September 23, 2010
The big Nitro Express cartridges are the biggest, baddest rounds on the planet.
The .577 and .600 Nitro Express cartridges are well over a century old. For obvious reasons--weight, cost, recoil--neither became as popular as several lighter cartridges. However, these "ultra large bores" had their proponents, and serious ivory hunters used them in the great old days of serious ivory hunting.
One of the proponents of the .600 Nitro Express was once asked why it was his choice. Whether legend or fact, history records his answer as, "Because they don't make a .700."
In the 1980s, American hunter Bill Feldstein decided to fix this clearly vexing problem, commissioning Holland & Holland to build him a .700 Nitro Express. Whether genuinely practical or a pure curiosity, both rifles and cartridges remain rare and expensive, but since 1990 half a dozen gun makers have produced at least one .700 Nitro Express rifle, for a world population probably somewhere between 12 and 20 total rifles.
So, today, the world's biggest and baddest sporting rifles are chambered to .577 3-inch, .600 and .700 Nitro Express cartridges. I agree that, thanks to its high velocity, the .460 Weatherby Magnum produces more energy than the .577 or .600. Clearly, though, it doesn't come close in bullet weight or caliber.
There are also some really amazing wildcats out there as well, combining the caliber and bullet weight of these old double-rifle cartridges with the higher pressures that a bolt action can handle. Some that I know about include the .577 Tyrannosaur, .585 Nyati and the .600 Overkill.
There are undoubtedly others I don't know about. But since this is my story, I'm going to stick with the Big Three of Nitro Express cartridges: the .577 3-inch, .600 and .700. None of the three are common, and all are expensive (both rifles and ammo). I am certain that none of us actually needs any of them--but, whether essential or not, they are fascinating.
The imposing size of these cartridges is, well, impressive, but their paper ballistics aren't boring. And while all three cartridges have been chambered in single-shots--and both the .577 and .600 have been chambered in slant-box bolt actions--they were designed for use in doubles, so there is really just one bullet weight and one load for each.
The traditional load for the .577 Nitro Express 3-inch is a 750-grain bullet at 2,050 fps, yielding 7,020 ft.-lbs. of energy. The .600 is bigger, heavier and slower: a 900-grain bullet at 1,950 fps for 7,600 ft.-lbs. of energy. The .700 steps up to a 1,000-grain bullet, propelled at 2,000 fps, with an energy yield of 9,050 ft.-lbs. Wow.
I go back a ways with the .577, the oldest and most popular of the three. Recently, however, I had the opportunity to shoot all three and actually see them used in the field. What I'm going to give you is neither scientific nor definitive. Rather, these are my impressions of where these mighty cartridges actually fit in--if they do at all.
The .700 in full recoil is quite an experience. It's violent, but it's more of a hard push than the sharp kick of faster cartridges.
.577 Nitro Express
Unlike the other two, which started life in the smokeless era, the .577 Nitro Express 3-inch was a smokeless adaptation of a blackpowder cartridge. It thus dates back the 1890s, and was the first big-bore Nitro Express. There was also a much milder 2.75-inch smokeless version, apparently popular among tiger hunters in India.I first fired a .577 in about 1979. It was Jack Lott's old hammer gun, and I'm not totally certain it was proofed for full-house Nitro loads. We shot some mild handloads, and then Jack reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of original Kynoch Nitro loads. I demurred, partly because original .577 Kynoch cartridges were then worth $50 a pop.
Anyway, Jack loaded one, cocked the hammer and let 'er loose. The rifle went nearly vertical, his glasses and ever-present Rhodesian beret knocked askew. He looked at me with a beatific smile saying, "That's wonderful."
Uh, no. I don't care how much machismo you are compelled to project. Shooting a .577 in cold blood is not "wonderful." However, if you stand properly to a standing rest and wear some kind of sissy pad on your shoulder, a .577 of adequate weight isn't all that bad. It's kinda cool, too, because, unlike anything else short of a .50 BMG, when you touch off one of those mighty 750-grain bullets you can feel the shock wave come back around you. But it's not a good idea to do too much of it.
The .577 was an industry standard, with at least a few rifles made by most larger shops. It was used by a number of the old-timers, including such greats as Capt. James Sutherland, George Rushby and F.G. Banks.
The big .700 cartridges make an impressive "ker-plunk" when dropped into the chambers. Bullet weight in both solid and softpoint is 1,000 grains.
Taylor reckoned that both it and the .600 were too large and too heavy for the average sportsman, and even for the serious ivory hunter he considered them backup rifles for in extremis use--but no one has ever questioned the capability of the .577.
Demand for the .577 has actually increased rather than decreased. Many modern gun makers, including Heym and Butch Searcy as well as Rigby, have made new .577s. They are still relatively uncommon, and a .577 carries a substantial premium, but both rifles and ammo are readily available.
An interesting thing I learned from the .577, but which applies to all three of our ultra-large bores, is that bullet weight and frontal area are wonderful, but a certain level of velocity is required to achieve penetration--at least and especially on elephant.
In 2008 I saw multiple brain-shot failures with a .577. Now, if you read your John "Pondoro" Taylor you will "learn" that it isn't necessary to actually hit an elephant's brain in order to knock it down--that a near-miss will stun the elephant, and that the larger the cartridge the longer an elephant will be stunned.
