The tiger tamer
The same, but different... Britain’s once popular .450/400 Nitro Expresses.
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.
A WINNING COMBINATION
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.