Early Metallic Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

In the beginning, there were no standardized guns or actions for metallic cartridges. Most early self-contained cartridges were developed in conjunction with a gun to fire them.

The rimfire design was the first type of metallic cartridge that survives to this day. It was apparently invented in France, in the form of the BB Cap, around 1845. This was designed for the Flobert indoor target (gallery) rifle. The BB Cap fired a .22 caliber lead ball from a very short rimfire case. The priming compound was also the propellant--no additional powder was used.

The .22 Short, introduced in 1857 for the first S&W revolver, was the first American metallic cartridge. It was a development of the BB cap using a 29 grain round nose (RN) bullet. It is still used all over the world and in the Olympic games for the rapid fire pistol event.

The .22 Short was actually developed for personal protection. It uses a lengthened case compared to the BB Cap. In addition to the primer in the rim, a pinch of black powder was added for increased performance. .22 Short revolvers were carried as personal weapons by soldiers during the American Civil War. After the advent of smokeless powder, the .22 short was adapted to the new, cleaner burning propellant.

The .22 Short is a pretty anemic round, and in 1871 a longer case of the same diameter was developed for the 29 grain Short bullet. This became the .22 Long cartridge, still occasionally seen (but obsolescent) today.

In 1887 the Stevens Arms Co. developed the ultimate in .22 rimfire cartridges, the .22 Long Rifle. This used the .22 Long case with a 40 grain RN bullet loaded to higher velocity than the .22 Long's 29 grain bullet. The .22 Long Rifle caught on, was adapted to both rifles and pistols, and became the most popular sporting and target shooting cartridge in the world. Modern .22 Long Rifle High Velocity cartridges drive a 40 grain RN bullet at a MV of 1255 fps from a rifle barrel (Remington figures).

I believe that the Spencer was the first really successful American repeating rifle. Certainly it became the most famous repeater of its day. The Spencer was used in the latter stages of the Civil War and fired the .56-56 (.56 caliber bullet powered by 56 grains of black powder) Spencer rimfire cartridge. Developed in 1860, it was in volume production by 1862 and played an important role in the pivotal battle of Gettysburg.

Following the Spencer cartridge, a host of large bore (over .22 caliber) rimfire cartridges were developed and became popular. Some of these remained in production until the beginning of the Second World War.

Probably the most famous and historically important big bore rimfire cartridge is the .44 Henry Flat. The Henry lever action rifle fired the .44 Henry Flat rimfire cartridge. Both were invented by B. Tyler Henry.

Oliver Winchester purchased Henry's company, and the Henry rifle evolved into the brass framed Winchester Model 1866 "Golden Boy" rifle, which was chambered for the same round. Henry remained the chief designer for Winchester Repeating Arms and designed the famous Winchester rifles that "won the West." For over 100 years all Winchester rimfire ammunition was head stamped with an "H" in honor of B. Tyler Henry.

Winchester and Henry realized that a more powerful cartridge was needed on the western frontier, and that led to the development of the centerfire .44-40 Winchester cartridge. The steel frame Model 1873 rifle was designed for the higher pressure of the .44-40, using the basic Henry action. The .44-40 is still used today and is credited with killing more deer than any cartridge except the .30-30 Winchester.

The .44-40 was also adapted to handguns, where its rimmed design made it ideal for use in revolvers. It became one of the most popular cartridges for the famous 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver, along with the classic .45 (Long) Colt cartridge, also introduced in 1873. Both are used in revolvers to this day, and the .45 Colt remains popular for personal defense, hunting, and Cowboy Action Competition.

At the end of the 19th Century autoloading pistols were being developed. These used box magazines and "rimless" cartridges. Rimless cartridges do have a rim, but it is the same diameter as the head of the cartridge body.

One of the first successful rimless pistol cartridges was the .30 Borchardt. This was developed by American Hugo Borchardt in 1893 for the Borchardt pistol, the first successful autoloading pistol. That pistol design was improved by Georg Luger, who developed the .30 Luger (or 7.65x21mm) cartridge in 1900. Peter Paul Mauser adopted a higher pressure version of the Borchardt cartridge as the .30 Mauser (7.63x25mm) for his "Broom handle" pistol of 1896.

Luger and Mauser developed early high velocity pistol cartridges, and these led to the development of the 9mm Luger (9x19mm) pistol cartridge, introduced in 1902. To this day, the 9x19 remains the most popular service pistol cartridge in the world.

The .30-30 Winchester was the first high velocity, smokeless powder sporting rifle cartridge developed in the U.S. (The very few previous smokeless powder cartridges were military developments.) The .30-30 was originally loaded with a 165 grain .30 caliber bullet. It jumped muzzle velocity from the approximate 1400 fps of black powder cartridges to about 2000 fps, and made a 200 yard maximum point blank range possible for the first time. This totally revolutionized the sport of hunting, and led to the demise of most of the black powder cartridges that had proceeded it.

Introduced in the famous Winchester Model 1894 rifle, the .30-30 and the Model 94 went on to become the most popular centerfire rifle and cartridge combination ever invented. They ushered in the age of the small bore, bottleneck sporting rifle cartridge. The .25-35, 7-30 Waters, and .32 Winchester Special, among other cartridges, are based on the .30-30 case.

The .30-30 is a rimmed cartridge, just like the black powder sporting cartridges that had preceded it. This is fine for a tubular magazine rifle such as the Model 94, but less satisfactory for a repeating rifle fed from a box magazine.

The answer, of course, was the rimless cartridge. I am not sure about the first rimless rifle cartridge, but an early example and the trend setter for subsequent rimless rifle cartridges, was the 7.9x57mm J Mauser.

The 7.9x57mm (.318" diameter bullet) was developed in 1888 for the German bolt action Model 88 Commission rifle. In 1898 that rifle was replaced in German service by the familiar Mauser Model 98, and in 1905 a spitzer bullet of slightly larger diameter (8mm or .323") was adopted using the same case. This cartridge was the famous 8x57JS, which became a world-wide hunting cartridge that is still popular to this day. 1892 had seen the introduction of the 7x57 Mauser cartridge, based on the same case necked down to accept 7mm bullets and also widely used to this day. These German cartridges established most of the critical parameters for the standard rimless cartridges that followed, including the basic rim diameter of .473" used for the .30-06, and .308 Winchester cartridge families and the majority of other subsequent (non-magnum) centerfire rifle cartridges.

The first "magnum" rifle cartridge was the .375 H&H Magnum, developed by the British firm of Holland & Holland in 1912. The British call it the .375 Belted Rimless Magnum. As the 7x57 and 8x57 Mauser did for standard rifle cartridges, the .375 H&H set the basic parameters for magnum rifle cartridges. Its belted case and .532" rim diameter have spawned dozens of subsequent sporting cartridges, including other H&H Magnums, Weatherby magnums, Norma magnums, the standard length Winchester magnums, the popular 7mm Remington Magnum, and the .350 and 6.5mm Remington short magnum cartridges.

With the advent of the .22 Long Rifle rimfire, the .30-30, 8x57, and .375 H&H rifle cartridges, and the .45 Colt and 9mm Luger pistol cartridges, the metallic cartridge had come of age. The rest is, as they say, history. For further reading on this subject, I recommend the book Cartridges of the World by Fred. C. Barnes/Edited by M.L. McPherson, my primary reference for information about cartridges.

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Copyright 2005, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.