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Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
August - September 2001
Volume 36, Number 4
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 212
On the cover...
Typical fixed-sighted revolvers are represented by a Colt New Service .44 Russian/.44 Special and a Colt SAA .41 Colt. Custom work on the Colt SAA by Turnbull Restorations and engraving by John Adams Jr. Photos by Dave Scovill and Gerald Hudson.
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Living as we do in the era of air-launched, laser-guided munitions, it’s hard to appreciate the turmoil caused by the French invention of a usable smokeless powder in 1885, yet its impact on military thinking was probably greater. This was quickly followed by the French 8mm Lebel smokeless rifle cartridge and magazine-fed Lebel bolt-action military rifle. The powder made possible a muzzle velocity of about 2,350 fps for its nickel-jacketed bullet. Large-caliber, black-powder, single-shot military rifles became obsolete almost overnight.

All the world’s major powers were immediately engaged in either research, development or stealing whatever it took to obtain a smallbore, smokeless military cartridge and a rifle to go with it. Britain, a major player on the world stage because of her colonies, had seen the writing on the wall a few years earlier. Small-caliber repeating rifle experiments had started in the early 1880s. All these were fueled by black powder.

Britain could not, however, come up with a suitable smokeless propellant. It was decided to wait, as it was obvious something would be available soon, but a repeating rifle was needed as quickly as possible. So in 1889 the .303 cartridge was approved containing a compressed black-powder pellet weighing 71.5 grains. This gave a 215-grain jacketed bullet 1,830 fps at the muzzle of the also new Lee-Metford repeating rifle.

While all this was going on, the U.S. continued to happily lob 405- and 500-grain chunks of lead from its Springfield trapdoor single shots. With imminent adoption of the .303 by Britain the Army Ordnance Office in Washington began to give serious thought to the twin concepts of smaller bullets and rifles that fired more than once. When and if the new-fangled smokeless powder would work out was another question.

Early American experiments were conducted at Springfield Armory, but all records of such have been destroyed. Hackley, Woodin and Scranton in their History of Modern U.S. Military Small Arms Ammunition mention two rounds in existence that come from Springfield and may have been part of these tests. Both are very similar to the later adopted .30 Krag but have longer necks, which make case length some .065 inch greater than that round. One is caliber .30, the other about .32; bullets are copper jacketed.

There seems to be some dispute as to where the case originated that later became the .30 Krag. Given the basic dimensions of the U.S. round, there is little doubt it is simply formed from a .303 British case that has been lengthened some .100 inch. Base and rim dimensions are identical. Perhaps it should be mentioned, however, that the basic Krag-Jorgensen rifle design (which the U.S. would adopt to fire the .30 Krag) was adopted by Denmark, Sweden and Norway in 1889. The cartridge it fired was 8mm (about .32) and used a slightly larger and longer rimmed case than the .303 British. Swiss ballistic experiments with that round played a major part in .303 development. Determining exactly who was looking over whose shoulder, and when, would take a bit more study.

American tests were conducted using compressed black powder, German smokeless, Belgian Wetteren smokeless and whatever else could be found. It was quickly discovered the standard rifle primer in a .45-caliber rifle leaked badly and was easily pierced when smokeless powder was fired. It would have       to go.

By January 1891 a round very similar to the .30 Krag was being tested. Its title was Springfield Armory Cartridge - .30 Caliber. Bullets were 230-grain roundnose, fully jacketed in copper of .005 inch thickness. Of interest are four lube grooves and a crimping groove formed in the slug. Appearance was that of a copper-plated cast bullet. That thin, soft jacket could not stand up to the velocity and one-in-10-inch twist. It frequently stripped, so jacket thickness was increased to .015 inch.

All sorts of experiments ensued using various powders, bullets and cases. A round with the rim removed and an extraction groove cut in like a modern .30-06 was also tested but deemed too difficult to manufacture in quantity. It is no secret that some knowledgeable people wanted to see a Mauser rifle and cartridge adopted - others were adamantly opposed.

In June 1892 the decision was made to adopt the rimmed version for service use. The Krag-Jorgensen rifle was approved at the same time. By 1893 bullet weight dropped to 220 grains and the lube grooves were deleted. In 1894 primer and bullet jacket material problems were ironed out.

Unlike the .303 British, the .30 Krag was never loaded with compressed black powder for service use. The common smokeless powder used prior to 1895 was Peyton, manufactured by California Powder Works in Santa Cruz, California. Propellant granules were green and hexagonal in shape. A smokeless made by Du Pont was black in color. Laflin & Rand made the yellow Whistler-Aspinwall smokeless. Pressure generated by 36 grains of Peyton or Du Pont and 42 grains of Laflin & Rand was 38,000 psi. This gave the 220-grain roundnose bullet a velocity of 2,200 fps.

Cases were of semi-balloonhead construction until 1895 when case failures mandated the change to what we now call solid heads. All cases were tinned (tin plated) to prevent the fulminate of mercury in the primer from coming into contact with the inside of the primer pocket and weakening it. In May 1900 a nonmercuric primer was adopted. Tinning of cases ceased.

