Introduction to Rifle Cartridges

The following information on rifle cartridges comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.

Miniature and Gallery.—Small Game.—Match Rifle.—Military and Sporting, No. 1. Military and Sporting, No. 2.—Large Bore, High-Power Cartridges.

The choice of a proper rifle cartridge for the work in view is of the highest importance. A sporting writer has aptly stated the matter when he says that the rifle itself is a mere means of using the cartridge and is, in fact, of secondary importance. Hence it is that at least in the hunting field our success may be due in a greater measure to the cartridge selected than to the model of rifle. Dozens of cartridges are still being manufactured for rifles that are either obsolete or should be. It follows that the novice may go astray even when he consults a veteran friend who may be clinging to what was good in its day but is now out of date.

Ammunition firms divide cartridges into black powder and smokeless, most of the black powder output being also loaded with some brand of nitro. Smokeless shells in turn are subdivided into low-pressure and high-power. The former is simply the old black shell loaded with a brand of nitro giving practically the same ballistics as the original charge, while the latter are either cartridges that have never been designed for anything but smokeless or the old shell loaded with a high velocity powder.

While thousands of black powder shells are still manufactured and will be until the guns for which they are built are worn out, yet we can consider black powder for big game shooting as obsolete. Very few men, indeed, would deliberately choose a black powder rifle and cartridge for hunting purposes, today, even for small game. I shall, therefore, in this work pay little attention to the old line of black powder game shells that were once well liked, but have outlived their usefulness. The one purpose for which our old friend saltpeter is still as well adapted as any is target shooting, gallery and match rifle. It is peculiarly fitted to arms from which thousands of shots are fired in the course of a season, because the wear on a barrel is very slight compared with nitro compounds and the necessarily jacketed bullets. While smokeless powders have been so perfected as to show accuracy and regularity equal to black powder, yet their wear and tear on a barrel will make many chary of using them in a fine match rifle.

The low pressure smokeless, such as is used to replace the black, is a makeshift, and like any other makeshift must in the nature of things be temporary. Another decade should witness the end of all the old-time black powder cartridges, the low pressure nitros, and the big game rifles in which they are used. Even the made-over cartridges, those that have been changed to high velocity like the .38-35, .40-70, .45-90, and .50-110, while they have undoubted merit, will probably soon give way to cartridges of like caliber and greater power. For instance, the .50-110, and the Winchester .405 have practically the same ballistics, like weight of bullet, velocity, and striking force, yet few would select the .50 in preference to the .405. However, should the .50 be remodeled to take a 400 grain bullet with a powder charge that would drive it 2,500 feet a second it would find admirers, notwithstanding the fact that for American use it would have a surplus of power.

Fashions change in rifles and cartridges almost as readily as with ladies’ hats. The present tendency is to discard good and well tried ammunition of moderate ballistics in favor of larger bores of extreme power, and military ammunition of velocity approaching 3,000 feet; this will shortly be made the military standard velocity it seems, and many game shooters will also prefer it.

The latest hobby among big game hunters is a sharp-pointed (or Spitzer) full mantled bullet—this for large or even dangerous game. The claim is made for such missiles that they must replace the soft-nose, because the latter is not accurate when driven at a velocity of 3,000 feet, and that the soft ball must have considerably increased weight or it will mushroom and not penetrate. All of this may be quite true, but since a great deal of experimenting is still going on, perhaps it would be wise to render the Scotch verdict of “not proven.”

For convenience I have classified cartridges as: miniature and gallery, small game, match rifle, military and sporting, number 1, military and sporting, number 2, and large-bore, high power. Subsequently every cartridge that I deem worthy of it will be given individual mention and its proper uses outlined.

Under the head of miniature will be included cartridges that are actually too small for anything that could really be considered game for the rifle. The .22 short is typical of this class. All of this ammunition is rimfire.

Small game cartridges are all center fire, are for the most part loaded with smokeless powder, have from fair to high velocities, and vary in power from rabbit loads to deer. The special uses of the different calibers and cartridges will be noted.

Match rifle cartridges are limited in number, embracing only those that have been found to give the finest results in off-hand shooting at two hundred yards. Formerly match cartridges might have included those adapted to work up to a thousand yards, but of late years long range match shooting is entirely military, not coming under the head of the match rifle.

Military and sporting, number 1, includes such ammunition as has heretofore been popular with hunters, of which the Remington .35 and the Winchester .33 are typical. All of those in this list are of moderate ballistics, accurate and reliable, and of low breech pressure.

Cartridges, military and sporting, number 2, comprise those of the latest design and the most pronounced ballistics. The general characteristics of the class are light, sharp-pointed bullets, heavy powder charges relative to the lead, and very high velocities.

Of the large bore, high-power, we have but a limited number of cartridges for which our rifles are chambered, but nearly all weapons designed for African use come under this heading. The Winchester .405 is an American example of the high-power, big-bore. In the next chapter we will take up the various classes at length.

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Introduction to Rifle Cartridges

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