SHOOTING MODERN BULLETS IN OLD RIFLES
Beware when using old guns and modern bullets.
Modern hunters and competition shooters are truly spoilt for choice in terms of the quality of the bullets available on the market today. Finding a bullet that delivers the desired performance in a given rifle is usually relatively easy.
With many older rifles, par- ticularly vintage doubles chambered for cartridges that were considered obsolete only a few years ago, choosing a bullet is not as simple, however. The most obvious reason for this is that relatively few bullet manufacturers are willing to tool up to make short production runs of hard-to-sell bullets that will inevitably only be bought by diehard fanatics willing to spend
hours to get old guns shooting again. Therefore, if you own a vintage rifle chambered for some obscure cartridge, a quick trip to your local gun shop may not necessarily be the last stop on the way to success.
Since the 1980s many of the older cartridges have had a bit of a renaissance, especially the British Nitro-Express cartridges. This interest was kindled by the availability of reloading components and equipment from firms such as BELL and Huntington Die Specialties in the US and Woodleigh and Bertram in Australia. The products of these companies gave many an old calibre a new lease on life. Some major manufacturers even started making rifles in and factory ammunition for some of the old calibres. Nowadays many an old cartridge is being used in the field again but with far better bullets than what any of the old ivory hunters would ever dream about.
Although it’s nice to see factory ammunition for the old Nitro-Express cartridges again all is not hunky-dory and a short trip back in history is called for. At the dawn of the Nitro era in the late 1890s many of the British manufacturers immediately saw the advantages offered by the new Nitro-Express cartridges such as the .450 (3¼”) NE and others. In a rush to claim their fair share of the new market, many of the gun makers of the time adapted existing black powder cartridges for use with Nitro cartridges. This entailed the use of the best fluid-steel barrels that could be had at the time and enlarging and strengthening the actions in order to take the pounding of the new high-pressure cartridges. Coupled with this, the British ammunition manufacturers (both Eley and Kynoch prior to their amalgamation in 1926, where after centre-fire ammunition was marketed under the Kynoch brand name – in their distinctive red-and-yellow packaging) were careful to keep their ammunition within certain pressure levels to ensure proper functioning and extraction.
The British ammunition of the time, especially the jackets of the full metal-jacketed (or “solid”) bullets, were usually manufactured from a copper alloy called gilding metal. The 1904 British Army Regulations stipulated a mixture of eight parts copper to one part zinc for gilding metal and as can be imagined it is a relatively soft material. It has been reported many times over the years that the old Kynoch solids were relatively soft and they developed somewhat of a reputation for riveting, bursting and shedding lead cores when fired into animals like elephant and buffalo, even at relatively modest velocities. Whilst gilding metal was undoubtedly relatively inexpensive to manufacture and therefore a cost effective option there was also another reason why the British stuck with relatively soft bullets in the ammunition loaded for especially double rifles. This second reason is closely associated with the way in which double rifles were manufactured.
The primary virtue of a double rifle, irrespective of calibre, is fine balance, and this in turn translates into excellent handling characteristics. To ensure good balance, the better makers profiled the barrels to ensure that the weight of their doubles was centred between the hands, right where it should be. Consequently double rifle barrels are usually quite thick around the chambers where the highest pressure is developed upon dis- charge but rapidly taper towards the muzzles, frequently with just enough meat left at the sharp end to keep things together. This recipe is, by and large, still followed by most manufacturers of doubles today as it has not only been proven to work but is also the way to keep weight and balance within reasonable limits.
As a consequence of the thin barrel walls on many a British and European double, especially those made in the early 1900s when a great deal of experimentation regarding rifle making as well as ammunition were still taking place, the British stuck to bullet jackets made of gilding metal for their dangerous-game ammunition. It was probably a happy coincidence but in this way, the stress on the barrel steel of doubles was kept within reasonable limits and structural failures were almost unheard of.
