The Classic Cartridges Test:

A Comparison of Vintage Bullets for Big Game Hunting


The dawn of the smallbore, high velocity, smokeless powder revolution in firearms saw the introduction of a host of cartridges that became instant classics. Some of these are imbued with a legendary reputation that endures even more than a century after their introduction, ensuring their continued (and well deserved) popularity. Others have faded from the scene, yet enjoy the immortality afforded by the writings of able hunters from that era.

Nonetheless, while some of these cartridges remain, the loads and bullet designs that made them famous have long since been replaced by more modern loadings. In the earliest days of metal jackets the material of choice was thin cupronickel, a grey-colored alloy with 70 to 75% copper and the balance in nickel. Cupronickel was abandoned due to excessive fouling. Mild steel was also used before the gilding metal that has become the industry standard was adopted. A variety of design approaches sought to provide the divergent qualities of rapid expansion with controlled expansion. Hollow points, split jackets and large exposures of lead are no longer in vogue with modern high velocity loads, but how did they perform for these older cartridges, and how do they compare to today's cartridges? An insightful remark by "Pondoro" Taylor in 1948 is suggestive:

It would seem that it is easier to design a satisfactory expanding bullet if the velocity is kept moderate, than is the case where the speed has been boosted to the skies. That is, of course, quite understandable; since there will be nothing like the great variation of striking velocities that are inevitable with the light, high speed bullet. That latter must be designed to stand up to the tremendous impact it encounters if used at close quarters; and then since velocities drop very quickly, it is difficult for it to expand properly at longer ranges. These conditions do not apply to anything like the same extent with the heavier and lower initial-velocity bullets. (African Rifles and Cartridges, John Taylor, pg. 163)

For example, here is the order of bullet expansion according to Taylor (African Rifles and Cartridges, John Taylor, pg. 276). It would be interesting to see how this bears out in testing:

  • Westley Richards' round-capped...........................slow expansion [i.e., LT Capped RN]
  • Soft-nose, lead barely showing at tip.....................slow expansion
  • Soft-nose, plenty of lead showing......................normal expansion
  • Soft-nose split.....................................................rapid expansion
  • Copper-pointed............................................very rapid expansion
  • Westley Richards' "LT" pointed capped.....instantaneous expansion
  • Typically characteristic of these classic cartridges is a loading with a long, heavy round-nosed bullet at a moderate velocity (very moderate by contemporary standards). Pundits ever since have touted these heavy for caliber bullets, with sectional densities usually higher than .300, as the secret to their success on game. It amounts to the same old (old even by the turn of the century) argument of heavy and slow versus light and fast. At the time, the quest for still higher velocity was obviously fueled by more than simply the technical ability to do so, the performance improvement was real, and yet so too were the arguments against the advance in muzzle speeds. Are both of these trends explained by relatively frangible bullet designs? This test series is intended to strip away the myth from the facts, to expose the foundation of truth and explode the bogus theories.

    A Work in Progress -- Stay Tuned for the Results

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