Compared: "Sporterized" Military Cartridges (Includes the 7.5x55 Swiss, .30-40 U.S. Krag, 7.62x54R Russian, 7.65x53 Belgian/Argentine Mauser, .303 British and 7.7x58 Japanese)
By Chuck Hawks
The Empire of Japan adopted the 7.7x58mm cartridge in 1939. The other five cartridges included in this review were introduced late in the 19th Century and are among the first generation of smokeless powder cartridges. The U.S. (Krag), Russian (Mosin-Nagant) and British (Lee-Enfield) cartridges are rimmed, while the Mauser, Swiss (Schmidt Rubin) and Japanese (Arisaka) numbers are rimless; all are of bottleneck design. The result is that the Belgian Mauser, Swiss and Japanese cartridges are modern looking despite their age, while the three rimmed cartridges definitely look outdated. The Swiss and Krag cartridges are .30 caliber and use .308" diameter bullets, while the other four are .303 caliber and use .311"-.312" diameter bullets. All but the .30-40 were retired from active duty in the years following the Second World War; the Krag was retired by the U.S. Army prior to the First World War. Today, the .303 British is, by a wide margin, the most popular of these cartridges.
For the recreational shooter, what these six cartridges have in common is that they are chambered in military rifles that were sold in large numbers as surplus on the U.S. market. Many of these obsolescent rifles have been sporterized and turned into inexpensive hunting rifles. Factory loaded ammunition is available and reloaders usually have no problem finding brass and bullets. All of these old soldiers fall into the "all-around" category of big game hunting cartridges, meaning that with appropriate bullets they are suitable for CXP2 and CXP3 size game. Their powder capacity is roughly comparable to that of the modern .308 Winchester. The primary factor limiting the performance of most of these cartridges is the rather weak actions of some the rifles in which they were chambered, which restricts their allowable maximum average pressure (MAP).
Bullets weighing from 150 to 180 grains are generally the most useful for civilian hunting applications in all of these sporterized cartridges. For more information about the individual calibers, please see the cartridge articles on the Rifle Cartridges page.
150 grain bullets are available for our comparison calibers, are a good choice for hunting CXP2 game (deer, antelope, goats, sheep and black bear) and the seventh edition of the popular Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading lists loads using 150 grain bullets for all of these cartridges. Therefore, this comparison will be based on maximum Hornady reloading data for 150 grain SP bullets. This data has the additional advantage of being similar to factory loads for these cartridges. The .30-40 Krag and 7.5x55 Swiss use .30 caliber (.308") bullets, while the 7.62x54R Russian, 7.65x53 Mauser, 7.7x58 Japanese and .303 British are all, regardless of nomenclature, .303 caliber cartridges and use .312" bullets. It is a historical fact that before WW II .303 caliber military cartridges were more common than their .30 caliber counterparts. Even today, the most widely distributed military cartridge in the world, the 7.62x39 AK-47 round, is nominally a .303.
We will compare these sporterized cartridges based on velocity, energy, trajectory, killing power and recoil. The ballistic coefficient, sectional density and cross-sectional area of 150 grain .30 caliber (.308") and .303 caliber (.312") spitzer bullets are so similar that, for big game hunting purposes, they can be disregarded.
Velocity is one of the common criteria used to compare rifle cartridges. It is the most important factor in calculating kinetic energy and, other factors being equal, significantly flattens trajectory. Some feel that a high velocity bullet impact creates a "shock" effect on the animal's nervous system that can result in rapid incapacitation or death, although this is not proven and not all authorities agree with this thesis. Here are the velocities in feet-per-second (fps) for maximum loads using 150 grain bullets at the muzzle, 100, 200 and 300 yards.
The cartridges starting their bullets at 2700-2800 fps offer similar performance downrange. This is a very useful muzzle velocity range for a big game hunting cartridge. Note that the velocity potential of the .303 caliber 7.65x53 Mauser, 7.7x58 Jap and .303 British are identical with this bullet weight.
Only the .30-40 is markedly inferior to the other cartridges and the Krag rifle is inferior to the other service rifles, which is why the U.S. Army abandoned the .30-40 Krag in favor of the .30-06 well before the start of WW I. Regardless, the .30-40 is a good CXP2 hunting cartridge.
Kinetic energy powers bullet penetration and expansion and is a major component of killing power. Energy is expressed in foot-pounds (ft. lbs.). Here are the kinetic energy figures for our comparison loads from the muzzle (ME) to 300 yards.
