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Big Game Rifle
Rifle Magazine
August - September 1999
Volume 34, Number 4
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 200
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This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The big Bore .450 Alaskan designed by the late...Purchase the CD-ROM here
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Ever since the invention of the self-contained cartridge, shooters have been looking for The Perfect Case. This is right and proper, since one definition of "human" suggests that our search for perfection is what sets us apart from every other known organism. That we rarely (never?) achieve perfection doesn’t mean the quest isn’t worthwhile, whether in social systems, super-models or rifle cartridges.

Consequently we’ve created zillions of variations on the brass case. Some have truly advanced the ballistics of sporting rifles, but many have not. Was there really any reason for the .303 Savage other than as a copy of Winchester’s .30-30? Did the .225 WCF offer any material advantages over the .219 Zipper, .22-250 or .220 Swift? Did the 6.5mm Remington Magnum do anything the .270 WCF didn’t do already, except maybe fit in a strange-looking rifle that nobody wanted to buy? The answer to all three questions is obviously no, since the .303 Savage, .225 WCF and 6.5 Remington have all followed the Edsel, 3-D movies and New Coke into that great marketing scrap-heap that must exist somewhere in New Jersey.

Not that some people don’t drive Edsels or shoot the .303 Savage, but only for reasons of poverty or adoration, not because of any "real" advantages in the .303 or Edsel. Other cartridges, however, exist as the apple of their designer’s eye Ð and often in only one rifle, designed purely so the creator’s name can be engraved on a barrel behind 6mm, .270 or .338. A few live longer, sometimes actually becoming factory rounds, but rarely did they originate right then and there.

Today’s shooters regard the 7mm STW as the cutting edge of modern magnums, but it’s almost exactly the same round as the 7mm Mashburn Super Magnum that Field & Stream’s Warren Page used all over the world in the 1950s, and basically the same as the 7mm-300 Weatherby wildcat that’s seen use over the past couple of decades. All three are "full-length" belted magnums, derived from the circa-1912 .300 Holland & Holland case, so have almost identical powder capacities and ballistics.

Don’t get me wrong. Layne Simpson’s dream-child obviously provides velocities a notch above the 7mm Remington and Weatherby magnums, though it doesn’t outdo the Mashburn round, even back when Warren Page filled its case full of war-surplus H-4831. But Layne’s variation uses the 8mm Remington Magnum case, with no need to be fireformed like the .300 H&H brass Page used, and is much cheaper than the .300 Weatherby cases needed to make the 7mm-300. An STW fan just needed to run an 8mm case into an STW die and presto! Super Seven!

Which brings us to my main point: The real advances in rifle cartridges these days arise from components, not the endless tweaking of shoulder angles. The 7mm STW became a factory cartridge not because it was a brand-new idea but because today’s handloaders have gotten used to the idea that fast velocities need good bullets. In Page’s day, Nosler Partitions were looked on as esoteric and expensive solutions to a problem that didn’t exist for most shooters, who thought the .30-06 with a 180-grain bullet was a pretty hot number. At the standard 2,700 fps of 1950’s factory ammunition, most 180-grain, .30-caliber bullets worked fine - especially at ranges under 300 yards. This was a very long shot back then, since many hunters still used iron sights, and most scopes were 4x.


Yes, today’s bullets go faster because we shoot faster cartridges, but most of those same cartridges were in existence in some shape or form before World War II. However, they didn’t actually push bullets much faster than the .270 or .30-06 until IMR-4350 came along in 1940. The original ballistics of the .300 H&H, for instance, was about the same as the .30-06 of 1935. The Nosler Partition was the direct result of new powders and faster velocities: John Nosler shot a moose with a .300 H&H, and the bullet came apart, so he invented a better bullet.

The big wildcatting craze of the 1950s was made possible by IMR-4350 and H-4831, along with cheap military actions like the 98 Mauser, 1903 Springfield and 1917 Enfield. Every other insurance agent and TV repairman had his own string of wildcats. My handloading bookshelf includes several titles from that era, including Phil Sharpe’s Complete Guide to Handloading (1953 third edition), the Speer Handloader’s Manual, Volume One (1954) and P.O. Ackley’s Handbook for Shooters and Reloaders (1962). Any shooter reading those books soon realizes no really new cartridge has been developed since 1950, when the .222 Remington appeared.

