SHOOTING MO­DERN BUL­LETS IN OLD RIFLES

Be­wa­re w­hen u­sing old guns and mo­dern bul­lets.

SA Jagter Hunter - - INHOUD - JO­HAN VAN WYK

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.

THE COMEBACK

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.

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