(Includes .450 NE, .450 #2 NE, .470 NE,
.500 NE, .577 NE, .600 NE and .700 NE)
By Chuck Hawks
The big bore British Nitro Express cartridges were generally designed for use with cordite smokeless powder in single shot and double barreled rifles. These rifles and cartridges are objects of romance. They bring to mind month long safaris in a sub-Saharan Africa teeming with big game, pith helmets, hunting shirts with cartridge loops over the breast pockets and the simpler and perhaps more honest time before the beginning of the First World War. Somewhat surprisingly, there is still a keen interest in the big bore Nitro Express cartridges and double rifles to shoot them are highly sought after on the used market.
.450 Nitro Express 3 1/4" and .450 #2 Nitro Express
The original .450 Nitro Express was introduced by John Rigby and Co. in 1898 and quickly replaced the previous black powder .450 and earlier elephant rifles of 4 to 10 gauge bore. At the time of the .450 NE's introduction the 8 bore rifle was still in use for hunting thick-skinned dangerous game. These were double rifles weighing about 16 pounds with the bore of an 8 gauge shotgun! An 8 bore rifle generally threw a 1250 grain conical bullet powered by about 300 grains of black powder at a MV of about 1500 fps.
Needless to say, these black powder monstrosities had an enormous kick, compared to which the recoil of the new .450 Express rifles seemed moderate. It was quickly found that the .450's relatively small bullet (480 grains) at comparatively high velocity (2150 fps) killed just as well or better than the slow 8 and 10 bore bullets. The future of the Nitro (British for smokeless powder) Express (British for high velocity) rifle was assured.
The .450 NE case is typical in that it is a rimmed, straight walled design that tapers from a base diameter of .545" to a neck diameter of .479". The rim diameter is .624", the case length is 3.25" and the overall cartridge length is 4.11".
As we have seen, the .450 NE was developed for use on dangerous thick-skinned game in India and Africa. The .450 #2 came after the original .450 NE and uses a slightly longer case with a slightly fatter body and a small shoulder. The ballistics of the two cartridges are identical. All of the Nitro Express cartridges use rimmed (or flanged, as the British say) cases with considerable body taper for reliable extraction from single shot and double barreled rifles.
.450 NE and .450 #2 ammunition is again available from Kynoch with 480 grain solid or soft nose bullets. Among U.S. manufacturers, A-Square and Hornady offer .450 NE loads. A-Square offers a "Triad" of three 465 grain RN bullets (the Lion Load, Dead Tough, and Monolithic Solid) in both calibers. The advertised ballistics of the A-Square loads call for muzzle velocities (MV) of 2190 fps and muzzle energies (ME) of 4952 ft. lbs. From a rifle zeroed at 100 yards, these cartridges have a point blank range of about 150 yards.
The A-Square Handloading Manual Any Shot You Want shows that a 465 grain A-Square RN bullet can be driven to a MV of 2196 fps by 101.0 grains of H4831 powder in the .450 NE 3 1/4" case. That load was chronographed in a 25.5" test barrel using A-Square brass and CCI-250 primers. The maximum average pressure (MAP) measured 30,000 cup.
It takes 118.5 grains of H4831 powder to drive the same 465 grain A-Square bullet to a MV of 2178 fps in the 450 #2 case. Again, A-Square cases and CCI-250 primers were used, this time in a 26" test barrel. The MAP was 25,000 cup.
.470 Nitro Express
The .470 Nitro Express became the most popular of all the British elephant rifle cartridges. It was introduced sometime between 1900 and 1907 by Joseph Lang. It is based on a rimmed case 3.25 inches in length with considerable body tape and a very slight shoulder. The rim diameter is .646". The cartridge uses .475" diameter bullets.
As originally loaded with cordite (British smokeless) powder, it drove a 500 grain bullet at a MV of 2125 fps for ME of 5030 ft. lbs. Performance on thick-skinned dangerous game was, and is, excellent. The recoil of these big boomers is terrific, of course, about 73 ft. lbs. of recoil energy in an 11 pound rifle.
All of the British Nitro Express cartridges became orphans in the 1960's, when the factory production of all centerfire metallic sporting cartridges was discontinued in the UK. Today, A-Square, Nosler, Hornady and Federal Cartridge Company load .470 Nitro Express cartridges in the United States and British Kynoch ammunition is again available. Federal figures for the .470 NE with a 500 grain bullet show a MV of 2150 fps and ME of 5130 ft. lbs. The 100 yard figures are 1890 fps and 4170 ft. lbs.
