Classic American, British and European Rifle Cartridges
By Chuck Hawks
The introduction of smokeless (nitro) powders near the end of the 19th Century ushered in the era of high velocity rifle cartridges. ("High velocity," in this case, means compared to the previous generation of black powder cartridges.) The new propellant was quickly adapted to both military and civilian cartridges, creating a period of feverish cartridge development.
By the end of the 1950s, almost all of the gaps in the list of factory loaded hunting cartridges had been filled. Subsequent new hunting cartridges would generally duplicate the ballistics of existing cartridges, although often in smaller, larger or different shaped cases. This trend in cartridge "development" continues to this day.
American, British and European cartridge designers created ballistically comparable cartridges for hunting similar size animals. The killing power of these cartridges is, in most cases, quite similar. So is the sectional density of their bullets, although the bullet weight may vary depending on the caliber.
These cartridges are, of course, NOT identical or interchangeable. These classic hunting cartridge are parallel solutions to similar problems, and very good solutions the comparable cartridges below have proven to be.
Small Bore Cartridges (.30-06, .303 Br. and 8x57)
In centerfire rifle cartridges, "small bore" means .22 to .32 caliber. The all-around cartridges for hunting Class 2 and Class 3 animals (deer, elk and the various species of antelope, for example) are generally in the caliber range between .270 (6.8mm) and .32 (8mm). The emphasis for these cartridges, however, remains Class 2 game, which means animals up to about 350 pounds live weight.
Homo sapiens is the size of a medium Class 2 animal, so it is no surprise that the most successful of the smokeless powder infantry cartridges, which saw the US, UK and Germany through two world wars during the first half of the 20th Century, were immediately adapted into hunting cartridges.
The .30-06 Springfield, .303 British and 8x57JS Mauser became very popular big game cartridges, used for hunting around the world. All three use bullets of similar weight and sectional density (SD). Typical .30-06 hunting bullets weigh 150 grains (SD .226) to 220 grains (SD .331). Typical .303 hunting bullets weigh 150 grains (SD .220) to 215 grains (SD .316). Typical 8x57mm hunting bullets weigh 150 grains (SD .205) to 220 grains (SD .301).
All three calibers can drive a 150 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2700-2900 fps and shoot flat enough to qualify as mountain or plains cartridges. Using heavy for caliber bullets with SDs in the .270+ range they offer plenty of penetration for large animals.
The .30-06 and 8x57JS have always been loaded to higher maximum pressures (and typically 100-200 fps higher velocity) than the conservative .303 British, but long use in the field has proven there is actually little difference in the killing power of the three cartridges. Compared: The .30-06 Springfield, .303 British and 8x57mm JS Mauser provides a detailed comparison of these three cartridges.
Medium Bore Cartridges (.338 Win. Mag., 9.3x62, 9.3x74R and .375 H&H)
The .33 to .39 caliber medium bore cartridges are ideal for shooting Class 3 game and the more powerful numbers are also used for even the largest Class 4 animals. For hunting large, dangerous predators (the great bears and big cats) they are unexcelled, providing good stopping power with better controllability than the big bores. In sub-Saharan Africa, these are the traditional "all around" cartridges, used for shooting everything from small antelope weighing less than 100 pounds to bull elephants.
British and Continental hunters used a number of powerful medium bore cartridges for hunting in their African and Asian colonies, as well as for Scandinavian moose, European wild boar and red stag. Rimmed cartridges were designed for use in single shot and double-barreled rifles, while ballistically equivalent rimless designs were developed specifically for magazine fed (bolt action) repeaters.
Perhaps the most famous of all medium bore cartridges is the British .375 Holland & Holland Magnum, produced in two configurations. The more common belted/rimless version is for bolt action repeating rifles and the flanged (rimmed) version, loaded to slightly reduced pressure, is for single shot and break-open actions.
Classic factory loads include a 235 grain bullet at 2750-2800 fps and a 270 grain bullet at 2600-2650 fps. These are suitable for Class 2 and Class 3 game on the plains. However, the signature loads, suitable for all Class 3 and Class 4 (dangerous) game, use a 300 grain bullet (SD .305) at 2400 fps from the flanged case and 2500 fps from the belted case. The .375 H&H has been the Queen of the Medium Bores since its introduction in 1912.
The classic Continental challenge to the popularity of Holland & Holland's .375s comes from Germany in the form of the rimmed 9.3x74R and rimless 9.3x62mm Mauser. These were introduced during the first decade of the 20th Century and are ballistically identical.
The long, rimmed, 9.3x74R was designed for use in single shot rifles, double rifles and drillings and is similar to the .375 H&H Flanged, while the more compact, rimless 9.3x62mm was designed for use in magazine rifles with standard length actions and standard diameter bolt faces. This gives the latter an advantage over the .375 H&H Belted Magnum, which requires a longer, scarcer and more expensive magnum action. The 9.3x62 thus became very popular with farmers and settlers in sub-Saharan Africa who needed an affordable rifle for hunting and protection.
A 9.3mm bullet measures .366" in diameter. Typical factory loads are offered with 232, 250-258 and 286 grain bullets. A 232 grain bullet at 2625 fps is the usual plains game load, while a 286 grain bullet (SD .305) at a MV of 2360 fps is the classic load for the largest and most dangerous game. Killing power is similar to the .375 H&H and recoil is somewhat less.
Once confined primarily to Europe and Africa, these 9.3mm cartridges are finally receiving some of the attention they deserve in North America, where rifles and ammunition in both calibers are now available. (For modern 9.3mm rifle reviews, see CZ 550 American Kevlar 9.3x62mm Rifle, CZ 550 Safari Classics Express 9.3x62mm Rifle and Ruger No. 1-S Medium Sporter in 9.3x74R.)
