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A Good Rifle Too Late

by "Doc" O' Meara

When most folks talk about the "Old West" it's generally reckoned that they're referring to the period between the end of the War Between the States,  known in these parts as,  "The Late Unpleasantness," or, "The War of Northern Aggression,"  and the end of the 19th century.  Most Yankees called it the Civil War,  but anyone who knows anything about it also knows there wasn't anything "civil" about it.  However, our tendency to place entire historical periods into a cut and dried block of dates is very misleading.  History is a transitional process that rarely begins and ends abruptly.

To be sure, by 1900 the Indian Wars were over.  Railroads crisscrossed the continent, having long made trail drives a thing of the past.  Communications by telegraph and telephone linked the nation from coast to coast.  But, gas or coal oil was still used to light most homes.  Horses would remain a more common means of transportation than motor cars, in most places, for a couple of more decades.  Arizona and New Mexico were still Territories and wouldn't be admitted to the Union until 1912.

At the same time, Butch Cassidy and his partner, The Sundance Kid, were still plying their nefarious trade.  Wyatt Earp continued poking around, refereeing prize fights, bartending, prospecting and, it's said, pulling swindles through confidence games.  In a few years he'd become a technical advisor to movie makers.  Bill Tilghman was enforcing the law in the same honorable way in which he'd performed since the old days in Dodge City.  He was still doing so when he was gunned down in 1924 in the oil boom town of Cromwell, Oklahoma.
Fact is, the Wild West was still pretty wild until well after the Great War.  It was a sparsely settled land with few roads worthy of the term and it was still right common for folks to pack iron regularly.  Cartridges like the .38 and .44 Special were rapidly gaining fans, but the old standbys, the .45 Long Colt, .44-40 and .38-40 still had a lot of life left in them.  Factory records show Colt's Single Action Army and New Service revolvers were just peaking in their popularity.  Winchester's Model 92 was one of the hottest sellers in the marketplace.  So was the Model 94.

Popular as those lever action rifles and carbines were, there was another style growing in popularity;  the slide action.  Colt's seem to have started things off around 1887 with their Lightning rifles in calibers from .22 Rimfire all the way  up to the brawny .50-95.  Winchester and Marlin had their offerings, too, but they were mostly .22's.  On the shotgun front, Winchester's Model 97 reigned supreme.

The Lightning was a good rifle for it's time, but relatively delicate when compared to the lever guns on the scene.  Gunsmiths stayed pretty busy keeping them repaired.  However, shooters and arms makers were quick to recognize the speed which someone familiar with this action could lay down fire.

It was Remington that seemed to put the most effort into designing a really efficient trombone gun.  By 1906 they'd developed rimless versions of the more popular cartridges being used in the M-94 Winchester.  The .25, .30 and .32 Remington rounds were virtually identical in dimensions and performance to the .25-35, .30-30, and .32 Winchester Special.  They even added another one of their own that's still pretty popular, the.35 Remington.  In 1912 they put them up in a slim, trim package called the Model 14.  It was a dandy little hunting rifle.

However, they went one better by not forgetting those popular handgun rounds, the.44-40 and .38-40.  These they chambered in a slightly smaller version of that pump gun that they dubbed the Model 14 1/2.  Made in a 22 1/2-inch rifle length and an 18-inch carbine, there just wasn't anything slicker or faster to be had.  Shucks, if these things  had been around 30 years sooner Winchester might have had a rough go of it trying to sell those lever guns of theirs.  But that's all speculation, because it didn't happen that way.

By the time Remington came out with these rifles there were a lot better cartridges around for deer and lawmen were beginning to think bigger for their purposes, too.  The Model 14 1/2 only lasted ten years in production.  The world was changing and it just showed up too later to get in on the action in a big way.

I latched onto mine, a .38-40 in rifle length, about ten years ago.  I'm a big fan of that cartridge to start with, so it wasn't a hard sell.  Mostly, I wanted to see how the round would perform in such an action.  I was downright tickled when I found out.

At the time I had a really nice Winchester 92 with 24-inch round barrel that would hold groups under two inches at 50 yards.  It had a perfect bore and was in better than 90% condition, so I was right proud of it.  The only complaint I had was that, like most 92's it wouldn't feed semi-wadcutter bullets.  The wide, flat, nose would bump up against the top of the chamber, because it enters at an angle.  The cartridge had to be tipped by hand to make it go in.  That wouldn't make a whole lot of difference, except I shoot a lot of bullets of that style cast with Lyman's long discontinued #401452 mould in my handguns of that caliber.  It would have been nice to be able to do the same with the Winchester.

Just about everybody who's seen the Remington for the first time has had the initial impression that it's an old 28 gauge shotgun.  The action-type, bore diameter and shotgun-style buttplate make that an easy error to make.  The butt stock is plain, straight grained walnut, with a modest pistol grip and no checkering.  The forend is slim and generously ribbed.  The safety is a button located at the rear of the triggerguard.  All of which adds to the rifle's shotgun-like appearance.  It also gives it shotgun-like handling qualities.  It mounts to the shoulder almighty fast and it's a natural pointer; making target acquisition nearly effortless.

Sights on the rifle lie very low.  The front is a tiny gold bead on a base dovetailed into the barrel.  A set screw allows for windage adjustment.  Loosen it and the front sight base can be moved in the appropriate direction for changing lateral shot placement.  The rear sight blade is flat across the top with a "U" notch cut in the center.  There are no humps or ridges to obscure the front sight.  A couple of variations of the rear sight are found on these rifles.  The one on mine has a grooved wheel  that rotates counter-clockwise for elevation.  It's a lot faster to use that usual ladder slide.

The rifle has a ten round capacity tubular magazine that loads through a gate that lifts up at the base of the tube on the underside.  When it's been filled and the action cycled, the cartridge is raised straight up and its head locked tightly against the breech bolt.  When the slide moves forward, the bolt carries the round straight into the chamber.  Because of this it will feed semi-wadcutters with no problem.  Shucks, it'll even feed empty brass.

The most interesting part came when the rifle was targeted.  Setting up the sandbags at the 50 yard bench, the first round fired cut neatly into the six o'clock position of the 9-ring of a pistol target.  Two more rounds just made the same hole a little bigger.  That looked promising, so the shooting was continued.  By the time all ten rounds of the factory loaded Remington ammunition  (Remington no longer makes this ammo, but Winchester and Black Hills do)  had gone downrange I was mightily impressed.  The group measured .89 of an inch from edge to edge at its widest point.  That level of accuracy is to be prized in any rifle.  To find it in a vintage piece such as this is remarkably satisfying.
One of the strangest things about firearms actions is that semi-automatics are actually pretty slow to cycle.  Ed McGivern, the Montana sign painter who set speed and accuracy records with the revolver so remarkable that many stand to this day, refused to work with anything but revolvers.  He was so fast on the trigger that autoloaders couldn't keep up.  By the same token, shotgunners have long recognized that slide actions can be manipulated so much faster than self-cyclers that there's  really no competition between the two in the hands of a skilled shooter.  Comparing such speed to that of a lever action provides no contest at all.

It's strange, but no one knows exactly how many of these rifles were actually made, because they were serial numbered concurrently with bigger Model 14.  They can't really be called rare, but they're certainly uncommon.
The Remington M-14 1/2's advantages in both speed and accuracy easily overshadow any comparable lever action.  It's too bad it showed up so late.  The history of the Old West might have been very different if it had been around the cow towns and mining camps in their heyday.






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