July-August 2004Z-Hat Custom .50 Alaskan

 By Dave Scovill

Ironically, one of the more modern .50 calibers is a car­tridge almost no one knows any­thing about: the .50 Alaskan. The story of the .50 Alaskan began back in the 1950s on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, Harold John­son, the originator of the .450 Alaskan had a store/gunsmithing shop at Cooper’s Landing, John­son’s Kenai Rifles, A man walked into the shop one day with a somewhat worn but serviceable 50-caliber machine gun barrel wanting to know if Harold had any use for it.

Harold had also acquired a Model 1886 .50-110 Winchester with an eroded throat, so the machine gun barrel was cut off, turned to match the Winchester barrel contours, threaded and screwed into the 86 receiver. Brass for the .50-100/50 110 was scarce in those days, so Harold straightened the .348 WCF case out to accept a .512-inch bullet, and Harold Fuller, a machinist Johnson had met in California, made up a reamer for the wildcat simply known at the time as “The Fifty.”

Since the rifle was designed for use on Alaska’s great bears, John­son cut 720-grain boat-tail .50 BMG bullets in half, seating the 450-grain rear half upside down in the fireformed .50-caliber case. It didn’t take Johnson long to find out that the 450-grain truncated shaped “solid” would shoot through a big brown bear from any direc­tion, claiming in 1988, “I never re­covered a slug from a bear or moose, no matter what angle the animal was shot at.”

No one seems to know for sure, but Harold’s load was undoubt­edly a healthy dose of IMR-4198. We do know, however, that his fa­vorite load in the .450 Alaskan was 51.5 grains of IMR-4198 with a Barnes 400-grain flatnose ,jacketed bullet for about 2,100 fps and just under 4,000 foot-pounds (ft-lbsj of muzzle energy, so it’s logical to as­sume he knew the .50 would sur­pass the .450 Alaskan owing its slightly larger powder capacity and increased expansion ratio.

"The Fifty" 50 Alaskan on a Model 71 action.While Harold Johnson never made another .50, Harry Mc­Gowen has made up several over the years, most based on the Winchester 71 rifles and carbines, and more recently on the Browning Model 71s, averaging around two a month.  This is not to ignore Wild West Guns who offers the 50 Alaskan on the 95 Marlin action, or, the subject of this article, Fred Zeglin of Z-Hat Custom (www.Z-Hat.com) who builds custom order versions of “The Fifty”.

It’s also interesting to speculate, since Johnson never called it the .50 Alaskan, who came up with the moniker. All we know for sure is that it’s what Fred Huntington called it when asked about his hunt with Johnson many years ago. Since Fred was in the busi­ness of making reloading dies (RCBS) for many years until the company was sold off, he just might have come up with the label to identify the wildcat to cus­tomers. Who knows?

Performance of the .50 Alaskan places it well above the old .50-70 Government that made its debut as a black-powder cartridge in the 1866 Allen Conversion Spring-fields. The next .50 to come along was the .50-95 WCF in the Model 1876 Winchester with a 300-grain bullet over 95 grains of black pow­der in 1878. That was followed by the Model 1886 .50-110 in 1887, de­veloping around 1,600 fps with a 300-grain bullet, which evolved into the high velocity express load with smokeless powder that boosted the same bullet weight to 2,225 fps in 1903. There was also the .50-100 (on the same case as the 110) that generated about 1,300 fps with a 450-grain bullet in 1895.

The cartridge of legend, how­ever, was the .50-90 2.4-inch Sharps that developed around 1,350 fps with a 473-grain cast or paper patch bullet way back in 1872.

Another so-called Sharps case was the huge .50-140 that hurled a 700-grain bullet at 1,355 fps or a 473-grain slug at 1,580 fps. It did not enter the picture until after Sharps had gone belly up, how­ever; so its origins are a little muddy, Suffice to say, it was a powerhouse.

That brings us up to date and offers some comparison for the Buffalo Bore .50 Alaskan factory loads that push a 450-grain bullet to around 2,150 fps or a 535-grain slug at about 1,850 fps. Both ve­locities are listed for a 20-inch barrel at just a tick under 40,000 psi. Either of the Buffalo Bore loads in a 26-inch rifle barrel is a ballistic standoff with the 458 Winchester Magnum.

There have been some misgiv­ings over the years regarding the optimum operating pressures for some of the wildcats based on the .348 WCF case. So, here’s the dope. Any post-1902 Model 86 rifle with a nickel-steel barrel is suit­able for up to 42,000 psi, which means a typical Model 86 .33 WCF, .45-70 or .45-90 WCF can be rechambered for wildcats based on the .348 WCF, including the .375, .416, .450 or .50. Older rifles that are not stamped “nickel steel” (pre-1900~ on the barrel should be relegated to black-powder loads or smokeless loads that do not ex­ceed 28,000 psi.

Of course, the Winchester Model 71 that was originally chambered for the .348 WCF is suitable for wildcats that generate up to 42,000 psi. That also applies to re­cently manufactured Browning Model 71 rifles and carbines and Browning or Winchester (USRAC) Model 86 rifle and carbines. In short, the original Model 86 with a nickel-steel barrel, or reproduc­tions by Browning or USRAC, are just as strong as the original Model 71 or Browning reprints.

