This interesting calibre has a lifespan of almost 114 years, even though it rarely sees use today.
“You do realise nobody uses those any more? Devan, is that the best you could do for your Scottish friend?” Chuckling, the Afrikaans farmer scoffed at the primitive action and open sights on the old .303 rifle. It had long been an ambition of mine to use a truly old rifle and calibre, so after a few adjustments on the range I was off after warthogs.
This interesting calibre has a lifespan of almost 114 years, even though it rarely sees use today. Adopted as a military calibre in 1988, the .303 British (which is actually a .312 bullet) saw widespread use across two World Wars before being superseded by the 7.62 NATO (.308 Win) in 1957.
It started life as a black powder cartridge before the arrival of smokeless powders. This allowed around 1,860fps from a 70-grain compressed load and a 215-grain round nose bullet. Four years later, the propellant was upgraded to cordite, which allowed increased velocities. By 1910, the bullet weight had been dropped to 174 grains, increasing speeds further and bringing them more in line with the kind of velocities we would recognise today. This Mk VII round travelled at around 2,440fps and remained in this format until it was discontinued for military use. (Velocities and stats obtained from Frank C Barnes, ‘Cartridges of the World’ 8th ed.)
It was also this calibre which was used to develop the first expanding ammunition, known then as Dum Dum bullets. Around the 1890s in the Dum Dum arsenal in India, Capt. Bertie Clay experimented with exposing the lead core at the point of the bullet. The mushrooming effect this caused saw a staggering increase in effectiveness. By the time the MK VII evolution came around, the bullet design had moved on considerably from the full metal jacketed version, constructing the lighter bullets with fibreglass or aluminium tips.
Soon after its arrival it became a sought-after calibre for sporting purposes. It saw use on every species imaginable, from tigers in India to crocodiles in Australia. The enthusiastic take-up of the round will undoubtedly have been as a result of easy availability of ammo and rifles, but nonetheless it performed well. This was despite most hunting in the early years of the .303 British being done with jacketed, non-expanding rounds.
For many years the only sporting loads available were 215-grain solid and soft points, although some factory ammo shooting 150 and 180 grains did come on the market later. Handloaders were eventually able to take advantage of much lighter heads and higher velocities than factory production.
Today there are few manufacturers who chamber the .303 British, or indeed make ammo for it. This is understandable when comparing the stats on the 215-grain bullet with its modern equivalents. However, in lighter bullet weights its performance is surprising – it chucks the 180-grain head down-range with a trajectory not a million miles from a .308 (which has an advantage of about 3in at 300 yards). It achieves this with about 2,500fps MV and 2,520ft/lb ME. This is 100fps and just over 250ft/lb less than the .308, largely owing to the higher case pressures possible.
Kynoch still makes .303 ammo, loading the traditional 215-grain bullet. Using the stats chart, it is easy to see its shortcomings in today’s hunting world, but for the handloader using lighter bullet weights, it still has potential for those who wish for a taste of the Empire. BP