Originally published in Points West in Spring 1995
By Howard Michael Madaus
Former Curator of the Cody Firearms Museum, Robert W. Woodruff Firearms Chair
The answer to that question is both simple and complex. Simply put, a “buffalo gun” is a firearm used to kill buffalo for market (be it tongue, hide, or whatever part was commercially salable in large quantity). Although any gun might down an unlucky buffalo under the right circumstances, a true buffalo gun had to take down many buffalo under most circumstances. And since most buffalo weigh at least three-quarters of a ton, the slug needed to bring such a large animal down had to be correspondingly large, usually weighing between 470 grains and 550 grains of lead. Similarly, the powder charge to propel it 200 to 500 yards to its target was appropriately proportionate, usually between 70 grains and 120 grains of black powder. The calibers of ammunition that fit these characteristics and which were favored by the buffalo hunters were .44, .45, and .50.
Because the preferred method of hunting buffalo for market involved taking a “stand” from a long range and gradually working the periphery of the herd as the animals closed together for protection, many shots were usually fired in a relatively short time. The heat generated from the successive explosions of the large capacity self-contained cartridges so heated the barrels of buffalo guns that their accuracy decreased. The heavier the barrel, the less the coefficient of expansion, and the longer the rifle could be used before it had to be cooled. The typical “buffalo gun,” therefore, was a heavy barreled single-shot rifle, chambered for large bore, long cartridges (such as 44-77, 45-70, 45-120-550, 45 3-1/4″, and 50-90). The rifles were not made for show but for ruggedness; accordingly the use of fancy windage sights was an exception.
Only one rifle in the collection of the Cody Firearms Museum has been documented as having been used to hunt buffalo-a Sharps M1859 percussion rifle that has been altered to accept metallic self-contained ammunition and with Freund Bros. sights. It was used by Henry Gerdel to hunt buffalo in Wyoming. Although this is the only rifle in the collection with definite buffalo hunting attribution, several others, including three other Sharps rifles and one Winchester M1885 single shot, also qualify on the basis of their general characteristics.