VICTORIAN TIGER TAMER: The .500 Black Power Express was the pre-eminent power of its day for taking dangerous animals.
Taking the beast predated the appearance of the British in India, having been a favorite quarry of indigenous rulers. When the English arrived in the mid-18th century, along with an avidity for commercial enterprise, they brought with them firearms and a taste for parlous adventure.
For centuries, Indian villagers had been subject to the depredations of tigers, in both human life and the loss of valuable livestock. Local tiger elimination schemes ranged from traps to primitive matchlock long arms, but these arrangements were often quite risky. When the British showed up with their improved firearms, they were not altogether unappreciated.
Flintlock and percussion rifles of varying calibers and styles were initially employed against dangerous game, with the quick second-shot afforded by a two-barreled arm being recognized as having a distinctive advantage over single shots and early repeaters. The introduction of the self-contained cartridge provided another boost in efficiency.
As technology progressed, percussion double rifles transitioned into breechloaders. Offered by many British makers, various calibers and locking systems abounded, typified by one of the most popular combos, the 1873 Thomas Woodward .500, 3-inch, Black Powder Express (BPE) with a Jones underlever.
The object of a double rifle was to provide the hunter or soldier with the ability to get off two shots quickly. Of course, with the exception of smoothbore military carbines, accuracy was also important, and the regulation of a side-by-side (the method whereby both barrels hit at the same place at a given range) took considerable skill on the part of the gunmaker.
Percussion guns lacked the ability for a rapid reload, so it was not uncommon for sportsmen to go afield accompanied by an Indian shikari (hunter/guide) and bearers carrying spare rifles which could be swapped out for the empties at a moment's notice. This was also not uncommon with cartridge arms.
By the 1830s, the quest was on to find the most optimum bullet/rifling/powder combination for accuracy and stopping power. The round ball was fast giving way to the ballistically more efficient conical projectile, which could also be produced in various configurations and weights to suit particular needs.
Over the next three decades, extensive experimentation was carried out by professionals and amateurs to discover the optimum mixes for given needs--a study far too extensive to cover here. Eventually, the development led to the "express" load.
Catching the Express The term "express" was coined by the fine English gunmaker James Purdey in 1852, based on the express trains of his era--big, heavy and the fastest thing imaginable at that time. It was used by Purdey to describe some of his muzzleloaders which employed speedy bullets of various calibers with relatively flat trajectories, an arrangement particularly favored by such men like the British East India Company officer David Davidson, whose early groundbreaking work in this area is somewhat forgotten due his has greater renown as an early exponent and inventor of telescopic sights.
By the 1860s, however, the muzzleloader was fast losing ground to arms that employed self-contained cartridges, the earliest being pinfires. Of course, methods had to be designed to allow a cartridge to be loaded at the breech and many clever contrivances emerged. Those used with double rifles and shotguns most commonly relied on an arrangement whereby the barrels pivoted downward on a forward portion of the frame and were locked and unlocked by one method or another. This transition from a fixed barrel complicated the gunmaking process somewhat, but high-grade breechloaders soon became the fashion.
By the early 1870s, even though some shooters were still relying on their older percussion arms--interestingly, new ones were made for some time--the cartridge era had firmly established itself. Militaries were switching to arms employing self-contained ammunition, as were sportsmen.
Then, as now, British makers were turning out some of the best arms. British centerfire cartridges were basically of three types. The Eley-Boxer style was named for a round combining a cartridge developed by Colonel Edward M. Boxer and manufactured by Eley Brothers. Boxer's round, patented in 1866, called for a body composed of a thin sheet of brass coiled on a mandrel, to which was affixed a brass base cup with an iron base disc, the latter incorporating a cavity for a Boxer primer--similar to the one used today. (Boxer's primer was actually devised by gunmaker George H. Daw.) The brass was lined with lacquered paper to make it waterproof. The case was relatively easy to make and had the advantage of slightly uncoiling when fired, providing a good seal.
This pattern of round was used not only by the British government for the Snider and Martini-Henry military rounds, but also in high-powered Express cartridges up to .577. Smaller-caliber "Rook" range loads (.220 to around .380) employed drawn brass cases of the type we're familiar with today. Some of the extremely large "elephant rifle" cartridges (12, 10, 8, 6 and 4 bore) commonly used pasteboard cases with attached brass bases.
Throughout the 1870s, a number of excellent rounds emerged tailored to various needs. The .500 3-inch BPE found considerable favor as an all-around load that could be used for dangerous game, but yet be comfortably chambered in lighter rifles usually weighing under 10 pounds.