The 7.5x55 and 7.62x54R are slightly superior to the .303, 7.7x58 and 7.65x53 in terms of kinetic energy. If, as is sometimes stated, an elk bullet should be carrying at least 1200 ft. lbs. of remaining energy at impact, then these five all have the potential to be competent elk cartridges. The .303 British, in particular, has accounted for a large number of North American elk and similar size animals around the world. Usually bullets in the 165-180 grain range would be chosen for hunting large animals. Only the .30-40, handicapped by its relatively low maximum operating pressure, trails the other entries, but it should be noted that the .30-40 has also served to harvest a large number of North American elk.
The flatter the bullet's trajectory, the easier it is to place accurately at extended ranges. Since bullet placement is of over riding importance in killing power, a reasonably flat trajectory is important to the hunter. Here are the trajectory figures for our six cartridges based on a 200 yard zero with scoped rifles.
Once again, the Swiss and Russian cartridges are the top performers, but not by much. 4/5" difference in bullet drop at 300 yards, compared to the Mauser, British and Japanese cartridges, is unlikely to be noticed in the field. The .30-40 is about a 240 yard cartridge in terms of its maximum point blank range (+/- 3"), while the others have MPBR's around 265 yards.
There have been many attempts to quantify and compare the killing power of rifle bullets. One of the most recent, and among the best, is Hornady HITS (Hornady Index of Terminal Standards). It considers multiple factors including 100 yard impact velocity, bullet weight, sectional density and bullet diameter to derive a 100 yard killing power score. HITS have a positive correlation with reality and are easily calculated on the Hornady web site. Cartridges and loads that score less than 500 HITS are suitable only for small game; cartridges/loads that score 501-900 HITS are for medium size game (CXP2); cartridges/loads that score 901-1500 HITS are for large game (CXP3); cartridges/loads that score in excess of 1500 HITS qualify as dangerous game (CXP4) cartridges. Here are the 100 yard HITS scores for our comparison loads.
As you can see, the killing power of these loads is excellent for hunting medium game (deer, antelope, sheep, goats and black bear), which is what you would expect from 150 grain bullets in these cartridges. Merely switching to 165-180 grain bullets will elevate them to the large game category, hence their reputation as all-around hunting cartridges.
Since the momentum of every action must have an equal reaction, recoil is the price we pay for shooting. Recoil is poisonous to accuracy and must be carefully considered when selecting a hunting rifle/cartridge combination. The inherent killing power of any hunting rifle is moot if the shooter cannot get the bullet into an animal's vitals. Here are the approximate free recoil energy (in ft. lbs.) and velocity (in fps) figures for our comparison cartridges fired in nine pound rifles.
As with the other performance categories, there is not a vast difference separating these loads. The Russian and the Swiss kick a little harder than the British, Belgian and Japanese cartridges. What difference there is favors the .30-40 Krag. Lower ballistics also means less recoil.
Surplus Military Rifles
The Model 1892 Krag-Jorgenson bolt action rifle, military home of the .30-40 cartridge, locks with a single lug (the root of the bolt handle serves as a secondary safety lug) and uses a peculiar five-shot magazine that is loaded (slowly) from the right side of the rifle. This is a weak action with inferior metallurgy, heat treating and erratic bore dimensions compared to the Model 1903 Springfield rifle that replaced it. The Krag was also inferior to most of the service rifles adopted by the other major powers prior to the outbreak of WW I. The Army version of the .30-40 (both the rifle and cartridge were rejected by the Navy and Marines) launched a 220 grain RN bullet at a MV of approximately 2100 fps.
The Model 1891 (Argentine) Mauser is perhaps the most commonly encountered surplus rifle in 7.65x53mm. It was based on the Mauser 1889 (Belgian) bolt action design and chambered for the same cartridge. The Model 1889, 1890 and 1891 Mauser actions cock on closing the bolt and are not as strong as the Model 1909, also found in 7.65x53mm, which was based on the famous Model '98 action. Maximum loads should be approached with caution in Model 1891 and earlier Mausers. They are, however, superior to the Krag-Jorgenson action.
