SA JAGTER/HUNTER | March 2022 | By JOHAN VAN WYK
OLD SOLDIERS (ALMOST) NEVER DIE
Some military cartridges went on to successful civilian careers; others didn’t.
Any cartridges originally developed for military use have gone on to attain tremendous popularity as sporting rounds. A few of these are some of the most popular cartridges in hunting camps and on shooting ranges all over the world. By contrast, a few other old soldiers who possessed the potential for sporting success have quietly faded away into obsolescence. Starting with the oldest soldier, let’s look at which cartridge is still with us and which isn’t.
This French military cartridge was the first small-bore, smokeless powder cartridge to be developed by any country and was introduced in 1886. The original load was a 198-grain .323” bullet at 2 380 fps. During World War I, Remington was contracted to manufacture Lebel rifles and ammunition on behalf of the French government. After the war, many of these rifles were sold as surplus rifles in the USA.
At one stage, Remington offered a 170-grain load at 2 640 fps, but this is no longer the case. To the best of my knowledge, there is no ready source of factory-loaded ammunition for the Lebel.
The 8x50R was used by the French armed forces, and many were exported to the various French colonies such as Vietnam, where they saw use in the hands of second-line troops. No sporting rifles were ever chambered for the Lebel, though, and for all practical reasons, it is dead in the water today.
The venerable .303 is one of the most successful cartridges in the history of firearms development, no matter against which yardstick it is measured. Millions upon millions of service rifles were chambered for the .303, and it is still in limited use by the armed forces of countries such as India.
A great many military surplus .303s were sold over the years, and it was inevitable that the cartridge would see much use in the hunting fields as well. The original loading was a 215-grain cupro-nickel jacketed bullet propelled at 1 850 fps by means of 70 grains of tightly compacted black powder. With the advent of smokeless powder, velocity was boosted to 2 050 fps. In 1914, the 215-grain was replaced by a 174-grain bullet and velocity was boosted further to 2 440 fps.
This very load served the British Commonwealth through two world wars and many other smaller conflagrations. Many major manufacturers still load ammunition for the .303 and reloading components are freely available, so it is set to be with us for many years to come.
THE MAUSER STABLE
For the first half of the previous century, the German military round was the 8x57 cartridge, which is very much with us today. The initial version of the cartridge, introduced in 1888 and called the 8x57 J (for “Infantry” in German), fired a 226-grain, .318”-diameter bullet at 2 093 fps and was mated to the excellent M98 Mauser action. In 1905, the Germans introduced an improved version of the 8x57 J, namely the 8x57 JS. The new version employed a .323” spitzer bullet of 154 grains at 2 880 fps.
In addition to millions of Mausers manufactured for various militaries, a great many sporting rifles were also made for both versions of the 8x57. For some reason, the Germans were of the opinion that the earlier version was more accurate, so the Mauserwerke kept churning them out until the outbreak of World War II.
As a sporting round, the 8x57 has a lot going for it. With good bullets, the cartridge will do for the largest of thin-skinned game, and good .323”-diameter bullets are available from a host of manufacturers. Good-quality factory ammunition is available from Norma, RWS, Sako and many other manufacturers, and the 8x57 JS is rightly a very popular sporting round in Europe and elsewhere today.
The would-be buyer of a vintage 8x57 rifle should just make sure of the bore diameter of the rifle he is buying as many older rifles with .318” bores are still in circulation. Although .318”-diameter bullets are available from a handful of manufacturers, they are by no means freely available. The same goes for 8x57 J reloading dies.
The 7x57 Mauser, ably covered by Pierre van der Walt in this edition, is unfortunately not in the same healthy position as the 8x57. It is a cartridge with deep historical roots in South Africa, but its popularity is waning, as are manufacturers chambering rifles for it. It is a real pity as the cartridge offers a lot and boasts an excellent combination of killing power and low recoil.
However, it is a personal favourite of mine, and I’m still looking for that special 7x57 with my name on it.
THE SCANDINAVIAN AND PORTUGUESE CONNECTIONS
The 6,5x55 Swedish Mauser was designed by a committee consisting of Swedish and Norwegian military officers, along with Mauser engineers. It was initially intended for use in Swedish-made M94 Mauser rifles and Norwegian Krag-Jorgensens, and initial ballistics
was a round-nose 156-grain bullet at 2 396 fps.
The Swedish Mauser cartridge languished for many years, mainly due to factory ammunition being underloaded to avoid damage to older rifles with actions that couldn’t cope with high chamber pressure, but as of late, it has gained a new level of popularity. Shooters and hunters have learned to admire the flat-shooting, deep-penetrating abilities of the cartridge with heavy bullets. Along with it, a new bunch of 6,5-calibre cartridges have also been introduced. The 6,5x55’s future seems bright, with ammunition, reloading components and rifles available from a host of manufacturers.