I am skeptical. Sure, elephants can be brained and can be
stunned, but the latter effect seems irregular. I have seen elephant take both barrels from a .577 straight into the head and do nothing more than turn to run. So even with the biggest and baddest, shot placement comes first.
One of the things we learned was that much of the .577 ammo out there is loaded too slow. The stuff we had fail in 2008 chronographed at about 1,850 fps, 200 fps below specs. Recoil wasn't pleasant but was sustainable--except, with the kind of frontal area presented by an elephant, we didn't have the velocity we needed to ensure penetration.
You really don't want to sit at the bench with any of the ultra-large bores such as this .577 Nitro Express 3-inch, so standing rests are de rigueur.
In recent months, my friend and elephant mentor, Ivan Carter, has switched from his beloved Heym double .450 to a new Rigby in .577. Ivan likes to work very close to elephant, so I don't know anybody who needs a .577 more than he does.
However, that business about velocity is serious. He makes sure that his ammo is up to full spec, 2,050 fps. That seemingly small velocity difference has increased penetration dramatically. Unfortunately, as we know, as velocity goes up recoil goes up exponentially. The graphic lesson is this: If your .577 doesn't rattle your teeth on the range, you probably don't have enough velocity.
.600 Nitro Express
It's an overstatement to say the .577 was "popular," but it was a standard cartridge. The .600 was always rare. Introduced by W.J. Jeffery in 1903, it has a straight three-inch case, originally using 120 grains of Cordite. In a 1970s monograph commemorating its "last .600," Holland & Holland's then-managing director Malcolm Lyell wrote that total world production of .600s--all makes, all actions--was possibly 80 rifles. Since then a few more have been made, but only a handful of modern firms will make a .600.
Ammo is scarce and costly. And, honestly, the reputation of the .600 isn't as good as the .577's. Some experienced hands used the .600, including Bill Pridham, Maj. P.H.G. Powell-Cotton and Carl Larsen.
Obviously it hits very hard. However, there have always been rumors about a lack of penetration, almost certainly because of its greater frontal area and lower velocity (as compared to the .577). The rifles will be quite heavy and not a lot of fun to carry. And nobody ever said the .600 was fun to shoot.
On a recent elephant safari, I carried my friend Bill Jones' Marcel Thys .600 while he carried his .700. In terms of both recoil and gun weight I had the best deal going. The .600, a well-balanced sidelock, weighed only 14 pounds and change. The .700 was about five pounds heavier, and I really wouldn't want to carry it.
I shot both rifles on the range on the same day, so let me say this about that: The best way to learn how to shoot a .600 is to shoot a .700 first. Seriously, the .600 is a handful. But its weight is manageable, and so is the recoil. Because of less velocity and (usually) more gun weight, I am convinced most .600s will have less felt recoil than most .577s with full-power loads.
Regarding penetration, I don't have much experience with the .600, but it stands to reason that the more frontal area you have the more velocity you need to overcome resistance. The .600 is big and slow, and while it delivers a tremendous blow, I'm not impressed by its penetration, an impression consistent with most references.
.700 Nitro Express
As mentioned, this cartridge is just 20 years old. It uses a huge 3.5-inch case, and the powder charge is 215 grains of smokeless powder. Rifles are rare, and the ammo is frightfully expensive, so until Bill Jones offered up his J&L Wilkins I had never fired a .700.
But I had read accounts of the rifle kicking itself out of the shooter's hands and knocking people down. So I stepped up and dropped a cartridge in the right barrel. "Ker-plunk." It echoed when it hit bottom. Then I thought better of it. I asked our trackers to stand behind me as a "catch team"--for me, for the rifle, for whatever broke loose.
Firing the .700 is an amazing sensation. On the other hand, it's also a slow cartridge, and the .700 I fired weighs more than 18 pounds. The rifle goes nearly vertical, but it's more of a huge push than a violent kick. Nothing was broken, and we dissolved our "catch team" for further shooting.
Up until 1980, there were fewer than 80 .600 Nitro Express rifles in existence. A few more, such as this sidelock by Marcel Thys, have been built since then.
On game, with adrenaline pumping, effects of recoil are greatly reduced. On multiple elephant I watched Bill Jones fire both barrels almost as quickly as if the rifle was a .470. This amazed me.
I was also amazed that Jones needed to fire the second barrel. Again, careful reading of Pondoro Taylor, he who created the oft-quoted "Knock-Out Value," suggests that any hit near the brain from a major cartridge will knock an elephant down, stunned. The larger the cartridge the longer the elephant will stay down.
We--Boddington, Carter, Jones--have now seen multiple elephant not only fail to go down but fail to show any reaction whatsoever upon receiving fair in the skull the 1,000-grain bullet and 9,000 ft.-lbs. of energy delivered by the .700. This is not just surprising, it's stunning (pun intended), but it's real. Only Jones' ability to get on the second trigger fast prevented a problem.
Once again, I'm convinced the culprit with the .700 is inadequate velocity in relation to the frontal area. This is a continuing theme with all the ultra-large bores. I am convinced none of them penetrate as well as, for example, a 400-grain .416 at 2,400 fps (more velocity, less resistance). But if you had more velocity the recoil would be off the page.
Please note that this observation is relative only to elephant. On buffalo the ultra-large bores are very large indeed, probably more powerful than is required but unquestionably effective with either softpoints or solids. On elephant, well, I think the .577 is the largest caliber anybody needs to carry--and few of us really need that much gun. I know I don't.