Adventures on a Chicken Farm or Cast Bullets Out of the Wind
(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in The Fouling Shot No. 27, August 1980. It introduces what Frank referred to in many of his subsequent writings as the "coops” range.)
During my formative years, a fellow with a chicken farm sold out to my Uncle Will. Will didn’t give hoot about chickens, but he’d dreamed of a 100-yard indoor range, which those level sheds next to the woods would be. Also, Will would rather shoot than eat, given a choice.
With the partitions in the ends of the buildings removed and a stout steel plate put up on a 45-degree angle into a sandbox in the end of the last shed, voila, we had our indoor range! Will didn’t know it then, but we were about to learn the true accuracy of cast bullet loads and all other manner of things which you could only see when shooting out of the wind.
Besides the obvious novelty, we found we could shoot in bad weather, and at night, with the help of a few lanterns, since this location was quite remote. The fun ended when the hurricane of ‘38 swept up past Long Island Sound, wrecking its havoc on the Utopia which was Massachusetts, and our rifle range in a chicken coop was no more.
While it lasted, the famous chicken coop range confirmed the credibility of the legends of the schuetzen era, and left a less known legacy of its own. The most notable impression indoors was the fantastic accuracy of the common 1400 f.p.s. plain-based load. At the same time doubts were raised about certain dogma and rules which had arisen with black powder, which had somehow survived into the smokeless powder era. These we later found out were not suited to modern bolt action rifles shooting lead bullets with smokeless powder.
As to conditions contributing to success with smokeless loads in "modern” rifles such as the ‘03 Springfield and Winchester M-54 bolt guns, the primary rule was a close bullet fit, regardless of groove diameter, and a snug necked chamber for abrupt leade cone rifles, such as the .30-30, .32-40, .38-55, etc.
Many lead load notables avowed that the "no throat” chamber system was the most accurate. It may have been under the breech-seat system, since the bullet was not then dependent on the chamber or case concentricity for a perfect launch. When seated normally, with the front driving band pressed snug against the lead-cone, and with a neck which fit snug when combined with a bullet .001” over groove diameter, it was a very accurate combination. This system also 164-5 works with fixed ammo when the above requirements are met.
However, I was, and still am, convinced that a throat diameter of .001” over groove diameter and a case neck .001” under chamber diameter, is the ideal set-up for fixed load accuracy. This neck size lets the bullet leave the case without having to squeeze it down, but it is uniform as the case expands the .001” or so allowed with a bullet .0005” under throat diameter. This actually gives a very close fit, though not quite the CBC (cast bullet chamber) approach, since you must size the case neck. This close fit, however, does give a positive gas seal, which I feel is essential since if any gas can get by the bullet in the throat, you can’t depend on the bullet’s not being gas cut or deformed during the initial acceleration. This also gives a tight enough assembly that the bullet isn’t easily pressed back into the neck upon chambering when seated out to engrave on a fixed load, per CBA rules.
The throat being .001” over groove size leaves only the lands full height for the bullet to engage with a gentle leade cone, no sharper than 6° as in standard .30-’06 chambers. The difference in accuracy is obtained mainly by uniform release of the bullet by the close neck and throat and gentle swage down action of the leade.
Will found in his experiments in the chicken coop that the close neck, proper throat fit was the main element, and was indeed part of Harry Pope’s technique of using one case, repeatedly reloaded, for his best fixed ammo, cast bullet work.
Some allowance for neck expansion when combined with the close throat out shot the tight neck, no throat rifles in Will’s experience, and I think would still be true today. Why not allow some neck expansion in the no throat type chamber you ask? Simply because no perfect coaxial support exists other than the case body with the chamber, which is asking a lot. The idea is to eliminate the variable of bore/chamber/bullet alignment. Even with coaxial throat support, the case must also be concentric, and this dual assurance of a concentric launch gave this system the edge, or so we thought.
It was this controversy that led Will to build his .32-40 bolt gun with a special chambering consisting of a modern style throat of groove diameter with a heavy bull barrel fitted onto a Winchester Model 54 .30-30 action. The standard throat for the .32-40 then, and today, is simply a 15° leade taken from the chamber mouth diameter, with no throat just as are the .38-55 and .30-30 factory throats. Will’s cohorts at that time thought the "no throat” system had proven itself with the .32-40 and .38-55 cases, and that further experimenting was futile. Of course, none of them had ever tried out Will’s idea in a bolt gun, and all their experience was based on single-shot rifles with all their inherent quirks, two-piece stocks, light striker fall, etc. Will’s contention was that since his objective was fixed cartridge accuracy, the .32-40 had never been exploited to that end with a properly throated rifle, so he’d simply go do it the way he felt right, to see if indeed it worked. Of course, I’ve reported his results before in FS No. 19 in April 1979, but recounting that issue, he had an easy minute-of-angle outfit, using the Ideal 319247 cast of 1:20 alloy, with 12 grains of SR-80, giving perhaps 1450 f.p.s. in his 28” barrel with a 16” twist.
