Compared: .405 Winchester and .444 Marlin
By Chuck Hawks
The .405 Winchester was introduced at the end of the 19th Century for the then new Winchester Model 1895 Lever action rifle. The 1895 was a box magazine fed design intended for use with modern high intensity cartridges, and it was available in .30-40 Krag and .30-06 Springfield as well as .405 and other cartridges. That makes it over 100 years old as I write these words.
The .444 Marlin was introduced much later, in 1964, for the big bore version of the Marlin 336 action called the new Model 1895. It is over 40 years old at this time of this writing. Despite their roughly 60 year difference in age, these two cartridges bear a superficial resemblance to each other, although the .405 case is .358" longer than the .444 case. Both are rimmed, straight wall cases for big bore cartridges.
The Speer Reloading Manual #13 shows that their .429"/300 grain Uni-Cor soft point bullet can be driven to a MV of 2200 fps from a 24" Marlin barrel. That means ME of 3224 ft. lbs., identical to the velocity and energy of the famous .405 Winchester load (also 300 grains at 2200 fps) that Teddy Roosevelt called his "big medicine" and used for shooting lion and rhino in Africa. So a comparison of these two big bore cartridges seems reasonable.
In this comparison we will use a Hornady factory load for each caliber. Although one pointed (spitzer) bullet is available from Hornady in each caliber, neither is a long range cartridge and they don't benefit much from using a spitzer bullet. .444 Marlin factory loads are available in bullet weights of 225 grains (Stars & Stripes), 240 grains (Remington), 265 grains (Hornady, Stars & Stripes), 280 grains (Cor-Bon), and 305 grains (Cor-Bon). Of these, the 240 and 265 grain bullets are the most popular. .405 Winchester factory loads are available only with 300 grain bullets (Hornady). Most of the loads in both calibers use flat point (FP) bullets.
So, to represent .444 Marlin factory loads we use the Hornady Light Magnum load using a 265 grain Interlock FP bullet at a MV of 2325 fps. We will also include the popular Remington 240 grain soft point (FP) bullet at a MV of 2350 fps; this is essentially the deer and black bear (CXP2 game) load for the .444 Marlin. To represent .444 handloads with heavy bullets we will use the aforementioned Speer Uni-Cor soft point (FP) bullet in front of enough H335 powder to drive it at a MV of 2200 fps, a maximum load.
To represent the .405 Winchester we need use only one load, since the Hornady Custom Rifle factory load in this caliber uses the same Interlock FP bullet at the same velocity (2200 fps) as full power handloads. As far as I am aware, 300 grains is the only bullet weight available to reloaders in .405 caliber.
We will compare these selected loads in ballistic coefficient, velocity and energy, trajectory, sectional density, bullet cross-sectional area, killing power, and recoil. So let's get started.
Ballistic Coefficient (BC)
BC is a measure of how efficiently a bullet flies through the air. The less air drag, the higher the ballistic coefficient. BC is important downrange, as a more aerodynamic bullet will retain more of its velocity and energy compared to a less efficient bullet. Here are the manufacturer's ballistic coefficient numbers for our selected bullets.
The 300 grain .405 bullet has the highest BC and the 240 grain .444 bullet the lowest. The significance of these numbers will come into play as we examine the downrange velocity, energy, and trajectory of these bullets in our selected loads.
Velocity and Energy
Velocity and energy are closely linked, since velocity is the most important factor in calculating kinetic energy. Velocity is important because a higher velocity flattens trajectory and increases the energy delivered to the target.
Kinetic energy is important because that is what powers bullet expansion and penetration. It is a significant contributor to, and a commonly used indicator of, killing power. Here are the velocity (in fps) / energy (in ft. lbs.) figures for our selected loads from the muzzle to 300 yards.
These numbers tell us that the 265 grain .444 bullet is the velocity king among our loads, at least out to 200 yards, which as we shall see is about the maximum practical range for both calibers. The stubby 240 grain .444 bullet starts out the fastest, but sheds speed so quickly that by 100 yards it has fallen into last place in velocity.
The 300 grain bullets in each caliber have an advantage in energy over the lighter bullets at all ranges. Although the .405/300 has a slight advantage in downrange energy over the .444/300, all of these loads strike a powerful blow at 100 yards.
Ballistics tables traditionally show the trajectory of .405 Win. and .444 Marlin factory loads by assuming a 100 yard zero. Here are the standard trajectory figures (in inches) for our four loads fired from scoped rifles.
These numbers are not encouraging. The 265 grain .444 load has a minor advantage in trajectory, but it amounts to only 1/2" at 200 yards over the .405/300 load. What these numbers really illustrate is that while none of these are long range loads, 100 yards is too close a zero distance.
A better and more realistic way to zero a hunting rifle cartridge is for its maximum point blank range (MPBR). This allows a maximum bullet rise above the line of sight of 3"; the MPBR number is the distance at which the bullet falls 3" below the line of sight. So from the muzzle to the MPBR, the bullet is never more than 3" above or below the line of sight. Here are the MPBR figures for our selected loads.
That is more like it. We have changed our 100 yard cartridges into 200 yard cartridges just by sighting in our rifles to take advantage of their optimum trajectory. The 265 grain .444 load has a slender advantage in MPBR, but none of these loads can be pushed much beyond 200 yards. The .405 and .444 are basically short to medium range rifle cartridges. Their fundamental purpose is to knock over big animals at close range.
Bullet weight has no bearing on cross-sectional (frontal) area, only caliber. The cross-sectional area of a hunting bullet is important because, other factors being equal, the fatter bullet makes a wider wound channel and damages more tissue. This translates to quicker and more humane kills. The SAAMI specified bullet diameter of .444 Marlin bullets is .429". The bullet diameter of .405 Winchester bullets is .411". Following are the frontal areas of each in square inches.
