Compared: 9.3x74R and .405 Winchester
By Chuck Hawks
Here we have an interesting pair of early smokeless powder, rimmed cartridges. Both are famous for their African exploits, but these days they are more commonly used for hunting large North American and European game. They make fine bear, moose, elk, red stag and wild boar cartridges as well as being suitable for all African CXP3 game. These cartridges are somewhat less powerful than the .375 H&H Magnum, which today is generally considered the minimum for use on dangerous CXP4 game, but the .405 and especially the 9.3x74R have performed credibly on such game. Ruger has seen fit to chamber their fine No. 1 falling block rifle for both the 9.3x74R and the .405 Winchester, which spurred this comparison. In addition, the .405 is available in the Winchester Model 1895 lever action (its original home) and the 9.3x74R is available in a variety of Merkel, Beretta and other European rifles and drillings.
Dating to around the turn of the 20th century, the German 9.3x74R was the smokeless powder replacement for the black powder 9.3x72R. This is a very long cartridge with a lot of body taper that is unsuitable for repeating rifles. However, it is ideal for single shot rifles, double-barreled rifles, combination rifle/shotguns and drillings (three barreled rifle/shotguns). All of these types are more popular in Europe and Africa than they are in North America. Merkel of Germany, for example, manufactures all of these types, in addition to bolt action and autoloading repeating rifles.
As with other European cartridges, 9.3mm is the caliber (it translates to .366"), 74mm is the case length and the "R" stands for rimmed. Factory loaded 9.3x74R ammunition is available from Stars & Stripes, A-Square, Norma, RWS, Sellier & Bellot, Nosler Custom and now Hornady, who added it to their loading list in 2007. Reloaders can get 9.3mm bullets from A-Square, Speer, Nosler, Barnes, Swift, Woodleigh and perhaps others. The most common bullet weights include 232 grains, 250 grains, 270 grains, 286 grains and 300 grains. The more or less "standard" 9.3x74mm load for which most double rifles and drillings are regulated drives a 286 grain bullet at about 2360 fps. 286 grain bullets are commonly available in both soft point and solid (FMJ) type. The latter are traditionally chosen for use on dangerous CXP4 game, although most experts today would suggest something more powerful than the 9.3x74R for such use.
At one time the .405 Winchester was the most powerful American factory loaded cartridge. It was immortalized by Teddy Roosevelt during his widely reported African safari as his "lion medicine," but he also used the cartridge on CXP4 game, including rhino.
The .405 Winchester was introduced at the end of the 19th Century for the then new Winchester Model 1895 Lever action rifle. That makes the .405 well over 100 years old as I write these words. The Model 1895 is a box magazine fed design intended for use with high intensity cartridges. The Model 95 was discontinued before WW II, but has been brought back by USRAC and is again available in .405 caliber. It remains a quick firing, powerful rifle suitable for use on large game so long as the shooter can shoot quickly and accurately with iron sights. There is no provision for mounting a scope.
.405 ammunition is not thick on the ground. Hornady offers factory loaded .405 ammunition using 300 grain flat point and spire point Interlock bullets at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2200 fps. Custom .405 Winchester loads are available from Stars & Stripes.
To represent the 9.3x74R in this comparison we will use the Stars & Stripes Custom factory load. This drives an A-Square 286 grain round nose (RN) bullet at a MV of 2360 fps. It is typical of the loads for which most European doubles and drillings are regulated and offers essentially identical ballistics to the Hornady, Norma and A-Square factory loads. This load can be duplicated by reloaders.
As far as I am aware, 300 grains is the only bullet weight available to reloaders in .405 caliber, so the choice of bullet weight is easy. To represent the .405 Winchester we will use the Hornady Custom Rifle factory load using the Interlock FP (flat point) bullet at 2200 fps. This bullet is essentially a round nose design with a flat tip. This load can also be duplicated by reloaders.
In order to compare and evaluate these cartridges we will examine them in terms of velocity, energy, trajectory, bullet sectional density, bullet frontal area, killing power and recoil. Ballistics will be provided from the muzzle to 200 yards because that is about the practical range limit for both cartridges and it seems pointless to extend the "paper" ballistics beyond the useful range of the cartridge. At the end will be a summary of our findings.
Velocity may or may not directly affect killing power, but it is the most important factor in computing kinetic energy. It is also crucial to the bullet's trajectory. Here are the velocities in feet-per-second of our selected loads at the muzzle, 100 yards and 200 yards.
As can be seen from those numbers, the 9.3x74R is clearly the higher velocity cartridge. It starts out 160 fps faster and increases its already substantial velocity advantage as the range increases. At 200 yards it shows a 299 fps advantage over the .405 Win.
Energy is the ability to do work. In the case of a hunting rifle bullet, energy powers penetration and bullet expansion, very important factors in killing power. Here are the energy figures for our representative loads, expressed in foot-pounds.
The 9.3x74R has the advantage in kinetic energy, particularly as the range increases. This advantage results primarily from the higher velocity at which its bullet is driven. Medium bore calibers frequently pack more energy downrange than big bores for just this reason.
Trajectory matters because the more a bullet drops the harder it is to place it precisely at extended ranges. These are short to medium range calibers, normally used within 150 yards, so trajectory is less important than it might be for a long range cartridge. Here are the figures, computed for iron sights 0.8" above the bore line and zeroed at 100 yards.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the 9.3x74R's higher velocity also translates to flatter trajectory. So zeroed, either cartridge is good to about 150 yards, which is a reasonable maximum range for very large or dangerous game. However, these figures show that the 9.3x74 is likely to be the more versatile general purpose cartridge.
