January 08, 2013
Why Do They Call It That?
By David E. Petzal
A former editor of Field & Stream once asked me to explain the American system of cartridge designation, and if it was possible for him to familiarize himself with the weird and wonderful assortment of cartridges that we stuff in our firearms.
“You’d do better to try and learn Finnish,” I said. “Unless you start memorizing the lexicon of cartridges before your teens, your brain has already hardened too much to absorb it.”
Until the 20th century, American ammo makers were sometimes rational in picking names for their cartridges. The .45/70, for example, was so-called because it was .45 caliber and held 70 grains of black powder. However, the signs of rot were already present. The .44 was actually .429. Why call it a .44? Possibly because .429 doesn’t rhyme well, and cowboys couldn’t write songs about it.
The first cartridge to take wings on flights of fancy was the probably the .22 Hornet. Then came the .220 Swift (actually .224), because it was very fast, and the .257 Roberts, named after the guy who invented it, and all the magnums (The term “magnum” comes from a big champagne bottle.), and the pure flights of fancy such as the .577 Tyrannosaur, so-called because it’s better to be eaten by a T-rex than to shoot one of these monster cartridges.
My favorite is not an American round. Rather, it’s the .22 Velo Dog. This obsolete French handgun cartridge was about the equivalent of a .22 LR, and was supposedly designed for bicyclists to shoot annoying canines as they pedaled along. Or so the story goes.
In any event, if you’re a new shooter, and are looking for some sort of logic, or order, or common sense in how we name cartridges, you’re wasting your time.