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Rifle Ammunition

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Twenty years ago the subject of ammunition for sporting rifles was a very large one. At that period rifles were made by rule of thumb, no two being exactly alike, and as each maker had his own particular charge of powder, shape and weight of bullet, &c., the varieties of ammunition in use were innumerable. In the event of a bullet mould being lost or injured only the original maker of the rifle could supply a new one, so that the difficulties under which sports-men laboured (especially in foreign countries) were considerable. This unsatisfactory state of affairs has for several years past ceased to exist, and rifles are now made to take ammunition of standard sizes, which can be obtained in all parts of the civilised world.

Powder-The remarks previously made with respect to the use of black powder in shot guns are applicable for the most part to the employment of this form of explosive in rifled arms, though it is still preferred for large bore rifles and modern ball guns of the "Paradox" type. Indeed, owing to the difficulty of obtaining a good smokeless powder abroad, the care with which it must be transported and kept, and the necessity of using a powder easy to load and invariable in its results, many big game shooters still rely on black powder only. But improvements in the manufacture of smokeless rifle powder make it unlikely that this will always be the case.

As stated in the previous section, smokeless powders are of two distinct varieties : first, those that, power for power, bulk the same, or nearly the same, as black powder-for example, S.R. powder, designed originally for rifles of the Martini-Henry class-and, second, those explosives of the concentrated type which occupy a much smaller space in the cartridge case. None of the powders of the former class really deserve the appellation smokeless ; and they are all more or less hygroscopic On the other hand the majority of the concentrated powders are absolutely smokeless and impervious to damp, whilst the flame emitted from the muzzle of a rifle on firing a charge of one of these powders is scarcely perceptible. Condentrated powders may be divided into two classes ; those that are composed almost entirely of nitro-cellulose or gun-cotton, and those that consist of nitro-cellulose combined with nitro-glycerine. Each of these has its own peculiar advantages and disadvantages which may be briefly summed up as follows :-Those powders containing nitro-glycerine give low and regular gas pressures, and for any given weight of charge the ballistic properties are excellent. The heat of combustion, however, is exceedingly high, and causes severe erosion of the bore, a matter of much importance in the case of a rifle, as the accuracy of shooting rapidly deteriorates in consequence. Powder of the nitro-cellulose class generally give higher and more irregular gas pressures; but the heat of combustion is comparatively low, therefore they do not so quickly destroy the interior of the rifle, and the barrel remains cooler during quick firing. As an example of the last-named class Rifleite, and of the former kind Cordite may be taken. Ballistite holds an intermediate position, as it is principally composed of nitro-cellulose with only a small percentage of nitro-glycerine. Two of the principal advantages accruing from the use of concentrated powders are (1) the great power that can be stored in a small cartridge case, and (2) the considerable reduction in recoil as compared with black powder.

Projectiles-Almost every sportsman holds a different opinion as to the kind of bullet that should be employed on big game. Some holdthat a 4-bore elongated bullet weighing 1,880 grs., as propelled by 12 drs. of black powder, is the proper projectile to use. The muzzle velocity of such a bullet is about 1,330 feet per second, and the striking energy at short ranges about 7,000 foot pounds. Others are in favour of a 4-bore spherical bullet weighing 1,250 grs: This projectile when propelled by 12 drs. of black powder would have a muzzle velocity of about 1,460 feet per second, and a striking energy of nearly 6,000 foot pounds. Some sports-men of experience consider that an 8-bore "Paradox" bullet is powerful enough for anything in the way of dangerous game, for at ordinary sporting range it gives such a smashing blow that the animal is killed or turned over at once ; a consideration of much importance when an infuriated animal is charging. The 10-bore brass case "Paradox" is almost as powerful as the foregoing, for as it is practically a 9-bore, the projectile used is only slightly inferior in .weight and smashing power, whilst the arm itself is considerably lighter. At the trial of an 8-bore "Paradox" ball and shot gun made by the editor of the Field some few years ago, six bullets were placed within a space measuring 1 in. by 2 3/16 in. the range being fifty yards. The charge used was so drs. of Curtis and Harvey's No. 6 grain powder and a hardened cylindro-conoidal bullet of 1,120 grains. The weight of this particular gun was 14lb., and length of barrel 28 in.