These results reported in FS 19 were all obtained only on calm evenings, or in the chicken coop, out of the wind, but in doing this, it was possible to evaluate small changes in loading technique as they affected accuracy, since wind was no longer a factor. Although Will tried slightly over-sized bullets just over throat size, then deep seated, these were not as accurate as a throat/groove size bullet allowing adequate neck release without any swaging down of the bullet upon entering the leade. When seated to give best accuracy, the #319247 bullet had two bands out of the case neck, just pressing the front one into the leade.
The significance of the chicken coop shooting was that outdoors we never would have realized the clear superiority of the bolt gun over the falling block single-shot, the accuracy difference was so slight. This wasn’t based on eyeballing just a few shots, but in comparing hundreds of groups shot with both types of rifles.
The memorable lesson I learned in the chicken house was that less than perfect bullets would shoot well if carefully weighed and indexed. This lesson has paid off even to this day. I accept the fact that my #311284 mould isn’t perfect, nor is my old Winchester Model 70, but I did pretty well with that outfit for some time. It has only been recently that Bob Sears, Sid Musselman and some of the other Fairfax crowd have come far enough to better what I did with that rifle. Sears has done especially well, which speaks well for the excellent rifle he has, his good eye and the quality of bullets from Sid’s new mould.
Cast bullet loading at present is a compromise condition of using average rifles and imperfect bullets, but now that we are beginning to learn, and take care to make perfect, concentric chambers and exercise care to get good round bullets which aren’t deformed by excessive sizing, our accuracy level will take a grand leap forward. That Bob is getting the truly outstanding results he has is of no surprise to me whatever. It was inevitable, since he has a good rifle, a good eye and a good mould.
Getting back to the old days, I’d hesitate to quote the sizes of groups we obtained, since the targets didn’t survive and there’s no documentation to support them. I can distinctly remember matches in the chicken coop being tied with several one-holer groups for first place. We didn’t have any Sweeny calipers to measure them, but they would be good by today’s standard. The notable thing was that these exceptional groups which were so uncommon outdoors, could be done with relative ease out of the wind.
Of course, outdoors it was a different situation entirely. We didn’t think of the 1100-1800 muzzle velocity as wind blown, only as accurate, but we did a lot of shooting of our "good” loads outdoors to see how much we had to favor the wind. We did find that loads in the 1000-1100 f.p.s. area were markedly less wind sensitive than those up around 1400 f.p.s. with plain based bullets. We didn’t know why then, but of course, we do know now, since Bill Davis explained the intricacies of drag in FS No. 13.
Most of our accurate 1000 f.p.s. loads were cartridges using heavy bullets with a good ratio of length to diameter in calibers from .25-20 up through the .30-30, .32-40, .38-55 and .45-70. The 405-grain .45-70 does very well at around 1000-1050 f.p.s. with light loads approximating the old 55-grain black powder carbine charge, but we used only smokeless. Today you could do well with 18-21 grains of SR-4759, 22-24 grains of IMR-4198, 29-32 grains of RL-7, or 33-36 grains of IMR- 3031 or 4895. Any of these charges will give about 1000 f.p.s. with a 410-grain bullet in the .45-70 with any of these powders other than 4759. These loads would all be OK in older rifles such as the trapdoor Springfield.
We attributed the good accuracy of our light loads to the ability of the heavy bullet as a wind bucker, though now we realize that the subsonic velocity was probably the dominant factor. The 405-grain bore-ride nose bullet 457193 for the Marlin rifles was more accurate than the undersized nose 457124.
We shot a lot of subsonic loads using unmentionable fast pistol powders in our attempts to get uniform ignition and minimum fouling to get the optimum accuracy with these subsonic loads. If a suitable powder existed today this might have promise. Robert Burmeister’s trials with 700X parallel what we did years ago, but very fast powders are something you must use with great caution. Their pressure peaks very, very fast and it’s easy to get into trouble. You should start with a very light load, perhaps even one which sticks a bullet in the barrel, which you can drive out easily enough. Then work up with a chronograph carefully and don’t go over 1050 f.p.s.
Our best results in the chicken coop were obtained with the longest, heaviest bullet, which would be stable in a particular rifle at moderate velocities, with a proper fit as described. Still, the single-shot shooters wouldn’t believe the inherent superiority of the bolt gun until they were shown. Even after they were beat they still believed Will had something else going which he hadn’t revealed to them. He silenced the skeptics, but they still wouldn’t believe what they saw.
I’ll long remember the pleasant days in that shooting house. By opening a backdoor of the shooting shed and a skylight at the target end, a soft draft was created that wafted the smoke and light fumes down the sheds, which was quite comfortable. During the long New England winters we used a potbelly stove to break the chill, and put up a new partition in front of the bench with a foot-square hole to shoot through. Will used to use swimmer’s earplugs then, even with the light loads it got noisy in there, but from outside you could hardly tell what was going on. It was heaven for a gun-crazy kid.
We might have to go to this type of range eventually to eliminate noise pollution and to keep on shooting in urban areas. Personally, I’d sure like to see a 100- yard indoor range someplace so we could test some of our good modern guns out of the wind. It’s interesting to speculate what our really good rifles of today would have done in the coop, with no wind, and nobody to blame but yourself for a blown shot...
As ever ---------
Frank Marshall Jr.
Frank Marshall Jr.