30” octagonal barrel with fixed dovetail front and rear sights. It has a brass trigger guard, butt plate and fore stock retaining ring. The receiver is color casehardened. The rifle is 46.7” in overall length and weighs 11.67 lbs. The question is, just how historically accurate is it?
I really know very little about Campbell’s Rolling Block other than the notation that he considered it “better put together” than the Sharps. He also noted that opinions of which rifle was superior, the Sharps or Remington, was “pretty much evenly divided” among professional bison hunters. My problem as a historical researcher has always been that while I have found numerous specimens of old time buffalo rifles, such as muzzle-loading Plains rifles, Springfield muskets, Spencer conversions, Trapdoor Springfields, or even Sharps models, I have found few Remingtons that can be documented as authentic bison hunter examples.
The Remingtons that can be documented with the trade are relatively austere models with very few frills. They have little in common with the famous Creedmoor models of the East. They are comparatively lightweight with few adornments and Spartan sights. Many cartridge rifles of that era weighed from fourteen to sixteen pounds with heavy bull barrels. I have not found any Remingtons configured that way that I can tie to the Southern Herd period.
I believe that the reasons are complex and relate to the types of people who engaged in the bison hunting profession and the timing of the Southern herd’s extermination. There were many people who hunted bison for money from 1870 – 1875 on the plains of Southwestern Kansas before that herd was wiped from the face of the earth. Very few of them were full-time professionals. Many were simply farmers, tradesmen and day wageworkers who earned some extra cash during the winter months by shooting a few bison as the herd migrated north across the Arkansas River. These men did not have much invested in any equipment and were unwilling to purchase expensive rifles designed specifically for long range shooting. They got by just fine in the early years with big bore muzzleloaders, Civil War surplus Springfield muskets and Trapdoor Springfields.
I am convinced that Trapdoor Springfields were the most numerous cartridge rifles used during that period. They were easy to find, relatively inexpensive and they used commonly available military ammunition. The ammunition, in fact, was literally given away by the military to anyone choosing to call himself a bison hunter. The vast majority of bison taken during this period were shot with the .50-70 cartridge. The .45-70 was not adopted by the military until 1873, so surplus ammunition would not have been commonly available. Campbell and others would take the free ammunition and break it down, melt the lead and use the powder to work up their own handloads for their rifles.
As Campbell states in his journal, there were so many bison migrating north in the early years that a shooter could take a position on the Cimarron Bluffs (several miles west of Dodge City) in early March as the herd migrated north across the Arkansas River and kill all the animals he wanted for days on end without changing camps. It didn’t’ take much shooting or hunting skill to kill all the bison a man could skin and market.
As the herd thinned, casual bison hunter numbers dwindled. Generally, what was left were the hard core few who ran organized camps complete with skinners, bundlers, loaders and had hide wagons making regular trips into the Dodge City market. These men were the professionals who more likely to purchase expensive Sharps and Remington rifles. Very few of these professional hunters spent money for heavily adorned rifles. The reason is simple. The rifles were tools that were used up and eventually bartered away. Most of the fancy Sharps bison rifles left today were held in hands other than those of professional hunters.
The largest number of authentic bison rifles I know of came from an old whorehouse auction in Wichita in the early 1950’s. The business had been in operation since the late 19th century. The buffalo rifles were found stacked in a closet. Chances are they were bartered for an evening’s entertainment and the bordello owner never got around to selling them. I have no documentation of what configurations and styles of rifles there were, except that many of them were Sharps models.
There is one old Remington Rolling Block from the bison hide trade era in the basement of Dodge City’s Boot Hill Museum. Most of these rifles came from local family donations, as the museum itself has never spent great sums putting together its collection. I found the Remington when I was looking through their non-display collection for some photography specimens.
It is approximately .40 caliber and weighs around nine pounds. The forearm is thin and the butt stock is unadorned with a straight wrist. The butt stock is cracked in the wrist. The wood is nearly black from age and oiling. The metalwork is lightly pitted, but generally in good shape. The sights are dovetailed fixed front blade and rear "V." As is common of that era, the front blade sight has been filed down almost to the barrel. This was done to raise the point of impact for precise long range shooting. The round barrel is around 30” long and not particularly heavy. There is no evidence that the rifle ever had telescopic, Vernier, or receiver sights. It is very plain with no checkering or adornment.
