The tiger tamer

The sa­me, but dif­fe­rent... B­ri­tain’s on­ce po­pu­lar .450/400 Nitro Ex­pres­ses.

SA Jagter Hunter - - INHOUD - By JO­HAN VAN WYK

In terms of num­bers, the most po­pu­lar calibres in the so-cal­led “Nitro cham­be­rings” en­coun­te­red in vin­ta­ge B­ri­tish dou­bles, are wit­hout doubt the two .450/400 Nitro Ex­pres­ses. Alt­hough t­heir car­trid­ges are not in­ter­chan­ge­a­ble due to dif­fe­rent di­men­si­ons, both fi­re a 400gr bul­let at ap­prox­i­ma­te­ly 2 100fps, packing a de­cent punch. T­he­se .450/400s are of­ten en­coun­te­red in won­der­ful­ly lig­ht, wel­l­ba­lan­ced rifles.

His­to­ri­cal­ly the .450/400 (3¼”) NE, so­meti­mes re­fer­red to as the .450/400 (3¼”) Mag­num Nitro Ex­press is the ol­der of the two .450/400s. Kyn­och in­tro­du­ced it as a black po­w­der car­trid­ge in 1882, des­cri­bing it as the “.450 re­du­ced to .400”. The o­ri­gi­nal lo­ad was either a 230gr cop­per-tu­be, hol­low-point bul­let or a 250gr so­lid le­ad bul­let pro­pel­led by 110 grains of black po­w­der (the Nitro-for-black lo­ad, by the way, was a 270gr bul­let po­we­red by 40 grains of smo­ke­less po­w­der held in pla­ce by an o­ver-po­w­der wad). In terms of kil­ling po­wer, it

was not in the sa­me class as the mo­re po­wer­ful car­trid­ges of the ti­me, de­ve­lo­ped for hun­ting e­lep­hant and ot­her lar­ge be­as­ts. Ac­tu­al­ly me­ant for deer-si­zed ga­me, the .450/400 (3¼”) BPE (Black Po­w­der Ex­press) was po­pu­lar e­nough though that most ma­nu­fac­tu­rers cham­be­red rifles for it and w­hen the Nitro era da­w­ned, it was a na­tu­ral c­hoi­ce to be­ne­fit from the po­wer­ful new pro­pel­lant.

Vin­ta­ge Kyn­och ca­ta­lo­gues lis­ts the .450/400 (3¼”) NE lo­ad as a 400gr jac­ke­ted bul­let pro­pel­led by 60gr of Cor­di­te for a muz­z­le velo­ci­ty of 2 200fps from a 26” test bar­rel. True velo­ci­ties we­re pro­ba­bly clo­ser to 2 100fps but the .450/400 (3¼”) NE quick­ly gai­ned a good re­pu­ta­ti­on in the field, so the mo­dest muz­z­le velo­ci­ty was ap­pa­rent­ly no hin­dran­ce.

The .450/400 (3”) NE was in­tro­du­ced by Lon­don gun­ma­ker WJ Jef­fe­ry & Co in the la­te 1890s. The shor­ter .450/400’s bal­lis­ti­cs we­re i­den­ti­cal to the lon­ger Nitro ver­si­on, but it dif­fe­red from its lon­ger cou­sin in a num­ber of re­spects. For star­ters, the 3-inch car­trid­ge was a new de­ve­lop­ment me­ant for use with smo­ke­less pro­pel­lants and not me­re­ly an a­dap­ta­ti­on of an ex­is­ting black po­w­der round, so it was de­sig­ned with a wi­der bo­dy with s­lig­ht­ly less ta­per and a thic­ker rim to pro­vi­de a bet­ter pur­cha­se for the ex­trac­tors of dou­ble rifles. Bul­let di­a­me­ter was al­so dif­fe­rent, but mo­re a­bout t­his la­ter. Suf­fi­ce to say that the two ver­si­ons of the .450/400 NE are not re­a­di­ly in­ter­chan­ge­a­ble. Jef­fe­ry al­so in­tro­du­ced the wel­l­kno­wn .404 Jef­fe­ry car­trid­ge in 1905. The .404 fol­lo­wed the sa­me ba­sic bal­lis­tic re­ci­pe as the two Nitro .450/400s, na­me­ly a 400gr, .423”-di­a­me­ter bul­let pro­pel­led by 60gr of Cor­di­te, and it is for all in­tents and pur­po­ses a bolt-action ver­si­on of the .450/400 (3”) NE.


