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The Vault

Ethan Allen Brass Falling Block Rifle at RIA

Ethan Allen was a very prolific gun manufacturer in the US, being involved with a series of different companies. This particular rifle of his appealed to me because it is an excellent example of how many different clever elements can be in something as simple and pedestrian as a single shot rifle. This example also happens to have a rather handsome brass frame – check it out:

28 comments to Ethan Allen Brass Falling Block Rifle at RIA

  • eon

    The case-head size wouldn’t have been that much of a factor back then, as quite a few different “short-case” rounds had similar sized rims. A rifle like this, with different barrels, could have handled rimfires like .44 Henry or .44 Colt (revolver), and centerfires ranging from .38-40 WCF on up to .45 Colt.

    In many ways, it could be considered a forerunner of the NEF single-shots of today, which have nearly as many interchangeable barrel and caliber possibilities as a Thompson Contender.

    As for the action, this is one of the “true” falling blocks, like the Sharps, Winchester-Browning, or the Alex Henry from Britain. The term “falling block” somehow also gets applied to other systems like the Peabody and Martini-Henry (rear-hinged rotating block), Starr (front-hinged rotating block), and even the Spencer, which is better described as a lever-action that just happens to have a hammer the breech doesn’t automatically cock.

    cheers

    eon

  • Patrick Cassell

    Thank you Ian.
    Fascinating!
    I am always delightfully surprised by the variations and varieties of firearms that you bring forth and explore for our edification.
    I thought I knew them all but, alas,….no.
    You are the man.
    As for RIA’s offerings– will you do any class IIIs?
    Where are the class IIIs at RIA?
    Seems I don’t see anymore Maxims, Vickers, Brens, nor Lewis.in
    Has that market dried up, investing in MG’s must be much better than in gold and silver?
    sólo mis dos pesos y gracias.
    Patricio

    • Daweo

      “I thought I knew them all but, alas,….no.”
      And this is great, if you would know ev’ry fire-arm ever mass-produced it would be boring.

      “class IIIs”
      What class III mean? I never seen “class III” designation for fire-arm earlier.

  • Denny

    Practical, seem to be the right word to describe this firearm. As much as many other American inventions of the time period.

  • Mel

    Sometimes I think we somehow lost the art of the sleek, stylish looking gun. Guns like the FN 1910, this falling block rifle..today, most guns are large, with picatinny rails and raised sights and huge stocks and whatnot…

  • Bill Bulock

    My first rifle was a Stevens Favorite given to my father as a child and then to me at age three. I still have and shoot it. For myself, my Winchester Low-Wall in .38-55 reigns supreme but a Hi-Wall ain’t bad either!

  • Yes, Truely ingenious use of a Brass casting and Block design. The French in 1871 (The Paris Commune) made Remington Rolling Blocks (M67 type) in Brass Actions ,
    copied from the M67 Egyptian RBs sent to France in 1870 for the Franco-Prussian War. With .43 Egyptian ammo, they seemed to work OK ( Some were taken into French service after the Suppression of the Paris Comune at the end of ’71.) They too are quite sought after in France. ( See “Gazette des Armes”).

    Doc AV

  • Mike

    I have a somewhat unrelated question. Why did the large caliber Rimfires die out as options. I would have thought a .32 or.44 rimfire would still be of some commercial interest for people who will never reload but want something a bit harder hitting?

    I am sure there are good reasons why this didn’t happen but just curious if anyone can explain why?

    • nick

      It would also be an interesting legal work around as in Canada there is no magazine size limit for semi auto rim fires and 5 or 10 round maximum for most center fires.

    • eon

      The major reason was that a rimfire case can’t take higher pressures like a centerfire case can. Which limits muzzle velocity and thus, kinetic energy. This wasn’t a factor with black-powder loads, but when smokeless powder came along, it absolutely was.

      With the original Benet-type folded-head centerfire cases, the structure wasn’t all that different from the rimfire and pressure tolerance was about the same. They even looked a good bit alike, as you can see here;

      http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v495/Driftwood_Johnson/cartridges/benet.jpg

      These were also known as “inside-primed” centerfires for obvious reasons. The annular “seam” just above the case-head was the only visual cue that it wasn’t a rimfire.

