September 09, 2023
There is a lot of overlap, duplication and redundancy in rifle cartridge performance. As an aging curmudgeon, I constantly question the need for new cartridges. But I do it in good humor, because I’m not yet irascible enough to bite the hands that feed me, and it’s in my best interests to write about new numbers. The last few years, I’ve written about a bunch of them: ARCs, Buckhammers, Bushmasters, Creedmoors, Legends, Westerns, Noslers and PRCs.
They’re all good stuff, but actual performance in terms of velocity and energy can’t be new because these levels were established long ago by the expansion rate of nitrocellulose.
There are modern nuances like the ability to cram more performance into specific action types and lengths, or better downrange performance thanks to modern aerodynamic bullets and faster rifling twists. Or you can purposely step down in performance to meet straight-wall cartridge criteria required by some whitetail states—and thereby avoid having to use shotgun slugs.
All do what they’re supposed to do, but I also have a penchant for older cartridges. Dig deep into cartridge history, and you’ll find there isn’t much new under the sun. The 6.5 Creedmoor is today’s most popular 6.5mm, and it is ballistically identical to 1894’s 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser. The Creedmoor’s main advantage is that it fits into a short action, while the 6.5 Swede does not.
With greater case capacity, with careful handloading the 6.5x55 can be slightly faster, but they are duplicative in performance, and accuracy depends on barrel and ammo. These days, I’m almost certain to see Creedmoors in my Kansas deer camp, but we also see 6.5x55s. They bring a smile to my face.
I love the 1892 7x57 Mauser so much that I have three. The 7mm-08 Rem. introduced in 1980 is a ballistic twin, with much the same comparison as the Creedmoor and the Swede: 7mm-08 fits into a short action; the 7x57 does not. The 7x57 has greater case capacity, but 7mm-08 is loaded to higher pressure. So in factory loads, the 7mm-08 has a velocity edge, but no deer will know the difference.
For nostalgia and tradition—and perhaps just to be different—I stick with the 7x57. There’s nothing wrong with being contrarian, but you still must feed the rifle. Thankfully, 6.5x55 and 7x57 ammo aren’t rare, but they’re not nearly as available as Creedmoor and 7mm-08—which is why my wife and daughters shoot a 7mm-08 and not a 7x57.
Again, if you delve back into cartridge history, you’ll find there isn’t much that’s truly new. Charles Newton (1868-1932) was way ahead of his time. He designed the .22 Savage High Power and .250 Savage (.250-3000) for Arthur Savage. The latter was the first commercial cartridge to break 3,000 fps.
Newton’s own cartridges were even hotter. His .30 Newton, with .523-inch base diameter and 2.52-inch case, is surprisingly similar to the .300 PRC, but it’s a full century older.
Avid Ruger collector and friend Lee Newton has an original .30 Newton he wanted to bring to our Kansas deer season. Lee has original ammo, but it’s too old and collectible to shoot. He has dies, but he hasn’t been able to obtain brass.
Lee also has an original Canadian military straight-pull .280 Ross, also with old ammo and dies. The .280 Ross was the first 7mm “magnum.” Designed in 1906, the .280 Ross uses a 2.59-inch semi-rimmed case with .534-inch base and .556-inch rim.
Although not quite 3,000 fps as loaded with vintage propellent, it was the hottest pre-1910 cartridge, pushing a 140-grain bullet at 2,900 fps. The cartridge was loaded on both sides of the pond until 1935. Lee’s original Kynoch boxes are marked “.280 Rimless (Ross Pattern).”
In those days, hunters were enamored of newfound smokeless velocity, but they didn’t understand that expanding bullet technology hadn’t caught up. The .22 Savage High Power, .250-3000 (with 87-grain bullet) and the .280 Ross all struck like lightning when they worked, but performance was inconsistent.
In 1911, George Grey, brother of Great Britain’s foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey, was killed by a lion when he failed to stop it with 140-grain bullets from his .280 Ross. The incident was infamous enough that the .280 Ross never overcame the stigma. One wonders if the Ross’s 180-grain load could have changed history.
Frequent Kansas hunter Larry Tremaine has an original 1910 Ross sporter in .280 Ross he brought for our 2022 season. Lee Newton also has a gorgeous custom Ruger No. 1 barreled to .280 Ross, which he said I could use if I wanted.
The .280 Ross has a complication in that it calls for a .287-inch bullet, which is almost impossible to obtain. Larry came to Kansas rounds loaded with undersize .284-inch 140-grain Ballistic Tips. His old Ross seemed accurate enough for a close-range shot with original aperture sight, and he dropped a nice eight-pointer at 40 yards.
Larry offered to let us use his ammo in Lee’s custom No. 1. Accuracy wasn’t great with those undersize bullets, but it held “minute of vital zone” at 100 yards.
I couldn’t resist. I figured I’d never have another chance to hunt with a .280 Ross. I knew where I would sit, with a maximum 100-yard shot, and on the last morning one of my management bucks came out. The shot was about 80 yards, and the buck went down in his tracks.
Under the heading of “not much new,” Holland & Holland’s .275 Belted Rimless using a .284-inch bullet was introduced at the same time as the .375 H&H— same .532-inch rim and belt, case shortened to 2.5 inches. Sound familiar? It should; it was almost identical to the 7mm Rem. Mag. introduced 50 years later.
George Gibbs, Purdey, Lancaster, Rigby and Westley Richards all produced early smokeless cartridges with ballistics that hold up well to this day. Many are almost forgotten, and standardization wasn’t widespread, so case dimensions and bullet diameters are all over the map.
Some older cartridges are well worth resurrecting in new rifles, if only for fun. Others are much too difficult, at least for me. When I hear about a new cartridge, I go back to references and see if there was something similar way back when. It’s surprising how often there was.