Both .450/400s quick­ly be­ca­me po­pu­lar in A­fri­ca and es­pe­ci­al­ly In­dia. With t­heir good stop­ping po­wer and mo­dest re­coil, both we­re con­si­de­red han­dy all-round per­for­mers on a­ny­thing from dui­ker to rhi­no and just a­bout e­very B­ri­tish ma­ker tur­ned out rifles cham­be­red for either or e­ven both calibres. At the ti­me, though, the then new Cor­di­te pro­pel­lant u­sed in both car­trid­ges pro­ved to be so­mew­hat temperamental at ti­mes. Cor­di­te, a dou­ble-ba­sed pro­pel­lant con­tai­ning both nitro-gly­ce­ri­ne and nitro-cel­lu­lo­se, cau­sed p­res- su­re spi­kes at ti­mes w­hen u­sed in very hot cli­ma­tes, which in turn led to ex­tracti­on pro­blems es­pe­ci­al­ly from dou­ble rifles. As the dou­ble lacks the bolt-action’s cam­ming po­wer it is much mo­re de­pen­dent on am­mu­ni­ti­on lo­a­ded to the cor­rect pres­su­re le­vels it was de­sig­ned for. B­ri­tish rifle and am­mu­ni­ti­on ma­nu­fac­tu­rers no doubt re­cei­ved stre­ams of an­gry cor­re­spon­den­ce from sports­men who suf­fe­red c­lo­se calls in nu­me­rous far-flung cor­ners of the em­pi­re whil­st pur­suing dan­ge­rous ga­me.

The ma­nu­fac­tu­rers’ re­spon­se was to in­tro­du­ce so-cal­led “Tro­pi­cal lo­ads”. In the ca­se of the .450/400 (3”) NE the Cor­di­te char­ge was re­du­ced to 55gr which re­sul­ted in a muz­z­le velo­ci­ty of just less than 2 000fps. How much of a dif­fe­ren­ce t­his ma­de in the field is de­bata­ble as the re­pu­ta­ti­on of the car­trid­ge did not suf­fer any da­ma­ge. W­hen buying a vin­ta­ge. 450/400 NE »

» cham­be­red for either of the car­trid­ges it is im­por­tant to no­te w­hat ty­pe of am­mu­ni­ti­on it was re­gu­la­ted with. T­his vi­tal bit of in­for­ma­ti­on is u­su­al­ly stam­ped in­to the flats of the bar­rels un­der­ne­ath the cham­bers and is the star­ting point w­hen lo­a­ding am­mu­ni­ti­on for any vin­ta­ge dou­ble rifle. At the start of Wor­ld War I in 1914 the pres­su­re-re­la­ted is­su­es with Cor­di­te had been p­ret­ty well de­alt with and the Tro­pi­cal lo­ads we­re qui­et­ly drop­ped. For so­me re­a­son, ho­we­ver, a gre­at ma­ny .450/400s, es­pe­ci­al­ly tho­se cham­be­red for the 3” ver­si­on, we­re re­gu­la­ted with the Tro­pi­cal lo­ad, which may be a good in­di­ca­ti­on of t­heir age. Ma­ny dou­bles al­so ex­ist that had been spe­ci­fi­cal­ly re­gu­la­ted for the nor­mal 60gr Cor­di­te lo­ad.


I ha­ve men­ti­o­ned that the two .450/400s ac­tu­al­ly use dif­fe­rent di­a­me­ter bul­lets. The .450/400 (3¼”) NE no­mi­nal­ly u­ses a .408inch bul­let and the 3” car­trid­ge a .411-inch bul­let. Ho­we­ver, the­re ha­ve been so ma­ny va­ri­a­ti­ons with both car­trid­ges o­ver the y­e­ars (es­pe­ci­al­ly the lon­ger car­trid­ge) that quo­ting the bul­let as fact, bor­ders on tel­ling a lie. The truth is that either car­trid­ge may ha­ve bar­rels that are a­ny­w­he­re from .405” to .412” in di­a­me­ter, so s­lug­ging the bar­rels of a par­ti­cu­lar rifle be­fo­re shoot­ing it is es­sen­ti­al. The lack of standardisation with the two .450/400s is the main re­a­son why the 3” car­trid­ge was not re­sus­ci­ta­ted soo­n­er by Hor­na­dy (and a few ot­her firms). The 3¼” ver­si­on is still main­ly a hand­lo­a­ding pro­po­si­ti­on. Hor­na­dy seems to ha­ve sett­led on .410” as t­heir bul­let di­a­me­ter of c­hoi­ce, but Wood­leigh ma­kes bul­lets for the two .450/400s in no less than three di­a­me­ters. T­he­re­fo­re, ha­ving the bo­res of your rifle tho­roughly chec­ked out is an ab­so­lu­te ne­ces­si­ty to a­void di­sas­ter. With the .450/400 (3¼”) NE, a tho­rough stu­dy of the rifle’s p­roof marks is e­ven mo­re im­por­tant. Due to the car­trid­ge’s black po­w­der an­cestry it is es­sen­ti­al to ma­ke su­re that the rifle in que­s­ti­on is ac­tu­al­ly ni­trop­roof­ed be­cau­se black po­w­der .450/400 BPE’s we­re ge­ne­ral­ly not as stout­ly ma­de as t­heir la­ter cous­ins and may not be a­ble to hand­le the pres­su­res ge­ne­ra­ted by mo­dern am­mu­ni­ti­on if the wrong am­mu­ni­ti­on is u­sed in an old rifle.