      Then, as more powerful rifle rounds were wanted, and smokeless powder came along in the late 1880s, the outside-primed centerfire case was developed. It was patented by Hiram Berdan in 1870. The early form was the “balloon-head”, which really couldn’t take much more pressure than the folded-head or the rimfire. But by the 1890s, smokeless powders were eveloping pressures that the balloon-head design couldn’t handle, and the solid-head case was developed, which is still the standard type today;

      http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v495/Driftwood_Johnson/cartridges/balloonhead44-40cutaway.jpg

      Without that solid head case, modern high-pressure rounds wouldn’t be technically feasible. (Or in plain English, safe to fire.)

      As for “reloading rimfire cases”, it can be done. A Google search for that phrase will probably lead you to a dozen sites with people describing the technique. But its trickier than centerfire reloading, as it requires reshaping and annealing of not just the case mouth but the case head, and even distribution of the priming compound around the inside of the rim, with the priming being handled in something like paste form, which will most likely be spark, heat, and shock sensitive.

      It’s not something I’d want to do on a regular basis, and I’m moderately familiar with things that go “boom”. (Arson and bomb investigation- us crime scene geeks do weird things for our paychecks, sometimes.)

      As for Canada’s laws, you might want to look into a .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire. Ballistically, it’s in the same range as the vaunted FN 5.7 x 28 centerfire of the P-90 and Five-Seven pistol, and the ammunition is a lot cheaper per round.

      In fact, I’ve often wondered, with the .22 WMR and .221 Remington Fireball centerfire both already nearly 50 years old, why they thought it necessary to develop the FN 5.7 round to begin with. It can’t do anything in a pistol, or PDW, or even a rifle the other two weren’t already doing, just as well if not better, and with considerably less financial outlay.

      The old Grendel P30 self-loading pistol looked like a hunk of pipe on top of a pistol grip, but it was reliable, accurate, held 30 rounds of .22 WMR in the magazine, and was probably the most size-efficient non-centerfire backpacker’s gun ever made.

      (BTW, the most efficient centerfire was the old Charter Arms “Target Bulldog” aluminum-framed .357 Magnum revolver. 5-shot cylinder, 5″ barrel, adjustable sights, 21 ozs. fully loaded. Light on your belt, very accurate, but it did kick a bit.)

      The 5mm Remington Magnum Rimfire is a similarly-overlooked high-intensity smallbore rimfire. AFAIK, it’s only available in rifles, but a pistol like the P30 in 5mm RMR would be highly interesting. I’d buy one.

      cheers

      eon

      • Daweo

        “In fact, I’ve often wondered, with the .22 WMR and .221 Remington Fireball centerfire both already nearly 50 years old, why they thought it necessary to develop the FN 5.7 round to begin with.”
        .22 WMR is rimmed cartridge, which is less suitable for full-auto magazine firearms that rimless cartridge.
        Notice that FN 5.7×28 has smaller base diameter so more these cartridge can be housed inside equal-length magazine than .221 Remington. Assuming that minimal magazine length is (quantity of cartridges*base diameter) and we need 50-cartridge magazine (as in FN P90):
        5.7×28: 50*.311 = 15.55
        .221 Remington: 50*.376 = 18.8
        I know that that 5.7×28 was tested against German HK 4.6x30mm
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HK_4.6×30mm
        With the result that 5.7 is better, but I am not aware of tests against other cartridges.

  • Bill Bulock

    A good example of what eon says about rimfire vs centerfire case strength is readily apparent in one case: I use .22 rimfire (regular and Magnumj)cases to swage jackets for making jacketed .222 Rem bullets … one punch does it. Try that with a centerfire case and you will need a new press. This is one reason I am intrigued with the .22 straight-cased rounds … you can reload them AND jack the chamber pressure up to an acceptable level. Reference the Cooper .22 Centerfire Magnum (.22 CCM) cartridge vs the .22 WRM (Winchester Rimfire Mgnum) rounds.

  • Mel

    I hope you don’t mind the question, but it’s been bogging me for quite a time: What did the average shooter do with his spent large-caliber rimfire cases back in the days? He could not reload them, but I am sure they were far too expensive to throw away. Did he send them to a factory for reloading?

    • eon

      Well, you still can find 140-year-old rimfire cases all over the American west with a metal detector.

      ;-)

      One of the big selling points of the centerfires in the late 1860s and early 1870s was that they were reloadable. In fact, old Colt .45 cartridge boxes, .38 Remington CF boxes, and even Colt Thuer boxes often had the blurb “Can Be Reloaded Many Times” on the lid.

      “Home” reloading isn’t new, and back then was serious business, as factory-fresh ammunition wasn’t always easy to come by on the frontier. This was another point in favor of the centerfire over the rimfire.