To be fair, the British did make ammunition loaded with steel-jacketed solid bullets for a few cartridges, notably the .416 Rigby. Notwithstanding the good reputation these gained afield, they were available for a limited selection of cartridges mostly chambered in bolt-action rifles. Bolt-action rifles, although not impervious to damage, are »
» generally made with thicker and sturdier barrels that can absorb higher pressures and thus handle the increased pressures generated by steel-jacketed bullets much better. The Kynoch steel-jacketed solids that were made were also somewhat different in design from many of the more modern designs. Firstly, the jackets had thin sidewalls but strengthened noses.
Secondly, the bullets tapered towards the nose section which resulted in them having a smaller bearing surface (the part of the bullet that comes into contact with the rifling of the barrel) when compared to some of the more modern bullets. These design features worked well enough for their time but in modern terms they are not quite up to the task as they don’t comply with industry standards and don’t deliver the required standard of accuracy, either. What they did do well, though, was to keep the stress on old barrels down to acceptable levels.
Let’s move on to the 1980s again and the birth of the homogenous alloy (or “monolithic”) bullet. With the advent of modern computer-controlled machinery, machining bullets on a large scale from a single material in whatever calibre or profile is desired became a reality and entrepreneurs began to do exactly this. One particular US manufacturer even began making brass and offered loaded ammunition in a range of calibres up to and including the .600 NE.
Whilst the new-fangled monolithic bullets certainly proved themselves on game in short order, they presented challenges that their gilding metal/lead core predecessors did not when used in old rifles. Firstly, whereas the earlier bullets were soft enough to allow a bit of “give” and thus absorb the rifling to some extent, the newer monolithic bullets were much harder and the rifling had to engage and engrave the bullet under force upon discharge. Consequently, this increased pressures dramatically and subjected the barrels of older rifles to much increased stress.
To complicate matters further, many old rifles, even those chambered for similar cartridges, were not manufactured to similar standards and many have over- or undersized bore and groove diameters, different types of rifling and even steel of varying hardness. Earlier types of rifling such as Metford and Henry and Lancaster’s “oval bore” rifling were shallow and elliptical in shape and had even more trouble in dealing with harder bullets. Al these factors, sometimes come together to create what is called overstressed rifling in old double rifles.
Overstressed rifling comes about when the barrel steel is not “elastic” enough to return to its shape and size after a hard bullet has passed down the bore. In serious cases the outline of the rifling can be seen as slightly raised areas on the outside of the barrels when held up to the light, but in extreme cases even more serious damage may occur such as the barrels coming apart, or worse. If you are unfortunate enough to witness such a calamity, it is a sure sign that the barrels of the gun in question are terminally unsafe and should be scrapped.
A second problem that may also be encountered when modern, hard bullets are fired in an old rifle is even worse than overstressed rifling: barrel splitting or bursting. The first instance of barrel splitting I can remember reading about was in the late 1980s when a vintage British .470 was sent to an Austrian gun maker for refurbishment and regulation with modern ammunition. One of the barrels split open like a banana peel from about a third of the way in front of the chambers all the way to the muzzle. Barrel splits are certainly (and thankfully!) not frequently encountered but just recently, a similar thing happened to an acquaintance in Denmark. The rifle involved was a vintage (pre-World War I) George Gibbs .450 NE and from the accompanying photograph on the previous page it is clear that the damage was both terminal and frightening!
During correspondence with the owner of the Gibbs, he told me that he has fired the rifle with 480gr soft-nose factoryloaded ammunition by a wellknown US manufacturer. At first I suspected a case of mistaken identity but a subsequent test with a magnet confirmed that the particular bullet indeed contained steel. A visit to a friend’s workshop with a sample bullet also revealed that it was in effect a steel-jacketed softnose bullet (for lack of a better description) with a thicker steel jacket than the solids offered by the same company.
WHAT TO DO
After digesting all of the above, what should you do if you own a vintage double and yearn shooting it? Well, first order of business should be to examine the rifle carefully, particularly the barrels, for any sign of damage. I would also have the bores slugged and chamber casts made by a competent person to determine the relevant internal dimensions.