With that background, I received a phone call from Fred Zeglin (Z-Hat Custom Rifles, Suite 72, 4010A So, Poplar, Casper WY  82601; www.z-hat.com) awhile back telling me about a Model 71 Browning .50 Alaskan he was fin­ishing up for a customer. Knowing of my interest in the. 348 WCF and its wildcats, he asked if I might want to take a look at it. I told him to pass it on when it was finished, and I would run it through the hoops, provided the owner didn’t mind getting a rifle back with a few loads run through it.

As it turned out, there were two rifles, the Model 71 and a Siamese Mauser with the owner’s home­made stock. While I’m not a fan of home-made stocks, I offered to give it the once over as well, since it might be of interest to readers.

The Siamese Mauser action is well done in terms of fit and finish, but I opted not to shoot it, owing the high comb on the stock. (I’ve been through this before, and a rifle that recoils as hard as the .50 Alaskan must be stocked to fit the owner, especially with iron sights where the comb must have a cer­tain amount of drop to make room for fat, thin or round facial features. There can be no compro­mise between a scope and iron sights; it’s either one or the other, and this particular stock design would eat me for breakfast.)  

Of course, the Model 71 is the rifle that held my interest. It’s a plain-Jane Model 71 carbine with a 22-inch blued barrel that mates nicely with the Browning factory finish. The giveaway from across the room, however, is the barrel band that is secured to the barrel and magazine tube just in front of the forend cap.

The idea behind the band, from my perspective, is twofold. First, it adds rigidity to the forend tube that is otherwise secured only by a long screw that passes through the end of the magazine cap and into a corresponding hole in the bottom of the barrel. Some folks think this is to keep the tube in place, but magazine tubes on the Winchester Model 71, and nearly all post-1900 Model 86 rifles with nickel-steel barrels are threaded into the receiver, which effec­tively precludes the magazine tube from pulling out of the re­ceiver in the first place.

But, the barrel band has a higher purpose: to keep the forend and tube intact under the G-forces of recoil when four or five rounds are stuffed in the tube — the combined inertia of which can literally rip the tube and forend loose when a 535-grain cast slug is fired at 1,835 fps. The same goes for a 450-grain slug at upwards of 2,000 fps.

Back in the 1950s, Harold Johnson used a similar barrel band, in­tegral with the forend cap, to hold his .450 Alaskans together under the recoil forces of heavy loads, and any rifle with “JKR” (Johnson Kenai Rifles) stamped on the bar­rel is also identifiable by the bar­rel band. I also admit I have fired thousands of heavy loads in my .450 and .50 Alaskans and .50 Ex­press rifles over the years with smokeless and black powder, and the forends are still tight; but that doesn’t mean they won’t let go someday. Either way, Fred’s bar­rel band will make sure any rifle he makes will not fall apart, and it sure takes the wear and tear off the dovetail arrangement that holds the forend and cap in place.

Siamese Mauser, 50 AlaskanWhile the barrel on the Zeglin .50 Alaskan Model 71 is only 22 inches, it has plenty of weight, but not so much as to make the rifle a burden to carry. The muzzle diam­eter is about the same as a 50-cal­iber Winchester and the straight taper yields a pleasing look.

The Model 71 is drilled and taped for a receiver sight (Lyman 86 or Williams 71), but at the clients request Fred used barrel-mounted irons, a neat little blade with a vertical white line insert up front and the standard Browning sight on the rear. The notch in the rear sight was enlarged just a little (width), to accommodate the blade front sight easily, for quick acquisition.

Back aft is a LimbSaverÔ buttpad, a nice cushy piece of rubber like material that takes the bite out of heavy recoil. The same pad is mounted on the Siamese Mauser.

Now, here’s the story. The comb on the Model 71 buttstock is a bit high for me, but it’s rounded off at the top — where my cheekbone fits and tends to be more or less shooter friendly. For comparison the comb on the Model 71 is about .6 inch higher than the standard stock on the Model 86, making the latter a bit easier to shoot all day without having to endure a recoil-induced facial massage. The truth is, if I were to build a .50 or .450 Alaskan, it would be on a Model 86, owing the more friendly stock design — for my face. The Model 71 .450 Ackley Improved I own has had about .5 inch removed from the top of the comb, to make room for my cheek bone, and while it is not necessarily a pleasure to shoot, it doesn’t hurt me, not off the bench or in the field. The rest of my custom big bores are based on the Model 86, including the, 45-90 WCF and big 50s.

Nonetheless, Zeglin’s customer wanted a Model 71 (it was his rifle to begin with), and Fred did a first-class job. It feeds rounds from the magazine easily, and the bolt closes like a bank vault, I’m particularly impressed with the barrel/magazine band. It’s well thought out and a professional touch seldom seen on custom lever actions nowadays. For anyone who might be thinking about a big-bore lever action for whatever reason, this Z-Hat Custom-built Model 71 speaks volumes about Fred’s skill and craftsmanship.

Reprinted here by permission of Rifle Magazine and Dave Scovill, this work first appeared in issue #214, July-August 2004

Contact Us for your personal custom version of  "The Fifty!"

Home Reloaders Handbook of Wildcat Cartridge Design (Wildcat Cartridges) Hawk Contents Wildcat Cartridge Design Headquaters, Z-Hat Specializes in Wildcat Cartridges Classic Rifle Stock H-S Precision 458 Lott Archive Accurate Rifle? Stock Duplicator Express Sights 9.3x66 Sako, Custom Rifles by Z-Hat Custom Barrel Info. Rifle Quote Gun Books Greenhill Formula Client Comments Ackley Research Free Data Form