WHY DO SOME CARTRIDGES SUCCEED?
by Mic McPherson
Synopsis: This story concerns historical and current reasons that may explain why we are confronted with so many different chamberings to do so few jobs. It is a general interest article with specific examples to spice things up. It closes with an admonition to consider the future availability of ammunition in one's purchase decision.
Since the invention of cartridge weapons, various designers have been inventing "new" chamberings. This is a logical extension of the earlier practice of using different charges and projectiles in muzzleloading guns to achieve specialized ballistic results.
The list of American, European and, to a lesser extent, other foreign chamberings is staggering. Here we are not concerned with the many, so-called, "wildcat" chamberings but, rather, just the standard commercialized cartridges familiar to the past several generations of sportsmen.
The phenomena of multiple chamberings offering similar performance is nothing new. In the heyday of American bison harvests there were dozens of similar 45-caliber blackpowder chamberings, and a plethora of cartridges in both larger and smaller calibers, most similar to all others of similar caliber. Most of these were essentially ballistically identical. All fired a heavy lead bullet at a moderate velocity, yet cartridge and gun manufacturers found advantages in the introduction of multiple similar chamberings.
One can speculate as to why manufacturers introduced so many similar chamberings more than 100 years ago. Perhaps the same reasons are at work today because manufacturers still commonly introduce multiple similar chamberings.
Several possible explanations come to mind: First, the sporting field would be a boring place if we were restricted to only a few "reasonable" choices. Second, hunters who experience what they perceive as a failure with one chambering often look to a similar chambering in the belief that "different" may possibly be "better". Third, manufacturers are always looking for that competitive edge, introducing a new chambering seems like a logical approach to gaining market share. Crudely put, this is a simple means to sell a new rifle to that chap who simply cannot resist.
The validity of each of these reasons is subject to considerable debate. That is another story. Here I would like to discuss a few good chamberings that have failed, comparing those to similar and sometimes inferior performers that prospered.
The 220 Swift is still around but just barely. Since the old Winchester company officially dropped it from their line over 30 years ago, various custom and a few factory rifles have continued to be chambered for what is still the fastest factory cartridge of all time. Swift ammunition is still loaded, cases are still available and factory rifles periodically show up chambered in 220 Swift.
Obviously, demand still exists for the Swift. To add poignancy to this story, consider that one of Remington's most successful chamberings of recent years is the 22-250, a cartridge that essentially replaced the Swift! There is nothing the 22-250 can do that the Swift cannot do and the Swift has an edge at the top end of the performance range, every time.
Many claimed that the Swift was very hard on a barrel and, no doubt, it was. However, when loaded to the same pressure, the 22-250 is not much easier on a barrel. Other than short barrel life, I have heard no convincing reason why Winchester should have dropped the Swift. For many decades it filled a niche, it fills the same niche today!
A classic example, which comes to mind, is the 32 Special. This is long-since a dead issue but for many decades, even after Marlin and Winchester phased out this chambering a debate raged on, hot and heavy. Let us take a quick look at the history of these two cartridges.
Winchester co-introduced the 30-30 and the Model-94 in 1895. When John M. Browning designed this rifle, he intended it for use solely with blackpowder cartridges. All chamberings in his similarly designed predecessor to the '94, the Model-92, were blackpowder cartridges and he did not envision anything else for the '94, it was simply intended to handle longer cartridges.
In the late 1800's, developments in smokeless powder and metallurgy were moving at an unprecedented rate. Winchester realized they could take advantage of the huge safety factor of the '94 design by loading a cartridge with smokeless powder to about twice the pressure of similar blackpowder cartridges. Designers "invented" the 30-30 by necking down and improving the tapered 32-40 case to a nearly straight-sided bottleneck design.
I suspect they did this to prevent chambering of these newer - higher-pressure - smokeless-powder cartridges in blackpowder guns. As its common name implies, the 30-30 was a transition cartridge. Original loads used a charge of 30-grains of the available smokeless powder. These launched a 165-grain jacketed bullet at about 1950-fps. Although mundane today, in that era 1950 fps was spectacular velocity.
Soon thereafter, Winchester introduced the 32 Special. Considerable nonsense has since been printed, concerning the reasons behind Winchester's development of the 32 Special. This story reflects an oft-repeated theme in the firearms field: Someone says it, someone hears it, that person repeats it, another person hears it and then writes it, someone prints it, someone reads it and viola, it's a fact.
