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Bullet Velocity Evolution: The Need for Speed

The quest for bullet velocity traces its roots to the early days of smokeless powder.

Bullet Velocity Evolution: The Need for Speed

(Photo courtesy of RifleShooter Magazine)

During the 600 or so years of the common use of blackpowder as a propellant in firearms, velocity rarely came close to reaching 2,000 fps. In the United States velocity peaked during the late 1800s with the introduction of metallic cartridges of American design such as the .45-125 Sharps and .50-140 Win., both intended for single-shot rifles. Maximum bullet speed was still only about 1,500 fps.

The only ways hunters had to increase killing power on bison and other large game was to increase bullet diameter and weight, and in the case of the Winchester cartridge, it was 700 grains. Moving to smaller targets, the maximum velocity of America’s favorite deer cartridge, the .44-40 Win. loaded with a 200-grain bullet, was around 1,200 fps.

Extremes in both bullet weight and diameter were used by famous adventurers who pursued the dangerous game of Africa. In the 4-bore (or 4-gauge) double used by British explorer Frederick Courtney Selous, 350 grains of blackpowder pushed a conical lead bullet weighing close to 1,900 grains to about 1,300 fps. Selous described the recoil of the rifle as horrendous and went on to add that during several years of shooting elephants and other large game he developed an incurable flinch. Accidental firing of both barrels simultaneously resulted in a broken collarbone.

There is disagreement on whether a Holland & Holland rifle called “Baby” by Sir Samuel Baker was a 3-bore or a 2-bore, but when 270 grains of blackpowder quickly burned behind a bullet weighing 3,500 grains, recoil was so severe Baker fired it only about 20 times.

The development of smokeless powders in various countries during the late 1800s solved many problems long associated with blackpowder. Heavy fouling produced by blackpowder quickly built up in a rifle barrel and affected accuracy, but smokeless powder left behind very little residue.

Higher velocities made possible by the new powder along with jacketed bullets of smaller calibers greatly increased the reach of rifles and also increased bullet effectiveness at close range. Whereas a lead ball from the old 4-bore and 6-bore guns was said to be quite effective on elephant with a side-on shot to the heart or brain, it could not be relied on to reach the brain on a frontal shot. This did not hold true for the later .450 Nitro Express, .470 Nitro Express and other smokeless cartridges, and while recoil remained heavy, it was light compared to that of the old 4- and 6-bore guns.

That higher velocity along with full-jacketed bullets and his ability to consistently place a bullet into the brain from just about any angle enabled Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell to take more than 1,000 elephants with rifles in .275 Rigby (7mm Mauser), 6.5x55 Mannlicher-Shoenauer, .303 British and .318 Westley Richards. Lesser known is the fact that Jack O’Connor’s wife, Eleanor, bagged a couple of elephants with the .30-06 loaded with 220-grain solids that pretty much duplicated the performance of Bell’s .318.

One of several cartridges to successfully make the transition from black to smokeless powder was the .303 British. Adopted by the British commonwealth in 1888, it was originally loaded with 70 grains of blackpowder for 1,850 fps with a 215-grain bullet. A switch to British-developed Cordite in 1892 increased velocity to 1,970 fps. Consisting of strands of propellant, Cordite was placed in the case before it was necked down.

The .30-40 Krag, adopted by the U.S. Army in 1892 in the Krag-Jorgensen rifle, was the first military cartridge of American design to be loaded with smokeless powder. Introduced with a 220-grain bullet at 2,200 fps, it was also the first American cartridge to exceed the then-elusive velocity of 2,000 fps.

bullet velocities of different ammo
(Left) Among American designs, the .30-40 Krag (l.) adopted in 1892 was the first military cartridge to exceed 2,000 fps, and the .25-35 Win. introduced in 1895 was the first sporting cartridge to do so. (Right) The .270 Win. (l.) exceeded a velocity of 3,000 fps with a 130-grain bullet in 1925, and in 1935 the .220 Swift exceeded 4,000 fps with a 48-grain bullet. (Photos courtesy of Layne Simpson)

The 6mm Lee Navy with a 112-grain bullet at 2,560 fps followed in 1895 in the Lee Straight-Pull rifle. The .25-35 Win. and .30-30 Win. introduced in 1895 in the Winchester Model 94 were the first sporting cartridges of American design to be loaded with smokeless powder. The .25-35 with a 115-grain bullet at 2,230 fps was also the first American sporting cartridge to exceed 2,000 fps (the .30-30 was introduced with a 160-grain bullet at 1,790 fps).

In 1903 the .30-40 Krag was replaced by the .30-03 Springfield with a 220-grain bullet at 2,300 fps and introduced in the new Springfield 1903 rifle. When the neck of the case was shortened slightly in 1906, the cartridge was renamed .30-06 Springfield and loaded with a new 150-grain spitzer at a velocity of 2,700 fps.

The .22 Savage High-Power loaded with a 70-grain bullet at 2,750 fps was introduced in the Savage 99 in 1912. Three years later, Savage introduced the .250-3000 Savage in its Model 99 and Model 1920 rifles; an 87-grain bullet at 3,000 fps made it the fastest sporting cartridge of American design to reach that velocity level.