The common load employed was a 340- to 380-grain purelead or alloy bullet backed with 5 drams (136.7 grains) of the coarse but popular Curtis & Harvey No. 6 gunpowder. A fiber, card or cork wad was placed between the bullet and charge. With a 340-grain bullet velocity around 1,925 feet per second (fps), the muzzle energy ran about 2,800 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.).
The .500 BPE was actually available in several lengths from 1 1/2 to 3 1/4 inches, though with the exception of the latter round, which was capable of handling heavier bullets and a slightly greater powder charge, the others fell, more or less, by the wayside. The 3 1/4-inch itself didn't appear until later by which time drawn brass cases had become ascendant. Still, coiled ammunition continued on, still being seen into the 20th century. For certain loads, it was perfectly adequate, though reloading was not as easy as it was with drawn brass.
Once things got going on the evolution of the double rifle, advancement was relatively rapid, with the pinfire generally being the first introduction the sportsman had to a breechloader. Accordingly, many fine pinfire shotguns and rifles were manufactured until centerfires achieved pre-eminence.
In fact, it was not unusual for percussion muzzleloaders to be converted to breechloaders and pinfires to centerfires. I have an early Westley Richards shotgun that gives all the appearance of being originally conceived as a muzzleloader, which was altered to pinfire and then to centerfire. The mechanism so designed that the lower firing pins of the final alteration were actually struck by the body of the hammers rather than the heads.
Early centerfire doubles, looked much like their percussion precursors and employed some of the same mechanisms and hardware seen on the front loaders. Many different types of locking mechanisms were devised. One has only to look at British firearms patent listings and descriptions of the late 1860s and early 1870s to marvel at the many ingenious systems being put forth such as top levers, side levers, underlevers with all having their champions and adherents.
There were many fine British makers of double guns, largely located in the cities of London and Birmingham. Some such as Purdey, James Woodward, Boss and Churchill achieved considerable importance in the trade, but even the lesser makers produced fine, serviceable arms. I hold it as simply impossible to find an indifferently made English double rifle.
Invariably these guns--even the lesser of them requiring a not unsubstantial investment--were decorated with engraving and a good number were cased with accessories. Trunk cases durable enough to bang around in the hold of a steamship were popular with officers and civilian sportsmen alike.
While I have limited this story primarily to early-style .500 hammer guns, it should be noted that rebounding hammers and hammerless designs began to appear by the mid-to-late 1870s, though the latter really didn't start to take over the market until the 1880s. Even then there were many who continued to prefer hammer guns.
As late as the early 20th century, hammer guns--and even a few percussion pieces--were still being built for conservative sportsmen. The ideal .500 hammer gun of the 1870s normally weighed around 9 pounds and had barrels in the 28-inch range. Stocks with and without pistol grips were seen. The efficacy of a cheekpiece being a matter of some debate, insured it was by no means a universal feature. Sights varied, but most involved some arrangement of flip-up rear leaves graduated to various distances. In the case of the .500 BPE, this rarely exceeded 300 yards, that being the limit of gun's perceived maximum effectiveness.
While Victorian artists and photographers enjoyed depicting the archetypal tiger hunt being conducted from the back of an elephant, hunts carried out on foot were not unusual at all. Many involved elaborate entourages composed of guides, bearers and camp followers. Others, such as the famed tiger hunter Jim Corbett (who was very much a fan of the .500) preferred solitude. Needless to say, this method, to be successful, took a consummate professional.
The Jones Improvement The rifle we're reviewing is typical of the early style of blackpowder, breechloading centerfires. Manufactured by Birmingham gunmaker Thomas Woodward, it manifests most of the features found on its contemporaries. Built around an underlever system patented by Henry Jones in 1859, the rifle is sleek, beautifully constructed and well thought out.
Jones' improvement involved a transverse underlever connected to a steel plate within the body of the gun. When the lever was rotated, the plate that had cutouts on two of its sides, unlocked from a recess formed by tandem lugs attached to the barrels. The barrels could then be lowered and loaded. When returned to the closed position, the lever was rotated back beneath the triggerguard securely fastening barrel to action. Opening the action also activated dual extractors allowing the empties to be easily removed from the chambers.
The Jones underlever was one of the most robust mechanisms of its type and one lasting well into the smokeless powder era. For all its strength, it was certainly not one of the fastest, especially when mated to a rifle such as our Woodward, without rebounding hammers. This meant that prior to unlocking the action, the hammers had to be pulled back to half cock to allow the spring-loaded firing pins to retract out of the way of the upwardly moving breech. Cartridges were then inserted and the action closed. The hammers could then be left on half cock, and, if desired, the manual sliding safeties located on the lock plate could be pushed forward where they slid into notches on the bodies of the hammers providing an extra measure of security.
