December 07, 2021
Attorney, inventor and gunmaker Charles Newton (1868–1932) believed in velocity. Before World War I he created a family of fast unbelted cartridges that might still be with us if just one of his several attempts at manufacturing rifles had succeeded. His .256 Newton (actually a 6.5mm) was based on the .30-06 case, similar to the wildcat 6.5-06. The .30, .33, .35 and .40 Newtons were based on the fat 11.2x72 Schuler case, and thus were forerunners to our current fat-cased unbelted magnums. Sadly, by 1925 the last of Newton’s four rifle companies failed.
Today his rifles and cartridges are largely forgotten, but Newton left a major contribution in his collaboration with Savage Arms. In 1912 he created the .22 Savage High-Power for Arthur Savage. Based on the .25-35 case necked down, the .22 High-Power used an odd 0.228-inch and heavy-for-caliber 70-grain bullet at nearly 2,800 fps, which was speedy for 1912. The .22 Savage High-Power was chambered by Savage until 1940 and sparked considerable debate about the suitability of .22 centerfires for deer—a controversy that continues to this day.
One must assume that Arthur W. Savage (1857–1938) also believed in velocity. For sure, he believed in wringing maximum performance from the Model 99, his beloved lever action. Only four rifle cartridges bear the Savage name: .303 Savage (1895), .22 Savage High-Power (1912), .250 Savage (1915) and .300 Savage (1920). All but the .303 are fast.
The .303 Savage is similar to the .30-30, but the .303 used heavier bullets, with factory loads of 180 and 190 grains at 2,140 and 1,890 fps respectively. Deep-woods hunters long argued that the .303 Savage was “better” than the .30-30. Maybe, but with the .303, Savage never argued his lever action’s ability to use sharp-pointed bullets, always a significant advantage over tubular-magazine rifles. I suppose this is because spitzer bullets were almost unknown in 1895; European militaries didn’t start the shift to spitzers until 1898.
Arthur Savage was well aware of the spitzer bullet’s advantage with the next three cartridges that bore his name. The most common bullet for the .22 Savage High-Power was a semi-spitzer, and a specific bullet was part of the deal with the .250 Savage.
By 1914, the .25-35 was a popular chambering in the 1899 Savage and considered excellent for deer-size game, so Arthur Savage reached out to Newton once more, asking him to develop a fast, new .25 caliber cartridge. This time Newton shortened the .30-06 case to 1.912 inches and came back to Savage with the first commercial cartridge to exceed 3,000 fps.
The date of the cartridge’s introduction is generally given as 1915, but Savage historian David Royal uses 1914. According to Royal, Newton recommended a 100-grain bullet at a more sedate 2,800 fps. Recognizing the sizzle, Arthur Savage insisted on a light-for-caliber 87-grain bullet, which, with 1914 powders and pressures, was the only way the cartridge could reach 3,000 fps.
So 87 grains it was—at 3,000 fps, an unprecedented velocity. Initially dubbed “.250-3000,” the new cartridge gave Arthur Savage the splash he was looking for. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good news. Bullet technology wasn’t quite ready for that speed, and there were reports of erratic performance on game. It had been much the same with the .22 Savage High-Power, which was used on much larger game than it probably should have been. When things went well, the .250-3000 was like lightning striking. At other times, premature expansion and failure to penetrate handicapped performance.
Bullet technology has long since caught up. The fast 87-grain load at 3,030 fps was offered for many years, but Savage and other manufacturers quickly added a 100-grain load at about 2,820 fps—exactly as Charles Newton originally suggested. There was also a 120-grain factory load at 2,645 fps. Eventually, the 87-grain bullet was dropped, and the cartridge is usually called .250 Savage.
Savage’s initial .250 offering was the M1899 “.250-300 Rifle,” which was takedown only with a hand-checkered fore-end and a pistol grip. This is the configuration of the .250 Savage I have now, from my late friend Joe Bishop’s collection. It’s in great shape and mostly original, except someone added a thin rubber recoil pad in place of the original steel buttplate. Mine also has a tang-mounted flip-up aperture sight, a factory option. This rifle isn’t drilled and tapped for scope mounts. I’m not going to modify it further, so I shoot it with the aperture.
By serial number, mine is a 1920 rifle. It isn’t clear exactly when the “18” in 1899 was dropped and the rifle became the “Model 99,” but it had to have been by 1921. Various versions of the Model 99 continued to be chambered to .250 Savage until 1984.
