REVISED 3-20-2013 REFLECTING TESTS and FEEDBACK TO DATE
Testing Schofield vs .45 Colt in a New Service and Ruger Blackhawk
Seating Bullets Out and Sizing Them to Fit Cylinder Throats Diameter Are Important
Ed Harris, Gerrardstown, West Virginia
The .45 Schofield cartridge dates from 1875 when Major George W. Schofield convinced the U.S. Army that the S&W No. 3 top-break's simultaneous ejection was faster and easier to manage on horseback than the Colt Single-Action Army's rod ejection. By 1879 the Army had bought 8289 No. 3 Schofields and by then also realized that having two different .45 revolver cartridges in its supply system was an awkward complication. So, the Schofield cartridge was adopted as the M1887 for interchangeable use in both Smith & Wesson No.3 top-break and Colt Single-Action Army revolvers. The .45 S&W was loaded commercially until just before WW2.
Keith, in Sixguns (1950) stated, “While many soldiers could shoot the Smith & Wesson better, on account of its lighter recoil, the S&W cartridge was never as good for knocking over a running Indian pony.” None the less, by the late 1880s, the Schofield was the only .45 revolver cartridge being produced for US Army issue. By then, it had gained a reputation as a reliable man-stopper, in the hands of gunmen such as Bill Cody, both the James and Younger gangs, John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garret, and Virgil Earp, among others. In 1902, Colt Single Actions and Schofield ammunition would be sent to the Philippines as a stopgap, after noted failures of the .38 Long Colt, until adoption of Colt's .45 Double Action Revolver Model of 1909.
Hatcher's Textbook of Pistols and Revolvers (1935) stated that the .45 Schofield cartridge was loaded with 28 grains of black powder and a 230 grain flat-nosed bullet, producing a muzzle velocity of 730 f.p.s. The performance expected of production ammunition was a mean absolute deviation of 5 inches, with 4 inches of penetration in soft pine, at 50-yards, the range at which Army revolvers were sighted. This standard of accuracy and penetration still represents a useful benchmark to assess what an adequate “service revolver” should do.
The popularity of Cowboy Action Shooting has revived interest in the Schofield cartridge. This is because mild, low-velocity loads are best suited for this sport. Getting acceptable ballistic uniformity when firing bullets of 230 grains or lighter, at velocities less than 700 fps, is challenging, when loading dense, fast-burning, modern smokeless powders in the full-length (1.285”) Colt .45 case, because it was originally designed for black powder and has excessive airspace. Cowboy shooters say that the shorter (1.109”) Schofield case is better for light loads, but they fire short-range events, which don't require high levels of either power or accuracy.
Schofield load data in popular manuals are for mild “Cowboy Action” loads, rather than being at “full charge” levels required of hunting or service ammunition. I fired velocity tests with Alliant Bullseye powder and the Saeco Cowboy bullets, comparing them in a Colt M1909 with 5-1/2” barrel, and Ruger New Model Blackhawk with 4-5/8” barrel. Despite better steel, modern reproductions of the S&W No. 3 revolver probably should not be used with loads exceeding about 700 fps. My old school buddy Dave, in Alaska, tells me his No. 3 clone “pops open after every round of factory .45 Colt ammo including factory Cowboy loads.” While Schofield's No. 3 was a great idea for its time, its value today is rooted in its nostalgia, not practical functionality.
Modern smokeless-frame Colt Single-Actions, their clones and the Colt New Service, in sound condition, can handle up to 900 fps with 260-gr. lead bullets or 1000 fps with the lead 230-grainers. Medium-frame Ruger Flat Tops and Vaqueros are strong enough for use with a steady diet of 1000 fps loads with 260-gr. lead bullets, but are NOT recommended for use with so-called “Ruger Only” loads intended for revolvers on the Super Blackhawk frame and the T/C Contenders, which approach or exceed 1100 fps and 25,000 psi. with 250+ grain bullets.
I used Starline cases, Winchester Large Pistol primers and Alliant Bullseye powder. Charges in the accompanying tables correspond to charges thrown with the RCBS Little Dandy measure using the numbered rotors indicated, for those who wish to duplicate these loads.