In his book, Sharpe tells of the development of the 7x61 Sharpe & Hart, which some claim is the first commercial 7mm magnum, even though the nearly identical .275 H&H Magnum preceded it by 40 years. Speer gives case dimensions and loads not only for several Newton cartridges (the original beltless magnums) but also for the .333 Express, which except for .005 inch of bullet diameter is the same round as today’s .338 Winchester Magnum.

Ackley lists the notable wildcats of the day, including precursors of almost every commercial cartridge introduced since the book saw print. A sample would include the 6mm PPC (6mm Donaldson International), .240 Weatherby (Ackley’s own 6mm Belted Express, made by forming a belt on .30-06 brass), .25-06 Remington (.25 Niedner), .260 Remington (.263 Express), 6.5mm Remington Magnum (.264 Durham Magnum), 7mm-08 Remington (7mm-308), .284 WCF (7x57 Ackley Improved), 7mm STW (7mm Mashburn Super Magnum), .307 Winchester (.30-30 Ackley Improved), 8mm Remington Magnum (.323 Critser Magnum), .356 Winchester (.35 Lever Power), .35 Whelen (.35 Whelen), .416 Remington Magnum (.416 Barnes Supreme) and the .470 Capstick (.475 Ackley Magnum or .475 Barnes Supreme).

What is the 7mm-08 but a "modern" version of the .270 Savage, the .300 Savage necked down to .270? This lever-action .270 round was a fairly popular wildcat before World War II. Aside from fitting in "short" actions, what real difference is there between the .260 Remington/.263 Express and the 6.5x55 Mauser? Or the 7mm-08 and 7x57? Both old Mauser rounds were invented over 100 years ago.

Just try to invent a really new cartridge case. I’ll bet a new Douglas barrel that somebody’s been there before you.

The two latest wildcatting crazes involve new "short" cartridges and longer beltless magnums. Let’s look at the short rounds first, designed to fit into a 2.8-inch magazine but providing long-cartridge ballistics. This idea has been around for awhile, commercial examples being the .284 WCF (1963) and 6.5 Remington Magnum, introduced with its big brother .350 in the mid-1960s. All three did what they were supposed to: provide long-action punch in short actions. The .284 fit into Winchester’s Model 88 lever action and Model 100 semiautomatic, while the Remingtons arrived in the compact Model 600 bolt-action carbine. The 6.5 and .284 provided .270 WCF ballistics, while the .350 basically matched the .35 Whelen in a short, light bolt rifle.

The trouble was, almost nobody except gun writers cared. Hunters wanting .270s bought .270s. Most had long ago decided any cartridge not pushing bullets at close to 3,000 fps was a woods rifle. Most woods hunters were happy with .30-30s and .35 Remingtons, not some squished-down moose round like the .350 Remington Magnum.

The gun writers wrote many articles that helped kill the short rounds. Most suggested all three would work much better in longer magazines so their bullets didn’t eat powder space. The only problem with this theory is that it doesn’t make much difference in the real world. A 6.5mm or 7mm bullet seated a fraction of an inch farther out doesn’t provide much extra powder space, and velocity only increases at 1/4 the extra capacity. Seating a .284-inch bullet .3 inch farther out, for instance, provides an 8-percent increase in powder space but only a 2-percent gain in velocity. Call it 60 fps with a 140-grain bullet. The fat bullet of the .350 Remington does better, but hunters wanting a 250-grain bullet at over 2,600 fps bought a .338 Winchester Magnum in a 9-pound rifle that wouldn’t knock them silly.

The gun writer who really got it was Jack O’Connor, who wrote: "Aficionados of the rifled tube assumed that Winchester would bring out the Model 70 for the .284 but such a rifle has never appeared. Actually there would be no point in it, as any difference between the .284 and .270 lies in the realm of theory. What one cartridge will do the other will do, and just as well."

American sporting rifle history since World War II sees these themes played again and again. Evidently most shooters wanting short-action bolt rifles are content with cartridges on the .308 WCF case, such as the .243 WCF and 7mm-08 Remington. The 7mm-08 lags 150 fps behind the .284 but, wonder of wonders, still kills deer at the ranges most hunters can shoot. It’s become a popular cartridge, unlike the .284, which despite occasional spasms lies as dead as the Susan B. Anthony dollar. None of the .308-based cartridges kick much, and many short-action bolt rifles are fairly light. If most hunters want more zip, they buy a heavier full-size rifle, chambered for anything from the .25-06 Remington to the .300 Winchester Magnum.