There is a more significant change to post-1920 .250 Savage rifles. Through 1920, .250-3000 rifles had a 1:14 twist to stabilize the short 87-grain bullet, and this is the twist of my rifle. It gives good accuracy with Hornady’s 100-grain InterLock, which was designed with older rifles in mind. Anything heavier or longer tumbles and keyholes. By 1921 1:10 twists were standard.
As far as is known, Charles Newton had no involvement with the 1920 development of the .300 Savage cartridge. It is based on the .250 Savage case necked up and shortened slightly to 1.871 inches, but with subtle changes.
Much of the body taper was removed. The .250 Savage case tapers 0.050 inch from base to start of shoulder, while the .300 Savage tapers just 0.024 inch, half the taper. The .300 also has a sharper shoulder, 30 degrees versus 26.5 degrees. Most significant, the .300 Savage has a very short neck. The intent was obviously to wring as much velocity as possible out of the small case.
Cartridge theory has long held that you want at least a “full caliber” neck. For example, a .308-caliber cartridge should have a neck of at least 0.308 inch in length to properly grip the bullet. Forty years later, the .300 Win. Mag. was criticized for its short 0.298-inch neck. The .250 Savage has a generous neck of 0.275 inch. The .300 Savage has a neck length of just 0.221 inch, one of the shortest necks of any production cartridge.
The .300 Win. Mag. survived this “handicap,” and so did the .300 Savage. The max specified pressure is the same as the .250 Savage: 48,200 psi. With this pressure—and with sharper shoulder, less taper, short neck and all—it was a wonder when it was announced in 1920.
At the time, the standard load for the .30-06 was a 150-grain bullet at 2,700 fps. This was the hype when Savage introduced the .300, claiming it had “.30-06-like” performance in a lever-action rifle. With propellants of the day, this was probably a bit optimistic.
Standard factory loads have generally settled on a 150-grain bullet at 2,630 fps and 180-grain bullets at 2,350 fps. Some handloading manuals still suggest 2,700 fps is practical for a 150-grain bullet, and Hornady’s Superformance 150-grain .300 Savage load is rated at 2,740 fps. This is really excellent velocity from such a small case. Inevitably, velocity falls off quickly with bullets 180 grains and heavier.
In 1920, the .300 Savage was awesome. But as new propellants were developed, .30-06 loads gradually crept up, and today the .300 Savage cannot keep pace with either the .30-06 or .308 Win. But before World War II, it really did offer .30-06-like performance in an all-American lever action.
The .300 quickly became the most popular chambering in the Savage 99, and it remained so until the 99 was chambered to .243 and .308 Win. in the 1950s. It’s purely an accident of design that the Model 99 was able to house the .308 Win. family. Surely, nobody at Savage saw those cartridges coming. Even so, the .300 Savage continued to be offered in certain Model 99 variations until the end of production, with the last 99s shipped in 2003.
Perhaps the most interesting and least-known rifle chambered to these two rounds was the Savage Model 20 bolt-action rifle. Introduced in 1920, the Model 20 was America’s first production bolt-action rifle, sort of a mini-Springfield—a Mauser clone with dual opposing locking lugs and non-rotating, long Mauser extractor.
The Model 20 is a very short bolt action—ideally sized to, and chambered only to, .250 and .300 Savage. Significantly and dramatically ahead of its time, the Model 20 not only was the first commercial bolt action but also was the world’s first short bolt action. Expensive to make, the Model 20 persisted through the 1920s with about 10,000 made. Finishing and machining were excellent, but by all reports, the trigger was awful.
The Savage Model 40 was also chambered in both .250 and .300 Savage, as well as .30-06. The Model 40 was a simple and inexpensive rear-locking action, similar to the later Remington Model 788.
More recently, in 2019, celebrating its 125th anniversary, Savage chambered special editions of its Model 110 bolt action in both .250 and .300 Savage. Winchester’s Models 54 and 70 were chambered to both .250 and .300 Savage at one time or another, and Remington chambered the .300 Savage in its Model 722 bolt action, Model 81 semiautomatic and Model 760 slide action.
Both Remington and Ruger have done limited runs in both cartridges. In the late 1970s, I had a Mexican Mauser action rebarreled and E.C. Bishop stocked in .250 Savage. It shot well, and I once took it to Africa, where it was effective on small to medium plains game with 100-grain bullets.
Since then, I’ve had various Savage 99s in .250 and .300. Both cartridges have languished under pressure from two unassailable forces. As rimless cartridges, both were readily adaptable to other action types, but they were developed as lever-action cartridges. That was fine until the 1940s, when lever actions ruled American game fields, not so fine when the bolt action rose to dominance.
