January 04, 2011
Their sales may have slowed to a trickle, but fading cartridges can make for great companions.
New cartridges keep guys like me in business, and Lord knows there have been plenty of new cartridges to write about these past few years. Most of them are pretty darned good, but cartridges that might have appealed to our fathers, grandfathers--perhaps even our great-grandfathers--are still effective today. Because of this, some people like to go against the tide and shoot "retro" cartridges. Sometimes I join them, even though it is part of my job to report on as many of the new cartridges as I can get my hands on.
Now, there's retro and then there's retro. For instance, many of us use cartridges such as the .270 Winchester (1925), .30-06 (1906), .300 Weatherby Magnum (1944) and .375 H&H (1912) because we like them and they do their respective jobs, not because we're consciously being reactionary. When I say retro I'm thinking about older cartridges that are not especially popular today but are still effective and therefore interesting.
In recent years my small retro rebellion has centered on just three cartridges, the 7x57 Mauser, .264 Winchester Magnum, and .300 H&H Magnum. I will address each in order of age, not beauty or attributes.
This cartridge (a.k.a. 7mm Mauser, .275 Rigby) dates clear back to 1892, nearly the dawn of smokeless powder. In this country, the 7x57 has come and gone, and come back again. I can hear the howls of its fans when I suggest the 7x57 isn't currently popular, but it is not. Its fans are fiercely loyal but few in number. The only factory bolt action currently produced is Blaser's straight-pull R93. Ruger still offers it in the No. 1.
There is factory ammo from all major manufacturers, but most factory loads available today are extremely mild because of legitimate concerns about their use in older, weaker (pre-'98 Mauser) actions.
It requires handloading to bring the 7x57 to its maximum potential, but it has a problem in that it is an odd size for modern actions--a bit too long for a short bolt action yet a bit short for a .30-06-length action. The more popular 7mm-08 Remington is probably an inherently more accurate cartridge, definitely fits into short actions, and 7mm-08 factory ammo is loaded to the gills. So, by almost any sensible parameter, if you want a low-recoiling 7mm that offers exceptional performance, you'd get a 7mm-08.
On the other hand, charisma and nostalgia must count for something. The 7x57 is San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders fought uphill to glory under withering fire from Spanish 7x57s. It's the Boer War, where the Brits faced those same 7mm Mausers. The 7x57 is Karamoja Bell and Jim Corbett and Eleanor O'Connor.
I've almost always had at least one 7x57 on hand, including a modern synthetic-stocked rifle from Mark Bansner. My retro 7x57, however, is a beautiful rifle crafted by Dallas gunsmith Todd Ramirez. Todd built it in the fashion of a 1920s "stalking rifle," with express sights, detachable scopes, beautiful wood with a skeleton buttplate and matching pistol-grip cap.
It may seem odd to you, but from the very first the only cartridge we considered for this special rifle was the 7x57 Mauser, although we did briefly discuss using its British designation of .275 Rigby. We decided not to because differences between barrel markings and cartridge headstamps can cause problems in some countries.
The end result is quite the finest rifle I have ever owned, and I have used it now on four continents. While it's true the 7x57 "made its bones" with long, heavy-for-caliber bullets, I tend to use 139- and 140-grain bullets at reasonable velocity. They shoot flat enough and provide spectacular bullet performance. I have used it out to 300 yards, which I think is starting to push the cartridge's capability, and I have used it on game up to greater kudu, which is also pushing the cartridge's capability. On the deer-sheep-goat class of game, well, the little 7x57 is neither fast nor flashy, but man does it get the job done.
This is barely an average group from Boddington's .300 H&H. The H&H case goes against modern design principles, but it tends to be very accurate.
.300 H&H MAGNUM
Introduced by Holland & Holland in 1925, the .300 H&H (a.k.a. Holland's Super Thirty) is based on the .375 H&H case necked down to .30 caliber. It has a long case with an archaic taper and gentle shoulder. The world took notice when Ben Comfort won the Wimbledon Cup in 1935, but the .300 H&H's real boost came when it became one of the initial chamberings for the Winchester Model 70 in 1937.
The .300 Weatherby Magnum, essentially one of several "improved" versions, definitely made some inroads from the late 1940s onward, but the .300 H&H remained the standard (and much beloved) fast .30 caliber until the .300 Winchester Magnum was introduced in 1963. Since then, the shorter .300 Winchester Magnum has almost completely eclipsed the .300 H&H--and of course there are plenty of other fast .30s as well.
The .300 H&H has that obsolescent case design; one glance tells you "this dog won't hunt," at least according to modern cartridge design theory. It requires a full-length (.375 H&H-length) action. The few remaining factory loads are laughably anemic, no faster than "extra high velocity" (Federal High Energy, Hornady Light Magnum) .30-06 loads.
This is a shame, but there are plenty of handload recipes, and specialty suppliers like Larry Barnett at Superior (superiorammo.com) have some very good loads for the .300 H&H. The reality is that the old-fashioned tapered case offers the smoothest feeding in the entire world of magnum cartridges, and with properly loaded 150-grain bullets out of a 26-inch barrel my .300 H&H will outrun any .300 Weatherby Magnum I've ever owned.
