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Here is a fine example of one of the secondary firearms used by the buffalo hunters. Ballard’s patented breech loading single shot rifles were popular sporting rifles after the Civil War but it wasn’t until 1876 when John M. Marlin took over manufacturing that calibers and weight options made the Ballard design a viable option for the hide trade.
The Number 5 Pacific was manufactured from 1876 to 1891 in a variety of calibers. Distinctive features of the No. 5 Pacific Rifle include a ramrod mounted under the barrel, double set triggers and a ring shaped lever. This rifle sports a heavy octagon barrel, weighing 11.5 lbs; heavy for a Pacific. It is chambered for the popular 45/70 cartridge. The left side of the receiver is marked “J M MARLIN, NEW HAVEN CONN. U.S.A./BALLARD’S. PATENT. NOV. 5, 1861.” with the serial number marked on the underside of the receiver. The barrel is marked with “45 GOVT” at the breech. In addition to the original rear buckhorn sight, it is equipped wth a period tang mounted vernier sight and a front globe target sight.
The bore remains in excellent condition with strong rifling. The barrel has faded to a brown/gray smooth patina with no pitting. The receiver and remaining parts were originally casehardened and have also taken on a smooth patina. All markings are excellent. The buttstock and forearm have minor scratches and dings as expected of a hunter’s gun but retain much of the original varnish.
J.M. Marlin Ballard rifles were serial numbered beginning at 500 and concluding in the 17,000 range. This would put this gun’s manufacture date around 1878. By this time the Texas hunt for the Southern Herd was concluding and the hide hunters were moving north to the Montana Territory to hunt the Northern Herd. In 1881 the Northern Pacific Railroad had extended to Miles City which became the base for the hide trade. That year, 200,000 hides were shipped and by 1882 an estimated 5000 hunters and skinners were pursuing the buffalo on the northern range. Noted hunter Frank Mayer wrote that the army in Montana was “unofficially” handing out free 45/70 ammunition to the hunters to help eradicate the indian’s main source of food. In 1883 only 40,000 hides were shipped from Miles City and by 1884 it was all over. Less than 100 hides were shipped that year. Buffalo bones lay scattered across the prairie creating a new source of income. Thousands of tons of bones were collected and shipped east and by 1887 the prairies were picked clean and no trace remained of the northern herd that had once numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
Any collection of “buffalo rifles” should include a Ballard No 5 Pacific. This rifle has the correct configuration; target sights, 45/70 caliber and heavy weight, for a hide hunter’s gun. Although it will never be known if it was used at the end of the Texas hunt or on the northern range we can certainly speculate that given the number of hunters and the need for heavy rifles that it is a real possiblity.