In 1903 the Caliber .30 Model of 1903 (.30-03) cartridge was standardized. Until that time the government had normally called the Krag simply Caliber .30 since the military had no other .30-caliber arms. That now had to change. The .30 Krag became Caliber .30 Model of 1898. One can argue this would still cause confusion under many circumstances - and it did.

Last production of .30 Krag ball ammunition at Frankford Arsenal probably took place in September 1909 (some say September 1907). Several contracts were also let, mainly during the Spanish-American War. These display a common commercial headstamp in most instances. Many Krag rifles were used for civilian guard purposes during World War I, ammunition being contracted from Remington. Winchester and the Western Cartridge Co. also provided ammunition through the 1920s.

Mention of the Spanish-American War probably brings to mind past printed material stating the enemies’ Mausers were superior to U.S. Krags, resulting in needless casualties. While this was true up to a point, it was Civil War tactics that got the Americans into trouble. One doesn’t run around in the open when facing an enemy on higher ground, entrenched in fortified positions and firing modern high-power rifles! Unfortunately, for officers to gain knowledge, soldiers must often gain headstones.

When the .30 Krag was adopted by the army in 1892, its success as a sporting round could be assumed to be assured. This, however, did not happen for the .30 Krag. Indeed it couldn’t happen at first because the government had the only rifles and ammunition in existence.

Winchester Repeating Arms Co. didn’t wait very long, though, as the 1894 catalog lists the cartridge as .30 U.S. Army. Only one load was offered. It consisted of a 220-grain roundnose steel jacketed bullet pushed by 40 grains of an unnamed smokeless powder. This charge weight would, many years later, give the cartridge the number "40" in its common name today - .30-40 Krag. Many writers of the time used the term .30 Krag. Velocity was given as 2,066 fps from a 30-inch barrel of the Winchester Single Shot, which was first made available in .30 Krag in 1894. Interestingly, the price of that rifle was $30, over twice the price of the round barrel sporting rifle firing any other cartridge.

Softnose bullets of 220 grains became available from Winchester in January 1896. Now the .30 Krag was a sporting round! Why hadn’t such bullets been available earlier? The answer is perhaps obvious given what was happening in the field of guns and ammunition at the time. Winchester was pushing development of its own smokeless .30- caliber cartridge, the .30 WCF. The company didn’t want anything to upstage that introduction, especially since the Krag produced nearly 50 percent more muzzle energy. Also, the Model 95 was about ready. It would chamber the Krag. Better not to give the Krag a push until Winchester could take advantage of it. The .30 WCF came out in August 1895; the Model 95 in June 1896.

Beginning in 1895 W.R.A. produced a gallery load for the Krag. Bullet weight was 150 grains propelled by 10 grains of smokeless powder. That bullet weight was probably a misprint as the following year it dropped to 100 grains and stayed there. A 150-grain pointed softnose at 2,560 fps and a similar 180-grain slug at 2,350 fps became available after World War I. A 180-grain, full-patch spitzer and roundnose softpoint appeared a few years earlier.

Unfortunately, as effective as the .30 Krag was at the turn of the century, it failed to attract much of a following. The military only considered it a temporary thing. Lack of rifles didn’t help either. Winchester’s Model 95 never caught on, few bought the Winchester single shot in .30 Krag and there was really nothing else. Introduction of the .30-03 followed by the .30-06 put the brakes on the Krag permanently.

Indeed, the old military round would have disappeared from the face of the earth if it hadn’t been for the army selling its Krags after World War I. It seems most were purchased by hunters who cut the 30-inch military barrels back to 20 to 24 inches. This saved the round because hunters buy mostly factory ammunition, so cartridge makers turn it out. Hunters liked the Krag for its glass hard surface finish, which makes it the smoothest bolt gun ever built. Modern bolt actions feel like they are filled with sand compared to a Krag. The round finally became rather popular.

Eventually a modern 180-grain pointed softnose at around 2,450 fps was offered. With over 2,400 foot-pounds (ft-lbs) of muzzle energy and 1,350 ft-lbs rating at 200 yards, this is as good as it gets for the iron-sighted Krag. Given the receiver’s split bridge, mounting a scope was not impossible but rather expensive. Owners didn’t do it.

Had not Ruger offered its little No. 3 carbine in .30 Krag several years back, the cartridge would probably have dropped off the ammunition charts by now. It’s certainly not far from happening today. Even if that does occur, handloaders can turn out ammunition as long as brass is available.

The .30 Krag is perhaps the perfect handloader’s round. With a moderate powder capacity for its bore size all the old factory hunting loads can be easily duplicated. Bullets need not be crimped in the cases. If 220-grain cast bullets are used to duplicate the old military load, the Krag’s long neck will easily cover all lube grooves. Several old cast bullet designs were created especially for the .30 Krag, even though they were later used successfully in the '06. Most of these have been tried in my Model 1898 Krag with excellent results.

Just don’t try to make the .30 Krag into a .308 or .30-06. The old military action won’t stand for that. With modern softnose bullets that isn’t necessary either. At iron-sight ranges, the .30 Krag will still get the job done.

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