For the better part of the first half of the 19th Century the hunters and trappers who began the economic exploitation of the far west needed a reliable firearm and a good knife. If one were to believe popular fiction, not one of those hearty souls that ventured into the vast expanses of Indian country went without a Green River knife on his hip and a 50-caliber rifle made by Saint Louis Gunsmith Jake Hawken in the crook of his arm. True as we may wish it to be it seems that Hawken Rifles, fine pieces that they were, were usually sighted in for 125 yards and fiction has far outstripped fact in the case of the knife and rifle of choice for that breed of adventurers that would become generically known as “Mountain Men”.
The true long-range rifles of the old west were those used by the generation of hunters to follow the Mountain Men, the buffalo runners. Using carefully handloaded ammunition, both for accuracy and economy, and a telescopic sight mounted on a Sharps or Remington rifle, these professional hunters were consistently deadly out to 500 yards. In several documented cases these rifles were capable of hitting a target in excess of 1,000 yards. This seems to be no small feat for a rifle with a bullet size in the range of 40 to 50 calibre. Experts of the time swore by the .45-120-550 Sharps with paper patched bullets. A .45 rifle with a black powder charge of 120 grains was capable of pushing a 550-grain lead slug with good accuracy. The Ballard, in .40-70 and .40-90, was also held in high regard.
Noted buffalo runner Frank H. Mayer recorded that a retired fellow runner of his acquaintance made a habit of shooting 10 rounds a day at a measured 1,000 yards each day for recreation. He alternated between two Sharps, one .40-90-420 and the other .45-120-550. After shooting 350 groups sworn evidence, perhaps with a demijohn in one hand and Bible in the other, indicated that not one group was larger than 26 inches while the majority averaged about 20 inches.
The buffalo runner needed a heavy rifle of large calibre to kill the animals swiftly at long range as well as handle the high rate of sustained fire needed to fell enough buffalo to make the time spent economical. He employed it with crossed rest sticks, the forerunner of the bipod. The popular rest was nothing more than two stout staves about 40 inches long joined together about four inches from one end. The rifle was placed in the short apex while the longer ends, which had been previously sharpened, were planted into the ground. From this rest the hunter could assume the sitting position and begin his harvest.
Sitting, while shooting from rest sticks, was the preferred position for several reasons. First, and probably most importantly, of all it allowed an alert hunter to keep his eye on his surroundings and have early warning of approaching hostiles. The rifle, perched a yard or so above the ground, was very steady and made less noise and dust, as would be the case with the prone position. The greater distance between the rifle and the ground lessened the rifle’s report, reverberation, and vibration through the ground while allowing the breeze to carry away the powder smoke. The buffalo were less likely to be spooked and this allowed the hunter to get within 250 or 300 yards of a herd and to stay there while he killed the day’s quota.
Perhaps the most fêted long-range shot by a buffalo runner was that of Billy Dixon at Adobe Walls in June of 1874. Dixon was staying north of Amarillo, near the site of the abandoned Bent Brothers trading known locally as Adobe Walls, with some two dozen hunters and teamsters.
Before dawn approximately 400 to 600 Comanche, Kiowa, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne warriors, surrounded and attacked them. The surprised hunters dropped what they were doing and, grabbing up their rifles, made for the saloon. The experienced buffalo runners set up shop and methodically shot into the charging masses just as calmly as they would a herd of milling buffalo. By noon the mass charges had ceased in the face of the accurate fire and the attackers took to individual action, crawling in close under the cover of the tall grass.
For almost two days the Indians kept the hunters besieged. When the Comanche Chief Quanah Parker was wounded, they abandoned the battle. The survivors of the siege were forced to remain for several more days as their horses had all been killed or run off. From time to time small bands of Indians would appear to silently scan the battle site from a safe distance.
Dixon spotted just such a group on a bluff nearly a mile away. Picking up his 50 calibre Sharps, he checked the conditions, ran up his sights, steadied the rifle, and squeezed off a shot. The smoke had cleared by the time the heavy bullet and sound reached the mounted Indians, pitching one of them from his horse. His startled companions scattered but returned to recover their fallen comrade. Later a government survey team, who happened to be in the area, measured the distance at 1,538 yards. The feat would become known as “The Shot of The Century”. Given the conditions, rifle, ammunition, and distance, it might also be appropriate to call it the luckiest shot of the century. The modest Dixon accepted the praise but insisted he was just firing at the group and was just lucky to get a hit.
Noted firearms writer Mic McPherson enlisted the aid of Bill Falin, chief ballistician at Accurate Arms and, in 1996, they attempted to duplicate the fabled shot. Noting the 1,538 yards is 0.87 miles they prepared a Sharps rifle and powder charge that was a close to authentic as possible. For a target they constructed a like size silhouette of an Indian astride a horse. After zeroing the rifle for the distance they commenced a series of record shots using a single aiming point. The mean radius of the shots was such that if the target had been the center of a group of mounted men it is a certainty that someone would have felt the sting of a heavy bullet after its 5 second flight through the hazy and dust laden atmosphere. Almost a century and a quarter separated the real shot from the reenactment but both were impressive examples of long-range marksmanship.