For most of my testing I used the Saeco #954. This traditional ogival-nosed, 230-grain flat-point resembles the original Schofield service bullet and is one with which I have a lot of experience. It is my favorite bullet for use in both the .45 Colt and the .45 ACP in revolvers, rifles and auto pistols. If I were limited to one bullet to use in all of my .45s this one would be “it.”
Only limited tests were fired with the Saeco #955. This 260-grain bullet has the same profile as the 230-grain #954, differing only in width of its base band. I found it less accurate, and simply used up my remaining rounds and loose bullets, because I no longer own that mold. Revolver accuracy tests were fired at 25 yards, hand-held, off sandbags. A few .45 Colt loads previously tested in my H&R CR45LC carbine with iron sights at 50 yards are included. Testing Saeco #954 bullets sized to different diameters in the H&R's .452” groove diameter with .457” diameter ball seat did not improve accuracy compared to firing as-cast bullets at .455”.
I do not use specialized “carbine” loads in .45 Colt, because doing so defeats my intended purpose for owning the .45 Colt rifle in the first place, to use the same ammunition in it AND my revolver. It was not possible to test Schofield loads in the H&R, because their larger case rim diameter of 0.520” vs. 0.512” precludes them from chambering in the rifle. A negative for me!
Cylinder throat diameters of the Colt New Service revolver measure .455.” As-cast Saeco bullets fit them optimally without sizing. The accuracy results obtained, despite its tiny fixed sights, which are difficult to see well, reflect this. The tighter cylinder gap of the 4-5/8” Ruger revolver (0.006”) produced somewhat higher velocities than the Colt New Service, which has a 5-1/2” barrel, but with a .008” cylinder gap, fairly typical of revolvers made before WW1.
Firing .45 Colt ammunition loaded with unsized .455 bullets in the Ruger, increased group size from 2” or less at 25 yards firing bullets, sized to .452” to fit its cylinder throats, to 2-1/2” or more for groups shot with as-cast and unsized bullets. While not enough to impair utility for field shooting, resizing bullets to fit the cylinder throats improves accuracy of .45 Colt ammunition.
When loading ammunition in Schofield brass and crimping bullets in the crimp groove, at 1.40” OAL, sizing bullets to cylinder throat diameter was of no benefit. But when seating bullets out in Schofield brass, and crimping instead in the lubricating groove, at 1.55” overall length, grouping improved when bullets were properly sized to fit the cylinder throats. Best accuracy was obtained in the Ruger revolver when bullets were resized from their as-cast diameter of .455 down to .452” in a Lee push-through sizing die. While sizing as much as 0.003” is not ideal, test results clearly illustrate the importance of sizing bullets to fit the cylinder throats, rather than to barrel groove diameter (which was .4505” in the Ruger vs. .453” for the Colt). Further improvement may be possible in Ruger revolvers using bullets from a mold which casts smaller.
It is best that molds drop bullets at correct diameter, so as to not require sizing at all. Sizing bullets to .454” to attempt a compromise diameter fit for use in both revolvers was of no benefit, compared to firing loading bullets as-cast and unsized. Cylinder leading severe enough to cause resistance to chambering .45 Colt ammunition was noted after firing 100 or more Schofield loads. Seating bullets out in Schofield brass to an overall cartridge length of 1.55” improved accuracy, but did not mitigate chamber leading, a negative aspect for me! Removal of these lead deposits required VIGOROUS scrubbing with Kano Kroil on a .410 shotgun brush.
If One-Inch-Per-Ten (Yards) revolver accuracy is important, the Schofield is less accurate than .45 Colt ammunition assembled with the same bullet, at all velocity levels tested. Bullseye powder gives quite acceptable ballistic uniformity and accuracy in .45 Colt brass, even with reduced charges down to 700 fps with 230-grain bullets. The advantages of Schofield brass are in being able to visually identify low-recoil plinking loads, and for nostalgia. Schofield loads do provide adequate accuracy for close range plinking targets, but are best reserved for that purpose. The .45 Colt is still best for any serious use where power and accuracy are important.
73 de KE4SKY In Home Mix We Trust From the Home of Ed's Red in "Almost Heaven" West Virginia