The Military's Inadvertent Role in the Development of Hunting Cartridges

By David Tong

.30-06, .303 British, 7.62x54R Russian, 8x57mm JS Mauser, 7.7x58mm Jap, 7.65x53mm (Belgian/Argentine) Mauser.
Left to right: .30-06, .303 British, 7.62x54R Russian, 8x57mm JS Mauser, 7.7x58mm Jap, 7.65x53mm (Belgian/Argentine) Mauser.

A few days ago, Guns and Shooting Online Managing Editor Chuck Hawks, Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays, Chief Technical Advisor Jim Fleck, Technical Assistant Bob Fleck and I were examining a box of assorted old military surplus rifle cartridges over coffee. Rocky would pull one out and ask us, "What round is this?"

Yours truly managed to identify four out of four, and Chuck's response was, "Leave it to you to know all of these old military calibers." He made this comment after extolling another ex-military number and one of his favorite hunting cartridges, the 6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser.

This started me thinking. The .303 British, 6.5x55mm SE, 7x57mm Mauser and 8x57mm Mauser are all fairly recognizable to North American shooters, as are our own .30-06 Springfield and .308 Winchester. Perhaps, dear reader, you note a trend here. Mr. Hawks is primarily a recreational shooter and hunter, while I am far more an historical technologist who enjoys studying the convoluted development of firearms.

The irony to me is simple. While some people are extolling deer hunting cartridges, the best selling big game hunting rounds today are the .308 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield. (These are two of the four cartridges on the "short list" of all-around Class 2/Class 3 hunting cartridges. See All Around Rifle Cartridges. -Editor)

Many of the popular standard cartridges used for hunting in North America and around the world were directly derived from a military round. My beloved .303 British has accumulated 129 years of history, as both a battlefield round and a hunting cartridge used across the world in the former British Empire.

In the US, an influx of imported surplus military rifles stimulates an increase in the sales of ammo. For example, after the Second World War large numbers of German military Mauser 98 rifles were brought into the US and, as a result, a lot of folks here shot their deer with the 8x57mm Mauser cartridge. In the early 1960s a great many surplus British Lee-Enfield rifles were imported. .303 British ammo sales jumped and the cartridge remains popular today.

Recently, the huge quantity of recently imported surplus Mosin-Nagant rifles from Russia has resulted in a commensurate increase in the use of 7.62x54R ammunition. This is mostly surplus military ball ammo, but also includes civilian hunting loads.

Two of Chuck's favorite hunting cartridges are the 6.5x55mm SE and 7x57mm Mauser, which he has mentioned in many articles. Both of these modern looking, rimless cartridges were originally developed as infantry rounds for Mauser type bolt action rifles at the end of the 19th Century. They were subsequently adopted by civilian companies manufacturing hunting rifles and ammunition in Europe and North America and are now used across the globe.

The .30-40 Krag, the American army's first smokeless powder service cartridge, was designed for the obsolete Krag-Jorgenson rifle and is itself obsolescent and dying. However, the next two US service cartridges, the .30-06 and the .308 Winchester, were giant hits with civilians. They are the most popular all-around (Class 2 and Class 3) big game hunting cartridges in the world, used wherever big game is hunted.

The .30-06 was introduced in 1906 by the US Government's Springfield Armory and quickly adopted by civilians as a sporting cartridge. The .308 Winchester was introduced by that Company in 1952 as a civilian hunting cartridge and, in a reversal of the usual procedure, was adopted two years later by the NATO alliance as the 7.62x51mm NATO service round. In 1952, using Winchester/Olin's newly developed ball powders, the .308 could duplicate the .30-06 M2 service load (a 152 spitzer bullet at 2805 fps) in a 10% smaller capacity package that is about 1/2 inch shorter.

A 150 grain bullet at 2800 fps remains the money load for the .308, although it can stay reasonably close to the .30-06 with bullets weighing up to 165 grains. The .30-06, due to its greater case capacity and longer chamber, remains the Queen of the all-around cartridges with heavier 180-220 grain bullets.

Not surprisingly, the American ".30s" are the most popular cartridges in the US, because they are versatile, as well as homegrown. However, for hunting Class 2 game (deer, antelope, black bear, etc.) one might want something that kicks less, such as the 6.5x55mm or 7x57mm rounds. Indeed, while the .30-06 is a world standard, on the other side of the Atlantic the older metric calibers and the .303 British are still found on the happy hunting grounds.

The first generation of rimmed, smokeless powder service cartridges, which include the .30-40 Krag, .303 British, 7.62x54R Russian, 8x50R French Lebel, 8x50R Mannlicher and 8x58R Danish Krag were not designed for use in modern, Mauser type, magazine fed bolt actions that are now the standard for civilian hunting rifles. This is why, although they served their respective countries well and potentially offer ballistics similar to the .308 Winchester, they are almost never seen in civilian hunting rifles.

The German 8x57mm JS (or, if you prefer, IS) Mauser cartridge is an exception. Designed by Mauser, the company that perfected the modern bolt action rifle, it is a modern cartridge between the .308 and .30-06 in length, capacity and performance. The German WW I service load, adopted in 1905, took advantage of (then) superior German smokeless powders to drive a 154 grain bullet at 2880 fps, handily outperforming the contemporary American WW I .30-06 service load (150 grains at 2700 fps) and well ahead of the .303 British service cartridge (a 174 grain spitzer bullet at 2440 fps), or the French 8x50R Lebel (a 198 grain spitzer at about 2380 fps).

Today, civilian European (CIP spec) 8x57mm ammunition is loaded to considerably higher pressure than US (SAAMI spec) loads. When loaded to equal pressure, the 8x57mm is superior to the .308, especially with heavy bullets.

For example, Norma of Sweden loads their 196 grain hunting bullets at a MV of 2526 fps in the 8x57 and these loads are available in the US. Equivalent Norma .308 ammo with a 200 grain bullet only achieves a MV of 2461 fps. On the other hand, the .30-06 has the largest case capacity of the standard service cartridges and Norma loads the .30-06 with their 200 grain hunting bullets at MV's of 2625 fps to 2641 fps.

Nearly every generation of fighting men has wanted to own a rifle for the cartridge they became accustomed to in the military and this is not just an American idea. It is a world-wide phenomenon, at least wherever the use of arms is still allowed to the citizens by their government. Some national governments, including the US, have made surplus military rifles and ammunition available to civilian shooters at low cost, which naturally spurred the popularity of these cartridges.

Shooting classic military rifles allows us to partake in a sense of history. Sporterized versions of some of these rifles allow civilian hunters a low cost, yet effective, tool with which to harvest venison for the freezer. Certainly, these arms and ammunition have been proven under the harshest conditions.

The classic military cartridges were designed to be easily manufactured on a mass scale. They needed to be powerful, but with levels of recoil that could be mastered by conscript soldiers. This is also a pretty good prescription for an all-around hunting cartridge.

Note: Full length articles about the cartridges mentioned in this article can be found on the Rifle Cartridges index page.

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Copyright 2017 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.