If they buy a bolt-action rifle, they sure don’t want a cartridge lobbing bullets under 2,700 fps, such as the .358 WCF or .350 Remington Magnum. If for some reason they desire a genuine woods rifle, they don’t care if a .30-30 is given another 200 fps, as with the .307 Winchester. If they want a bigger bore, they buy a .35 Remington, not some newfangled version of a cartridge they already rejected, which is why the .356 and .375 Winchesters took the big dirt-nap. They basically copied the .358 WCF and the old high-velocity load of the .38-55. Nobody but gun nuts has used either for decades. They’re both fine loads, but do they kill deer better than the .30-30 or .308? Maybe, but I’ve used all four and can’t tell that much difference.

Of course, wildcatters have necked the .284 Winchester and 6.5/.350 Remington case up and down over the years. The .284 has slightly less capacity than the .30-06 case, the 6.5/.350 somewhat more. These all make into nifty wildcats for the real gun nut. The emphasis, again, is on standard rifle ballistics in a lighter rifle. Chub Eastman of Nosler has a pair of these, both Ultra Light Arms Model 20s chambered for the 6.5-284 and .338-284. They match the ballistics of the 6.5 Remington and .338-06 in 5 1/2-pound rifles. Melvin Forbes, the maker of Chub’s Ultra Lights, shoots a 7mm-350 Remington. It gets .280 Remington Ackley Improved ballistics in a short magazine, but I’d bet my next year’s income that such rifles would never sell on the open market.

Short-action nuts always emphasize the lighter weight and shorter, quicker bolt throw of their darlings. There might be something to both claims, but not much. The average short action weighs four ounces less than the same model of long action - a full quarter-pound! My first two bolt rifles were Remington Model 700s, one a short- action .243 WCF and one a long-action .270 WCF. At the time I was mostly hunting deer jumped out of coulees on the Montana prairie. Sometimes it took two or three shots for a bounding whitetail or muley to collide with a bullet. Darned if I could ever tell the difference in that extra .8 inch of bolt throw. Lifting and dropping the bolt handle took the time, not running the bolt back and forth. Some people do tend to short-shuck bolt guns. For these folks, a short action might work better.

Real gun nuts claim short actions are stiffer, allowing more accuracy. This is undoubtedly true in varmint or benchrest shooting, where fractions of an inch can make the difference. On big game rifles . . . so what?

Despite all the evidence that the world at large is satisfied with .308-based rounds, short-action wildcatters persevere. Lazzeroni has its own line of short, fat rounds, and Rick Jamison has developed several. All provide more case capacity than the 6.5/.350 Remington case. Rick’s neat little .30 beats modern .300 H&H ballistics in a small rifle. Rumor has it that a major ammunition company and arms manufacturer might bring it out. Undoubtedly they’ll sell a few, but based on history I’d bet not many. The average hunter looking for more power buys a 7mm Remington or .300 Winchester rather than some lightweight oddball he’s sure will hurt his feelings. Or maybe he just buys a box of Federal High Energies or Hornady Light Magnums for his .30-06.

The related "beltless" magnum idea is also old. Charles Newton designed a pile of them about, oh, 85 years ago. They didn’t sell, partly because he started up business just before World War I, but mostly because the powders and bullets of the day couldn’t keep pace with the cases.

The ballistic advantage of big beltless cases lies in a little more powder capacity, while still using the same basic action and bolt face of standard magnum rifles. The body of a belted magnum case is smaller in diameter than the rim and belt, while a beltless case is just as large as the rim, or even somewhat larger.

Beltless advocates talk about the "useless belt" on rounds like the 7mm Remington, .300 Weatherby and .338 Winchester magnums. With the sharp shoulders of such rounds the belt isn’t needed for headspacing, its original purpose with tapering rounds such as the .300 and .375 H&H. But 25 years ago, when I was a young gun nut, writers talked about the extra strength of that belt of brass. Was that just typewriter theory too, like the extra velocity from long-actioned .284s?

Whatever. These days everybody’s bringing out beltless magnums, at the forefront Remington’s .300 Ultra Mag. This really is a fine cartridge and very accurate in the rifle I’ve shot, but history has also shown that Americans are well satisfied with established rounds that pretty much do the same thing. The .300 Ultra Mag’s factory ballistics of 3,300 fps with a 180-grain Nosler beat the factory ballistics of the .300 Weatherby by 60 fps - at least with Weatherby’s own 180-grain Nosler load. Some other brands aren’t quite so fast, but Federal’s High Energy 180-grain .300 Weatherby load is listed at 3,330 fps, and the High Energy ammunition I’ve chronographed has all equaled or exceeded factory ballistics.

