Obsolescent Rifle Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

According to the American Heritage Dictionary the definition of "obsolescent" is: "being in the process of passing out of use or usefulness." That is a good description of what is happening to the rifle cartridges that are the subject of this article.

In the ammunition business, a cartridge is labeled "obsolescent" when new factory made rifles are no longer being produced for it, but factory loaded ammunition is still available from at least one of the major ammo companies. After the last factory loads have been discontinued the cartridge is usually referred to as "obsolete."

The list of obsolescent North American rifle cartridges includes the .224 Weatherby Magnum, .225 Winchester, .25-20 Winchester, .250 Savage, 7-30 Waters, .284 Winchester, .300 Savage, .307 Winchester, .30-40 Krag, .300 H&H Magnum, .308 Norma Magnum, .32-20 Winchester, .32 Winchester Special, .348 Winchester, .356 Winchester, .358 Winchester, .358 Norma Magnum, .375 Winchester and .38-40 Winchester. The recently introduced .300 Rem. SAUM is already teetering on the edge of obsolescence, but has not quite made the list, as Remington still chambers one of their rifle models for it; ditto the quite useful (but never popular) 6.5mm Rem. Magnum.

The .224 Weatherby Magnum with its trick belted case and the .225 Winchester with its unusual semi-rimmed case are both fine varmint cartridges that basically lost out to the more popular .22-250 Remington, which is very similar in performance. Perhaps varmint shooters and reloaders prefer the simplicity of the .22-250's rimless case. In any case, the great majority of shooters will not miss the .224 and .225.

The .25-20, .32-20, and .38-40 are all black powder cartridges that made the transition to smokeless powder over 100 years ago and are now nearing the end of their days. All three have also been adapted for use in revolvers. The .25-20 and .38-40 are nearly gone. The .32-20 is an especially accurate and useful cartridge that deserves to be resurrected on its merit. Other cartridges like the .38-55 and .44-40 have been given a reprieve by the popularity of the sport of cowboy action shooting, but the useful .32-20 has largely been ignored. A few new rifles were chambered for the .32-20 in the late 1980's and early 1990's, which may serve to somewhat extend this fine little cartridge's life.

The .30-40 Krag and .300 H&H Magnum (a naturalized British cartridge) are early smokeless powder designs that, while perfectly satisfactory, have simply been superceded by more modern and efficient cartridges. In the case of the .30-40 these later cartridges are the .30-06 Springfield and .308 Winchester. In the case of the .300 H&H Magnum, which is based on the .375 H&H case, the later .300 Winchester Magnum equals or betters its performance in a shorter case and the .300 Weatherby Magnum offers considerably superior performance in a case of equal length. The future of both of these early smokeless powder cartridges is pretty dim at this time.

The genuinely useful .250 Savage and .300 Savage are once popular cartridges that became obsolescent when Savage Arms fell on hard times and discontinued the excellent Model 99 rifle. These cartridges were designed for the Model 99 and, although adapted to other rifles and actions, they were eventually replaced for such use by the .257 Roberts, .243 Winchester, and .308 Winchester. The .250 and .300 Savage are effective cartridges, and more pleasant to shoot than the newer cartridges that have replaced them. But the later cartridges offer somewhat superior ballistics, and in the end that apparently decided the issue. Unless Savage brings back the Model 99, the .250 and .300 Savage are probably going to become obsolete.

The .284 Winchester was part of the line of short action cartridges introduced by Winchester after the success of the .308. The others included the very successful .243 and the not so successful .358. But the .284 was perhaps the least successful of all. It was the only one of the four Winchester short action cartridges not based on the .308 case. While similar in overall length to the .308, the .284's case is fatter with a rebated (smaller) rim so that it will mate up to standard diameter bolt faces.

The .284 was intended to offer .270 Winchester/.280 Remington performance in a short action caliber. Supposedly, shooters had been clamoring for such a caliber for decades. Or maybe not, as the .284 Winchester never got off the ground despite being offered in excellent lever, autoloading, and bolt action rifles. Presumably the .284's rebated rim worked against it. Certainly there are drawbacks to any rebated rim design. It wasn't until Remington necked the .308 case down to accept .284" bullets and created the 7mm-08 that a short action 7mm cartridge became popular. Despite its appearance in the occasional custom rifle, the .284 is pretty dead.