The importance of sectional density (SD) is often overlooked, sometimes even by gun writers and experienced hunters who ought to know better. SD, rather than weight, is probably the most meaningful way to compare rifle bullets of different calibers. SD is calculated by dividing a bullet's weight (in pounds) by the square of its diameter (in inches). If you compare bullets of different calibers, as we are doing here, the larger caliber's bullet will have to be heavier to match the SD of the smaller caliber bullet.
Sectional density is important because, given bullets of identical design at identical velocity, the bullet with the greatest SD will penetrate the deepest. The deeper the wound channel (of any given diameter) the more tissue is destroyed and the greater the killing power. Here are the SD numbers for our selected bullet weights.
Bullets with a SD of about .250 or better have proven adequate for all thin-skinned game, including the great bears and big cats, worldwide. Bullets with a SD in excess of .300 are regarded as the most suitable choice for CXP4 game. The excellent .305 SD of the 9.3mm/286 grain bullet is the primary reason why this cartridge has such a good reputation on large and heavy game.
Bullet cross-sectional (frontal) area is important because the wider the wound cavity (of any given depth), the more tissue is destroyed and the greater the killing power. Bullet cross-sectional area is independent of bullet weight. The actual diameter of a 9.3mm bullet is .366" and the diameter of a .405 Win. bullet is .411". (The .405 is named for its bore, not its groove, diameter.) Here are the bullet cross-sectional areas in square inches.
The big bore .405 has a natural, and significant, advantage in cross-sectional area.
OGW Killing Power
Killing power is difficult to quantify due to the mass of variables, not the least of which are the game animal's state of mind when shot and the effect of bullet expansion on the wound channel. Those facts notwithstanding, many gun writers and sundry authorities have tried to devise formulas to estimate the killing power of rifle bullets. In my opinion, one of the best attempts is the "Optimum Game Weight Formula" devised by Edward A. Matunas. It attempts to take into consideration at least some of the various quantifiable factors affecting killing power without trying to prove some special theory about bullet weight, caliber, or velocity. Best of all, it relates killing power to distance and animal weight.
The results of Optimum Game Weight (OGW) are expressed in terms of the range and live animal weight for which a given cartridge is optimum. There is an extensive OGW table on the Tables, Charts and Lists Page of Guns and Shooting Online. Here are OGW figures for our two cartridges and loads.
Both the 9.3x74R and .405 Winchester are powerful cartridges, but the 9.3x74R's higher velocity pays dividends in energy and gives it a significant advantage in OGW killing power. If you were to attempt to bag a dangerous 1000 pound buffalo or brown bear with one of these cartridges, these figures indicate that the 9.3x74R gives you a considerably greater safety margin in terms of the distance from which you can consider shooting (100+ yards for the 9.3x74R compared to 50+ yards for the .405).
The .405 Winchester has a reputation as a hard kicking caliber, while the 9.3x74R has a reputation for relative mildness. This is perhaps due more to the rifles in which they were chambered and the cartridges to which they have traditionally been compared--both favoring the 9.3x74R--than any attributes of the cartridges themselves. The original Model 95 Winchester had a stock poorly designed to cope with heavy recoil and the .405 was not usually compared to the powerful safari cartridges of the day. It was instead compared to contemporary American small and medium bore rifle cartridges, such as the .30-40 Krag and .35 Winchester, so naturally it seemed like it kicked a lot.
The 9.3x74R, on the other hand, was usually supplied in rifles with better designed stocks and it was generally compared to the belted and flanged versions of the .375 H&H Magnum, which are hard kicking cartridges of even greater power than the 9.3x74R. Thus, by comparison, the 9.3x74R seemed like a fairly mild cartridge. Here are some figures for recoil energy in foot pounds (showing how hard the rifle comes back at the shooter) and velocity in feet-per-second (showing how fast the rifle comes back). These figures were calculated for 9 pound rifles.
Both of our calibers come back at the shooter hard, well above the 20 ft. lb. maximum advised for most shooters. However, despite the .405's reputation as a hard kicker, there is 3.4 ft. lb. difference in recoil energy and that difference is noticeable and in the .405's favor. The fact is that anyone can shoot more accurately with a rifle that kicks less and bullet placement is the most important factor in killing power. Lower recoil is one of the .405's principal advantages over the 9.3x74R.
Summary and Conclusion
The 9.3x74R is chambered in more rifles than the .405 Winchester and particularly in double barreled rifles like the Petite Frame Merkel, the type preferred by many African hunters. Both cartridges are offered in the excellent and widely distributed Ruger No. 1 falling block rifle, which makes them available to a great many hunters who otherwise might not consider either caliber. Their ammunition is available, but not widely distributed in North America. (9.3x74R ammunition is more readily available in Europe.) For European hunters the 9.3x74R is more common and the logical choice, but for North American hunters the difference in availability is not great and would probably not be a crucial factor.
In this comparison, the .405 is shown to be superior in cross-sectional area and it delivers less punishment to the shooter (recoil). The latter factor is particularly important and should not be discounted. The 9.3x74R wins the velocity, energy, trajectory, sectional density and OGW killing power comparisons. The hunter seeking a rifle for large African game would probably due well to choose the 9.3x74R over the .405 Winchester.
In the context of North American hunting, with appropriate bullets and proper shot placement, either cartridge is adequate for all large North American game. I would not, however, recommend tackling dangerous game with a single shot rifle unless backed-up by a shooter you trust armed with a "stopping" rifle. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
Copyright 2007, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.