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Rolling block bonanza: just when you thought supplies had dried up.

It saved Remington from financial ruin at the end of the Civil War. In continuous production for almost 70 years, millions were made. Without a doubt, it's the most successful, military, single-shot rifle ever fielded, and it has been appearing off-and-on in surplus circles for decades. It was named the "Remington System." We know it as the "Rolling Block." It's not only back in production at Remington, but a new shipment of milsurps from Sweden just arrived. If you don't have a rolling block in your collection, this may be the time to go shopping.

The original concept for a rolling block action was patented by Leonard Geiger in 1863 and was extensively refined and improved by Joseph Rider of Remington in the period from 1863 to 1865. The first production that got the final design off-and-running was for the U.S. Navy-ordered 50-caliber rolling block pistols in 1866 and carbines in 1867. It was not the domestic military trade that filled Remington's post Civil War treasury, it was the adoption of the rolling block military rifle by Denmark, Sweden, Norway and other nations.

Between 1867 and 1868, Denmark placed orders for 41,800 rifles and carbines at a price of $570,000 followed in 1867, by an order for 10,000 rifles and 20,000 actions from Sweden-Norway. Under separate licensing agreements, Sweden was permitted to manufacture rolling blocks at its Husqvarna and Carl Gustafs arsenals, Denmark at its Kobenhavn Tojhuis arsenal, and Norway at Hoverdarsenalet and Konigsberg.

Egypt was the next customer with an order in 1869 for 60,000 rifles at a cost of over a million dollars. In the same year, Spain ordered 85,000 rifles and 10,000 carbines and later manufactured rolling blocks under license. These were followed by orders from the Papal States, Netherlands, France, Japan, Greece, Argentina, Columbia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Chile, Peru, Mexico and others. Many of the orders from continental European countries were filled under licensing agreements with the Nagant Brothers, Francotte, and Westley Richards. China, too, produced rolling blocks, although no licensing agreement has been found in the Remington archives.

Why was the rolling block so universally popular in military circles? Simplicity. The rolling block is a deceptively simple and ragged action with few moving parts and an operation that is self-evident. Any untutored conscript could be taught the manual-of-arms with a rolling block in quick time.

One merely cocks the hammer, rolls back the breechblock, inserts a cartridge in the chamber, closes the breechblock and pulls the trigger. In function, the hammer not only strikes the firing pin but progressively cams under the breechblock, locking it firmly in place at the moment of discharge.

The relationship of the rotating breechblock and the rotating, locking hammer is precise and calls for close dimensional machine tool work, quality steels and proper heat treatment. The receiver with its integral upper tang is a forging. The two main parts, the hammer and the breechblock, are massive and rotate on large pins (.455" in diameter in the case of the original No. 1 action). The mainspring and trigger springs are stout. The nose of the trigger engages the hammer directly. The bar or rotating extractor systems are simple. In addition, when the breechblock is back, one has unobstructed access to the chamber, bore, and breechblock for cleaning purposes.

Frankly, there is very little to go wrong with a rolling block, other than the occasional breakage of springs and extractors. Like the Maytag repairman, the unit armorer must have been one bored fellow.

Until the recent appearance of rolling blocks from Sweden, the most common models encountered have been the Model No. 1 black powder rifles in .43 Spanish or .43 Egyptian; the smokeless powder No. 5 Model 1897-1901-02 in 7mm Mauser, and to a lesser extent, the 1871 N.Y. State Militia Model in .50-70.

When I was growing up, Winfield Arms imported a large lot of military Model No. 57mms from some Central or South American country. They were advertised for the princely sum of $16.95 and even a young squirt like me could afford one at that price. I remember writing them my order and stating that if they sent me a good one, I would order some more. What I received a couple weeks later was a rolling block in absolutely mint condition.

The local hardware store had exactly one green box of Remington 7mm Mauser stoked with long, business-looking 175-grain softpoints. The ammo cost me almost as much as the rifle. After I shot up the factory loads, I worked out some miserable handloads consisting of projectiles made by rolling No. 1 Buckshot between two pieces of plate glass until they fit the expanded necks of the cases and propelled them by a charge of Du Pont Bulk Smokeless shotgun powder. I never did hit anything with that load, but it sure created intense anxiety in the local crow population.

There are still a lot of military Model No. 5s in circulation. Remington made 46,450 of them between 1901 and 1910. Down here on the Mexican border, we even run into an occasional 7mm carbine. You can't buy them for $16.95 anymore, but they are a fine action, designed specifically for moderate smokeless powder pressures. Remington chambered it in .236 USN, 7.65mm Mauser, .30-40 Krag, .303 British and 7.62mm Russian. In one of the early issues of GUNS Magazine, there was a story of chap who used the 1902 action to build a rolling block pistol in .257 Roberts. The last military rolling blocks ever produced by Remington were chambered for the 8mm Lebel cartridge and supplied to France at the beginning of WWI.