The old story of the 32 Special goes like this: Winchester wanted to offer customers a cartridge that was similar to the 30-30 but one that could be loaded successfully with blackpowder. According to this story, people had been trying to load blackpowder in the 30-30 but powder fouling in the 1/12-inch twist was a serious problem. By enlarging the mouth of the 30-30 cartridge to hold a 0.321-inch bullet and using a 1/16-inch twist in the bigger bore, Winchester solved this problems. The combination of slower twist and bigger bore substantially mitigated blackpowder fouling and the 32 Special was the cat's meow for blackpowder handloads.
Total nonsense! In the first place, the very idea that Winchester had any desire to cater to handloaders, particularly in that era, is ludicrous. The last thing any cartridge manufacturer wanted to do was to offer shooters any encouragement toward use of non-factory ammunition, especially with all the misunderstanding that existed about the correct usage of smokeless powder in that era!
No doubt, people had been trying blackpowder loads in the 30-30 but so what? The strictly blackpowder 32-40 version of the same rifle had always been available and was sold for considerably less than the nickel-steel 30-30; someone who intended to use blackpowder should have and most likely would have bought a 32-40 chambered rifle.
While Winchester did advertise that the 32 Special could successfully be handloaded with blackpowder, that is not the same thing as claiming it was invented for that purpose. I know of no factual basis for the aforementioned claim that the 32 Special was created so folks could handload with blackpowder in the '94, further, there is no logical basis to support it.
Why then, did Winchester invent the 32 Special? Well that might be a tough one to answer except that they told us in their advertising of the era. In their 1916 catalogue, they are quite specific, "The .32 Winchester Special cartridge, which we have perfected, is offered to meet the demand of many sportsmen for a smokeless powder cartridge of larger caliber than the .30 Winchester [original name for the 30-30] and yet not so powerful as the .30 Army [now known as the 30-40 Krag]."
According to Winchester, the 32 Special offered ballistics right between those two, then popular, loadings and was significantly superior to the 30-30, which was quite true. Some who should know better have claimed that the 32 Special and 30-30 are ballistic twins but this is nonsense.
Many things contribute to superior potential performance in the 32 Special. It has an 8.6% larger bore, this means there is more bullet base upon which propellant gasses can push. It has about 4% greater usable case capacity, the equal-weight 0.321" bullet, when loaded to the same overall length, does not enter the case as far and overall cartridge length is longer. The slower rifling rate imparts only about one-half the energy to the rotating bullet. These factors all contribute to increased muzzle energy when the two numbers are loaded to the same peak chamber pressure with appropriate smokeless powders.
With the relatively fast powders available at the time (which were all on the fast side for optimum loads in the 30-30), the 32 Special had the edge in a big way. It still does! Winchester's 1916 ballistics showed the 32 Special as having a ballistic edge out to about 200 yards, which most would consider the outside edge of effective range for this type of cartridge. With equal pressure modern loads using the best modern bullets, the ballistic edge extends to at least 300 yards.
Why then, did the 32 Special linger and then pass from the scene, while the 30-30 is still going strong after more than 105 years? Good question. The 32 Special had the sexy name and better ballistics. As if that were not enough, it should have been a better killer and it was chambered in the same rifles that guaranteed the 30-30 a place in history.
I have a few ideas but no answers. The 30-30 had the historic edge. Ammunition was probably more readily available and that alone is a vicious cycle that could have doomed the less popular 32 Special. Few bought a rifle chambered for the 32 Special because stores did not stock 32 Special ammunition. Stores did not stock the ammo because so few wanted it.
Other less important possible contributing factors include perceptively greater recoil: A slightly lighter gun - less barrel steel - shooting a similar weight bullet faster. There is also the possibility that 32 Special bullets failed more often than 30-30 bullets, because the latter impacted at a lower velocity.
