The following information on match rifle cartridges comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
Match rifle shooting or Schuetzen work has now come to mean off-hand shooting at two hundred yards exclusively. For this purpose the choice of cartridges has narrowed down to those listed above. The requisite qualities of such ammunition are: the greatest possible accuracy, weight enough of bullet to be steady in the wind, and a practical absence of recoil. A balance of accuracy, steadiness, and freedom from recoil are insisted upon by the Schuetzen man, and one quality would not be tolerated if gained at the expense of another. As an example the .38-55 once in general use, is no longer in great favor, because what this larger bore gained in steadiness it lost through its “kick” with the resulting undue strain under which the marksman labored. On the other hand while the .25 caliber is very accurate and without recoil, it is too sensitive to wind for any but good weather conditions.
As a result the choice of match rifle cartridges has almost narrowed to the .28-30, .32-40, and .33. Again the preference for one of these would be governed by the constitutional tendencies of the rifleman. If he has a delicately adjusted nervous organization the chances are he is partial to the .28, while a more rugged man would do his best work with the .33, because less annoyed by changes in the wind.
It is not to be disputed that the match rifle and its cartridges are the most accurate combination ever made for work at two hundred yards, and to me it seems doubtful if the present output can be improved upon in the future. The cartridges alone cannot be credited entirely with this hair-splitting accuracy, neither can the rifles from which they are shot, for much of it is due to carefully considered manipulation of rifle and ammunition.
From the beginning the match rifleman has utterly condemned the ordinary fixed ammunition such as is used in hunting rifles. Usually he has a preference for heavier bullets than the standard, the very heaviest bullets that his rifle will spin without tipping, finding that these will group closer. Some have been content to load these heavy bullets in the mouth of the shell with nearly all grooves exposed, so that closing the action forced the ball up into the rifling. Others considered this but a half measure and by the use of a bullet seater, placed the ball quite ahead of the shell. The intent in either case was the same, to get the bullet seated in the center of the bore so that it could not start in a tipping manner or “shave” lead as it took the rifling.
In former days a great problem was to maintain a uniform cleanness of bore, with an entire absence of leading. I might state here, parenthetically, that I have never yet seen a rifle with lead bullets crimped into the shell that would fire a hundred shots without showing traces of lead in the bore, or that would maintain accuracy for this number of rounds. Sometimes the elevation will change as the lead deposits, in other instances a wild shot will be thrown now and then; the worse the leading the poorer the results. A rifle that would stay in a six-inch circle with the first score might be scattering all over a twenty-four inch before the hundred was finished.
Knowing this, many careful marksmen preferred patched bullets, seated ahead of the shell, the rifle being invariably cleaned between rounds. So manipulated, the rifle gained greatly in regular accuracy, and nearly all the finest scores of a decade or two ago were made with this style of loading. I need not go into it further here because the patch bullet is now nearly obsolete.
Finally the Pope System of rifle boring and loading solved all the problems of the Schuetzen man, leaving him nothing to do but to load his weapon and shoot. The Pope-Stevens rifle is cut with narrow lands and a gain twist, starting slow at the breech and reaching the desired turn at the muzzle. It has a false muzzle, starter, and ramrod, through the use of which the bullet is started at the muzzle and pushed down to the breech where it rests just in front of the shell chamber. Then the shell is filled with powder and, without a wad, is placed in behind the ball the same as in any other breechloader. The bullet has a very square base, and a broad band at the bottom; as it goes down it pushes the fouling before it, leaving the barrel uniformly clean. The barrel is slightly choked at the muzzle and the lands are narrow and so shaped as to cause little friction; as a consequence after the ball passes through the false muzzle it seats very easily, perfectly centered in the bore.
These rifles can be shot all day without any attention being paid to the bore and at night will be as accurate as when work was begun in the morning. Further, they are the most accurate rifles made anywhere of any description. With one of them ten shots have been placed in an inch and a half circle at two hundred yards when shot with a machine rest, and fifty shots in a three-inch.
I should regard the accuracy of rifles, all equally well cut but with different styles of loading, as something like this: A .32-40 rifle with fixed ammunition will shoot ten shots into a six-inch circle but the accuracy will go off before fifty shots are fired. With heavy bullets loaded uncrimped in the muzzle of the shell, ten shots can be placed in a five-inch and fifty in an eight. Where the bullets are seated ahead of the shell from the breech with a bullet seater, ten shots might be kept in a four-inch circle and fifty in a six-inch. Patched bullets will pattern still closer. With the average Pope rifle and its accessories ten shots should be kept in a two-inch and fifty in a three-inch at the distance. Any of this work implies that weather conditions shall be favorable with little wind to affect the bullet’s flight.
Black powder and King’s semi-smokeless are the favorite compounds with sharpshooters. Whichever propellant may be selected, it is customary to prime it with a few grains of nitro powder which assist in blowing out the dirt and keeping the bore clean. Flasks are made especially to prime shells with the smokeless and follow with the black with almost one motion, the whole loading being more uniformly accomplished than could be done by dipping.
Pope-Stevens rifles always take heavier bullets than the standard. The .25 caliber 86 grain bullet is replaced by one of 98 grains; the .28-120 grain by one of 140 grains; the .32 uses a 200 grain ball, .33, 220 and .38, 300 grain. All of these bullets have blunt points with a long bearing in the rifling. The shells, of course, being filled to the top, hold more than the normal charge of powder, the .25-25 shell will hold nearly 30 grains and so on with the others.
Which of these calibers to select is something for the individual rifleman to settle for himself. If he has any inclination to flinch, the chances are he does his best work with a .25. The average gallery, trained sharpshooter will likely secure the best results from the .28, while the veteran on the range will cling to his .30-40 or .33. The .38-55 will tire out any but the most rugged marksman ere a day’s work is finished. It should always be kept in mind that a man may fire two hundred shots or more in the course of a day.