The Famous .303 British

By Chuck Hawks

.303 British
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

In 1888 the United Kingdom adopted the service cartridge known today as the .303 British. It was to become one of the world's best known rifle cartridges. The .303 was chambered in the Lee-Enfield bolt action rifle. The .303 originally used black powder to fire a 215 grain bullet. After the smokeless powder revolution, the .303 was charged with long strand Cordite smokeless powder.

The final evolution of the .303 took place during the Great War (WW I), when the heavy 215 grain RN bullet was replaced by a modern spitzer bullet weighing 174 grains at a MV of 2,400 fps. This kept the aging .303 British reasonably competitive with the German 8x57JS and American .30-06, and it served the British Empire until 1957, when the .303 was replaced by the 7.62mm NATO as the standard service round of the UK.

The .303 British case is a rimmed, bottleneck type with a rim diameter of .54", quite a bit of body taper, a shoulder angle of just under 17 degrees, and a length of 2.222". It looks sort of like a .30-30 case on steroids, with more body taper. The overall loaded cartridge length is 3.075". Maximum SAAMI pressure is 45,000 psi.

The .303 British takes a .311-.312" diameter bullet. The Speer 150 grain spitzer bullet has a BC of .411 and a SD of .221. The Hornady 174 grain RN bullet has a BC of .256 and a SD of .255. The Speer 180 grain RN bullet has a BC of .328 and a SD of .265.

Because at the time of its introduction, and for decades afterward, the sun never set on the British Empire, the .303 cartridge was also used worldwide as a sporting cartridge. All over Europe, Africa, India, Australia, South East Asia, and Canada, the .303 British served as an all-around small bore rifle cartridge, much as did the .30-06 and 8mm Mauser. Ammunition was and is available worldwide.

It was also loaded and used in the U.S., although it was not until well after the end of WW II that the .303 British became really popular in the U.S. This was due to the importation and widespread sale of surplus British military rifles in the 1960's. I was recently surprised, when I saw a list of the best selling rifle cartridges in America, to find the .303 British occupying the #8 position. There are a lot of Lee-Enfield rifles still in use out there.

Many thousands of surplus SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) rifles were sold in the U.S. at very reasonable prices. Some were full-length service rifles, some were the light, compact No. 5, Mk. I Jungle Carbines--along with the U.S. M-1 Carbine, probably the nicest of all the surplus military rifles--and some were sporterized by the distributor before being resold.

I bought one of the latter in the early 1960's, and it was a very handsome rifle for the money. It was restocked in American walnut, the barrel had been cut down to 22" and recontoured and fitted with conventional open rear and ramp front sights, the bolt polished and left bright, and the action and barrel polished and blued. It was much lighter, handier, and prettier than the original service rifle.

Unfortunately, it also kicked pretty hard. Nevertheless, the sporterized Lee-Enfield made a perfectly good hunting rifle, capable of taking all non-dangerous North American game.

Typical .303 British factory loads in the U.S. offer a 150 grain spitzer bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2,685-2,723 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 2,401-2,470 ft. lbs. For large game there are 174 and 180 grain bullets at a MV of 2,460-2,590 fps and a ME of 2,418-2,680 ft. lbs.

150, 174, and 180 grain bullets are the most popular with handloaders. Reloaders can duplicate the standard factory loads or the 174 grain military load. Naturally, the 150 grain spitzer bullet shoots flatter than the 174 or 180 grain bullets. The 150 grain spitzer is the bullet I would use for general purpose hunting today, if I still had my Lee-Enfield sporter.

The third edition of the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading shows that 37.5 grains of IMR 3031 powder will drive their 150 grain spire point bullet at a MV of 2400 fps. A heavier charge of 42.0 grains of IMR 3031 powder will drive the same bullet to a MV of 2700 fps.

Zero a .303 rifle to put a 150 grain bullet at a MV of approximately 2700 fps 2.8 inches high at 100 yards and it will strike 3 inches high at 130 yards, 1.5 inches high at 200 yards, and 3 inches low at 267 yards. This is a pretty useful trajectory for general purpose hunting, and illustrates why the .303 British has been a popular and successful hunting cartridge for over 100 years.

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Copyright 1999, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.