In contrast to the Swede, the 6,5x58 Portuguese Mauser cartridge is unfortunately in the doldrums. Initially developed for Portuguese military use in the Mauser-Vergueiro rifle, Mauser made a handful of sporting rifles chambered for the Portuguese round, and Kynoch and DWM loaded ammunition for it for some time.
Today, the 6,5x58 is strictly a handloading proposition, however. Reloading dies are scarce, as are cases (although the latter can be formed from other designs with a bit of effort), and the 6,5x58 is now basically on life support. It’s a pity, as it has the potential to offer a lot. Original ballistics was a 157-grain bullet at 2 568 fps, and later a 139-grain bullet at 2 775 fps.
One of the first bolt-action designs to gain popularity with hunters were the early Mannlicher designs developed for the Dutch and Romanian armed forces in 1892 and chambered for the 6,5x53R. These early Mannlicher actions were very well made and the various British makers quickly sporterised them into beautiful hunting rifles. The 6,5x53R fired a 156-grain bullet at 2 433 fps and was widely used in Africa. Like the 6,5x58, it is strictly a handloading proposition today.
The original Greek military cartridge was the 6,5x54, introduced in 1900 for use in the 1903 Mannlicher bolt-action rifle. The 6,5x54 was a popular cartridge, especially when chambered in the delightful little Mannlicher-Schönauer rifles.
The likes of WDM Bell and many a famous big-game hunter used it extensively. Ammunition is still being loaded for it in Europe today, and although the 6,5x54 will probably never be chambered for a factory rifle again, it is a fine cartridge for hunting thin-skinned game. Original ballistics was a 159-grain bullet at 2 223 fps. Norma later introduced a 156-grain bullet at 2 461 fps, as well as a 77-grain number at 3 120 fps.
Introduced in 1906 as a development from the earlier .30-03 cartridge, the .30-06 Springfield certainly needs no introduction. It is one of the most popular sporting cartridges of all time.
Even though its use as a military cartridge came to an end shortly after the Korean War, it has seen use just about everywhere on planet Earth where hunting is or was available. There is hardly a manufacturer that doesn’t load either ammunition or chambers rifles for the .30-06, and it is rightly regarded as one of the more versatile sporting rifle cartridges ever developed. With bullets available from 100 to 220 grains, the .30-06 can be made to fit the bill for a wide range of applications.
Even though it’s not meant for dangerous game, I know of quite a few buffalo, elephant and lion that have fallen to the .30-06, with well-constructed and well-placed bullets.
The ’06 was intended for use in 1903 Springfield rifles. The original load was a 172-grain bullet at 2 700 fps, but in 1940, this was changed to a 150-grain bullet, also at 2 700 fps. It was this load, along with the semiautomatic M-1 Garand rifle, that saw the USA through World War II, Korea and even the beginning stages of the Vietnam War.
The .308 Winchester, introduced as the T-65 military cartridge in 1952 and immediately adopted by Winchester, certainly needs no introduction either. If anything, the .308 is even more popular than the .30-06 today, and it is quite often the first chambering for any newly introduced bolt-action design.
Velocity-wise, it lacks 100-150 fps behind the .30-06 with comparable bullet weights, but it is still a mighty fine hunting cartridge that can be chambered in rifles with so-called “short” actions for a shorter bolt-throw.
The .308 was initially intended for use in the American M-14 rifle, adopted as the US Army’s service rifle in the late 1950s, as well as in the Belgian FN-FAL. Matching the FN-FAL to the .308 was the proverbial match made in heaven. The combination saw long-term use throughout various member countries of the NATO alliance and elsewhere, including Rhodesia and South Africa (where it was produced under licence as the R-1).
The .308 is still in service with many armed forces, especially as a round for machine guns, and its future is as secure as can be.
The current US service cartridge, the .223 Remington (or 5,56 NATO), was introduced in the military version of the Armalite AR-15 rifle, designated the M-16A1 for military use. The cartridge and rifle’s combat debut was in the steamy jungle of South-East Asia during the beginning stages of the Vietnam War, and the combination quickly gained a reputation for unreliability.
The problems were later traced to chamber corrosion and the use of Olin WC 846 ball-powder that caused excessive fouling, and quickly cured. The latest version of the M16, the M-16A4, is the current US service rifle and is set to continue in this role for years to come.
Like the .308 and .30-06, the .223 is an immensely popular cartridge and is in widespread use throughout the world today. Ammunition and rifles are freely available, and its future is bright. American marketing helped a lot with establishing the US contingent as sporting rounds, but some of the European contenders also have much to offer, even though, like old soldiers, they have begun to fade away.