April 29, 2013
Some Old But Still Potent Cartridges from the Early 20th Century
By David E. Petzal
I’m old; I’m helpless; I’m feeble
And the days of my youth have gone by
It’s over the hill to the poorhouse
I must wander alone there to die
—19th century song sung by Flatt and Scruggs, which I find myself humming a lot these days.
But that’s not important now. Recently I’ve found myself writing about a lot of old (early 20th century) cartridges, and reflecting on the fact that most of them are anything but feeble. First on the list was the .257 Roberts which, as a light-recoiling taker of big game (It was originally conceived as a dual-purpose load for varmints as well, but is not much in that category.) and properly handloaded, has no betters that I can think of and damned few equals. I owned a Roberts in the 1980s, handloaded 115-grain Nosler Partitions to over 3,000 fps, and saw everything at which I pointed it fall down promptly. Ted Trueblood’s wife Ellen, as I recall, used to kill elk on a regular basis with a .257 Roberts.
I’m also reminded of the .300 Savage, which is ancient, but gives up very little to the .308. One of the many rifles which I no longer own but wish I did is a 1930s-vintage Savage Model 99 in .300 Savage. If I had it now I would have a scope mounted, and would be prepared to hunt just about anything.
Another round of which I have writ recently is the .303 British, which began as a black-powder cartridge in 1888, went smokeless in 1892, and percolated throughout the British Empire in the Lee Enfield rifle. The original loading was a 215-grain bullet at 2,050 fps, and this anemic-sounding combination killed just about every species of big game in India, Africa, and every other country the Brits stole. Lee Enfields were highly popular as hunting rifles in Australia and Canada as well, and they got the job done.
Alexander Lake, the professional hunter whose books infected me with the Africa bug, used a .303 in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, when Africa was really wild, took everything with it, and lived to write about his adventures.
There are lots of others that are old, but still as good as when they were young. The .45/70, 6.5 Swede, 7.62 Russian and 7x57 Mauser leap to mind, as do the .404 Jeffrey, which is being rediscovered, and the .470 Nitro Express. The list goes on and on.
In the world of rifle cartridges, usefulness is not a temporary condition.