Some sportsmen prefer to have heavy bullets made with a hardened steel point so as to obtain great penetration ; others choose a hollow-pointed bullet that will expand on striking, thus expending the whole of its energy in shock. The general consensus of opinion being that an 8-bore, or the No. s0 brass case bullet of the " Paradox" type of weapon is the most satisfactory projectile to use on dangerous game at any range within one hundred yards.

A 277 bullet weighing 291 grains and propelled by 164 grains of black powder is largely used by those still preferring black powder. It is particularly suited for shooting the largest kinds of African deer, as well as lion, tiger, and giraffe, and even heavier game such as elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and other Indian and African large game. The muzzle velocity of this bullet is about 1,660 feet per second, and the striking energy' about 3,600 foot-pounds. The smaller 500 bullet weighs 444 grs., and propelled by 138 grs. of powder it has a muzzle velocity of 1,780 feet per second, and a striking energy of 3,134 foot-pounds. A bullet of this kind is suitable for smaller and less dangerous game than that before mentioned. Both the 597 and the 500 bullets are occasionally used with a copper envelope, which, by preventing deformation on striking, adds greatly to their penetrative power. A few years ago the .420 and the 400 "express" bullets were in great favour, but they are now being superseded by the 303 Lee-Metford with a nickel envelope, and the 226 Mannlicher with a steel envelope. These bullets on account of their extreme velocities possess enormous striking energies. For instance, the 303 with a muzzle velocity of about 2,000 feet per second, has a striking energy of about 1,907 foot-pounds, although the bullet only weighs 212 grs. The 226 Mannlicher bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2,426 feet per second has a striking energy of 2,070 foot-pounds with a bullet weighing only 152 grains. When these high speed bullets are made to expand on striking, they are very effective against deer and other game not requiring so very weighty a blow to kill them. Undoubtedly big game have been killed with projectiles of this class, but apart from the consideration of danger to the sportsman, the chief objection to their employment for the work is the fact that an immense amount of wounding must be done when shooting big game with very small bullets. Notwithstanding the high velocities attained by these small-bore projectiles, their shock-giving properties are not such as to insure the immediate collapse of the larger game, unless hit in the heart or brain.

The bullets in general use for rook and rabbit shooting are the '295, '250, or the '220, but most sportsmen are of opinion that the 220 is the smallest bullet that should be used for rabbits.

Cartridge Cases-For rifles, of whatever bore, these should be of brass and solid drawn. For ball and shot guns of the " Paradox” type it is permissible to use paper cases if thought desirable. The selection and mixing of metals for the metallic cases requires the utmost care to insure a high degree of elasticity in the finished cartridge case, so that after it has been expanded by the explosion to fit the chamber of the rifle it will resume its original dimensions, or nearly so. If this important point is not attended to, difficulties will arise with the extraction of the empty cases. When, however, the cases are made of suitable metal they may be resized and reloaded repeatedly without fear of their jamming in the chamber. The cap-dome in the base of the cartridge case is made to suit the nature of the powder to be used. Some have a large or small central flash-hole, whilst others are provided with two or more flash-holes which are placed round the apex of the dome. The percussion caps are also made suitable for the different powders. Some powders, such, for instance, as black, merely require a heating flash ; whereas smokeless powders, especially those of the concentrated type, require a special cap composition. The question of percussion caps is at the present time a very vexed one, the igniting agent not having received the attention it deserves in face of repeated issues of new or improved powders.

Wadding-In most cases the wadding made of soft felt and saturated with grease is to be preferred for rifle ammunition, but a grease-proof wad should, in every instance, be inter-posed between it and the powder. In many kinds of rifle cartridge, the felt wad is dispensed with and a wad formed of a mixture of bees'-wax and tallow, with a thin jute wad to prevent the grease injuring the powder,is used in its place. No wadding whatever is used with the '303 Lee-Metford and the 256 Mannlicher, the bullet being made large enough in diameter to act as its own gas check.

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