Due to the fact that the .450/ 400s we­re so po­pu­lar, es­pe­ci­al­ly in In­dia, a gre­at ma­ny of them we­re ma­de, both as dou­bles and fal­ling-block sin­gle-lo­a­ders. Ma­ny of the .450/400 dou­bles I ha­ve seen are o­ver­ly he­a­vy be­cau­se they we­re ma­de on acti­ons bet­ter sui­ted to the big­ger .470-si­ze car­trid­ges. Ear­ly rifles al­so ten­ded to ha­ve long (28-inch) bar­rels, and the com- bi­na­ti­on of an action that’s too bul­ky cou­pled with o­ver­ly long bar­rels doe­sn’t ma­ke for a wel­l­hand­ling fi­re­arm. On the ot­her hand, a few .450/400s we­re ma­de on acti­ons si­zed spe­ci­fi­cal­ly for the car­trid­ge and the on­es I’ve seen we­re lovely rifles. One was a box-lock e­jec­tor cham­be­red for the .450/400 (3”) NE by Lon­don gun ma­kers, Watson Bros. It was beau­ti­ful­ly en­gra­ved by fa­med en­gra­ver Har­ry Kell. Fit­ted with slim 24” bar­rels it weig­hed in at just o­ver 9lbs and shot as well as it look­ed. A friend, w­hom o­w­ned the rifle, took it on a buf­fa­lo hunt in the Zam­be­zi Val­ley a few y­e­ars ago. As he and the PH ap­pro­a­ched the do­w­ned bull the a­ni­mal sud­den­ly got up and had a go at my friend. He con­clu­ded mat­ters with a 400gr Wood­leigh bul­let at spit­ting ran­ge by shoot­ing the bull in the spi­ne as it lo­we­red its he­ad to hook him.

A­not­her beau­ti­ful .450/400 (3”) NE be­longs to Aus­tra­li­an dou­ble rifle ex­pert Gra­e­me W­rig­ht. Ma­de by Ge­or­ge Gibbs of B­ris­tol it is al­so cham­be­red for the 3” car­trid­ge. Gra­e­me was kind e­nough to let me bor­row the rifle for a big-bo­re shoot­ing com­pe­ti­ti­on in 2014. It is in ex­cel­lent con­di­ti­on, shoots li­ke a d­re­am, and I re­a­di­ly ad­mit to lus­ting af­ter it. In ad­di­ti­on to the Gibbs, Gra­e­me is al­so the o­w­ner of that ul­ti­ma­te gent­le­man’s acces­so­ry: a ma­t­ched pair of Lyon & Lyon .450/400 (3”) NE box-lock e­jec­tor dou­ble rifles! Ma­de for an In­di­an client du­ring ti­mes go­ne by, the ca­sed pair are con­ver­sa­ti­on pie­ces of no­te.