Age is another major factor in determining whether a rifle
is safe to use with modern bullets. The older the rifle, the softer the barrel steel is likely to be, and more likely damage will occur when certain bullets are being used. Conversely, rifles manufactured after World War II normally have barrels from better quality steel and should be safe to use with almost all of today’s bullets.
Lastly and most importantly, avoid the use of so-called ‘hard’ bullets in your vintage rifle. In his book, Shooting the British Double Rifle, Graeme Wright defines a ‘hard’ bullet as “...any projectile other than a conventional lead-cored projectile with a gilding metal or copper jacket”. If this sounds like a limiting factor in terms of what is suitable for use in old rifles, fear not as the situation has somewhat improved since Graeme penned his definition in the third edi- tion of his book, published in 2009. In spite of the proliferation of monolithic bullets by various manufacturers in the past decade or so, excellent lead-core expanding bullets are still available for the old calibres, as are non-expanding solid bullets which will handily take the place of other designs that can potentially damage an old rifle. Woodleigh, Swift, Claw and others all make bullets that are vintage rifle friendly.
When researching this article I made a few enquiries with a number of bullet manufacturers, and while most of them were well aware of the potential risk to old rifles when hard bullets are being used it came as a shock to discover that others are apparently ignorant of this potential problem. Some didn’t even answer my queries, which was perhaps most worrying of all. One person I contacted, the local representative of a wellknown US bullet manufacturer, told me their company policy is that their bullets are safe for use in rifles with barrels made after 1945. Honest and to the point.
Another person I spoke to was rather ignorant about the potential pitfalls of hard bullets in old guns and told me bluntly that he had never encountered the problem. He was confident that his bullets were therefore incapable of causing such damage! Ignorance is bliss, it seems!
In 2015 the late Simon Clode, owner of Westley Richards at the time, wrote about a vintage .476 NE double that a client brought in, complaining about the rifle’s accuracy. After examination, Simon diagnosed the problem as follows:
“The rifle had, unfortunately, been shot at some stage with monolithic solid bullets which had pushed the rifling to the outside of the barrels rather than being on the inside. Worse still there was a hairline crack in the centre of the barrel, barely noticeable unless you look carefully, rendering them as scrap. The barrels were totally unsafe and the crack could at any point have opened up and potentially caused injury.” There you have it. My personal opinion is if you happen to have an old gun on hand and is unsure as to whether the bullets or ammunition you have available will be safe to use in it, rather don’t – seek an expert’s advice first to make sure. It’s certainly not every day that a fine old rifle gets damaged as a result of being used with the wrong bullets but is it really worth the risk of injury or damage?
TOP: A restored .450 Gibbs after its barrels had been damaged by modern highquality bullets.
LEFT: Modern bullets such as these monolithic and steel-jacketed solids are hard, have long bearing surfaces (note the lack of grooves to minimize pressure) and subject the barrels of old doubles to pressures they can’t handle.
BOTTOM: Old-fashioned lead-core expanding bullets such as the 410gr, .416 Woodleigh (left) are safe to use in older rifles. The Woodleigh Hydrostatically Stabilised solid (centre) has “driving bands” along its shaft that reduces the bearing surface and stress on the barrel. Made from a softer alloy they are safe for use in old barrels. The Swift Break-Away leadcore solid (right) is also safe for use in older guns.
Beware of using hard bullets in vintage rifles! As mentioned in the text, this old Gibbs .450 NE came to grief in a rather spectacular fashion, thanks to a modern US factory-loaded 480-grain softnose bullet with a thick steel jacket. Aside from being shocked, the shooter was thankfully uninjured.
Kynoch’s centre-fire ammunition in their distinctive red-and-yellow packaging. Pressure levels were kept low to ensure proper extraction.
The same Gibbs .450 with its new barrels as shown in the opening picture. The owner now has a new .450 NE on a Webley screw-grip action. Restoring a double with damaged barrels is a difficult and very expensive job.