If zeroed at 100 yards, the 500 grain solid bullet hits 0.8 inch high at 50 yards and 7.8 inches low at 200 yards. Like the .450, the .470 is about a 150 yard cartridge, but dangerous game is almost always shot within 100 yards with double rifles.
According to Any Shot You Want, handloaders with a .470 NE rifle can use the 500 grain RN A-Square bullets in front of 109.5 grains of IMR 4831 powder for a MV of 2158 fps in a 26" test barrel. This load develops a MAP of 37,000 psi. Components included A-Square Brass and CCI-250 primers.
The dissolution of the British Empire after World War II, coupled with the post war economic problems of the UK and the anti-gun stance of the Labor Party, has put most of the fine British gun makers who once built double rifles for the Nitro Express cartridges out of business. Purdey, Holland & Holland, Westley Richards, John Rigby and perhaps others continue to build the occasional double-barreled elephant rifle to special order. Most of these are in more modern calibers, but these makers will also chamber for the .470 Nitro Express. It is believed that the majority of all the British double rifles ever produced are now owned by North American collectors. In Germany, Krieghoff and Merkle offer doubles in .470 NE.
The main drawback to the .470 NE (or any of the Nitro Express cartridges) is the length of the cartridge itself. It was designed for use in double barrel and single shot rifles, not repeaters of any sort, and new double rifles have become prohibitively expensive for all but the very wealthy.
.500 Nitro Express 3" and .577 Nitro Express 3"
Up the scale from the .470 NE are the .500 and .577 NE. Both are based on rimmed, straight walled cases 3" in length and of typical Nitro express style.
These behemouths have never been as popular as the .45-.470 caliber elelphant cartridges, although they are somewhat legendary in Africa. Beretta offers a SxS double in .500 NE and Purdey chambers their double rifle for the .577 NE. I believe that Krieghoff and Merkle doubles are also available in .500 NE. Needless to say, the recoil of a .500 or .577 rifle is not for the faint hearted.
A-Square, Federal, Nosler and Kynoch offer factory loads for the .500 NE. Kynoch offers the choice of a solid or a soft nose bullet, both weighing 570 grains. The A-Square offers a Triad of 570 grain bullets at MV's of 2150 fps and ME's of 5850 ft. lbs. At 100 yards these .50 caliber bullets are traveling at 1928 fps and carrying 4703 ft. lbs. of kinetic energy.
Any Shot You Want shows that the intrepid reloader can pour 113.5 grains of H4831 powder into an A-Square .500 NE case behind a 570 grain A-Square RN bullet, pop in a CCI-250 primer and achieve a MV of 2150 fps in a 26" test barrel. The MAP of that load runs 36,300 psi.
I have read that the fearsome .577 NE is reputed to have the most penetration of all the big bore Nitro Express elephant cartridges. Whether this is true I cannot say. I do know that .577 NE 3" ammunition is offered by A-Square and Kynoch. Kynoch offers 750 grain solid and soft nose bullets. The A-Square loads come with 750 grain bullets at MV's of 2050 fps and 6998 ft. lbs. of ME. At 100 yards the velocity is 1811 fps and the energy is 5463 ft. lbs.
According to Any Shot You Want a 750 grain A-Square bullet can be driven at a MV of 2034 fps by 157.0 grains of H4831 powder in a 26" .577 NE barrel. A-Square cases and CCI-250 primers were used for this load and the MAP was 28,700 psi.
Neither of these are long range calibers and rifles chambered for either are probably best zeroed for 100 yards. The double rifles for both calibers are traditionally equipped with shallow "V" express sights and are customarily used to blast elephants into oblivion at short range.
.600 Nitro Express and .700 Nitro Express
The .600 NE is perhaps the most legendary of all the big bore British rifle cartridgs. It was introduced by the British firm of Jeffery in 1903 as the ultimate cartridge for stopping a charging elephant. It remained the world's most powerful sporting cartridge until the .460 Weatherby was introduced in 1958. Actually, the velocity (and thus the 8000 ft. lb. of muzzle energy) of the .460 was considerably over stated in early Weatherby catalogs. Present Weatherby figures call for a muzzle energy (ME) of 7504 ft. lbs. with a 500 grain bullet, which is slightly less than the 7596 ft. lbs. claimed for the original .600 NE's 900 grain bullet.
