Moderate Medium Bore Rifle Cartridges

By Mike Hudson

Medium bore cartridges have never been popular as general hunting rounds in the United States, mostly because they tend to kick like mules. If you doubt this, try taking a .35 Whelen, .338 Winchester Magnum or .375 Ruger for a test drive. Cartridges in this class were specifically designed for large and dangerous game. They are simply out of place in the deer woods frequented by most North American hunters.

However, the .38-55, .375 NE, 9.3x54R and .35 Remington are an altogether different category of cartridges. With standard loads, which are perfectly acceptable for game in the deer and black bear class, recoil is roughly on a par with a .30-30. Loaded stoutly, these medium bore rounds are capable of taking anything that walks in North America.

Because of their heavy bullets and relatively modest velocities, these are moderate range cartridges (200 yards max and the closer the better). However, for ranges out to 150 yards, where most game is taken in the real world, they are deadly. In addition, the bullets are less likely to be deflected by a twig or brush, especially with the flat point or round nose designs employed by all of these cartridges.

Medium bore bullets punch a bigger hole than the popular .24 to .30 caliber cartridges. With appropriate bullets and loads, all of these .358 to .377 caliber rounds are suitable for any Class 2 or Class 3 game animals.

Are any of these cartridges the ideal medicine for the big bears of coastal Alaska? No, but think about this: Every day, thousands of forestry workers, bush pilots, pipeline employees, prospectors, fishermen, park rangers and others take to the Alaskan outback to do their jobs and the weapon of choice carried for bear protection there is the .44 Magnum revolver. Standard .44 Mag. loads fire a 240 grain bullet (SD .185) at 1,180 fps for a muzzle energy of 741 ft. lbs.

That is just a little better than 1/3 of the oomph provided by the cartridges under discussion here. The .38-55, .375 NE, 9.3x54R and .35 Remington all have more energy at 150 yards than a .44 Magnum revolver does at the muzzle!

All around the world, dangerous game has fallen to these rounds. Siberian brown bear and Amur tiger to the 9.3x54 in Russia, Bengal tiger in India and African lion to the .375 NE, polar and grizzly bear to both the .38-55 Winchester and the .35 Remington here in North America.

For the woods hunter seeking Class 2 game in woodland known to be populated by grizzly bears, any one of these calibers is pretty close to all-around. They were made for the heavy forest and dense underbrush. By taking the threat of the big bears out of the equation, any of them might be considered ideal deer and black bear cartridges.


Originally conceived of as a match cartridge for use in the Ballard single shot rifle, the .38-55 came into its own as a hunting cartridge when Winchester chambered it in the Model 1886 lever action. It then became the first cartridge chambered in the immortal Model 1894 Winchester, having successfully made the transition from black powder to smokeless.

The .38-55 was renowned for its superb accuracy. Even with its rainbow trajectory, single shot rifles firing it regularly won matches at 300 yards and beyond during the late 19th Century. However, the remaining energy at those distances is lacking for hunting purposes.

In a sense, the success of the .38-55 almost spelled its own doom. When Winchester wanted a high velocity, smokeless powder round to usher in the 20th Century, they took the .38-55 case and necked it down to .30 caliber, thus creating the .30-30 Winchester, perhaps the most successful big game cartridge in American history.

The .38-55 was pretty much a dead letter, although never discontinued, until the popularity of cowboy action shooting revived it. Many enthusiasts wanted an authentic rife that was less punishing than the .45-70 and Winchester and other manufacturers were happy to oblige.

A number of companies today offer smokeless powder equivalents of the old black powder load. The Winchester Super-X factory load drives a 255 grain Power-Point bullet (SD .256) at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1320 fps for a muzzle energy (ME) of 987 ft. lbs. and is entirely adequate for deer and black bear out to 100 yards.

Recently, Buffalo Bore introduced a Heavy .38-55 +P load they say is safe for use in any rifle rated for smokeless powder that is in good working order. (This specifically includes the post-1964 Winchester commemoratives and modern Winchester/Miroku Model 94s.) It drives the 255 grain bullet at 1950 fps, for a muzzle energy of 2044 ft. lbs. The maximum average pressure is the same as a .30-30. This load is virtually identical to the old maximum load first published by Maj. Townsend Whelen in 1918 and can be duplicated by reloaders.