The 7-30 Waters and .32 Winchester Special are fine cartridges designed primarily for use in the Model 94 Winchester lever action rifle. The .32 Special was also popular in Marlin and other brands of lever and pump rifles. Both calibers are based on the .30-30 case. The 7-30 Waters shoots flatter than the .30-30, and hits harder than the .25-35.

The .32 Special is one of the finest deer and black bear cartridges ever designed, a step between the .30-30 and the .35 Remington. It has recently been given an upgrade with the introduction of a new Hornady LeverEvolution factory load shooting a 165 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2410 fps. This makes the .32 Spec a 250 yard plus cartridge based on its MPBR and a 300 yard cartridge based on its killling power. Essentially, the .32 Special has become an "all-around" cartridge. Perhaps that will spur Marlin or some other company to again begin producing rifles in .32 Spec. Of all the obsolescent rifle cartridges, the .32 Special has been the most popular in the past and probably stands the best chance of being reintroduced at some point in the future.

The .348 Winchester was designed for the Model 71 lever action rifle, and was never adapted to any other rifle. When Winchester discontinued the Model 71 the .348 instantly became obsolescent. The .358 Winchester cartridge in the Model 88 lever action took its place in the Winchester line. The .348 and the .358 are just about identical in performance. The .358 was also adapted to the Winchester Model 70 bolt action and the Savage Model 99 lever action rifles, but it never became popular with the shooting public despite its sterling virtues. Today the .348 and the .358 both appear to be on their last legs. The North American market has proven a tough nut to crack for .35 caliber cartridges.

The .307 Winchester, .356 Winchester, and .375 Winchester were all introduced for the strengthened version of the Model 94 lever action rifle called the Big Bore. Marlin also chambered their Model 336 for the .307 and .356. Unfortunately, none of these cartridges caught on. The .307 and .356 were rimmed versions of the .308 Winchester and .358 Winchester. The .375 was based on a beefed up version of the old .38-55 case. These cartridges offered a serious upgrade in performance for lever action fans (and a very noticeable increase in recoil). All three are now obsolescent. Apparently, traditional lever action shooters were satisfied with the performance of the .30-30 and didn't want more powerful cartridges.

The .308 Magnum and .358 Magnum were designed by Norma of Sweden primarily, I believe, for the North American market. Both were and are fine cartridges of the standard length magnum type, essentially equal in performance to their Winchester counterparts. But neither was able to compete in the market place with the domestically designed and produced .300 Winchester Magnum and .338 Winchester Magnum (respectively). They never really caught on, and both Norma Magnum cartridges are now obsolescent.

The future of all of these obsolescent cartridges is pretty questionable. In almost all cases factory loaded ammunition is down to a single load or bullet weight, always a bad sign. Anyone who owns a rifle chambered for any of these calibers would be wise to lay in a lifetime supply of factory loads and/or reloading brass and bullets while these are still available.

Personally, I am a fan of the .300 Savage and .32 Winchester Special. I feel that they offer the modern hunter something worthwhile, and I have urged the arms manufacturers to reintroduce them in appropriate rifles. (See my article "If I Owned Remarchester.") They were popular for most of the 20th Century and there are plenty of used rifles around and ammunition is still widely distributed. The .300 Savage was selected as the cartridge for the 2003 Remington Model 700 Classic rifle. The .300 Savage and .32 Special are also covered in my article "Ideal Deer Cartridges."

Being a lever action rifle fan, I would also like to see the .356 and .375 Winchester cartridges get a second chance. The Marlin 336/1895 rifle is probably the best modern firearm for these Winchester medium bore cartridges, but the Model 94 is available in .450 Marlin caliber, so there remains a slim chance that someday we will again see new rifles in these calibers.

For those desiring more information about these cartridges, they are covered in my series of articles on rifle cartridges, which can be found on the Rifle Cartridges page.

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Copyright 2003, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.