Big Medicine: The .405 Winchester

By Chuck Hawks

.405 Win.
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .405 Winchester is the most powerful of all the traditional Winchester cartridges for lever action rifles. It was introduced in 1904 in the John Browning designed Winchester Model 1895 rifle, and discontinued in 1932 when the company determined that the 1895 rifle was obsolete. The .405 Winchester cartridge has an actual bore diameter of .405".

The .405 is perhaps the most famous of the powerful medium and big bore Winchester rimmed cartridges for lever action rifles, which include the long discontinued .35 Winchester and .33 Winchester, and the orphaned .348 Winchester, .356 Winchester and .375 Winchester (for which ammo is still available). The old traditional .405 factory load used a jacketed 300 grain soft point bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2200 fps with a muzzle energy of 3325 ft. lbs.

Teddy Roosevelt, President of the United States and Medal of Honor winner for his actions in leading his men up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, popularized the Winchester Model 1895 rifle and the .405 Winchester cartridge, which he called "Big Medicine." He took three .405 Model 1895's to Africa with him on his famous safari in 1910. His exploits in Africa were widely reported in U.S. newspapers and magazines at the time, and he later wrote a book about his African adventures. T.R. used the big .405 Winchester cartridge on a variety of African game including lion, Cape buffalo, elephant, and a huge rhino. He was widely quoted as declaring, "The Winchester .405 is, at least for me personally, the medicine gun for lions." Today, while there are better calibers for thick skinned dangerous game, the .405 Winchester is still a nearly perfect caliber for large dangerous predators like lion, tiger, and grizzly bear.

T.R. was an experienced hunter, although bothered by poor eyesight, and appreciated the fast repeat shot capability of Winchester lever action rifles. He is quoted in an article in the January 2002 issue of American Rifleman magazine as saying (rather modestly) that he did not "know how to shoot well, but I know how to shoot often."

In 1985 Browning marketed a limited edition of Model 1895 rifles in .30-40 Krag, made for them by Miroku of Japan. In 2001 the Miroku-made Model 1895 came back, this time wearing the Winchester name and chambered for the .405 Winchester cartridge. And it 2003 Ruger announced that the .405 Winchester cartridge was being added to the list of cartridges available in their Number 1 Tropical Stainless single shot rifle. (For more on Ruger No. 1 rifles, see my rifle review "Modern Classic: The Ruger No. 1.")

The new Grade I Winchester Model 1895 rifle lists for over $1000 in 2001, so it is not inexpensive. It is a traditional rear-locking lever action fed from a fixed box magazine rather than a magazine tube under the barrel. John Browning designed this rifle specifically for high intensity cartridges with pointed (spitzer) bullets. The modern version sports a 24" barrel, although the original was most commonly supplied with a 28" barrel. This rifle is also available in .270 Winchester and .30-06 Spfd., but there is no provision for scope mounting.

The new 1895 sports a checkered walnut forearm and butt stock with (thank goodness) a flat "shotgun" style buttplate. It weighs 8 pounds empty, which is a good thing as the .405 Winchester is not a mild cartridge by any means. For many years it was the most powerful of all American smokeless powder rifle cartridges, not far behind some of the famous British big bore cartridges for double rifles.

An article about the new Winchester Model 1895 rifle in the same issue of the American Rifleman magazine cited above reported that the .405 rifle averaged 5 shot groups of about 2" at 50 yards (best group ran just under 1") with Hornady factory loads. This was achieved with the rather crude factory supplied iron sights, consisting of a semi-buckhorn rear sight and gold bead front sight.

The Big Three ammunition companies have not loaded .405 Winchester ammunition for decades. But new factory loaded ammunition is available from the Old Western Scrounger (at very high prices--around $50-$75/box of 20). These cartridges are loaded with 300 grain jacketed soft point bullets at a chronographed velocity of 2232 fps. with 3318 ft. lbs. of energy, according to the American Rifleman article. Average group size was about 2 1/3 inches at 50 yards, and the recoil energy was reported to be 30 ft. lbs.

Hornady offers a factory load for the .405 Win. with a 300 grain RNSP jacketed bullet. The Hornady load has a chronographed velocity of 2115 fps from a new Model 1895 rifle. The energy of this load is 2,980 ft. lbs. Recoil energy amounts to 27.6 ft. lbs. All figures quoted from the same American Rifleman article.

Loaded ammunition is also available from Safari Arms. I have no reports on or details about these loads, but it would be worth investigating.

RCBS has reloading dies (#23608) and shell holders (#24) for the .405 Winchester. The rim of the .405 case is unique, so no other shell holder will work.

