Custom .50 Alaskan
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
here by permission of Rifle Magazine and Dave Scovill, this work first appeared
in issue #214, July-August 2004
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