The mighty (and unsung) .50-110 Winchester
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Today let's discuss a relatively unsung, yet still capable cartridge that just arrived too late to achieve fame in taming the American West: the .50-110 Winchester.
Similar to its little brother, the .45-70, the .50-110 began life as a black-powder cartridge and fires big bullets at a slow to moderate velocity. Though the .50-110 may have fallen out of favor in comparison to newer, high-velocity cartridges, it still delivers bone-crushing power and was one of the most powerful cartridges in North America when first introduced.
When John Moses Browning designed the Winchester Model 1886 rifle, he intended to create a rifle capable of handling the largest and most powerful cartridges available at the time. He was wildly successful in this regard, and the venerable Model 1886 quickly earned a reputation as a stellar rifle for potent cartridges like the .45-70 Government and .40-82 Winchester.
Shortly after Winchester released the Model 1886, they rolled out the .50-110 Winchester cartridge in 1887. The .50-110 Winchester (also known as the .50-110-300) used the same nomenclature as similar cartridges of the day and fired a 300 gr, .50 caliber bullet on top of 110 grains of black powder.
The original black powder load propelled the cast lead bullet at about 1,600 fps (1,720 foot pounds of energy), which was one of the most powerful loads available at the time. Winchester later released a high-velocity 300 gr load using smokeless powder (2,245 fps and 3,300 foot pounds of energy).
In the 1890s, Winchester also introduced a close cousin to the .50-110: the .50-100 Winchester (.50-100-450) cartridge. This load fired a 450 gr bullet at approximately 1,455 fps (2,190 foot pounds of energy). The .50-110 and .50-100 Winchester cartridges were virtually identical and could be safely fired in a rifle chambered for either cartridge.
The 300 gr .50-110 (bottom) compared to 450 gr .50-100 (middle) and 9.3x62mm Mauser (top).
However, rifles designed to fire the .50-100 Winchester cartridge had a faster rifling twist, which was necessary to stabilize the longer 450 gr bullet. So, while rifles chambered in .50-100 Winchester could accurately fire .50-110 Winchester cartridges, the inverse was not true.
Rifles chambered in .50-110 Winchester did not have a fast enough rifling twist to accurately fire the 450 gr .50-100 Winchester bullets. Not surprisingly, this fact has caused a lot of confusion and probably contributed to the demise of the .50-100 Winchester cartridge after only a few years.
Though you'll occasionally run across custom rifles chambered in .50-110 Winchester, the single-shot Winchester Model 1885 "High Wall" was the only other mass-produced rifle that fired the cartridge besides the Winchester Model 1886. While the .50-110 Winchester isn't a great choice for long-range shooting — at least compared to modern, high-velocity cartridges with spitzer bullets — the cartridge was actually originally designed as a more capable alternative to the .45-70 Government at longer ranges.
The .50-110 fired a lighter 300 gr bullet nearly 300 fps faster than the 405 gr bullet the .45-70 used and had a correspondingly flatter trajectory. For instance, with a 200-yard zero, a bullet fired from the .45-70 would hit nearly three feet lower than a bullet fired from the .50-110 at 500 yards.
That is not to say the cartridge is easy to shoot at long range. Correct estimation of range and proper application of holdover at longer ranges are still essential with the .50-110. However, with accurate range estimation and when using a high quality 'tang" or "ladder" sight with precise elevation adjustments, a skilled marksman could still hit targets out past 1,000 yards using the .50-110.
As the cartridge gradually fell by the wayside, most of the major ammunition manufacturers stopped making ammunition for the .50-110 Winchester. Therefore, factory-loaded ammunition is both difficult to find and prohibitively expensive today. That being said, it's not impossible to obtain, and there is occasionally some available from companies like the Grizzly Cartridge Company.
This means handloading is the best option. Fortunately, reloading components for the .50-110 are relatively easily to find online, with brass available from Starline, bullets available from Barnes, and reloading dies available from RCBS.
It is even possible to make your own .50-110 Winchester brass by resizing .348 Winchester brass. The cartridge also uses a standard large rifle primer.
While rifles originally chambered for the .50-110 will perform best with 300 gr bullets due to their slower rifling twist, it's possible to use heavier bullets in rifles with custom barrels and those originally designed for the .50-100 Winchester. This opens up a whole new world of options, with 400 gr, 435 gr, 450 gr, 500 gr and even 525 gr bullets available from different companies.
Using heavy bullets and modern smokeless powder, it is possible to transform the already-powerful .50-110 Winchester cartridge into a deadly serious big game hunting machine.
When you compare the performance of the original black-powder load (300 gr bullet at 1,600 fps for 1,720 foot pounds of energy) to a modern +P load produced by the Grizzly Cartridge Company (525 gr bullet at 1,850 fps for 3,989 foots pounds of energy), it is obvious the modern load is a massive step up in power and capability.
At least in theory, that load would allow the hunter to safely and ethically pursue virtually any species of big game in the world. However, keep in mind that high-pressure loads like this one should only be used in firearms that are in good condition.
Hunting with the .50-110
Even when using the original black-powder load, the .50-110 Winchester is suitable for use on big game like deer, feral hogs, elk, moose and bear. With modern loads and good quality bullets, the cartridge is also a great choice for the larger, tougher and more dangerous animals like moose, brown/grizzly bear and polar bears.
The heavy, slow-moving bullets do not produce a large amount of bloodshot meat like high-velocity bullets, but still punch massive holes and reliably penetrate through thick skin, sturdy muscles and heavy bones.
As an American cartridge, the .50-110 Winchester was naturally used most often in North America. However, the cartridge has also performed well in Africa, usually when carried by visiting American hunters.
For the same reason it shines when used on North American game, the .50-110 really performs well on virtually every species of plains game on the continent. A good shooter could make use of the cartridge even in wide-open areas like the Kalahari, but shots with the cartridge's big, slow-moving bullets are much easier under the close-range conditions common in the bushveld.
High-pressure loads with extremely heavy bullets, such as the 525 gr Grizzly Cartridge Company load described earlier, technically meet the caliber and muzzle energy requirements for hunting dangerous game in every African country. However, while they may technically be permitted, I would be cautious about using the .50-110 Winchester on thick-skinned dangerous game like buffalo and elephant.
Is the cartridge capable of killing a buffalo or an elephant? Absolutely. Is it the best choice? Probably not. I'm not saying to avoid it on African dangerous game, but you should really think about it before you try.
As an unusual and somewhat rare cartridge from a bygone age in American history, the .50-110 Winchester certainly stands apart from the pack. While it really has its limitations, it is still a capable cartridge under the right circumstances.
"Cartridges of the World: A Complete and Illustrated Reference for Over 1500 Cartridges" (14th Edition, p 237) and "Buffalo Cartridges of the American Frontier" by Chuck Hawks were used as references for this article.
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