The maximum overall length of the .405 Winchester cartridge is 3.175" The overall case length is supposed to be 2.583" (trim brass to this length) and the bullet diameter is .411". Current SAAMI specs call for a maximum mean pressure of 34,000 psi for the .405 Winchester. Note that some of the bullets mentioned in the paragraph below and other .411" bullets on the market, particularly spitzer types and the heavy 400 grain numbers, may be too long to seat normally and maintain the 3.175" overall cartridge length specified for the .405 Win. Check this out before attempting to load any bullet not intended specifically for the .405 Winchester cartridge.

Reloaders can get new unfired brass and 300 grain JSP bullets (SD .254) from the Old Western Scrounger. Both are expensive. Brass is also available from Bertram Brass of Australia. Hornady is offering both brass and 300 grain flat point jacketed bullets (SD .254), presumably the same as used in their .405 factory loads. Woodleigh offers a premium Weldcore soft nose bullet specifically for the .405 Winchester (Cat. #71), a 300 grain RN-JSP (SD .254, BC .194). Barnes offers a .300 grain pointed X-Bullet (SD .254, BC .401) and a 325 grain pointed X-Bullet, plus 350 grain (SD .296) and 400 grain (SD .338) solids in .411" diameter; all of these bullets are currently too long for the .405 Win. if crimped in the cannelure, but Barnes says that future production will have crimping grooves appropriate for use in the .405. Huntington's has 300 grain cast lead bullets that come pre-lubed and with crimped on gas checks for the .405 Win.

For practice or deer loads, it should also be possible to use .410" diameter jacketed bullets intended for the .41 Magnum revolver cartridge. These usually weigh 200-220 grains. Start with reduced velocity loads if you experiment with revolver bullets in a .405 rifle. Be aware that rifle velocities may strip the jacket from some pistol bullets, causing a dangerous barrel obstruction. Speer, for example, warns against using their 3/4 jacket SWC style pistol bullets in rifles.

The Woodleigh Weldcore 300 grain soft point would seem to be an excellent choice for a very large or dangerous game hunting bullet for the .405 Win. The solid copper Barnes 300 grain spitzer X-Bullet should provide the flattest trajectory in the caliber, and completely controlled expansion. These are expensive bullets, however, and for most purposes I would probably try to find something cheaper to shoot. The most obvious choice for all-around use in the caliber is probably the Hornady 300 grain JFP bullet. The non-expanding .410" Sierra 220 grain FPJ match bullet for the .41 Magnum revolver might handle the relatively high velocities achieved in a .405 rifle better than most pistol bullets, and be a reasonably priced practice and plinking bullet. These are the bullets I would probably experiment with first if I owned a new .405 M-1895 rifle.

IMR-3031 powder has always had an excellent reputation in the .405, and would probably be a good powder with which to start. Winchester 748 also has interesting possibilities (see next paragraph).

The January 2002 issue of American Rifleman magazine cited above also had an article by Brice Towsley on reloading for the new .405 M-1895 Winchester. He reported that 56 grains of IMR-3031 powder behind the 300 grain Woodleigh bullet in Bertram brass gave a chronographed velocity of 2184 fps. He also had good success with 58 grains of Winchester 748 powder (suggested by Hornady!) in Hornady brass behind the 300 grain Hornady bullet. This combination chronographed at 2067 fps and provided excellent accuracy, with 1.6" groups at 50 yards (presumably with factory iron sights). Towsley used CCI large rifle primers for all loads.

IMR-3031, IMR-4064, and H-4895 powders can be used to duplicate the modern factory loads. My old Lyman Reloading Handbook, 43rd Edition (Copyright 1964) shows a number of loads for the 300 grain jacketed bullet in .405 Win. The best velocities were achieved with IMR-3031 powder (45 grains for 1750 fps and 57 grains for 2250 fps), H-4895 powder (48 grains for 1730 fps and 60 grains for 2230 fps), and IMR-4064 powder (47 grains for 1760 fps and 59 grains for 2260 fps.) The barrel length these velocities were taken in is unspecified, but was probably 24", since that was the most common length for the old .405 M-1895 rifle. All of these are old loads using unknown brass and primers, so start with the minimum loads and work up gradually to heavier loads). Watch carefully for signs of excessive pressure or velocity.

The same Lyman Handbook shows reduced power loads for a 290 grain hard cast lead bullet (#412263) using 25 grains Hercules/Alliant 2400 powder for 1500 fps, 26 grains of IMR-4227 for 1520 fps, and 26 grains of IMR-4198 powder for 1390 fps.

Full power factory or handloads make the .405 Winchester suitable for all North American game, and most large or dangerous game worldwide. Teddy Roosevelt's "Big Medicine" lives again.

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Copyright 2001, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.