Obviously, if expansion percentage is identical, a .429" bullet will always punch a slightly larger diameter hole than a .411" bullet. That is an advantage for the .444 Marlin.
Sectional density is defined as a bullet's weight (in pounds) divided by the square of its diameter (in inches). Sectional density is important because the greater the SD, the longer a bullet is for its weight and, other factors being equal, a long skinny bullet penetrates better than a short fat bullet. Penetration is an important factor in the length of the wound channel, the amount of tissue disrupted and destroyed, and thus killing power. When shooting large, tough (CXP3) animals, penetration is especially important; it is much less so when hunting CXP2 game. Here are the sectional densities for the bullets used in the loads compared in this article.
The smaller diameter 300 grain .405 Winchester bullet tops the list in terms of sectional density. This should be the best penetrating bullet in our comparison, other factors such as expansion percentage being equal. The light for caliber 240 grain .444 Marlin bullet places last in terms of SD and should be confined to use on CXP2 class game, where it has earned a reputation as a quick killer.
The hardest factor to quantify is killing power, and all attempts to do so must be approximations. We know that energy, penetration, and bullet frontal area (among others) are all important factors in killing power, but not exactly what is the best blend of these factors.
Optimum Game Weight (OGW) is a system devised by Edward A. Matunas to express the killing power of rifle cartridges in terms of an animal's live weight and the optimum distance at which it can be taken with a given cartridge and load. Thus it compares the killing power of different cartridges and loads in a way that is relevant in the field.
The OGW formula is not perfect, but when used to compare similar rifle cartridges, as we are doing, it seems to have a positive correlation with reality. The figures below represent optimum game weight in pounds and distance in yards from the muzzle to 300 yards.
These OGW figures merely drive home the point already made by the trajectory numbers. The .444/240 is a 200 yard CXP2 game load. Despite its rather formidable 100 yard OGW, its rather lightly constructed bullet keeps it in the deer and black bear class.
The other three loads are 200 yard cartridges for hunting caribou and black bear, and they are best at something like 150 yards or less when hunting larger animals such as elk, their natural purpose. The Hornady .444/265 and .405/300 grain bullets were developed specifically for their respective calibers and are recommended by Hornady for use on large game (presumably elk and moose). However, Hornady does not recommend these bullets for use on large, dangerous game. Speer makes no specific recommendations, but the text in the .444 Marlin section of their No. 13 reloading manual implies that the construction of their 300 grain Uni-Cor soft point allows it to penetrate well enough for reliable grizzly stopping.
Recoil Energy and Velocity
This is the category that fans of big bores and heavy bullets like to gloss over, but it is actually of crucial importance. Bullet placement is, by far, the most important factor in killing power, and rifle recoil is the #1 enemy of accurate bullet placement. Here are some approximate recoil energy (in foot pounds) and velocity (in fps) figures for our selected loads when fired in 8.5 pound rifles.
More than anything else, these numbers demonstrate why the Remington 240 grain Express load for the .444 Marlin is the best selling load in the caliber. It is the only load that is comparable in recoil to a small bore magnum caliber, such as the 7mm Rem. Mag. 150 grain factory load fired in an 8.5 pound rifle. The other loads are well above typical .30-06 and 7mm Magnum recoil levels.
Both the recoil energy and recoil velocity of the 265-300 grain loads is high. The loads using 300 grain bullets are particularly unpleasant to shoot. In general, these big bores kick comparably to a powerful medium bore caliber such as the .350 Rem. Mag. The .405 and .444 are also roughly comparable to the .350 Mag. in killing power at short range, so I guess it is a fair comparison all the way around.
Summary and Conclusion
The 300 grain .405 Win. bullet has an advantage in sectional density over the 300 grain .444 Marlin bullet, but the .444's bullet has an off-setting advantage in cross-sectional area, and their muzzle velocity is the same. That is why, at the muzzle, they are equal in OGW (killing power).
Downrange the .405/300 achieves a small advantage over the .444/300 due to its bullet's marginally higher BC, but I doubt that anything could live on the difference. In recoil they are virtually equal, so the two loads are basically a toss-up.
The original Winchester Model 95 rifle was discontinued before W.W. II, but Winchester briefly brought it back in .405 caliber as a limited production item in 2002. At that time they stated that it would remain available in small quantities. Unfortunately, it did not appear in subsequent Winchester catalogs. As I write these words the only rifle regularly produced in .405 Winchester is the Ruger No. 1H Tropical single shot, available in both blued and stainless steel versions.
Both the Model 95 and the No. 1H are very thin on the ground. On the other hand, the .444 Marlin cartridge has been continuously offered in the Marlin Model 444 rifle since its introduction in the 1960's, and this rifle is widely distributed and easily available.
Also in the .444 cartridge's favor is the fact that the Model 444 rifle lists for about $350 less than the Ruger No. 1H .405 rifle and has a solid receiver top and side ejection for easy scope mounting. The Ruger No. 1H comes with scope rings, so it is also very easily scoped. But the Winchester Model 95, should you be able to find one, has no provision for scope mounting. Anyone wanting to use a scope should buy either the Marlin or Ruger rifles.
Other deciding factors might be the availability of factory loaded ammunition and reloading components, both of which decidedly favor the .444 Marlin. Reloaders will normally prefer the .444 as there is a much larger supply of brass and a greater selection of bullets and reloading data in the caliber.
In conclusion, these two calibers are quite evenly matched in terms of ballistics. It is other factors that give the .444 Marlin the advantage.
Copyright 2007, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.