If you are lucky enough to snag a No. 5 rifle or carbine in 7mm, please don't shoot commercial high-pressure 7x57mm ammunition in it. By current standards, headspace in this model is always excessive and new brass will clearly show a bright ring or stretch mark, warning of the possibility of an incipient head separation. Pick a mild handload that produces 2,000 to 2,300 fps with a 160- to 175-grain bullet or better yet, a cast bullet load. That's what the Remington was made for.

The Model No. 1 rolling block rifle in .43 Spanish, usually an Argentine contract rifle, is still commonly seen and typically sells for less than a Model No. 5. Forty-three Spanish, you say? Well, think of it as a .44-77 Sharps, because the two cartridges are identical with the exception that the Sharps bullet is approximately .446" in diameter and the Remington .439" in diameter. Yup, it's a real buffalo gun and fun to shoot.

I buy Bertram (Bell if I can find it) .43 Spanish brass from Midway, cast 370-grain .43 Spanish bullets from a Lyman mold, and load the ammunition using a set of Lee dies. My bullet temper is 1:20. Bullet lube is SPG. The primer is a Federal 215. The charge is 74 to 75-grains of Swiss 1 1/2 or Goex FFg topped with a .030" thick Walters vegetable fiber wad from Midway. In his book, Shooting the .43 Spanish Rolling Block, Croft Barker offers some very accurate smokeless loads for the .43 Spanish, but I'll stick with black powder.

The Model No. 1 sports a good, sharp set of tangent sights and at 100 yards, the old smoke pole and I are capable of 3" to 4", five-shot groups. Cleaning the No. 1 is a cinch because the chamber, bore and face of the breechblock are so accessible. In short, don't pass up the No. 1 because it runs on black powder. Think of it as an affordable Sharps.

This past weekend I was strolling down the aisle of a gun show and coming in the opposite direction was a gunny with a rolling block cradled in his arms. It was obvious he was interested in moving it. I stopped him and asked if I could see his gun. What a rolling block it was! It was a Husqvarna with a beautiful, rounded, color casehardened 1885 action. The caliber was 16-gauge and the barrel was rifled with lands and grooves that ran straight as an arrow from breech to muzzle. Yes, it was fitted with rifle sights, and its owner proceeded to show me some 50 yard targets shot with slugs and round balls that would do justice to any modern, rifled slug gun.

On my way home, I stopped off at Murphy's Gunshop in Tucson and there in the racks were three Husqvarna rolling blocks--a musket rechambered to .50-70, a small action .360 Black Powder Express and a .22 rimfire.

The Husqvarna rolling blocks are here and more are coming according to SARCO, which has just imported an additional 4,500 surplus firearms from Sweden.

For the past 10 years, Sweden has been unloading its stores of government arms from agencies like their forestry department. The imports have included double-barreled shotguns; small bolt-action rifles in .25-20 and .32-20, high-power, bolt-action rifles in a variety of metric and American calibers, rimfires and--bless their soul--rolling block rifles and shotguns.

Typical of the incoming Husqvarna rolling blocks is the svelte spotter pictured in this article. This rifle was originally a stock military musket made in 1870 and chambered for the 12.17x44R Swedish Remington cartridge. In 1889, Denmark adopted the Krag-Jorgensen rifle chambered for the 8x58R cartridge. Sweden and Norway followed suit by adopting the Danish Krag cartridge before dumping it in favor of the 6.5x55mm in 1894.

Having thousands of rolling block muskets on hand, Sweden proceeded to convert many of them to 8x58R and in the process, turned out sporter models for their forestry and game personnel.

The Husqvarna pictured here was made in 1870 and converted to 8x58R in 1895. Note that date--one year after Sweden adopted the 6.5x55mm cartridge. Apparently, the old black powder actions were stripped down, reheat treated, fitted with new breech blocks, hammers, extractors, barrels and sights and stocked in a pleasing sporter style.

I don't know the history of the pictured piece, but its owner was so attached to it, he carved his initials and the date "1941" into the butt stock. There is also a unit identification disk inletted in the stock and if any of our Swedish readers can decipher it, we'd like to hear from them.

Since there will be 8x58R rifles showing up in surplus circles, how do you load for it?

First, a set of dies. The most affordable are those made by 4-D (formerly CH) for about $69. Cases are readily formed from .45-70 brass after annealing the upper half of the case before initial sizing. The cartridge takes standard 8mm (.323") bullets, and I load it for fun with the cheapest 8ram bullets I can buy and 13 grains of Red Dot. When loaded with a 200-grain Sierra MatchKing, my Swedish convert will put them all in one hole at 50 yards.

So when you see the next rolling block, consider its romance and its place in history. Invented during the American Civil War, it became the most popular single-shot military rifle ever made. It still soldiers on, and it is still in production at the Remington Custom Shop, the Lone Star Rifle Co. and Pedersoli.



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by Croft Barker

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Title Annotation:SURPLUS LOCKER
Author:Bodinson, Holt
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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