Ma­ny gun­ma­kers seem to ha­ve spe­ci­a­li­sed in ma­king rifles for one or the ot­her .450/400s. I know of three Rig­bys, two »

» si­de­locks and a box-lock, all three cham­be­red for the 3¼” car­trid­ge. Jef­fe­ry, as the o­ri­gi­na­tor of the .450/400 (3”) NE, cham­be­red rifles for that car­trid­ge ex­clu­si­ve­ly, and all the We­st­ley Ri­chards rifles cham­be­red for the .450/400 that I ha­ve seen, ha­ve been for the 3” car­trid­ge, as has the sin­gle G­ree­n­er Fa­ci­le P­rin­ceps dou­ble re­si­ding in an Aus­tra­li­an col­lecti­on that I ha­ve ex­a­mi­ned. We­b­ley & S­cott, tra­di­ti­o­nal­ly ma­nu­fac­tu­rers of dou­ble rifles for a gre­at ma­ny ot­her ma­kers, re­tailers and s­hops, cer­tain­ly cham­be­red for both ver­si­ons. A­not­her good friend, De­wald van der Walt, is the o­w­ner of a very ni­ce Gibbs .450/400 (3¼”) NE, a vir­tu­al twin to Gra­e­me W­rig­ht’s rifle men­ti­o­ned a­bo­ve, so Gibbs al­so cham­be­red rifles for both ver­si­ons of t­his clas­sic car­trid­ge.

A pro­blem so­meti­mes en­coun­te­red with vin­ta­ge .450/ 400s, es­pe­ci­al­ly re­al­ly old rifles, is da­ma­ge to the cham­bers due to cor­ro­si­on. With the 3¼” car­trid­ge, one cu­re for t­his pro­blem is to re­cham­ber the rifle to the 3-inch car­trid­ge. The lat­ter car­trid­ge’s s­lig­ht­ly fat­ter di­men­si­ons re­mo­ve the da­ma­ge to the cham­bers and the bal­lis­ti­cs are so si­mi­lar that the rifle u­su­al­ly doe­sn’t e­ven re­qui­re re-re­gu­la­ti­on. The in­cre­a­sed jump for the bul­let does not seem to ha­ve much of an in­flu­en­ce on accu­ra­cy, either. Such dras­tic sur­ge­ry is a last re­sort though and should not un­der any ci­r­cum­stan­ces be un­der­ta­ken by unskil­led hands.


As ma­ny of them had been ma­de, vin­ta­ge B­ri­tish .450/400 NE rifles pop up fai­r­ly fre­quent­ly on the u­sed gun mar­ket. I ha­ve seen mo­re cham­be­red for the 3” car­trid­ge so it is pro­ba­bly a fair guess that mo­re we­re cham­be­red for t­his car­trid­ge than for the 3¼” NE. Vin­ta­ge B­ri­tish rifles may dif­fer wi­de­ly in qu­a­li­ty due to the re­a­sons men­ti­o­ned a­bo­ve and pri­ces do the sa­me. Be pre­pa­red to pay de­ar­ly for a rifle of good gra­de in good con­di­ti­on on a smal­ler action with e­jec­tors, good bo­res and so­lid wood. Si­de-lock e­jec­tors are a dif­fe­rent mat­ter, and such a rifle in good con­di­ti­on will de­mand a pre­mi­um p­ri­ce, if you can find one that’s for sa­le to be­gin with.

A tra­de-qu­a­li­ty .450/400 NE is a dif­fe­rent mat­ter, though. Ma­ny we­re ma­de as ex­trac­tor guns on lar­ge acti­ons and had wood of rat­her in­dif­fe­rent fi­gu­re. Such guns we­re ex­por­ted from B­ri­tain to her o­ver­se­as co­lo­nies by the bund­le and en­ded up in all cor­ners of the glo­be. I ha­ve seen a bunch of t­he­se in va­ri­ous calibres, most of which we­re .450/400s, be­a­ring the na­mes of va­ri­ous dif­fe­rent ma­nu­fac­tu­rers and re­tailers, and in B­ri­tish dou­ble rifle terms they are re­la­ti­ve­ly in­ex­pen­si­ve. One in good con­di­ti­on can be a pro­po­si­ti­on for the man who wants to shoot a B­ri­tish dou­ble rifle on a beer bud­get but con­sulting a re­pu­ta­ble de­a­ler is the first s­tep he­re.

As men­ti­o­ned, the .450/400 (3”) NE is to­day by far the most po­pu­lar of the .450/400s. Com­pa­nies such as Heym, Ver­neyCar­ron, Mer­kel, K­rieg­hoff and ot­hers cham­ber rifles for the car­trid­ge as a s­tan­dard i­tem. Most are pro­ba­bly being re­gu­la­ted with Hor­na­dy am­mu­ni­ti­on to­day as it is free­ly a­vai­la­ble and du­pli­ca­tes tra­di­ti­o­nal bal­lis­ti­cs. Am­mu­ni­ti­on for the 3¼” NE is a­vai­la­ble from Ky­n­am­co in the UK but is both ra­re and ex­pen­si­ve.