The Woodward weighs in at just over nine pounds, has the optimum 28-inch barrels with Henry rifling, a typical three-leaf rear sight graduated to 100, 200 and 300 yards and a bead front sight. The forend is attached in the rather antique keyed manner and the butt incorporates a pistol grip. Engraving is profuse, and while the rifle retains little finish, it is mechanically excellent and the bores are pristine.
Hear It Roar For our evaluation, I made up some ammunition using new Hornady .500 3-inch Nitro brass, .513 350-grain lead-cast bullets from the Buffalo Arms Co. (buffaloarms.com), 132-grains of 1 1/2F Old Eynsford blackpowder, a .500 .030-inch card wads and Federal large rifle primers.
Standing off hand for a few get-acquainted shots, the results were promising with recoil being quite manageable, due to a superbly-designed, well-fitting stock. Bullets from either barrel hit or dotted around the 200-yard, 3-by-1-foot metal target. From a benchrest, shots were first essayed at 50 yards using the 100-yard leaf, and, as expected, stuck a bit high by about 2V2 inches. Proper regulation was manifested with shots from both barrels coming in at only about 2 1/2 inches from one another, with the left-barrel hitting slightly lower than those from the right.
At 100 yards, the right-barrel shots were spot on at point of aim and those from the left, again, slightly lower--the spread stretching out another three-quarters of an inch. Regulation, though was obviously going in the right direction. While not optimum, it would have been adequate in the field.
I experimented with other powder granulations and .310 340-grain bullets I had on hand, but my original load maintained its standing. Most importantly, as well as being something to be reckoned with in the field, the gun was just one heck of a lot of fun to shoot. One could see how a quality .500 3-inch Black Powder Express rifle would have had the confidence of tiger hunters. It certainly has mine.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JILL MARLOW
Caption: The Bengal tiger, often weighing up to a quarter-ton, was a highly popular quarry for Victorian sportsmen.
Caption: Prior to the appearance of Europeans in India, tigers were hunted by locals on foot and from horses or elephants. Spears were often the weapon of choice.
Caption: In India, tigers were often hunted from howdahs mounted on the backs of elephants. Still, their lofty positioning was not always a guarantee of security from the flashing teeth and slashing claws of a determined prey. In cases such as this, the two fast shots provided by double rifles--and pistols--was a decided advantage.
Caption: With the introduction of the percussion system, the back-action lock became a favorite mechanism and was used on handguns, rifles and shotguns well into the cartridge era. Many high-grade locks featured push-on safeties along with half cock.
Caption: This circa 1874 .500 3-inch Black Powder Express by Birmingham-maker Thomas Woodward is typical of the high-grade English double rifles during the period. It features the popular Jones underlever locking system as well.
Caption: It is not unusual to find high-grade English sporting arms with some degree of engraving. This Woodard is typical of the breed, as exhibited by its tang and on top of the action.
Caption: Rear sights could range from quite elaborate to relatively simple, the latter exemplified by this typical three-leaf arrangement. Guns were regulated with the proper load one would suffice for both barrels. Front bead-style sights were generally small but easy to access and mated well with a properly notched rear leaf.
Caption: This Thomas Woodward was fitted with the popular Jones underlever locking mechanism. The rifle was first put on full cock the lever rotated to the right and the barrels loaded. The action was then closed and the lever returned to its position beneath the triggerguard.
Caption: A plate in the action securely rotates into a corresponding space provided on the under-part of the barrels.
Caption: This early Woodward double employed a key with which to secure the forend to the barrels. There were other systems as well. To remove the barrels, the forend was removed, the lever rotated to open, and the barrels easily rocked off the action.
Caption: Water table markings included proofs (in this case, Birmingham blackpowder) and a serial number. Often calibers and other information would also be provided.
Caption: The .500 3-inch Black Powder Express was a formidable round, first introduced in the late 1860s. It was the inspiration for the later, more powerful .500 3-inch Nitro Express. BPEs, from left--early coiled brass case, later-period drawn case and lastly, the author's handload.
Caption: Despite its fearsome reputation, the .500 Black Powder Express was not all that punishing. Accuracy and regulation with ammunition loaded to period specifications was quite good.
Caption: Many early large-bore British military and sporting cartridges, such as this .500 BPE, employed cases constructed in the Eley-Boxer manner, consisting of thin sheet brass wrapped about a mandrel after being lined with lacquered paper to make it waterproof. A brass base cup and iron brass base disc with primer chamber were added separately. The bullet is paper-patched and, in this case, employs a nose with a hollow copper tube filler.