“The operation of the arm is especially simple. To load the piece the hammer is first brought to full cock and the breech-piece swung back by pressing the thumb-piece with the thumb of the right hand. The backward motion of the breech block withdraws the discharged shell from the chamber. The fresh cartridge is then inserted and the breech closed in one continuous motion; the arm is then ready to fire.” – 1878 Remington Rolling Block Owners Manual
Rifle tucked tight to my side, I belly-crawled to the crest of a slight rise on the featureless Wyoming landscape and strained to discern pronghorn from the pea-soup fog that engulfed the countryside. Mystically, the semi-distinct silhouette of “Crazy Horn” flickered in and out of view like the grainy black-and-white images on a vintage 1950s television set. The distinguishable buck-a fixture on the ranch where we were hunting with outfitter Dan Artery-had derived his nickname from a freakish horn that dropped down alongside his face and hooked under his chin.
I scooted forward, eased my rifle onto spread shooting sticks and gazed through the minuscule opening of the Creedmore peep sight. Nothing but gray on gray. I squeezed my eyelids tightly together and then reopened them, hoping to somehow focus the dim image of the buck. If anything, the fog was getting worse. Then, peering over the hammer of the rolling-block action, I helplessly watched the buck leisurely walk away, melting into the early morning haze. I calmed myself and lowered the rifle. It was only the first day of the hunt. There’d be other opportunities.
My guide, Chris Sanderson, and hunting partner, Ron Spomer, shuffled up the hill, as I stood and brushed snow and prairie duff from my clothing. “Why didn’t you shoot him?” Ron slapped me on the back and gazed in the direction of the departed pronghorn. “Can’t shoot what you can’t see,” I shrugged and explained how my sight picture had been compromised by the peep sight.
Frustrated that I just let a fine buck walk-one that I could have easily taken with a modern firearm topped with a quality scope-I folded my shooting sticks and fell in behind Chris and Ron, who had already taken up the buck’s trail. “Let’s keep working slowly into the wind,” Chris leaned over and whispered. “Maybe the fog will lift, and we’ll get another crack at your buck.”
No such luck. The fog hung around for most of the morning, and we returned to camp for an early lunch and to plan our afternoon hunt.
I was a guest of the fine folks from Cabela’s Outdoor Adventures on a Western pronghorn hunt that they host each fall. Our drop camp was like a page from their illustrious outdoor supply catalog: a large, fully equipped wall tent for lounging around in the evening, a furnished kitchen with Dutch oven cooking that rivaled my mom’s home-cooked meals and roomy sleeping quarters that reinforced the premise that a hard day of hunting requires a restful night’s sleep.
The .45-70 Gov. rolling-block rifle that I was toting is a replica of Remington’s famed Model No. 1 Sporter-one of several “period” rifles that Cabela’s markets-a throwback to simpler times. Shooting 300-grain Winchester Supreme Partition Gold bullets and equipped with adjustable, tang-mounted vernier rear and globe front sights, the rifle produced decent groups on the 100-yard makeshift rifle range that we’d erected behind camp.
I admit being somewhat intimidated by the reduced sight picture offered by the peep sight. Like many modern riflemen, I’ve spent the better part of my hunting career looking at magnified bull’s eyes through quality optics. I knew that the arcing trajectory of the slow-moving .45 caliber bullet coupled with iron sights would require that I slip within 200 yards of the telescopic eyes of a paranoid pronghorn to feel comfortable about taking a shot-150 yards and I’d be giddy. I had no misgivings that this would be a formidable undertaking.
EVOLUTION OF THE ROLLING BLOCK
The Remington Rolling Block has a long and distinguished military record, dating back to 1866. In 1878 Remington claimed that, “All of our single-barrel breech-loading guns, whether rifle or shot, are made upon this (rolling-block) system, the same which has been used in the construction of more than 900,000 military rifles for various governments.”
The action was adapted in the Remington Sporting Rifle No. 1 during the early 1870s for hunters who desired a long-range, breech-loading firearm with considerable knockdown power-one capable of killing buffalo and other large game at ranges exceeding 250 yards. During the 1850s and ’60s the most accurate firearms were expensive hand-crafted muzzleloading rifles. The repeating rifles of the era were mostly chambered in various .44 caliber or .45 caliber configurations and provided limited range, accuracy and killing power.
Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, among the other notables, proudly hunted with a .50-70 Gov. centerfire Remington Rolling Block Sporting Rifle as early as 1873. The original model featured a 34-inch half-round, half-octagon barrel, a vernier rear peep sight, wind-gauge front sight, pistol grip stock and flat butt plate. Later models utilized full round and full octagon barrels. The rifle was chambered in several calibers; the most notable were the .44-77 Gov., .44-90 Gov., .50-70 Gov. and later the .45-70 Gov.
Simplicity is the key to the efficiency of the rolling block. After loading, a large breech block is rolled up and forward. The hammer, located back and below the breech, is part of another large rolling block. When fired, the hammer moves forward, and the hammer base block rolls underneath the breech block to lock the action before the firing pin is struck. Both breech block and hammer block are held in place by two massive steel pins.
Ron tagged a dandy pronghorn buck during the first evening of our hunt, a 150-yard shot with a scoped .50 caliber in-line muzzleloader.
An hour before dark we sat perched in elevated ambush on the opposite slopes of twin hills, overlooking a funnel that split two large valleys like the vertex of an enormous hourglass. Chris circled deep to the north and dipped upwind of 30 or so pronghorns that were meandering and feeding next to a small lake. His scent permeated the air and drifted toward the herd, gently nudging them in our direction.
As they passed between us, I had a tough time keeping track of the only shootable buck, as he mingled with the does, fawns and subordinate bucks. Then in typical herd buck fashion, he fell to the rear of the group, giving Ron an open shot.
I saw the telltale puff of white smoke before I heard the rifle’s report and watched the herd, minus the buck, scatter into the valley below. I joined Chris and Ron at the bottom of the hill for some back-slapping and picture-taking. We field dressed the animal and headed for camp as the sun rested on the horizon.
The next morning we were back at it, hoping to fill my tag. At first light, after next to no prodding, Ron convinced me that we needed to take a short hiatus from our pronghorn pursuit to set up on a ridge overlooking a ribbon of river-bottom. We could hear coyotes hunting in the flats below and figured that they would work their way up into the hills toward us, where they would hold up for the day.
We figured right. I had just begun wailing on my Wiley cottontail-in-distress call when a coyote appeared to our right, sneaking up the steep embankment toward our setup. I barked sharply, and the young dog pulled to a halt. Ron made the shot. I continued to call and a couple of minutes later a second coyote showed, circling to the left, trying to catch our wind. Ron dispatched her before she got the chance. Two dogs in one setup. What a nice diversion.
We hunted pronghorns for the remainder of the morning but failed to get within range of any of the decent bucks that we spot-and-stalked and decided to call it a morning.
When we arrived back at camp for lunch, we got the exiting news that Crazy Horn had been spotted milling around the river just a few miles away. We grabbed a quick bite and set out after him. Less than an hour later, we were trudging across the prairie on foot in hot pursuit.
A QUIRKY BUCK AND UNCOOPERATIVE DOE
After hiking and glassing about two miles of broken terrain, we spotted the quirky buck pestering an uncooperative doe. We needed to shave off several hundred yards to get into position for a shot, and cover was scarce. Our only option was to crawl single file behind Chris, hidden by a two-dimensional pronghorn buck decoy that he held in front of us. We closed ground to 200 yards several times, but each time that I prepared for the shot, the buck would chase the doe over the next rise.
We finally lost him for good about mid-afternoon and decided to hike back to the truck to regroup. As we approached Chris’ truck we spotted another buck several hundred yards away trotting toward us. We ducked out of sight and angled toward him to shave off the distance between us. The buck spooked before we could get much closer and began angling away from us at a brisk walk. Ron convinced me that if I was going to take a shot it would have to be now.
My first attempt, offhand and off-target, sailed over the buck’s back, hitting the hill behind him. I plopped down on my butt and steadied the rifle on my shooting sticks. The buck continued walking at a slight angle away from us.
Guesstimating the windage and drop, I pulled in front of and above the buck and touched the trigger. To my delight—and surprise—he dropped in a heap when the stout Partition Gold found its mark.
I couldn’t have been more pleased as I got up and trotted to where the handsome buck lay. Even though Crazy Horn had eluded our best spot-and-stalk efforts, I had prevailed and taken a nice Wyoming pronghorn. And the added challenge and traditional flavor of hunting with the rolling-block rifle made the taste of success that much sweeter.