The Russian Army adopted the Mosin-Nagant turn bolt rifle and the 7.62x54R cartridge in 1891. It remained in Russian/Soviet service through the Russo-Japanese War, the Winter War with Finland and both World Wars. Mosin-Nagant rifles were supplied to "Republican" (Communist) forces during the Spanish Civil War. Various versions of the Mosin-Nagant have been produced by the nations of China, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Poland and the rifle was used by virtually all of the Soviet satellite and client states. Finland also adopted the Mosin-Nagant rifle and the same cartridge, but with a .30 caliber (.308" diameter) bullet. The Finnish version of the cartridge is known as the 7.62x53R. Mosin-Nagant rifles were produced by the Russians in large numbers (17.4 million during WW II) and by various allies, including Remington and Winchester in the USA during WW I. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, large numbers of Mosin-Nagant rifles appeared on the surplus market and many are in use today by hunters and recreational shooters.
The famous British Lee-Enfield is another obsolete, rear locking, bolt action that cocks on closing. However, it is a smooth, relatively strong action that can be cycled very quickly for follow-up shots. It served as the main battle rifle of the UK from 1895 to 1957 and is still in limited use today in some third world countries. From 1907 onwards the SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) became the service standard of the British Empire. The SMLE was intended for high velocity ammunition loaded with spitzer bullets and it is the various SMLE (and later) versions of the Lee-Enfield that are suitable for use as sporters. The specialized No. 5 Mk. 1 "Jungle Carbine" model, intended for use in SE Asia and the Pacific Islands during WW II, has a shorter barrel with flash hider, lightened receiver and half-stock. It is the handiest variation for use as a hunting rifle, but because it is two pounds lighter than a regular infantry rifle, it kicks much harder. A lightweight .303 is not fun to shoot!
The Schmidt Rubin straight pull, bolt action rifle and the 7.5x55mm cartridge were initially adopted by the Swiss in 1889. The basic straight pull action design was employed in the Models 1889, 1896/11, 1911 and 31. These are very well made and exceptionally accurate service rifles. The K31 is the most desirable from the hunter's perspective and it remained in service into the 1970's. Its bolt/chamber design fully supports the case head (earlier models did not) and it is consequently safer with full power loads. Maximum loads have caused catastrophic failures in Model 1889, 1896/11 and 1911 rifles. The Model 11/7.5x55 Schmidt Rubin cartridge remains the standard service cartridge of Switzerland, having been adapted to the current Model 57 assault rifle.
The Japanese 7.7mm Type 99 Arisaka service rifle was adopted in 1939. This is an ugly, but very strong, action. After the war, extensive testing to destruction demonstrated that the Type 99 Arisaka was actually the strongest of all the bolt action rifles used in that conflict. The 7.7x58mm is a well designed cartridge of the modern type and its case capacity is greater than the .303 British. The Japanese Army service round was loaded with a 184 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2390 fps, which failed to take full advantage of the cartridge's potential. Much better would have been a 150 grain bullet at 2700 fps, like the load compared in this article.
Summary and Conclusion
All of these cartridges are obsolescent except for the 7.5x55 Schmidt Rubin, which has never become popular outside of Switzerland. The .303 British is the only Top 20 best selling hunting cartridge among them. However, their ballistic performance is impressive. They are often compared to the modern .308 Winchester and, except for the .30-40 Krag, it is a valid comparison. The 7.5x55, in fact, offers ballistics identical to the .308 Win. Anyone who started hunting with one of these sporterized army rifles and is pleased by its performance, but is ready to move up to a new hunting rifle, would do well to consider the .308 Winchester.
The rimless 7.5x55, 7.65x53 and 7.7x58 cartridges are well adapted to modern firearms with double column box magazines. The .30-40, 7.65x54R and .303 British cartridges, due to their rimmed cases, must be loaded in magazines so that the rim of each cartridge is always in front of the rim of the cartridge directly below it in the magazine. Neglecting to do so will result in a failure to feed that ties-up the rifle. The rimless cartridges have no such requirement and can be rapidly thumbed into a magazine without regard to precise rim positioning.
In North America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa, .303 British factory loaded ammunition is more readily available than any of the other calibers in this comparison. After all, the .303 was the WW II service cartridge of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as the UK. In addition, with some 17 million rifles produced, there are probably more used .303 British rifles floating around than any of the other service rifles except the Mosin-Nagant. If all you can afford is a surplus military rifle (the exact position in which I found myself during my sophomore year in college), the .303 British is one of the better choices. It is a potent cartridge and its ammunition is widely distributed.
Copyright 2010, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.