If you watch Quigley and the other Sharps shooters of the cinema, you will notice that they always have a set of Vernier tang mounted sights at hand to make fantastic long range shots. Josey Wales even had a fine brass scope for long range rope cutting and Missouri boat rides. In fact, not a single relic in the Boot Hill Museum has such sights and I have yet to find a period photo showing a set of Vernier tang mounted sights on a bison rifle of the Southern Herd period. Nearly all photos show a set of barrel mounted, military style ladder sights such as are commonly placed on less expensive modern Italian Sharps replicas.
I am not claiming that such rifle configurations didn’t exist. I am pointing out that they were not common among professionals in the early 1870’s. The Vernier sight and heavy, scoped target rifles were much more common in the 1880’s when the Northern Herd was being harvested. Examples of those types of bison rifles are much more commonly encountered in Montana and Wyoming museums.
The Traditions Pedersoli Rolling Block replica has some features that are not exactly representative of the Southern Herd era. Most noticeable are the brass fixtures. I have not personally seen an original Remington with brass fixtures. I have seen a number of other period rifles with pewter forearm caps, brass decorative inserts and brass butt plates. I have not seen a Remington with a brass butt plate. I did see a Native American owned Remington Rolling Block carbine with numerous brass tacks in the butt stock. The Remington design was much more modern and advanced than the Sharps models. While Sharps ended manufacturing in the mid-1880’s, the Remington design continued well into the 20th Century.
Second is the case hardened receiver finish. I have not seen a case hardened finish on any rifle of the Southern Herd era. Even the Sharps rifles are of blued steel. It may be that such a finish has long since worn away on some of these rifles. More likely is that it was a seldom seen, special order feature.
The next most noticeable trait of the replica is that the receiver is slightly more robust than the original Remington. I am told that this is because the replica is forged from a mold casting of an original Remington and is therefore of slightly thicker dimensions. This is minor, but it does change the feel and heft of the reproduction rifle. A Remington replica is just a bit more awkward feeling than the original.
The butt stock and forearm stocks of the Pedersoli Rolling Block are not bad and come very close to the originals that I have seen. The configuration of the butt plate shape is very accurate, as I have seen no Remingtons with the severe moon cut of many period rifle butt plates.
Finally, the heavy octagon barrel, while I have not seen it on an original Remington, is representative of many period rifles. There are several conversion rifles made from war surplus Spencer carbines. They were converted into big bore single shots and relied on heavy barrels to increase long range accuracy. Many of these rifles did not even have forearms, as they were designed to be fired from shooting (crossed) sticks. A heavy octagon barrel was also a common Sharps option.
The vast majority of Remingtons were being made at this time to fill overseas military contracts (primarily in .43 Spanish and .43 Egyptian calibers) and the factory ran 24/7 for many years. Early Old West period Remington Rolling Blocks were generally sporter class rifles, but they could be special ordered in a number of configurations. A heavy barrel option was available. The bulk of the Eastern Creedmoor style Remingtons were manufactured after the Southern Herd’s extermination. In all probability, a hunter of that time would have been more likely to encounter a Remington Rolling Block that looked more like the Basic or Sporting Pedersoli Rolling Block replica than a Creedmoor style long range rifle such as Pedersoli’s John Bodine or Creedmoor #2 models.
As a representative rifle design of the early 1870’s, in spite of the brass adornments, the Pedersoli Rolling Block is not bad. It represents a very simple yet robust rifle with minimal sights, heavy barrel and few adornments. I personally believe that the Pedersoli model S.852 Rolling Block Target Steel Standard (see photo at top of article) is more representative of what Remingtons of this period looked like. Dixie Gun Works sold a Pedersoli Remington Rolling Block .45-70 Buffalo Rifle Model #1 (#CRO408) that is extremely accurate in appearance.