The .600 NE is based on a unique case designed from the ground up by W.J. Jeffery. It is a rimmed, straight walled case 3" in length with the colossal rim diameter of .805", a base diameter of .697" and a neck diameter of .648". The overall loaded length of the cartridge is 3.7".
Not too long ago I read that the London firm of Holland & Holland is once again chambering double rifles for the .600 NE cartridge. There is supposed to be a substantial quantity of .600 NE cartridges in storage in Britain. Heym of Germany offers a bolt action rifle in .600 NE! The .600 NE factory load uses a 900 grain bullet at 1950 fps with 7600 ft. lbs. of energy at the muzzle. For many years it was the most powerful of the Nitro Express rifle cartridges.
Kynoch and A-Square offer factory loads for the .600 NE with ballistics identical to the standard British load. Their 900 grain bullets get to 100 yards traveling at 1680 fps and carrying 5634 ft. lbs. of energy. A rifle zeroed at 100 yards should put any of these bullets less than 1" high at 50 yards, dead on at 100 yards and about 4" low at 150 yards.
Any Shot You Want reveals that the reloader with a .600 NE rifle can load a 900 grain A-Square bullet in front of 158.0 grains of H4831 powder in an A-Square case primed with a CCI-250 primer and expect to get a MV of 1943 fps from a 26" barrel. The MAP of this load is 32,100 psi.
This is not a cartridge for the faint hearted. I once calculated that the .600 NE in a 12 pound rifle generates around 145 ft. lbs. of recoil! Fortunately, most .600 rifles weighed 16 to 18 pounds, which helped to control the recoil. These were "stopping" rifles, not general purpose elephant hunting rifles, and they were almost always held in reserve and carried by a gun bearer until needed. This was fortunate for the hunter, but I have never read the poor gunbearer's opinion. In any case, a 16 pound rifle could not have been too handy.
In 1988 the .700 Nitro Express, a caliber even more powerful than the .600 NE, was developed by Jim Bell and William Feldstein of California. Holland and Holland designed and built a double rifle in which to shoot the .700 NE. I saw one of these monsters at the Holland and Holland factory booth during the 2001 Las Vegas International Sporting Arms Show. The H&H representative told me that the rifle was valued at about $250,000 and in 2001 the .700 NE cartridges cost about $100 each. Clearly, this would not be the caliber to choose for casual plinking. This project was financed by Mr. Feldstein, who wanted to own the most powerful elephant rifle in the world. H&H has subsequently sold several of these .700 Nitro Express rifles.
Like the .600 NE, the case of the .700 NE is a unique creation not based on any previous case. It is a rimmed, straight walled case 3.5" long that tapers from a base diameter of .780" to a neck diameter of .728". It uses standard American style Boxer primers. Its rim diameter is .890" and the overall cartridge length is 4.2". The bullet diameter is .700".
Kynoch and A-Square are the only ammunition firms listing .700 NE factory loads, although Holland & Holland is also a source. A-Square advertises a 1000 grain solid bullet at a MV of 1900 fps and a ME of 8015 ft. lbs. The 100 yard figures are 1669 fps and 6188 ft. lbs.
The A-Square ballistics for the .700 NE look like this: +5.8" at 100 yards, 0 at 200 yards, -22.2" at 300 yards. I can't imagine a reason for zeroing one of these rifles at 200 yards. Far better to zero at 100 yards and cut that midrange rise down to about 1" at 50 yards.
Due to their rainbow trajectory and the indifferent accuracy of the double rifles in which they are usually seen (2" groups at 50 yards with both barrels are pretty good), all of the big Nitro Express calibers are usually considered, at most, about 100 yard big game cartridges. In addition, the shallow express rear sight and bead front sight with which most express rifles are equipped were not designed for long range accuracy.
Most game shot with such rifles is killed within 50 yards. Sometimes dangerous game is killed within a few paces, the shooter merely pointing the big double rifle like a shotgun. That kind of fast, close range shooting is where the double rifle and the big bore Nitro Express cartridges excell.
Copyright 2001, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.