For a brief time, the .250 Savage was the standard light-kicking deer cartridge and almost the only crossover deer/varmint cartridge. These monopolies ended in 1934 with the introduction of the faster .257 Roberts. The Roberts didn’t kill off the .250, though. The .257 Roberts won’t fit into a short bolt action nor into the Savage 99.
Through World War II the .300 Savage was unaffected. It was much more powerful than the .30-30 or .30 Rem. It wasn’t as powerful as emerging .30-06 loads, but it had a lot less recoil.
The nail in the coffin for the two rounds was the introduction of the .308 Win. in 1952 and the .243 in 1955. As a medium-range, short-action deer cartridge with plenty of power for elk, I’m not prepared to say the .308 is “better” than the .300 Savage, but with more case capacity, the .308 is faster. The Savage 99 could handle the .308, but the .308’s 2.015-inch case came to define a short-action cartridge, creating a new class of actions.
As a varmint cartridge, the .243 probably is better than the .250 Savage, in part because its bolt-action platforms tend to be more accurate than lever guns. For deer-size game, it’s splitting hairs to pick one over another. The greatest contribution of the two Savage rounds is that they bridged the gap from lever action to bolt action and beyond. They also established demand for crossover cartridges and for effective medium-range big game cartridges.
The .250 and .300 Savage are pretty much history today, but both remain useful and effective. Total production of their primary platform, the Savage 99, didn’t quite reach a million. So Savage 99s remain plentiful and available on the used market, and except for collectibles, they have not become expensive. I suppose I’ve owned a dozen 99s, most purchased from used-gun racks and then sold again as I keep looking for one just a little bit better.
I had an accurate .300 Savage 99 with a factory aperture sight. But I wanted one with a scope, so I sold that one and bought another with a fixed 4X Redfield. A buddy really wanted it, so I sold it to him and realized I had dies, data and ammo. While hunting in Montana last fall, I walked into Capital Sports in Helena. There, on the wall, was a perfect 99 in .300 at a good price. No sales tax in Montana—and I got a military discount.
The rifle came with an ancient 2.75X scope, but the adjustments wouldn’t track. I replaced it with an old 3-9X Leupold compact and went to work. Very early Savage .300s had a 1:12 twist, which is questionable for heavy bullets, while later rifles were standardized at 1:10. My rifle was made in 1952, the year I was born.
You never know about older guns. Accuracy was okay with Remington’s 150-grain Core-Lokt but not so hot with Hornady’s fast SST load. So it was off to the loading bench. There’s nothing special about loading either the .250 or .300 Savage, and major reloading manuals still carry data.
Just two things. Like all rear-locking actions, the Savage 99 has a bit of flex, so brass may stretch more than you’re accustomed to with bolt actions. I get lazy with trimming, but with these cartridges I pay attention to the trim-to length. Also, the 99 can be pressure-sensitive, so you don’t want to load it to the gills—and I do not.
I settled on IMR 4064, a standard propellant for the .300 Savage, loading up some 150-grain Swift Scirocco bullets. This hit the jackpot, and groups immediately shrank to 1.5 inches. That’s not bad for a retirement-age 99 and good enough for the deer hunting I intended. I can up the velocity a bit, but right now I’ve got 150-grain bullets moving at a sedate 2,550 fps. Just so, it’s available for our California hog hunting, where unleaded bullets are mandated. I also loaded up some Barnes 150-grain flat-point .30-30 bullets.
Over the years, I’ve done some pig hunting with various 99s in .300, but this past season I carried this scoped .300 for a lot of deer hunting. On the next-to-last day of our Kansas rifle season, I was in a tall tree when two bucks came along the ridge crest behind me. The lead buck had a big body and a compact, ugly rack. Perfect. Straining against the safety harness, I got around on him and shot him on the front shoulder at about 50 yards, the Scirocco quartering through and exiting.
I touched on this in a recent issue, but getting top accuracy with Joe Bishop’s .250 and its 1:14 twist has been a bigger problem. It shoots 100-grain InterLocks great, but with its aperture sight, I’m thinking of it primarily for hogs. I had a devil of a time figuring out a California-legal unleaded bullet my barrel would stabilize. Even Barnes 80-grain TTSX bullets are too long, and everything heavier hits the target sideways.
Hammer Bullets in Montana makes a 67-grain homogeneous alloy 0.257-inch bullet intended for the old 1:14 twist. Combining my eyes and aperture sights, I probably won’t ever know exactly how well this rifle shoots, but with RL15 powder, I’m getting good accuracy and well over 3,000 fps. With 100-grain bullets, it’s accounted for does on the Kansas farm and some non-California hogs, but now I’m in business. And I really like this old 1899 Savage.