Medium bore calibers have never been as popular in the New World as they are in Europe and the former European colonies. In North America, powerful medium bore rifles are primarily useful for moose, bison and the great bears. These animals are found mostly in Northern Canada and Alaska, which are thinly populated.
Many medium bores have been designed and marketed in North America during the smokeless powder era. However, it was not until 1958 that the definitive American medium bore cartridge was launched by Winchester: the .338 Winchester Magnum. It is based on a necked-down .458 Win. Magnum case and is designed to work in magazine rifles with standard (.30-06) length actions.
Western hunters found the .338 ideal for shooting elk and Alaskan guides use it to protect their sports from angry bears. With a 200 grain bullet it shoots as flat as a .300 Magnum does with a 180 grain bullet and with a 250 grain bullet (SD .313) its penetration and killing power are comparable to the .375 H&H or the European 9.3mm cartridges.
At least in North America, the .338 Win. Mag. has become the most popular medium bore cartridge and the only one to make the various top 10 most popular cartridge lists. Comparison articles featuring these medium bore cartridges are available in the Rifle Cartridge Comparisons section of the Rifle Cartridges index page.
Big Bore Cartridges (.404 Jeffery/10.75x73 Mauser, .450 NE and .458 Win. Mag.)
These are the cartridges designed specifically for the hunting the largest (and often dangerous) animals, including elephant, rhino, hippo and the various wild bovines (Cape buffalo, bison, water buffalo, etc.). The big bores are generally in the range of .40 to .50 caliber, with a very few outsized numbers, such as the .577 and .600 Nitro Express, thrown in for good measure. Both stopping power and recoil are extreme.
The British have traditionally been the world leaders in the development of classic big bore hunting cartridges for Class 4 big game, largely due to their far flung colonial empire, particularly in Africa and India. The development of smokeless powder led to the introduction of the Nitro Express cartridges, the most famous of which are the .450 NE (3-1/4") and .470 NE, both generating around 5000 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy (ME). Factory ammunition for these cartridges is still loaded today.
Introduced in 1898 by the John Rigby firm, the .450 NE is a rimmed cartridge intended for use in single shot and double-barreled rifles. It uses .458" diameter bullets typically weighing between 465 and 500 grains. The classic British (Kynoch) load used a 480 grain bullet (SD .327) at a MV around 2150 fps. This load is entirely adequate for any of the African big five.
Unfortunately, due to civil unrest, the British Government passed a law prohibiting the civilian use of .45 caliber rifles and cartridges in India, the "Crown Jewel" of the British Empire. Consequently, cartridges of similar ballistics and capability, but different caliber, had to be introduced.
The most famous and successful of these is the .470 Nitro Express, introduced in 1900. Like the .450 NE, the .470 is a rimmed cartridge designed for use in double rifles. It uses a 500 grain bullet (SD .316) at 2150 fps MV. In application and killing power there is no practical difference between the .450 NE and .470 NE.
US rifle and ammunition manufacturers saw little market for elephant cartridges, as North American pachyderms became extinct around the end of the Pleistocene epoch, about 11,700 yeas ago. However, in 1956 Winchester kicked over the traces and introduced what quickly became the most popular of all Class 4 game cartridges, the .458 Winchester Magnum. It is essentially a ballistic duplicate of the .450 NE, launching a 500 grain bullet (SD .341) at around 2100 fps.
Based on a short, straight and necked-up .375 H&H Belted Magnum case, the .458 Win. Mag. was designed for use in bolt action rifles with standard (.30-06) length actions, such as the Winchester Model 70. This gave it a tremendous advantage over the rimmed Nitro Express cartridges, which were designed for use in double rifles that, after WWII, had essentially been priced out of the market. Like the .450 NE and .470 NE that inspired it, the .458 Win. Mag. has proven more than adequate for the African big five.
The most successful German big bore hunting cartridge is actually a hybrid import from the UK. The British firm of Jeffery introduced the rimless .404 Jeffery cartridge for magazine rifles around 1905-1910. It used a 400 grain, .422" bullet at a MV of 2125 fps.
The original .404 Jeffery rifles were built on K-98 Mauser actions or commercial Mauser magnum actions with Krupp barrels. Mauser was thus in at the ground floor of the .404 business and soon began offering their own rifles for the cartridge, but using the European nomenclature 10.75x73mm Mauser.
The 10.75x73mm Mauser is loaded a bit hotter than the original .404 jeffery, probably reflecting the superiority of the German smokeless powders of the time. It typically launches a 400 grain, .423 inch diameter bullet (SD .319) at a MV of 2315 fps with around 4761 ft. lbs. of ME. The .404 Jeffery version became a very popular African Class 4 game cartridge in British colonies, while the 10.75x73mm Mauser version became popular in the European colonies.
The .404 Jeffery/10.75x73mm Mauser almost became extinct with the dissolution of the European colonial empires after the end of the Second World War. However, the cartridge has made something of a comeback in recent years. Factory loaded ammunition is once again available in the US, UK and Europe and rifles are again being chambered for the cartridge.
Interestingly, the case has been used as the basis for an assortment of modern rimless/belt-less magnum cartridges, including the Remington Ultra Mag and Winchester Short Magnum lines. (For more detailed information about these big bore cartridges, see Compared: .404 Jeffery/10.75x73mm, .450 Nitro Express and .458 Win. Mag.)
Note: Individual articles about the classic cartridges discussed in this article can be found on the Rifle Cartridges index page.
Copyright 2015, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.