The 303 Savage was contemporaneous with the .30-30 and had every chance of eclipsing Winchester's slightly older chambering. Had Savage taken advantage of their Model-99's rotary magazine and loaded the 303 with 150-grain spitzers at 2300 f/s (feasible with powders then available) they could have given the 30-30 some serious competition. Compared to the 30-30, such a load would have produced similar recoil, 15% greater energy at the muzzle, a usefully flatter trajectory and much better down-range performance. With the adoption of a hard kicking, slow moving 190-grain bullet, Savage doomed their offspring to an early grave. (Please do not misunderstand me here, the 303 Savage load was a great killer and quite superior to the 30-30 but it was marketed so poorly that it never had a chance; the fact that factory ammunition was offered for many decades after the chambering was discontinued speaks volumes about its effectiveness.)
Newer chamberings that have lingered in near obscurity are abundant. The 6mm Remington comes to mind. One finds this fine cartridge mentioned in print perhaps once, while the ballistically similar 243 gets five mentions and, as of 1990, Remington chambers Winchester's 243 in more of their action designs! (As of 2000, the 6mm is dead at Remington.)
Why should this be? This well-known old story, the 244/243 comparison, may bore some but I will repeat it here, nonetheless. Remington envisioned the 244 as a long-range varmint chambering while Winchester envisioned the 243 as a combination varmint and deer cartridge.
Remington chose a 1/12-inch twist for the 244, to get better accuracy with lighter bullets, while Winchester chose a 1/10-inch twist for the 243, to stabilize 100-grain hunting bullets. Why would anyone buy a single-purpose varmint gun when they could buy a combination deer and varmint rifle instead? Why indeed.
Remington compounded their mistake by not offering suitable hunting bullets for the 244. They could easily have offered a 95-grain Core-Lokt spitzer that would have been accurate in the 1/12-inch twist of the 244. Who would quibble over 5 grains of lead? But Remington only offered 75- and 90-grain varmint loadings for the 244. Therefore, for most shooters, since it offered a 100-grain big game bullet, the 243 was the only way to go.
Several years of sluggish sales convinced Remington of their mistake. They reintroduced the 244 as the 6mm, identical but with a faster 1/9¼-inch twist (who knows why they chose such an odd rifling rate) and loaded it to slightly higher pressure than the 244.
This "new" 6mm offered ballistics that factory 243's could not match, chiefly because of higher nominal pressures. Nevertheless, the 6mm has continued to linger near-death, despite being a good cartridge doing everything the very successful 243 does, and more.
This is particularly hard to understand since ballisticians generally loathe the 243 Winchester for its propensity toward pressure excursions, generally unpredictable nature during load development and unusually short barrel life. The same folks have found no such problems with the 6mm Remington. None of this seems to matter, the market is a fickle place.
One example of what can happen to an excellent cartridge just because a few ill-guided writers do not see the need for it, which I find particularly unpleasant, is the 284 Winchester. This is a lamentable example of a perfectly good chambering being lost to the general shooting public for no good reason.
Winchester introduced this cartridge for their new rotary-bolt, front-locking, lever-action model-88 and similar semiautomatic Model-100. The 284 is a rebated-rim cartridge loaded to the same overall length as the 308 Winchester but, because of larger body diameter, the 284 holds as much powder as the longer 30-06 Springfield.
Winchester had a great idea, "Design a cartridge that could approximate 270 ballistics in a short-throw lever-action." They succeeded perfectly. The 284 was loaded to the same pressure as the 270 and with an equal length barrel it drove its 125-grain and 150-grain bullets respectively faster than the 270 could drive its 130-grain and 150-grain bullets. Winchester's 284 delivered exactly what it was designed to deliver.
What happened? Well, at first the gun press loved the 284. It was a new toy and soon all sorts of rifles, including standard-length bolt-actions, were custom-chambered for it. Writers noted decreased performance when loads with unusually heavy bullets were used in the short actions, for which the cartridge was designed.
When nominal over all cartridge length is maintained, deeper-seating is necessary with heavier bullets. This reduces usable powder capacity. Therefore, when loaded with 160-grain or heavier bullets the 284 cannot match the energy level of top 270 loads. This was their claim, not mine. In my testing, the 160-grain Sierra SPBT launched by N205 from the model-88 easily surpassed anything I could do in the 270. Nevertheless, it was certainly true, when loaded with 175-grain bullets, the 284 could not match the energy level of the 270. Big Deal! If you think about it, what those pundits were saying was that when you loaded the 284 with bullets that were significantly heavier than anything you could get for the 270, the 284 could not match the energy level of the 270!
