The article was written by John Morgan of Arco, ID and published in the Sept./Oct. 2001 #151 issue of the Fouling Shot.
I found my Peabody rifle while attending the Sahara gun show in 1989 in Las Vegas, Nevada. I thought I paid a very high price at the time, but I had only seen two others in my life, and having a bad case of "gotta have”, I purchased it. It has increased in value to about four times what I paid for it, so it has been a good investment, at least that’s what I tell my wife.
The gun was in very good shape, but little did I know just what a gem I had acquired. Upon cleaning a hundred and thirty years of grime, a new gun in unfired condition came to light. The stock, action, and lock were coated with cosmoline, with a tar like consistency from drying on the parts. As I slowly dissolved the gum with lots of Hoppe’s No. 9, the color case hardening saw the first light of day since it was made. The parts were almost breathtaking in their quality and finish. It surpassed anything in modern mass-produced arms of today. As I cleaned the pieces I wondered how a gun like this, even a military arm could escape any use and survive intact until this time.
In my search for information on Peabody a pair of publications were discovered in the Dixie Gun Works catalog. In the Providence Tool Co. Military Arms by Edward A Hull, I discovered my gun to be a Spanish Model, made for France during the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. Mine has a 70,000 serial number found under the forearm, and was part of a contract order being sent to France when the hostilities ceased. The contract for the rest of the rifles was then canceled. The rifles in transit were then stored somewhere in Europe and forgottenfor over fifty years. Around 1925 Frances Bannerman advertised "Brand New Peabody Rifles,” still packed in their original zinc lined cases, for military collectors. By this time no ammunition was available, as all stocks of the obsolete cartridges were long gone.
I made a chamber cast, and found the chamber didn’t match any known cartridges that I could find listed. I checked Nonte’s Cartridge Conversions, Hoffman’s Reloading Notes, and the Handloading Manual of Cartridge Conversions, by J. Donnelly. The .43 Remington was the closest match. I obtained a box of Bell brass, and made a mold to cast a .439” diameter bullet weighing 370 grains. I fire formed three of these, and didn’t like what l saw! There was about .012” expansion ahead of the web, and it looked like a snake had swallowed a pickle. This wasn’t any good at all and the neck had expanded to .447” inside. The barrel has three lands and grooves and appears to be around .446” or .447". I
needed to do something a heck of a lot better than this.
After looking at all the modem cases the .348 Winchester was the only one that came close, but its case head in front of the rim was .018” larger than my chamber. It also looked to be about .050” short, but I could live with that.
The first problem was the rim in the chamber. It was cut .100” deep, indicating a Mauser "A” base thick style of rim. The head measured .527”/.528”. I made a brass washer in the lathe to match the rim dimensions in the chamber, and parted it off at .030” thick. I cleaned the rim relief with a stainless steel brush and acetone, and soldered the brass ring into the rim recess with low melting temperature silver tin solder that melts at around 600 degrees. Then I cut the extractor groove through the brass ring. This left me with a rim counter bore that would match modem rims.
I then set about making a swaging die in the lathe to reduce the head of the cases. I ordered a hundred cases from Midway Arms, and when they arrived I was ready to start. I lubed the cases, and with a large press, I ran each case into the die, but found I couldn’t swage clear to the rim. The die stopped about a sixteenth in front of the rim, leaving behind a nice radius. In sectioning one of the cases, I could see I had moved the web over, but the solid head stopped my die. I then realized I could remove material from the radius to the head with a lathe tool.
I made a fixture for turning the cases by turning a piece of material with a button the size of a primer. The fixture was held in the lathe with a three-jaw chuck. The button went into the primer pocket, and a tight fitting rod went through the case neck and pushed on the case head from the inside. A live center was used to push on the rod, the cases were turned in the lathe, and the head was reduced to .001 smaller than the chamber. The next step was to expand the case mouths to .446”. I made up expander buttons that would screw on a decapping stem in a universal die. I made a .375”, a .410” and a .446”. I annealed the cases between each expansion, and it paid off, as I lost only one case in the first hundred. I chucked each case in a collet, and using a round nose tool, I removed the Winchester logo from the case head. This left the heads
with a "bulls-eye” contour that is very distinctive. I then sized the cases in a .43 Spanish die until I could close the breech. The cases were fire formed with 20 grains of 2400 and a 385 grain paper patch bullet. The case mouths were then squared up, using the shortest case as my standard
length. I now had good strong cases to shoot, great! Does anyone have a clue to what this round might be? The rim is .610”, base .527”/.528”, shoulder .515”, neck OD .468”, case length 2.250”? I would sure like to know what the original round was.
I made up a number of molds for the Peabody, and am still playing around with loads. One of my most successful loads is a 385-grain pure lead slug, paper-patched with 100% rag bond paper and loaded with 28 grains of IMR 4198. In working up loads, I used .45/70 information as a guide, as the case holds about seven grains more black powder than the .45/70, but I think the pressure range should be held to the black powder
pressure levels, not to the loads designed for the later and stronger guns like the 86 Winchester. I use 100% rag bond paper measuring .002”
thick. The paper is soaked in water to expand the patch, and it is then rolled twice around a .440” pure lead bullet. The tail is twisted tightly around the base. They are then placed in a cartridge block, tail down, the weight of the bullet keeping the tail from unwinding.
After drying for twenty-four hours, the tail is clipped off as close to the base as possible. I then run the bullets through a .447” sizing die which irons the patch smooth. I tried dipping the paper-patched bullets in lube, but quit when I found some recovered rounds with the paper still glued to the base. I want to try automatic transmission fluid on the patch, as a substitute for the sperm oil that was used in the last century. I killed a
fork-horn buck with this load two years ago, after missing another buck earlier in the season. I misjudged the range and shot right over his back and he didn’t give me another chance. The one I shot was only about a hundred yards from my house. The bullet went through both
shoulder blades and wasn’t recovered. The buck went down at the shot, but regained his feet and ran about twenty yards before going down for good.
Like most rifles made for the military in the 1800s, this rifle is sighted to hit on at about 200 yards with the lowest sight setting. This puts the impact around eight inches high at 50 and 100 yards. That makes it hard to hit anything, at least for me.
Dixie Gun Works came to the rescue. I was able to purchase an original rear sight, mainspring, tumbler, firing pin, sear, and a few screws. I took the replacement rear sight, and milled as much material as I could from the bottom of the sight. By shorting the screws, and doing a little filing, I had a sight that hit dead on at fifty and one hundred yards.
My best loads shoot around two inches at one hundred yards. The fire formed cases are not resized, but merely decapped and primed and loaded with 4198 or SR4759. The bullets are started by hand and finish seated with a .43 Spanish die.
My Peabody has given me many hours of pleasure, and I hope it will for my son and grandson, when I pass it on the next generation of shooters.