In Search of the Perfect Cartridge

A friend shared an article about an ideal rifle cartridge.  The thought brought back to mind a brief lecture delivered by Leonard Bull at Trinidad State – hearing his students arguing on the merits of different cartridges, Leonard was explaining why gunsmiths shouldn’t have favorite cartridges – “Everyone has the cartridge he likes.  Your concerns are to do a good job, build a good rifle, and get paid for it.”

Leonard was probably the best gunsmithing instructor we had when it came to precision work with hand tools.  Others may have been better with mills and lathes – but he had learned his trade in Kenya, and as a professional hunter as well as a gunsmith.  His work sniping during the Mau-mau uprisings had left him permanently unable to return to Kenya – the country that he had represented in (I believe) three Olympic competitions.  And he was a friend of John Buhmiller – Eureka’s top barrelmaker.

TSJC probably had the finest academic library on firearms in the nation back in the mid-eighties, so I dug out Cartridges of the World, read a bit, and decided I needed more information.  Leonard pointed out that brass cartridges came along in the 1860’s, and rifle bores shrunk to about 45 caliber, and that smokeless powder was first loaded in 1888 in the French 8mm Lebel.  In England, they had compressed black powder, increased the velocity, and developed the 303 British cartridge.

Leonard was slightly too polite to assert that the US moving to thirty caliber rifles was due to British research – but the timeline makes it look like the calculated ideal caliber did come from Enfield – unsatisfied with the 303 performance, they developed the 276 Enfield in 1909, using a .282 bullet weighing from 144 to 190 grains.  World War I came along, and the Royal Army’s quest for the perfect cartridge was put aside, and they soldiered on with the old 303 Brit.

At the end of the first World War, the US Army wasn’t satisfied that the 30/06 was their ideal cartridge either.  John D. Pedersen did the calculations for the ideal US Army cartridge, and the book lists the 276 Pedersen – with bullets weighing from 120 grains to 150.  In 1932, with the Great Depression underway, and millions of 30/06 rounds left over from the brief US involvement in the first World War, General MacArthur ended the army’s search for the perfect cartridge . . . but that isn’t the end of the story.

The US entered the second World War with the only semiautomatic rifle fielded as standard – the M1 (Garand).  Both Pedersen and Garand had been doing their development work with the 276 Pedersen . . . and the M1 (Garand) was accepted and changed to 30/06.  The action was plenty strong enough for the 30/06 cartridge – but the operating rod, designed for that ideal 276 Pederson, wasn’t.  The 30/06 cartridge used in WWII was the “Cartridge, Ball, caliber 30,M2 – downloaded to 150 grains and 200 feet per second slower.  The reduced cartridge didn’t bend the op rods.  Of course it had another consequence – the older 172 grain cartridge gave the 30 caliber machine guns a maximum range close to 6,000 yards.  When the 30/06 was downloaded to the M2 cartridge, maximum range dropped to about 3,500 yards.

Which is where the 308 Winchester comes in – it didn’t compete with the full 30/06 – its competitor was the weakened M2 cartridge – and besides, the M14 had more or less the same operating rod as the M1.

I guess Leonard left me knowing that the big developments in cartridges occurred before I was born – and, from what I’ve seen, all of my choices are pretty good.

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