The reason for these slight gains, despite the .300 Ultra Mag’s 12 percent capacity advantage over the .300 Weatherby, lies in the rule noted earlier: Any capacity increase results in 1Ú4 that amount of velocity increase. In a cartridge capable of 3,300 fps, 12 percent more powder capacity means an increase of about 100 fps. (Need some evidence? If X amount of extra case gained an equal amount of velocity, the .300 Ultra Mag’s 100-grain case would double the velocity of the 150-grain .308 WCF. The .308 drives a 180-grain bullet to about 2,650 fps. Does the .300 Ultra Mag get 5,500 fps? No. It gains about 650 fps; 1/4 of 2,650 is 662.5.)

Will the Remington round sell? Maybe, but older rounds like the .300 Winchester and Weatherby are chambered in lots of rifles, and the ammunition is available all over the world. Many gun nuts will buy the Ultra Mag, but it probably would have done better before the .30-378 Weatherby became a factory round. Of one thing I am sure, however: The .300 Ultra Mag case will be necked up and down by Remington, and wildcatted in dozens of ways. True rifle loonies will purr in ecstasy over each variation, even though something very much like it has already been done, either by a firm like Lazzeroni or some machine-shop foreman in Gary, Indiana, back in 1953.


With 61 grains I’m getting 3,050 fps. A 165-grain X-Bullet will shoot through an elk’s chest from most rational angles, even if you hit bone. With this boat-tail’s ballistic coefficient of nearly .500 (which from my range tests seems to be accurate) this load shoots as flat as North Texas. (I haven’t seen the same sort of gains from the newest moly-coated Fail Safes, but they also seem to work at slightly less pressure due to their slick coating.)

Even varmint rounds have benefited by new super bullets. In the old days we had a choice of match-grade hollowpoint boat-tails that didn’t expand worth a whoop at long range or explosive softpoints that didn’t shoot nearly as flatly or accurately. These days, however, we have the Nosler Ballistic Tip and Hornady V-Max that shoot little tiny groups, expand way out there and, because of their super-sharp tips, fly flatter. Consequently we don’t need a .22-250 Remington or .220 Swift for 400-yard prairie dog shooting, because a .223 Remington will start a 40-grain plastic tip at 3,700 fps or more. Moly-coat them, and barrels don’t foul and last almost forever.

While handloaders can’t match the compacted powders and super velocities of the Federal High Energy and Hornady Light Magnum factory rounds, with modern powders and slick bullets we can come close. With Hodgdon’s Extreme line of powder, our handloads maintain their velocities at subfreezing temperatures, instead of losing 150 fps or more, and we can stuff all these bullets and powders into brass that’s tougher and more consistent. I’ve started using Federal’s match brass in my Ultra Light .30-06, because the rifle is capable of .5-inch groups and deserves it. Neck thickness variation runs at most .001 inch, and weight varies less than two grains.

These days we have great brass, powders that give us an edge at any temperature, primers to ignite them consistently and bullets that turn a .223 Remington into a .22-250 Remington, or a .30-06 into a .300 magnum. Problem is, the bullet and powder inventors have all the fun. We really don’t need to invent more cases but will anyway, because that’s what we can do . . . sometimes in our very own garage.

Case design depends on a number of factors, including the designer’s whims, but the most important factor is whether or not it will feed reliably.

This lineup of .30-caliber cartridges has proven reliable on big game, but the only part that touches an animal is the bullet. New advances in bullet design have also made the entire lineup more effective at responsible ranges.

Lower left, a 225-grain Barnes X-Bullet or 230-grain Winchester Fail Safe will generally penetrate as well as the 275-grain Speer semispitzer, but the lighter bullets fly faster and shoot flatter. Lower right, despite the array of new .35-caliber bullets, North American hunters have remained loyal to only one .35-caliber rifle cartridge, the mild-mannered .35 Remington. Right, newer bullets have inspired renewed vigor in a vast array of older cartridge designs.

Above, different primers can have a decided effect on accuracy. Above right, newer powders offer a wealth of options in the quest for accuracy and optimum velocity.

Modern brass is strong, consistent and reliable.

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Awesome Art
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