Heyday of wildcatting produced legendary round
In the late ’40s and ’50s, the United States was undergoing a boom economy, recovering from restricted materiel supplies that resulted from World War II.
Everything pertaining to shooting was in drastic under-supply, and lots of ex-servicemen, introduced to shooting in the military, wanted to continue their new-found enthusiasm for the shooting sports.
One interesting background tale was the founding of the now-iconic reloading company, RCBS. Its founder started rolling spent .22 cases into bullets to use in reloads. He found a ready niche for his product, and another industry was catapulted into popularity because he made one important component available — the bullet.
The guy that got me into shooting at an early age and taught me most of what I learned back then was my maternal uncle, Leonard M. “Buzz” Williams.
He was draft-deferred during the war — a chemical engineer working on petroleum products in the old Esso Refinery in Baton Rouge, La.
After the war, he and several friends opened a gunsmith shop as a sideline business in the early ’50s.
It was explained to me that the main reason for doing this was to gain a federal firearms license so they could buy guns, parts and components at wholesale prices.
While these men didn’t know it, they were right in the middle of a shooting revolution brought about by the aftermath of a world war and the introduction to millions of new converts to the art of shooting.
Thus began what would come be known as the “wildcatting” period.
Everybody was taking established cartridges and necking them down and up, developing new loads with the new powders coming out on the market — most of which ended up never catching on with the shooting public.
One of Buzz’s closest friends and a partner in the old gun shop was a taciturn, abrupt Yankee of a man by the name of Bob Eels.
Bob was a chemical engineer also, and hailed from up north. His clipped speech patterns and curt manner never set well with a lot of Southern folk used to a more-genteel, circuitous manner of speaking when dealing with the social niceties of conversation.
Bob just didn’t have time for the roundabout ways of Southern speech and generally spoke directly, whatever the subject.
But his knowledge and talents overrode any social failings. Buzz once commented that “Bob Eels is the finest metallurgist they’ve ever had at that plant.”
Bob and Buzz developed a rifle and load that absolutely fascinated me while growing up — they decided to try to hit the benchmark set by the .220 Swift, a round developed several decades before that pushed bullets to the unheard of speed of 4,000 feet per second.
The Swift was legendary for its flat-shooting, long-range capabilities, reaching out incredible distances and blowing varmints into red clouds of mist.
Unfortunately, it was also legendary for its propensity to burn out barrels. Four thousand fps seems to be the point of no return, even today. Once you cross that threshold, it is as if you enter a new dimension in shooting, a world in which bullets do wondrous things, but bad things happen to ill-designed bullets (i.e. blow up in flight).
And barrels get eaten, and throats erode at the ends of chambers.
So the Swift was famous for accuracy, speed and shorter barrel life — and it set the benchmark for the wildcatting community.
This group of engineers decided they would attempt to produce their own wondrous genie of a super-speed cartridge, and looked around for a suitable platform.
They settled on the cartridge case from a .348 Winchester — an old, rimmed round that was originally designed for Winchester’s iconic lever-actions, and was meant to bring big-bore capabilities to a lever action that would handle about anything on the North American continent.
As Bob Eels put it: “We decided to see if we could reduce the bore size of that thing down to a phonograph needle.”
They couldn’t get the bore down to such a small diameter. Physics would probably intervene in the way of a massive disruption of barrel if that much powder went off behind that small a projectile.
But they did neck it down to .25 caliber. They sent the specs and cartridge off to a custom barrel maker, and built a rifle around the barrel that came back.
While they had no idea of what they had produced, their rifle, which they dubbed “Beulah Belle,” was a rocking success.
Chronographs were incredibly expensive back then, prior to the digital and computer revolutions, so these engineers utilized a homemade instrument they called a “ballistic pendulum.”
Setting up a swivel apparatus with a weighted target, they would fire a cartridge with a known velocity at the pendulum. Its movement would be measured.
Then firing an experimental cartridge, the movement of the pendulum could be extrapolated to determine the speed of the new cartridge. It was crude, but it worked well enough, and it told them Beulah Belle was slinging a 25-caliber bullet somewhere slightly over 4,000 feet per second.
They had a lot of fun with that rifle. Like many of the wildcatters of the day, they built their rifles on ’98 Mauser actions. Their rifles all looked the same — dark walnut with darker rosewood fore end caps — and Beulah Belle was no different.
But her performance became something of legend.
There was the story of shooting one crow on a limb, and it vaporized — the explosion killing the crow next to it.
Another time, one of them shot a buzzard sitting on a dirt road in a cotton field, and they never found a whole bird but there were feathers and pieces of buzzard strung down the road for nearly 100 yards.
Wildcatting still occurs today, and every once in a while a cartridge catches the public eye, and may be adopted and standardized by a large ammunition manufacturer.
But I doubt we will ever again see such a fruitful period of cartridge development as occurred in the early ’50s.
After my uncle’s death, my aunt sold off most of his guns, and for a while I stayed in touch with the gent who bought Beulah Belle. He bought it as an oddity, and I searched my cabinets for the dies for Beulah Belle. We were going to resurrect the old girl, and go out and look for pairs of varmints to shoot to see if we could still produce the grenade-like explosion for which she was famous.
We never did, and I lost track of him and the rifle. Maybe someday, we’ll get back together, send that old rifle off to a die maker, get some dies, build some cartridges and go shoot Beulah Belle one more time.
And when she goes off, I will think back to a time when men — shooters — were excitedly producing new bullets and exotic rifles, and firing the imaginations of young boys fascinated with all things about guns.