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The Evolution of Black Powder Cartridge Silhouette
by Tom Berwick

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       Many of you may wonder how the discipline we know as Black Powder Cartridge Silhouette came into existence and may not know how new the discipline actually is among the shooting sports. This history borrows heavily from an article written by Mike Venturino for the May, 1986 issue of Guns & Ammo. Thanks to Mike for providing that article as a reference. Additions will be made as soon as I can get input from Al Hill and from Greg Conner at the N.R.A. 
May 1986: A new version of metallic silhouette competition was inaugurated September 14 & 15, 1985, at the NRA

 Whittington Center near Raton, New Mexico. The new game is called Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette, and is limited to single-shot, exposed-hammer, American rifles of the era preceding 1896. Cartridges must be from the black powder era, of any caliber, but only of American make. Propellant is limited to either straight black powder or straight Pyrodex. No duplex loads using any amounts of smokeless powder whatsoever are permitted at this shoot.

        NRA Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette shooting was organized by shooters perceiving the vast interest in this country in the cartridge rifles of the era from 1865 until roughly the turn of the century. This was the time of long-range target shooting, buffalo hunting and the settling of the American West. In short, it was the prime era of the big-bore, single-shot rifle.

        Recognizing also that most forms of metallic silhouette shooting have evolved into "arms races," the originators of this sport have evolved a set of strict rules to preclude the inroads of space-age firearm innovations.

        In brief, these are some of the rules. Rifles are to military or hunting-style cartridge rifles of the era prior to 1896. Maximum rifle weight is 12 pounds, 2 ounces. Rear sights can be of vernier, or the ladder-type typical of the era, and either open or peep. No modern-style receiver, glass, or tube sight is permitted. Stocks and forearms must be of natural wood and in keeping with the designs of the stocks of the era. Measured from the centerline of the bore, drop at heel cannot exceed 2-3/4 inches, drop at toe cannot exceed 7-1/4 inches, drop of comb is not to be higher than 3/4 inch, and the butt shall not be longer than 5-1/4 inches, top to bottom. Cheekpieces, pistol grips and crescent butts are permitted but the latter cannot be deeper than 3/4 inch when measured from a straight line from points of the buttplate. No Schuetzen-style rifles are permitted. Only cast bullets of plain base configuration can be used.

        On registration prior to the matches, all rifles were weighed, measured and certified by match officials.  By these rules, acceptable types of rifles can be, but are not necessarily limited to, the following: Ballard, Bullard, Maynard, Remington Hepburn, Remington Rolling Block, Sharps, Springfield Trapdoor, Stevens No. 44, Whitney Rolling Block or Winchester Model 1885. Additionally, modern-made replicas of any of those rifles regardless of country of manufacture are permitted. That means that any of the new Sharps, the Navy Arms Rolling Block, or the Navy Arms Model 1873 (formerly H&R) Trapdoor Springfields are welcome.

        Course of fire remains the same as for NRA High Power Silhouette. Each match consisted of 40 targets. They were 10 chickens at 200 meters, 10 javelinas at 300 meters, 10 turkeys at 385 meters and 10 rams at 500 meters. For each bank of five targets the competitors were allowed 2-1/2 minutes to get off their five shots. This short time limit prevented cleaning between shots, which is a practice often favored by black powder cartridge shooters for best accuracy.

        There was one important divergence from standard NRA High Power Silhouette rules. Whereas in all other forms of rifle metallic silhouette shooting all targets are fired offhand, in this new game only 200-meter chickens are fired at offhand. All other targets can be shot from a sitting position using a cross-stick rest. To keep matters fair all shooters must use the sticks furnished by the host range.

        This first NRA Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette match was attended by 34 shooters from as far away as Illinois, Washington, Montana and Nevada. Since this was the first match of its type, no shooter had an NRA classification. Therefore, in the first day's shooting, competitors fired in whatever class they had used in previous metallic silhouette shooting. These were B, A, AA or AAA. If a shooter, and there were many, had never previously fired in an NRA-sanctioned silhouette match, he then fired in the "Unclassified" group. After the first day's shooting all entrants were reclassified according to their performance in the first match. Incidentally, the NRA Black Powder Cartridge Silhouette classifications differ from others. Scores of zero to 5 put a shooter in B class, 6 to 9 is A class, 10 to 17 is AA class and 18 to 40 is AAA class. Interestingly, and as evidence to the toughness of this new game, no shooter qualified for AAA class that first day.

      Overall match winner for the first day was Bob Keplinger of Reno, Nevada, with a score of 14. Bob fired a .40-70 caliber Shiloh Sharps.

      Winner of the second day's match was Dennis Bruns, of Canon City, Colorado, with a score of 23. His rifle was an original .45-70 Sharps.
      Winner of the overall aggregate of matches one and two was Ed Middleton. Coupled with his impressive score of 19 in the second day's shooting, Ed scored 13 the first day. His total score of 32 won him the C. Sharps Arms custom .45-70 rifle and got his name inscribed in first place on the bronze trophy.

Of interest to many shooters is a survey taken by match officials of the guns and gear used in this first NRA Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette match. This survey revealed that the most popular type in use was the Sharps, including both new ones and originals. Next most popular were original Remington Rolling Blocks, and third were Trapdoor Springfields, both originals and replicas. The most popular caliber in use was the .45-70, with a full 15 users. Other black powder calibers seen only in ones and twos were .40-70 Sharps, .40-90 Sharps, .40-65 Winchester, .45-100 Sharps and a .44-100 Remington. Users of the various grades of Pyrodex, the black powder substitute, outnumbered users of black powder by two to one.
 
       This new form of metallic silhouette shooting is unique and enjoyable. When firing at the 500-meter rams with such slow-moving bullets, some shooters were seen to take their rifles from the cross sticks and say, "It's a good shot." Only then would the ram fall and a distant metallic "clang" be heard. Also, this may be the only shooting game wherein competitors ask for at least a breath of crosswind.

        NRA Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette shooting is aimed at traditional-minded shooters and organized in a manner so that it cannot become modernized. With some luck and support from the shooting fraternity it will grow as the other metallic shooting sports have.
         by Mike Venturino


Little did Mike Venturino know when he wrote that last sentence how prophetic that would become. The 1996 Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Silhouette match was the most heavily attended silhouette match conducted by the NRA that year. There were 347 competitors present and the anticipated turnout for 1997 is expected to exceed 400 shooters. Due to the explosive growth of the discipline, shooters will be divided into 2 groups. An equal contingent from each group will advance to the National Finals on Friday, August 15. There has been some grousing about this format but we'll report on this page after the event to see how well it worked, or didn't. Frankly, with the limitations of the range as to the number of competitors that can be reasonably hosted, I believe the NRA is doing the best they can.

By Tom Berwick

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Please submit all questions and comments to tberwick@sbcglobal.net
Page last revised:  October 05, 2005