For the hand­lo­a­der, ho­we­ver, the c­hoi­ce is con­si­de­ra­bly wi­der in re­spect of both .450/400s. A quick in­ter­net se­arch con­fir­med that at le­ast four US-ba­sed com­pa­nies ma­ke .410”-di­a­me­ter bul­lets, al­ong with the Aus­tra­li­an com­pa­ny Wood­leigh ( who ma­kes qu­a­li­ty bul­lets for both ver­si­ons) as well as a num­ber of smal­ler com­pa­nies. Brass ca­ses for both ver­si­ons is a­vai­la­ble from Hor­na­dy (alt­hough they do not, as yet, lo­ad am­mu­ni­ti­on for the 3¼” ver­si­on) and Ber­tram. De­wald van der Walt u­ses Wood­leigh softs and SA-ma­de D­zom­bo so­lids in his .450/400 (3¼”) NE for hun­ting. For practi­se, Claw soft­no­se bul­lets hai­ling from the Eas­tern Ca­pe in the cor­rect di­a­me­ter do just fi­ne, as does South A­fri­can-ma­de S385 pro­pel­lant, Fe­de­ral 215 pri­mers and Hor­na­dy brass. De­wald’s rifle, which is re­gu­la­ted for the 60gr Cor­di­te lo­ad and da­tes from the mid 1920s, re­gu­la­tes per­fect­ly at just o­ver 2 100fps with t­his combination.

The .450/400s we­re the go to car­trid­ges in In­dia for ma­ny y­e­ars. Ma­ny aut­ho­ri­ties con­si­de­red them i­de­al for ti­gers and the ot­her dan­ge­rous ga­me spe­cies en­coun­te­red in In­dia. Most of the .450/400 dou­bles and sin­gle-shot rifles in ex­is­ten­ce to­day we­re in all pro­ba­bi­li­ty ma­de for or ex­por­ted to In­dia du­ring ti­mes go­ne by. As such, both the Nitro .450/400s ha­ve a very rich her­i­ta­ge in In­di­an hun­ting, but that is not to say that they didn’t do t­heir bit in A­fri­ca as well. Craig Bod­ding­ton and ot­hers ha­ve of­ten sta­ted in print that the .450/400 NE is just a­bout the per­fect buf­fa­lo car­trid­ge. I think it would be fool­har­dy to ar­gue a­gainst t­his vie­w­point, and I al­so sus­pect that so­meo­ne li­ke John Tay­lor (who ma­de no bo­nes a­bout the fact that the .450/400 NE was his fa­vou­ri­te dan­ge­rous ga­me car­trid­ge – ma­ny e­lep­hant ha­ve been ta­ken with both ver­si­ons o­ver the y­e­ars) would w­ho­le­he­ar­ted­ly agree.

In ad­di­ti­on to the Dark Con­ti­nent’s dan­ge­rous ga­me, the .450/400 is per­fect­ly at ho­me ta­king on A­fri­ca’s lar­ge an­te­lo­pe such as e­land and ku­du. The .450/400 Nitro Ex­press of­fers a strong punch (with mo­dest re­coil) in a ne­at, well-hand­ling packa­ge and u­ses bul­lets with good secti­o­nal den­si­ty. It is a winning combination, any which way you look at it.

De­wald van der Walt’s 1920s vin­ta­ge Ge­or­ge Gibbs in .450/400 (3¼”) NE. No­te the p­roof­marks by the Bir­ming­ham P­roof Hou­se on the flats of the bar­rels in­di­ca­ting a p­roof lo­ad of 60gr of cor­di­te for a 400gr bul­let.

The first a­ni­mal that fell to De­wald van der Walt’s vin­ta­ge .450/400 (3¼”) NE af­ter he boug­ht it was t­his ze­bra stal­li­on. A 400gr Wood­leigh soft­no­se to the shoul­der put it do­wn vir­tu­al­ly in its tracks.

From left to rig­ht, a 7x57 Mau­ser car­trid­ge for com­pa­ri­son fol­lo­wed by the .450/400 (3”) NE (al­so kno­wn as the .400 Jef­fe­ry), .450/400 (3¼”) NE and the .450/400 (3¼”) Black Po­w­der Ex­press. No­te the lat­ter’s pa­per-pa­t­ched le­ad bul­let.

De­wald van der Walt al­so hun­ted t­his buf­fa­lo cow with his Gibbs. Alt­hough a se­cond re­as­su­ran­ce shot was fi­red, the first well-pla­ced 400gr Wood­leigh soft ac­tu­al­ly did the job.

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