With 180-grain bullets I can come pretty close, and with 200-grain bullets I can do everything I need any .30 caliber to do. Accuracy from that long, tapered case is also routinely spectacular.
My .300 H&H is not exactly retro, but it is reactionary. Understand, of course, there are almost no "vintage" left-handed .300 H&H rifles. So mine started life as a standard Remington M700 BDL with a magnum bolt face. The .300 H&H happens to be the favorite cartridge of my buddy Geoff Miller at Rigby, and he rebarreled the Model 700 with a very good Pac-Nor match grade tube and cut a tight chamber.
I tend to use 150-grain Sierra
s for smaller game such as sheep and Coues deer. I step up to 200-grain Sierras for elk and African plains game. With both my handloads and Superior's loads (to my recipe), it consistently groups well under a half-inch with both bullet weights. However, I think its very best group was a very tidy 11â„2-inch cluster at 400 yards.
Regrettably, I don't see the .300 H&H making a comeback. There are too many other popular fast .30s. Also, the requirement for a longer action goes against current style, and if you must have a longer action, perhaps you might as well also have a larger case such as the .300 Weatherby Magnum or .300 Remington Ultra Magnum.
On the other hand, there are thousands and thousands of .300 H&H rifles still in use, quietly revered by those who use them. I believe there is a screaming need, and a reasonable market, for a couple of decent factory loads that can approach the genuine potential of all these great old rifles.
.264 WINCHESTER MAGNUM
And if setting up a brand-new rifle in .300 H&H is retro, that applies in spades to turning a brand-new rifle into a .264 Winchester Magnum, which is exactly what I did last year.
Introduced in 1958 in a 26-inch-barreled version of Winchester's beloved Model 70, the .264 had everything going for it. The "magnum craze" was just getting started, and anything wearing a magnum moniker seemed certain to succeed. Never mind some blue sky in the factory figures; the .264 was fast and flat, and it took off like a rocket amid unprecedented hype in the gun magazines.
The author's newest retro rifle is a Serengeti .264 with what looks like beautiful walnut stock but is actually a laminate.
A cartridge only 50 years old may not seem especially "retro," but the .264's flameout and crash were almost as spectacular as its ascent. It was (and is) overbore capacity, quickly gaining a reputation as a barrel-burner. Original published velocity figures were flashy, but they were a bit optimistic. The spreading of this news didn't help the .264, and despite its English designation it is, after all, a 6.5mm--a bullet diameter that has never done well in the United States.
What hurt it the most is almost certainly Remington's introduction of the 7mm Remington Magnum in 1962. Up until that moment, the .264 was the brightest star in the magnum sky. Remington's 7mm was considered more versatile, is definitely less overbore, does better with a 24-inch barrel and handles heavier bullets. It went on to become the world's most popular belted magnum.
The .264 has been in a gradual but ever-accelerating decline. It has now been quite some time since a factory rifle was so chambered, and the only remaining factory load is a 140-grain bullet at an honest but unimpressive 3,030 fps. Those who have .264s still get good service from them, especially those who have the 26-inch barrels that the .264 really needs. But why would anyone put together a brand new .264 on purpose?
Well, I had one when I was a youngster, acquired in 1964 and stolen 15 years later. I thought it was magic. In those innocent, pre-chronograph days I never got the velocity I thought I was getting, but the .264 did a good job for me.
I concede that at its best it isn't much better than the .270 Winchester and probably not as good as the .270 WSM or .270 Weatherby Magnum, but I had long wanted another .264. This is partly pure nostalgia--or retro perversity--and partly recognition that, despite its lack of general popularity, the high sectional density and high ballistic coefficient of aerodynamic 6.5mm bullets have tremendous advantages.
If you can get a 140-grain 6.5mm bullet up to 3,100 fps or so, which you can do with a .264 case and a long barrel, then you have an extremely effective long-range rifle for medium game. And you get the performance at a much-reduced cost in recoil over, say, a 180-grain .30 caliber (which, because of lower SD and BC, must be pushed faster to get the same downrange performance).
But if you go retro, hang the justification, right? I had a cool action--a rare Parker Ackley left-hand Santa Barbara Mauser action--and I had a match-grade 6.5mm Obermayer barrel. Larry Tahler at Serengeti Rifles put them together into a 26-inch-barreled rifle in a magnificent laminated stock. The result is fairly heavy, so it probably isn't a rifle I'd take on a backpack sheep hunt, and I don't see the .264 as an elk rifle. It is a fine choice for deer in open country, for African plains game, and for sheep and goats in horseback country.
Obviously I haven't yet had a chance to use it as much as my other two retro rifles, but it was baptized properly with the animal pictured in the lead photo of this article--a lovely south Texas whitetail, taken down a long sendero last January. A few weeks later I took it to Texas and used it on a beautiful addax, an African antelope native to the Sahara, and one of the animals the .264 was tested on and written about when the cartridge was brand new. Of course it did just fine.
Will I start a retro trend? I doubt it. Of course, there are a whole bunch of other great retro cartridges worth using and writing about, but I'll probably leave that up to somebody else. I don't use my own rifles and my own favorite cartridges--retro or modern--as much as I'd like anyway, so I probably have enough retro rifles for a while. But I'm looking forward to using all three of them.