Rapidly, press on the 284 deteriorated. Soon enough, the elitist bolt-action gun writers could find no purpose whatsoever for the 284 Winchester.
The real reason was this: The elitists have no love for any non-bolt-action rifle. When the 284 is chambered in standard-length bolt-actions it offers no advantage over standard longer cartridges, specifically the 280 Remington. The gun press stressed this fact in article after article. This and continual repetition of the aforementioned nonsense about reduced performance with heavier bullets drummed the 284 right out of existence!
Think about the logic behind the common contentions of the time: "The 284 won't shoot a bullet heavier than you can get for the 270 as fast as a 270 would shoot such a bullet, if you could get it for the 270. Therefore, the 284 is no good." Perhaps that make no sense to you. It certainly makes no sense to me.
Well, here we are, twenty-some years later and some of those same writers, the ones who hammered the 284 unmercifully, now laud the 7mm-08 as a marvelous invention. The latter is the same length as the 284 and is loaded to about the same pressure in the same length actions. It is chambered in fancy new short-throw bolt-action rifles (these were not popular among the bolt-action elitists in the 284's day), and loaded with moderate weight bullets. Compared to the 284, 7mm-08 ballistics are significantly inferior. Nevertheless, the 7mm-08 is "wonderful" while the 284 is dead! Go figure!
Circa, 1990, another cartridge that seems doomed is the 375 Winchester. This high-intensity little number may not be with us much longer, as a factory chambering. The reason is simple. A newer cartridge, specifically the 356 Winchester shoots the same weight bullet several hundred fps faster, and delivers more down range energy. The 375 does offer a heavier bullet load that is perhaps more suitable to elk hunting but it is questionable if this will keep the 375 with us.
The 375 is a fine cartridge, compact and powerful, and it delivers lots of performance, for its size. Time will tell. (Interesting how things change, less than ten years after the above was written, we see that both are dead issues but the 375 is closer to alive!)
The 444 Marlin hangs on but it, too, may be on the way out. Marlin contributed much to the declining popularity of this big-bore lever-action powerhouse when they introduced the new 45-70 chambered Model-1895. With a 300-grain load, the 45-70 delivers more energy at 100 yards than does the 444. With proper handloads, the 45-70 easily eclipses anything the 444 can do.
The list of good cartridges that have come and gone is quite long. I am sure you can think of at least one favorite of yours that is no longer with us. So think about that, the next time you consider a shiny new rifle. Consider it carefully. You probably do not want to be one of those who finds himself ten years from now with a perfectly good rifle for which he cannot get ammunition.
Note the barrel band in front of the front sight. This is a very old Model-94 in 32 Special. In spite of years of hard use and serious neglect, it is surprisingly accurate. The chronograph says it easily beats the 30-30 in the ballistics category, shooting a 170-grain bullet almost as fast as the 30-30 shoots a 150-grain bullet.
The 170-grain bullet in the 32 Special, right, takes up no more of the case capacity than the 150-grain bullet in the 30-30, left. The 32 Special delivers significantly more energy at any reasonable hunting range.
Left to right: R-P Core-Lokt 170-grain 32 Special, W-W 150-grain Silvertip 30-30, Speer 170-grain 32 Special. Note that the 170-grain 32 Special bullets are no longer than the 150-grain 30-30 bullet. Since overall cartridge length is 0.01-inch greater in the 32 Special, it has a significant edge in usable capacity when 170-grain bullets are used.
Left to right: 244 Rem., 243 Win., 6mm Rem. The 244 and 6mm are nominally identical cartridges. SAAMI pressure specification for the 6mm is a bit higher than for the 244. A faster rifling enables it to shoot 100-grain bullets accurately. The 244 is hampered by a rifling rate that usually will not stabilize 100-grain spitzers and the fact that Remington chose not to offer 90- or 95-grain big-game loads, which was certainly feasible. For these reasons, Winchester's offering eclipsed the ballistically superior Remington cartridge.
Winchester's 284, center, is much shorter than the ballistically similar 270 Win, left, or 280 Rem, right. The 284 could, therefore, be chambered in short-throw actions, such as this Savage Model-99. It gave 270 performance in handy hunting rifles.
Note how far this 162-grain bullet must be seated into the 284 case to maintain nominal length. Deep seating reduces performance significantly, when loading with the heaviest bullets available.