The 8mm/.32 Caliber Cartridges
By Chuck Hawks
With the single exception of the .32 Winchester Special, the 8mm/.32 caliber cartridges have never caught on in North America. In Europe, however, the 8mm cartridges have been popular for big game hunting since before the turn of the 20th Century.
8mm/.32's run the gamut from small game and varmint rounds such as the .32-20 Winchester, to deer and black bear cartridges such as the .32 Winchester Special and 8x56 M-S, to all-around cartridges such as the 8x57JS Mauser, to powerful Magnums such the .325 WSM, 8x68S RWS and 8mm Remington Magnum. The latter are suitable for all thin-skinned game worldwide.
In fact, the 8mm/.32 family pretty much duplicates the .30/.303 family in terms of capability and variety. One could substitute the .32-20 for the .30 Carbine, the .32 Special for the .30-30, the 8x57JS for the .308 Winchester, the 8mm-06 for the .30-06, the .325 WSM for the .300 WSM, and the 8x68S for the .300 Winchester Magnum and neither the hunter or the game would be able to tell the difference.
8mm/.32 caliber cartridges have used an assortment of different diameter bullets, ranging from about .312 inch to .324 inch, which is one of the most confusing aspects of the caliber. While there is no standard, the 8x56 M-S, 8x57JS, 8mm-06, .325 WSM, 8x68S, and 8mm Rem. Mag. all use bullets of .323 inch diameter, and these are the bullets most widely available to reloaders.
In Europe there are a great number of 8mm cartridges (I count some 25 in the 9th Edition of Cartridges of the World); but in North America only five are commercially loaded, the .32-20, .32 Special, 8x57 Mauser, .325 WSM, and 8mm Rem. Mag. Even the 8x68S, perhaps the King of the European 8mm's, is almost unknown.
The debate between 8mm fanciers and .30 caliber fans has been going on since the invention of smokeless powder, and will never be resolved. The .30 has slightly superior sectional density (SD) and the 8mm has slightly greater frontal area for any given bullet weight. If case capacity and operating pressure are equal, killing power also seems to be equal. Witness the .30-30 compared to the .32 Special when both are fed 170 grain bullets.
The .32 Winchester Special, introduced in the Winchester Model 94 rifle along with the .25-35 and .30-30, is the one .32 caliber cartridge that has been a substantial commercial success in North America. Also adopted by Marlin and Savage for their popular lever action rifles, it has sold in the millions. Today the .32 Special is an orphan, as no new factory made rifles are offered for it as I write these words. But there are a lot of good used rifles in the caliber floating around, and it will be with us for many years. Factory ballistics tables show a 170 grain bullet at a MV of 2250 fps, and this load remains one of the finest 200 yard deer and black bear cartridges ever devised. (For more on this see my article "Ideal Deer Cartridges.")
In 1898 the French 8mm Lebel became the first military cartridge to be loaded with a spitzer boat-tail bullet, 198 grains at a MV of 2380 fps. The 8x57JS Mauser cartridge, introduced in 1905, was one of the first modern military cartridge to be loaded with a spitzer bullet of reduced weight at higher velocity for a flatter trajectory and increased effective range. That load drove a 154 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of about 2800 fps. Those two 8mm cartridges set the pattern for the future development of both military and sporting rifle cartridges that continues to this day.
The 8x57JS, in particular, demonstrated the advantages of aerodynamic bullets and high velocity, and it became a popular hunting cartridge around the world. Today it remains one of the top all-around hunting cartridges along with the .30-06 Springfield and the .308 Winchester, all three of which drive bullets of similar weight at similar velocities.
The North American wildcat 8mm-06 is merely the .30-06 necked-up to accept the same .323 inch bullets at the 8x57JS. In Europe it would be called the 8x63S. It is very similar in performance to the European 8x64S Brenneke. The 8mm-06 came about due to a shortage of 8x57JS cartridges and cases in North America during and immediately after the Second World War. The idea was to rechamber existing Mauser rifles for the wildcat 8mm-06, for which a plentiful supply of brass was available. Although it does nothing the original .30-06 cannot do as well, the 8mm-06 is a fine all-around cartridge with a slightly greater case capacity than the 8x57JS.
For hunting most species of deer, antelope, sheep, and goats with the 8x57JS, 8mm-06, 8x64S and similar high intensity .32 caliber cartridges, bullets of around 150 grains (SD .205) are probably a good choice. At around 2800+ fps these offer good killing power and flat trajectory. For larger animals like caribou, and for use on mixed bag hunts, a good 170-180 grain bullet (SD .233-.247) at about 2700+ fps would probably be a good all-around choice. For big animals like alg, elk, and kudu bullets of about 200 grains (SD .274) would seem a reasonable choice. And for the largest thin-skinned game such as Alaskan moose and eland the heavy 220 grain bullets (SD .301) might be a viable option.
The 8x57JS and similar cartridges are about the most powerful that can be chambered in a medium weight rifle (about 8 pounds including a scope) with a 22" barrel without incurring excessive recoil and muzzle blast. To get substantially increased performance, considerably more powder must be burned, which means a longer barrel to maintain ballistic efficiency and a heavier rifle to tame the increased recoil.
Never the less, large "magnum" cartridges have become quite popular, since they offer higher velocity for even flatter trajectory and a moderate increase in effective range. The 8x68S is the European 8mm dream cartridge. It is a non-belted magnum that is equal to the North American .300 Winchester Magnum in case capacity and performance. Hirtenberger factory loads claim a rather optimistic MV of 2985 fps with a 200 grain bullet.
In North America the short .325 WSM and the long (.300 H&H length) 8mm Remington Magnum fill the same need and compete with the popular .300 Magnums for a share of the long range big game cartridge market. They drive 200 grain bullets at a MV of around 2900-2950 fps.
The handloader can usually drive a 150 grain bullet to a MV of 3300 fps, a 170 grain bullet to 3100 fps, a 200 grain bullet at about 2950 fps, or a 220 grain bullet to 2800 fps in the 8mm Magnums. The heavier bullets would seem to make the most sense. There is very little thin-skinned game in the world that cannot reliably be killed by a good 200 grain bullet at a MV of 2900 fps!
To summarize, the 8mm clan is the European equivalent of the North American .30 caliber family. Both calibers shoot similar weight bullets at similar velocities and serve similar purposes in the field. The high intensity 8mm calibers, such as the 8x57JS, make fine all-around rifles. The 8mm/.32 calibers are the largest of what used to be called "small bore" rifle cartridges and should not be confused with the medium bore calibers that are (generally) designed for heavier bullets of greater sectional density and for use on large and/or dangerous game.
I have written individual articles about most of the 8mm/.32 cartridges mentioned in this article. Please see the Rifle Cartridge Page for more details about these calibers.
Copyright 2002, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.