Why vintage cartridges perform so well at the 2,200 to 2,400 fps mark.
Call me old fashioned (and I’ve been called a lot worse) if you want, but I still cringe every time I see one of our esteemed gun scribes allude to my beloved old magazine and single loader rifles as possessing barely adequate energy to cleanly kill game by “modern standards”.
Have the deer and elk and black bears we hunt mutated into some kind of semi-indestructible creatures in the last hundred years? Do they require rifles resembling small shoulder mounted artillery pieces sending monolithic projectiles at hyper velocity, with suitably impressive (and nasty) recoil, muzzle blast and meat destruction? Is sighting equipment with optics powerful enough to count the legs on a tick crawling up a deer’s shoulder at 300 yards really needed? Have these animals become so wary or vicious we can’t or don’t want to get any closer than this? Has the skill of woodsmanship diminished so badly that we need GPS positioners so we don’t get lost, and infrared sniffers to detect our quarry for us?
Or has something else happened?
In our modern world, have we forgotten what a simple pleasure it is to just hunt? To slip through the woods with a light and slender iron sighted magazine rifle loaded with a clip full of heavy round nose bullets that travel at moderate velocity? Living lives which often seem like a series of canned events, hunting has too often become just another planned episode of instant gratification where someone is simply put in the right place to ambush game as it comes by, to dispatch it with equipment requiring no real practice or skill to use, and possessing enough reserves of power to compensate for same. Have we lost our respect for the animals we hunt, that we are no longer willing to take the time to learn how to go after them nearer to their level, rather than to snipe them from afar?
Contrast that with a day spent hunting a piece of terrain you’ve taken the time to scout, to find the sweet spots for the game. The patterns of the wind, the warm place to stop for a break or a snack. A place you know well enough to change the direction of the hunt if the wind shifts, or the spoor of the game goes in a different direction. A place you can stalk close enough to your quarry to catch it undisturbed, so a long barrelled iron sighted rifle can be raised unnoticed, and one of those heavy bullets can be placed in just the right spot. Right under the bead, because that’s where it went when you spent all those hours practicing.
And you saw that long heavy bullet poleax the deer, just like they have for 125 years. Famous hunter of the Dark Continent Frederick Courtenay Selous was “astonished and delighted” to discover that fact in 1893.
From the little .25-35 Winchester, the .256 Dutch and Mannlicher-Schoenauer, Mr. Rigby’s .275 (known to some as the 7X57 Mauser), Britain’s Mk.6 .303, Hollands’ Super .30 with the original 220 grain/2350 fps load, Westley’s .318, Mr Jeffery’s .333 to the immensely capable 9.3X62, these cartridges have performed their job admirably. Their trajectories are quite flat enough for iron sight work; in fact, a study of the tables shows that with a 200 yard zero, all the above mentioned calibers have a mid range trajectory of 3 1/2 to 4 inches, which allows point blank aim on most game animals to almost 250 yards. And we ought to be able to stalk in that close.
All these shells send a long for caliber round nose bullet out the muzzle at velocities between 2200 and 2400 feet per second. They give solid and reliable performance with economical cup and core bullets such as Hornady Interlocks and Sierra Pro-Hunters. Economical enough to get in a lot of practice at the range in the off season. Expensive premium bullets made tough enough to withstand unneeded high velocity are simply not necessary. And apart from the Super .30, not a belt or a steep shoulder in sight to interfere with smooth feeding.
The velocity range in which these cartridges operate is their recipe for success. The relatively low pressures yields excellent barrel and case life, easy extraction (a big deal in the tropics), and the long bullets get reliable straight line penetration, providing a rifleman the confidence to reach the vitals of a game animal from any angle. Muzzle blast is not the problem it is with the newer hotter numbers, especially as most of us who use these rifles cling to our 26″ and 28″ barrels. This is a real benefit to new, young or lady shooters. Excessive noise will put them off far more than physical recoil.
So what did the hunters of yesteryear do when they needed more power for larger game? They simply went to a larger bore cartridge. The ratios stayed the same and there may have been a little more recoil, but the trajectory was almost identical, so it didn’t need to be relearned. The penetration matched, but the wound channel and kinetic energy both increased.
There was no need to make a smaller cartridge do that which it was never intended to do – and why sacrifice known reliability? I don’t know how many articles I’ve endured in the gun press about souping up the wonderful Super .30 to velocity levels undreamed of by it’s originators. And then to have the same writer complain of it’s short case life and difficult extraction. It was designed as a low pressure round to give good results on the larger and tougher of the plains species in Africa. In the early days of smokeless propellants, erratic pressures and attendant extraction problems in the tropics led to the development of cartridges such as this. Just because a shell has a big case, doesn’t mean it needs to be brimming with powder.
The bottom line is, these old designs really work. They always have, and they always will. The low pressures are easy on a rifle with a slim barrel and slender stock; easy on a shooter so the rifle’s accuracy can be used to full advantage; and easy on a good reliable soft nose bullet design as it penetrates to an animals’ vital organs, to kill it cleanly.
And I think we owe them that.