Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hunting With The .451 Caliber Hexagonal Bore Whitworth Rifle

                                                             Click On Photos To Enlarge

     One of my favorite rifles to take to the range five or six times a year is the big .451 caliber reproduction of the hexagonal bore Whitworth rifle shown in the photo above.  When summer temperatures soar into the upper 80's and 90's in Western Montana, and it gets just too hot to do a lot of shooting with plastic saboted bullets, that's when I pull out the Whitworth rifle.  But, first I have to make up a batch of bullets.  And while it does take a while, it's not difficult.

     The bullet starts out as a standard round sided cylindrical 500-grain cast bullet - produced with the Lee Precision 459-500-3R bullet mold.  The bullet, as cast, is right at .459" in diameter (for loading into the big .45 caliber black powder cartridges, i.e. .45-70, .45-90, etc.). 

     Next, I thread a custom built swaging die into my cartridge reloading press...feed the long spitzer shaped nose of the soft pure lead bullet into the die from the bottom...bring up the ram of the press and align an extension with the bottom of the bullet...and push the bullet through the swaging die.  What pops out the top is a "somewhat" hexagonal bullet that measures .448" across from hexagonal flat to hexagonal flat.  The die was formed with the same turn-in-21 inches pitch found in the hexagonal bore of the rifle.  (No "rifling"...instead, the bore is formed hexagonal and turns with a 1-in-21 inches rate of twist.)

Shown Above - The 500 grain cast Lee bullet as from the mold, right.  The same bullet swaged, center.  The 580-grain Whitworth bullet offered by Dixie Gun Works, left.

     The undersized bullet still makes some contact with bore...offering just a little resistance.  I have shot them as they are formed, but have easily gotten far superior accuracy when the bullet is wrapped with two layers of Alox lubed cotton-based paper.  The fit is a little tight, but the paper wrapped base of the bullet can still be worked into the bore, then using a short starter that's been shaped to fit down over the nose of the bullet, a healthy whack gets the paper wrapped bullet into the bore.  It's then easily pushed down the bore with the Whitworth's steel ramrod to seat on the powder charge.

     My particular Whitworth copy came from Dixie Gun Works, back in 2005.  The rifle is still offered, and sells for $1,300.  For more on the rifle, go to -

     Dixie Gun Works recommends loading 60-grains of FFFg behind the big 580-grain hex-shaped lead round nosed bullet they offer.  My first shooting was done with these bullets, and the rifle shot okay with the 1.340" long projectiles...but they loaded extremely tight.  That's when I had a friend, who is one heck of a machinist, produce the hex swaging die for me.  (Before anyone writes and inquires, he let me know in no uncertain terms that the die I have was the first...and last such die he would ever produce.)

     At first, I swaged the Dixie bullets, and found I could print 3 to 4 inch 200 yard groups.  Anyway, I could after I installed one of the superb Hi-Lux Optics recreation of a circa 1855 Wm. Malcolm 6x long telescopic rifle sights (as they were known back then).  My rifle came into it's own when I started casting the lighter, but slightly longer 1.360" long Lee 500-grain bullet, then running it through the swaging die and wrapping the bullets with lubed paper.  My favored charge has been 80 grains of GOEX FFFg black powder.  The rifle and load have printed a few very impressive 2- to 2 1/2-inch 200 yard groups.  At the muzzle, the big 500-grain bullet exits at 1,326 f.p.s. - generating 1,945 foot pounds of energy.  Out at 200 yards, it is still good for 1,053 f.p.s. and 1,231 f.p.e..

Photo At Right - Best 200 yard Whitworth group shot, so far, with swaged Lee bullet.

     Back when I first got the rifle, still shooting with the open sights, I took a couple of does with the Dixie bullet, both at about 50 yards.  Last year, I made up my mind that I was going to put something down with the Whitworth out at about 200 yards.  One area I planned to hunt in Montana (out on the plains) allowed the purchase of up to 7 doe tags, so I purchased several just to put some meat in the freezer...and to take one at longer range (200 yards) with the .451 Whitworth.

     The second evening in camp, I carried two rifles out to a small portable camouflaged blind I had set up at the edge of a river-bottom alfalfa field.  I packed my .50 Traditions VORTEK Ultra Light LDR just in case nothing walked to within 200 yards of the blind...and I took the Whitworth in order to take a doe that did get within 200 yards of the big and heavy bullet shooting rifle.

     About an hour and a half before sunset, close to 40 whitetails worked out into the field, including a small 4x4 buck, but I had already filled my buck tag on the first morning of the hunt.  I had forgotten my laser range finder in the pack I had worn all morning while looking for deer in the hills behind camp.  I rested the Whitworth on one of the Bog Pod CLD-3 collapsible tripod rests, and sighted through the Hi-Lux Malcolm scope.  The sun had already dropped behind a high ridge to the West, but I could still see the multiple targets in front of me very clearly.

     I had the scope set for 200 yards, and several does looked to be right about that distance.  I thumbed the hammer back, held for a center chest cavity shot on the larger doe, which was standing perfectly broadside.  The trigger slowly came back, and the hammer fell.  The rifle roared, and a huge cloud of black powder smoke blocked everything from sight.  Then, as it cleared, the only thing still in that field was the doe I had gone for...and the deer was laying exactly where it had been standing.  It was easy to realize why the Whitworth was so feared on Civil War battlefields.

Photo Above Left - The adjustable rear mount of the Hi-Lux Optics 6x Malcolm scope can be quickly moved from one yardage setting to another - once those settings are known.

     When I walked out to the deer, I saw why it had gone down so quickly.  The big 500-grain cast & swaged Lee bullet had caught the deer only about two inches down from the top of the back.  That big chunk of lead had blown out about four inches of backbone...and unfortunately ruined about six inches of backstrap.

     Mid day the following day, I walked out to where I had field dressed the deer, and took a laser reading on the front of the blind - 172 yards.  Back at camp, I set up a portable target board I had brought 172 yards...and took a shot from the Bog Pod rest.  The hole was right at six inches above point of aim.  Then, I moved back 26 more yards, and took a shot from exactly 200 yards, for which the scope was set, and the hole in the target was right at one inch above point of aim - pretty much how it had been sighted.  It was clear that with the doe standing just 28 yards closer, the trajectory of that big bullet was close to six inches higher.

     This coming summer, I'll do a good deal of shooting to determine the 300-yard setting for the Malcolm scope...and will likewise do some shooting with the .451 Whitworth at 225...250...and 275 yards.  My goal for this fall is to fill one of those doe tags with the Whitworth at 300 yards.  Rest assured, I'll never forget my range finder again. - Toby Bridges, NORTH AMERICAN MUZZLELOADER HUNTING    


  1. Where does one get a swaging die and why can't it be made to be a better fit?

  2. Just the nature of loading and shooting a hexagonal bore. The shooter who wants to enjoy shooting pretty much the same design of 1850's military target rifle can do so with one of the .451 caliber so-called Volunteer rifles...with conventional 1-in-21 twist rifling.

  3. Just came across this write up. I love the story of the Whitworth and considering one. Do you have anymore stories on it?

  4. Just came across this write up. I love the story of the Whitworth and considering one. Do you have anymore stories on it?

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