      I’m not aware of any “programs” that Remington, UMC, etc., might have had for “recycling” spent big-bore rimfire cases. I suspect most such expended cases, if they weren’t just dropped on the ground, probably ended up being used for something else. Brass can be melted down, after all, and it was a common material for everything from doorknobs to…spittoons.

      A lot of same are probably still around today. So the next time you turn a brass doorknob, consider that you might be touching the latest incarnation of a .44 Henry Rimfire case from back around 1867 or so.

      cheers

      eon

      • Mel

        I see, thanks! So my guess is that the poorer people had to use muzzleloaders if they wanted to avoid the costs of cartridges?

        Concerning the reusing of brass, you are certainly right. This is even more the case with gold, a modern gold ring may contain material which was already used by Inca, Romans, Egypts ect.

        • eon

          Gold and silver are probably the two most fungible metals there are. My white gold high school class ring could contain particles of gold from a bracelet looted from an Egyptian tomb in the 6th Century B.C., as you say. In a pre-Industrial Age culture, eventually, everything made of precious or semi-precious metals most likely gets melted down and reused.

          In the 1865-80 time frame, settlers bought a lot of Civil War surplus firearms. Partly because they were cheap (the U.S. government was clearing out its unneeded stocks), but also because as you state, they didn’t need the new (and often expensive) fixed ammunition.

          Revolvers of the cap-and-ball persuasion often were converted to metallic cartridge “down the road”, either by the original maker (Remington charged $5 and would throw in a double-action trigger conversion for free if you asked), or by any of the local gunsmiths that dotted the West.

          Muzzle-loading rifle-muskets generally stayed “as is”, but often had their barrels shortened and as the rifling wore, were even reamed smooth for use as shotguns. The Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Backwoodsman Magazine has an interesting article on these “sodbuster shotguns”.

          Sometimes rimfire metallic-cartridge weapons were converted from RF to centerfire, as seen with this rifle. “Moving” the firing pin on such weapons as the Winchester 1866 consisted of grinding off the rimfire point, drilling the firing pin head, and putting in a rounded-tip “pin” of tool steel to hit the centerfire primer, generally with a cross-pin going crosswise through the firing-pin assembly head in a notch in the new firing pin to hold it in place.

          Other people used the simpler (and riskier) method often employed by the Plains Indians. They bored a hole in the head of the rimfire case to take a pistol (revolver) percussion cap. Then made sure that when the round was loaded in the chamber, the cap was properly positioned for the hammer to hit it, as on the external-hammer bolt-action Ian showed us the other day.

          This was risky not only due to the potential for a misfire (the hammer not hitting the cap), but also because the cap could be blown out, jamming or even damaging the action (or shooter). It worked best on single-shot rifles, as you might expect. Cartridges modified in this way have been found at the Indian positions at the Little Big Horn battlesite, apparently used in early rimfire Remington rolling blocks and at least a few “trapdoor” Springfield conversions in .50 and even .58 rimfire.

          I’ve long suspected that the relatively low survival rates of such Civil War weapons as Maynard, Gallagher, and Smith carbines may have been due to their being separate-primed cartridge weapons. That arrangement, fired by a separate percussion cap and allowing relatively easy reloading of the used cartridges, would make such weapons very attractive for “sodbusters” in both a logistical and tactical sense.

          There are probably more lying about west of the “Big Muddy” than we think.

          cheers

          eon

          • Doc

            Eon,
            I have seen rimfire cases from the Little Bighorn battlefield that show several strike marks on the rims, indicating that the Native Americans were able to reload rimfire cartridges w/o changing the priming system. Also, in a modern context, the Swedish firm Interdynamics (producers of the infamous KG-9, forerunner of the TEC-9) was experimenting with a rimfire assault rifle in the 1980s. It seems that the system could be used as a legal “end run” in some cases, i.e. Canada. As for what lies west of the Mississippi, I have a Suhl made percussion drilling that was used by my Great-great grandfather at the Battle of Fort Davidson in 1864. How it wound up in Missouri is lost to history. I have no doubt that there are a lot of undiscovered treasures sitting in barns, attics, and fields out west.

          • Mel

            Thanks for all that information, Eon! As a Germany, I am not much aware of the firearms history across the pond. I believe that the European firearms transisted from muzzleloaders / needleguns etc. to centerfire without many large-bore rimfires having been made.

