Big Bore Rifle Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

.458 Win.
.458 Win. Mag. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

Shooters find big bore cartridges fascinating. This must be true or the big cartridges simply would not exist. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa they have no practical hunting application. Here in North America, with the decimation of the American Bison in the 19th Century, there is no game animal requiring a cartridge more powerful than the .375 H&H Magnum or other similar medium bore cartridge. There is no question that the recoil of all the serious big bore cartridges is unpleasant, particularly from a shooting bench. Yet big bore cartridges survive and prosper.

Big bore cartridges include those with bore diameters ranging from .40 to .70 (and larger, should a sporting rifle ever be made with a bore larger than .700). Excluding pistol cartridges that are also chambered in rifles (such as the .44 Magnum) and ancient deer cartridges that happen to have bores over .40 (such as the .44-40 WCF) big bore rifle cartridges are generally intended for tough and dangerous game.

Every major American rifle maker offers big bore rifles, even though not 1 out of 1000 Americans will ever have a legitimate need for such a rifle. Even Weatherby, the long range, high-velocity king of rifle companies, offers their Mark V Dangerous Game Rifle for the relatively short range .416 Remington Magnum, .416 Weatherby Magnum, .458 Winchester Magnum and .460 Weatherby Magnum, elephant cartridges all.

I am convinced that it is simply the mystique of the big bore buffalo and elephant cartridges that keeps them sufficiently popular to remain on the loading lists in North America, Australia and Europe. I admit to being as susceptible to the allure of the big bore as the next guy. Why else would I own a Browning/FN Safari Grade .458 Win. Mag. rifle?

Needless to say, there is no particular advantage to using big bore cartridges for purposes that can be accomplished equally well with a smaller caliber and there may be real disadvantages, such as recoil and expense. However, the shooting sports are just that: sports. We hunt and shoot because it is both fun and fulfilling. If part of the enjoyment involves a big bore rifle, where is the harm?

Most of the popular North American big bore cartridges, the old .45-70 Govt. and new .450 Marlin would be examples, essentially compete in the market place with medium bore cartridges. They are normally used for the same sort of game, including elk, moose, and bear, as the medium bores.

Other North American big bore cartridges, such as the .416 Remington Magnum, .458 Winchester Magnum and .460 Weatherby Magnum, were designed specifically for use on thick-skinned African game. This is also true of most of the British big bore cartridges, including the famous .450 Nitro Express, .470 NE, .500 NE and .600 NE. All of these are covered in the series of cartridge articles that you will find on the Rifle Cartridges page.

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Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.

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