May 13, 2013
Handloading: Improved Cartridges? Probably Not.
By David E. Petzal
The Golden Age of Handloading came after World War II when everyone and his brother Montmorenzi went down to their basements to crank out their own ammo and rarely came up into the light. One of the side effects of this craze was the mania for “Improved” cartridges, and the leader of the cult was a Utah barrelmaker, gunsmith, and wildcatter named P.O. Ackley.
In 1962, Ackley published Volumes I and II of the Handbook for Shooters and Reloaders, which contained all sorts of interesting stuff, but mostly loading data for everyone’s Improved cartridges, and there was a bunch.
“Improving” a cartridge meant that you took a well established, respectable cartridge such as the 7x57 Mauser and fired it in an Improved chamber that was cut with less taper and a sharper shoulder than the original. The brass would be fire-formed to its new shape, and the resulting increased powder capacity would boost your 7x57’s velocity up to that of a .280. Or so the theory went.
All of this took place when the only people who owned chronographs were the ammo companies and a very few brave souls who were willing to endure the process of getting results from the first home chronographs. I used to do it in the 60s and it took me weeks to recover from the experience. People would go to the range with their Improved rifles, fire a shot, and say, “Yes, by God, that sounds a lot faster than before.”
In real life, most Improved rounds produced piddling increases in velocity but huge increases in pressure. My one extended experience with an Improved cartridge involved a .280, and I found that in order to achieve 150 fps more than factory velocity, I had to blow primers, which is not a good idea. It’s fine to use a sharper shoulder and less case taper, but if you want a meaningful velocity increase without pressures that will leave you fingerless, you have to use a bigger case, period.
The one Improved cartridge of which I know that was both useful and commercially successful was the .375 Weatherby, which Weatherby introduced around 1945, and which stayed in the line until replaced 8 years later by the retina-detaching .378 Weatherby. The Weatherby version of the .375 got a major boost because Warren Page used the daylights out of it and wrote about it a lot. It was a very good cartridge that increased the velocity of a 300-grain bullet from around 2,550 to 2,700 fps, or a little more.
Unlike the much bigger .378, its recoil was manageable. I recall Page, who detested recoil, telling me that he had shot out three barrels on his .375, which is a humungous amount of shooting.
The closest thing we have to Improved cartridges today are the various short magnums, which follow the general form, but unlike the originals, hold lots and lots of powder.
The original Improved cartridges were doomed by the proliferation of small, simple, accurate chronographs, which also had the effect of getting ammo makers to load to their advertised velocities. Now, we live in a world of harsh scientific reality where we can no longer fire our .250 Savage Improved and say “Godd*** if that doesn’t sound every bit as fast as a .25/06.”
I sort of miss the old way of doing things.