            @Doc: Multiple strike marks may also indicate a cartridge that did not go bang on first strike. However, it is absolutely possible to reload a rimfire cartridge, using powder from toy pistol caps or strike-anywhere matches and a solvent. There are even .22lr reloading kits to purchase, for the curious people and possibly for those prepper guys out there..

          • Tassiebush

            Fantastic information eon! I’ve read that same article on Sodbuster shotguns in backwoodsman. It gave a great insight into the firearm needs of people in that area and how they were met. Backwoodsman is a great little magazine.
            I often think a really cool thing would be the reintroduction of something like .32 rimfire in a bicycle gun just to have a mild noise level round with a bit more whallop in something light and slender.

  • Bill Bullock

    In the days of the buffalo hunters almost every cartridge taken to the west was reloaded many times … usually until the cases split. The bullets were recovered from the carcass, melted down, re-cast, lubed or patched and reloaded. Quite often one will run into a set of reloading tools from that era much like the Lyman Ideal “Tong” tools that either incorporated a casting chamber or had a casting tool as a part of the set. I have several of these as well as more modern calibers in the Ideal form. In my younger days I often went on extended “survival hikes” and camped out for days or weeks. If I did not take a Benjamin Pump pellet gun (matching caliber rifle and pistol) and a tin of pellets, I took one rifle, a pound of powder with a “scoop” measure often made from an old cartridge case, a box of bullets, a box of primers and an Ideal Tong Tool set to reload as needed. This served, along with a hand-full of finished rounds to start with, for as long as I stayed in the woods. The same went for the old “long riders” who did the same in uncharted wilderness. Conversely, I had and still have no way to reload a rimfire cartridge at home, much less in the frontier or wilderness. Centerfire cartridges were a great advantage at that point in time extending into the present. And by the way, I also make “caseless” cartridges for testing, but NOT anywhere except in my shop/lab. So in my life, centerfires and a set of reloading dies still reign supreme even today

    • jim in houston

      I seem to recall that ammo for the Sharps, et al “buffalo gun” calibers (45-100 and the like) were available in both regular and “everlasting” versions – the walls of the everlasting cases had much thicker walls (with a corresponding loss of capacity) for much longer service life.

      • eon

        “Everlasting” case cartridges were made by Sharps, Stevens and Ballard for their single-shot rifles. As you state, they were distinguishable by heavier case-wall construction and stronger heads; in fact, they were some of the earliest “solid-head” centerfires. Due to their thicker case walls, they generally had about 5 to 10 grains less powder capacity than the “regular” version.

        While they had some popularity in the 1870-90 era, the “Everlasting” type cartridges are fairly rare today. To judge from Barnes (Cartridges of the World, 6th ed.), the Everlasting cases from all makers were exclusively straight-walled cases rather than bottlenecked types, probably to reduce the chance of neck cracking at the reduction.

        The ones he lists are;

        38-35 Stevens
        38-45 Stevens
        40-65 Ballard Everlasting*
        40-90 Ballard Everlasting”
        40-90 Sharps (Straight)
        44-75 Ballard Everlasting*
        44-100 Ballard#

        The * marked Ballards always were stated as “Everlasting” because Ballard also made “regular” versions of the cartridges with slightly different dimensions; the two types were not considered interchangeable by Ballard. The 44-100 is marked # and does not have the “Everlasting” attached because Ballard only made the 44-100 in “Everlasting” persuasion.

        These are the known “Everlasting” cartridges. That doesn’t guarantee that there aren’t others as yet “unnoticed” in the rifle makers’ catalogs of the era.

        cheers

        eon

  • Seth from Massachusetts

    I have one of these rifles, in steel (or iron) frame, but it is in .44-40 centerfire.

  • OilyragNZ

    Many thanks to Ian for showing us all these interesting guns from RIA, keep up the good work Ian, I for one am learning a lot from you.

  • bobtail101

    In Italy there is a company that is selling lathe turned center fire relodable 9m/m flobert shells called novespeed 440 http://www.eurocommunizioni.com is their website
    9m/m flobert is still popular in Italy for small bird/songbird hunting but the rimfire shells are expensive They even sell unprimed empty brass
    The 9m/m shotguns are mainly bolt action and as in the ethan allen gun the front of the bolt face can be drilled for centrefire
    The new shells are slightly longer then the rimfire versions to make up for their smaller inside diameter rather like the everlasting shells mentioned before
    Of course I don’t shoot songbirds but rather our intrusive asiatic hornets

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