.375 2-1/2" NITRO EXPRESS

The British Small Arms Co. (BSA) introduced this rimmed cartridge and a Lee-actioned magazine rifle to fire it in 1899. It was also chambered in a number of double rifles and in single loaders using Martini and Farquharson actions.

The famous elephant poacher John "Pondoro" Taylor wrote that it lacked power and penetration, which it does when compared to the .375 H&H Magnum he favored. However, Taylor noted that another book writing hunter (unnamed) had stated he, "Never wished to use a better or more accurate weapon." This man had spent most of his time hunting dangerous game in the thick bush of northeastern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

Despite Taylor's condemnation, the .375 2-1/2" NE was a popular number in its day. It was used on everything up to and including elephant and rifles built for it are frequently encountered.

In the British Isles, the .375 2-1/2" NE gained a reputation as a slayer of red stag, which are closely related to our elk. Westley-Richards later brought out a rimless version of this round for use in their Mauser bolt action rifles.

.375 2-1/2" NE factory loaded ammunition is currently available from Kynoch and a number of small, custom manufacturers. The standard Kynoch load consists of a 270 grain RN bullet (SD .274) at 1975 fps, with a muzzle energy of 2340 ft. lbs.


Little known in North America, this rimmed cartridge was developed by the Finns following WW II by necking-up the Russian 7.62x54 service round to 9.3mm (.366 caliber). They did this after laws were passed barring private citizens from owning rifles in a military caliber and thousands of the 1891 pattern Mosin-Nagant army rifles were rebored to accept the new round.

The 9.3x54R quickly caught on in the sub-Arctic, where it was considered a viable and less expensive alternative to the 9.3x57mm Mauser. Eventually, ammunition and sporting rifles to fire it were commercially produced. At least one of these rifles, the semi-automatic Medved, remains in production today in Russia. Commercially loaded Russian ammunition drives a 235 grain bullet at 2100 fps, for a muzzle energy of 2301 ft. lbs.

In North America, it is strictly a proposition for reloaders, but a fairly straightforward one, and 7.62x54 brass is plentiful and cheap. 9.3mm bullets are available from all of the major bullet makers, with 250 grains (SD .267) probably being the most suitable of the common bullet weights. Also plentiful and cheap are Mosin-Nagant rifles and the thought of a 9.3x54 built on a Soviet M-44 carbine is not without attraction.


Probably the best known of these moderate medium bore cartridges in North America is the .35 Remington, a rimless cartridge that was introduced in 1907 for use in Remington's Model 8 autoloading rifle. It was particularly popular in the north woods of Maine and elsewhere in the Northeast, where the woods are thick and the ranges generally short.

It can be found chambered in single shot, lever action, pump and bolt action rifles, a testament to its popularity. The Marlin Model 336 lever gun is currently its most common home. Unfortunately, the .35 Rem. is often overlooked by sportsmen today.

Among those who have experience with it, the verdict is nearly unanimous: the .35 Remington is superior to the .30-30 at any range it might reasonably be used, paper ballistics notwithstanding.

The standard load, as marketed by Remington, Federal and Winchester, features a 200 grain RN bullet traveling at a MV of 2080 fps, for a muzzle energy of 1921 ft. lbs. Hornady has introduced a factory load using a 200 grain FTX spitzer bullet in its LeverEvolution line that is more potent and shoots flatter. This has a MV of 2225 and ME of 2198 ft. lbs.


Take your pick. The .38-55, .375 NE, 9.3x54 and .35 Remington might not be the sexiest smoke-pole you'll find in the woods and those who favor tiny bullets at super high velocities probably stopped reading awhile back.

However, for 99 percent of the game and conditions the vast majority of hunters will encounter, and for those who want a lightweight rifle that won't break their shoulder every time they touch it off, these moderate medium bores might be just the ticket.

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Copyright 2017 by Mike Hudson and/or All rights reserved.