The .303 Savage

By Chuck Hawks

The .303 Savage was that company's attempt to capture a share of the market that the .30-30 Winchester cartridge would come to dominate. Savage developed their .303 as a (unsuccessful) military cartridge in 1895. It became a commercial success in their Model 1899 lever action rifle, and remained moderately popular into the 1930's.

Rifles for the .303 Savage have been discontinued since the end of the Second World War, but factory loaded cartridges were available until 1997. There are still serviceable .303 caliber Model 99's floating around, and hunters who wish to use them.

This has driven the price of remaining .303 Savage ammunition stocks into the stratosphere. One of my correspondents reports that hunters are paying up to $50.00/box (in 2003 dollars) for cartridges, when they can be found. This for ammunition that used to cost about $5.00/box! One alternative is Stars and Stripes Custom Ammunition (online at They load new factory ammunition for most obsolete calibers, including .303 Savage, at competitive prices.

Despite its ".303" nomenclature, the .303 Savage is usually reloaded with standard .308" (.30 caliber) bullets. The .303 Savage case is a rimmed, bottleneck type with a rim diameter of .505", a base diameter of .442", a shoulder angle of 16 degrees, and a length of 2.015". In a practical sense, it has about 1-2 grains greater useful capacity with common powders than the .30-30 case. Like the .30-30, the .303 has always been loaded with flat point or round nose bullets, even though the Savage Model 99 rifle used a rotary magazine which could (and did in other calibers) accommodate spitzer bullets.

Standard American factory loads for the .303 Savage drove a round nose 190 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1980 fps and muzzle energy of 1650 ft. lbs. The 200 yard figures were 1440 fps and 875 ft. lbs. The midrange trajectory (maximum rise) of this load was 1.3" over 100 yards, 6.2" over 200 yards, and 15.5" over 300 yards. This was a 1.6" greater rise with a 200 yard zero than the 170 grain factory load for the .30-30. The .303 Savage is about a 200 yard deer cartridge. Despite its inferior trajectory, the .303 developed a reputation as a good choice for large game like elk and moose, probably due to the superior sectional density of its 190 grain bullet.

Reloaders can essentially duplicate the factory load using 180 grain RN bullets (or 190 grain RN bullets if they can be found), and have the advantage of access to the 150 and 170 grain bullets used by the .30-30. According to the 43rd and 45th editions of the Lyman Reloading Handbook, 30.0 grains of IMR 3031 powder can drive a 150 grain bullet at a MV of 2169 fps and 33.0 grains of the same powder can achieve a MV of 2392 fps. 28.0 grains of IMR 3031 can drive a 170 grain bullet to a MV of 1949 fps, and 31.0 grains of 3031 yields a MV of 2173 fps. The 190 grain bullet used in the factory loads can be driven to a MV of 1835 fps by 28.0 grains of IMR 3031, and a MV of 1980 fps by 31.0 grains of IMR 3031.

Lyman chronographed these loads in a Savage Model 99 rifle with a 26" barrel, and the velocities achieved are similar to those of the .30-30 Winchester with bullets of the same weight. Lyman used Remington cases, Remington bullets, and Remington large rifle primers in developing these loads.

To summarize, the .303 Savage was one of several successful cartridges on the order of the .30-30 Winchester. It achieved a measure of commercial success but never seriously challenged the popularity of the better known Winchester cartridge. In its day it was a successful deer cartridge with 150 grain or heavier bullets, and a successful elk and moose cartridge at woods ranges with 170-190 grain bullets.

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Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.