Then came the .270 Win., formed by necking down the .30-03 case (and not the .30-06 case). It was loaded with a 130-grain bullet at 3,160 fps and introduced in the Winchester Model 54 in 1925. Among cartridges developed by Winchester and Remington and loaded with bullets intended for use on big game, the .270 Win. remained the velocity champ until the .300 Win. Mag. with a 150-grain bullet at 3,290 fps was introduced in 1963.

The next major leap in velocity came with the introduction of a wildcat cartridge by gunsmith Jerry Gebby during the 1930s. Gebby called it the .22 Varminter and got the idea for necking down the .250 Savage case for 0.224-inch bullets and changing its shoulder angle to 28 degrees from rifle and cartridge designer Charles Newton. Velocity with a 55-grain bullet was around 3,700 fps.

The biggest leap in velocity among factory cartridges arrived with the introduction of the .220 Swift by Winchester in its Model 54 rifle in 1936. When the Model 70 replaced the Model 54 in 1937, the .220 Swift was among its cartridge options. Loaded with a 48-grain bullet at 4,140 fps, it was one of the most important cartridge developments during the first half of the 20th century.

While in high school I considered my Savage 219 in .22 Hornet to be a flat-shooting varmint rifle until a friend bought a Model 70 in .220 Swift and equipped it with a Lyman 25X Super Targetspot scope. At the time crows were the most common varmint in my area, and farmers loved to see them dispatched. A dead-on hold out to 350 yards seldom failed to result in an explosion of black feathers.

.220 Swift, .22-250, .22 Nosler, .17 Rem., .204 Ruger, 6x47 Lapua, 6mm Creedmoor, .243 Win., 6mm Rem.
Only nine cartridge/bullet weight combinations in the 2020 Hodgdon Annual Manual exceeded 4,000 fps in 24-inch pressure barrels: (l.-r.) .220 Swift, .22-250, .22 Nosler, .17 Rem., .204 Ruger, 6x47 Lapua, 6mm Creedmoor, .243 Win., 6mm Rem. (Photos courtesy of Layne Simpson)

My present .220 Swift is a 40X KS with a heavy, 27.5-inch barrel built several years ago by the old Remington custom shop, and even today I am amazed by the Swift’s accuracy and by how quickly its bullet gets there.

Even today, the .220 Swift will hold its own in velocity with any other cartridge of any caliber, and it is still one of only a few that’s capable of exceeding a velocity of 4,000 fps.

While writing this article, I looked through the 2020 edition of the Hodgdon Annual Manual, and only nine cartridge/bullet weight combinations exceeded that velocity from the company’s 24-inch pressure barrels. They are .17 Rem. (20-grain bullet); .204 Ruger (24 grains); .22-250, .220 Swift and .22 Nosler (35 grains); and 6x47 Lapua, 6mm Creedmoor, .243 Win. and 6mm Rem. (55 grains). When loaded with light bullets, several other cartridges also qualify for inclusion in this exclusive group, but they were not included in the Hodgdon manual.

As far as I know, the record for the highest velocity attained from a shoulder-fired rifle is still held by Roy Weatherby. During the late 1950s he was awarded a contract from the U.S. military to deliver a rifle capable of producing extremely high velocities. It would be used for testing the ability of various experimental materials to resist penetration when impacted by high-velocity projectiles.

Weatherby necked down his .378 Mag. case and seated a saboted 0.224-inch, 30-grain solid copper bullet made by Vernon Speer atop a hefty charge of military surplus powder sent to him by Bruce Hodgdon and reached a velocity of 6,000 fps from a 30-inch barrel.

Not long after word got out about Weatherby’s experimental cartridge, it became popular among members of The Original Pennsylvania 1,000-yard Benchrest Club, who loaded it with the Sierra 220-grain MatchKing bullet. I never managed to talk Roy into offering the .30-378 Wby. Mag. chambering in his Mark V rifle, but soon after he retired, his son, Ed, sent me a Mark V action along with a note requesting that a custom rifle in .30-378 be built around it. I forwarded the action on to Kenny Jarrett and a few months later informed Ed of the accuracy and velocity we were getting.

In September of 1995 Ed informed me that the Mark V Accumark in .30-378 Wby. Mag. would be announced the following January. He also asked me to send any load data I had developed for the cartridge to Sweden to assist Norma technicians in the development of .30-378 Wby. Mag. ammunition. During the following three years, more Mark V rifles chambered for it were sold than in any other caliber, including the .300 Wby. Mag.

Heavy Artillery

The highest velocity attained by a gun firing a projectile pushed along by smokeless powder was accomplished by the United States during the 1960s race to outer space against the Soviet Union. Prior to sending men into the unknown, it was necessary for both countries to send a number of unmanned rockets in order to gather all sorts of required technical data.

In addition to doing that, the United States also had its High Altitude Research Program, which involved the firing of far less expensive data-gathering projectiles into the wild blue yonder. More than 100 rounds were sent from a pair of cannons, one located on the island country of Barbados in the Caribbean Sea, the other at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

These were by no means run-of-the-mill artillery pieces. The barrel of a HARP cannon was 118 feet long, had a 16.4-inch smooth bore and weighed 200 tons. When pushed by 1,225 pounds of smokeless powder, the 185-pound finned projectile exited the muzzle at 6,800 fps, immediately separated from its wooden sabot and reached an altitude of 111 miles. The muzzle flash could be seen from quite some distance, and you would definitely have needed good hearing protection when pulling the trigger. 

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