When the great hunting cartridges of the world are listed, the .303 British rarely makes the grade. Maybe familiarity has bred contempt; maybe the ready availability of Lee-Enfield rifles for a few bucks makes us automatically dismiss its cartridge as too plebeian for words.
The .303 is 125 years old this year, having been adopted officially by the British Army in 1888. Most authorities say it began life as a black-powder cartridge, switching to smokeless after a couple of years, but that’s not really true. Early loads did employ black powder, but only as a stopgap. The .303 was always intended for smokeless, but some early pressure problems forced the interim use of black.
Compared to many modern cartridges, which flow off designers’ desks like rain drops, the .303 underwent rigorous testing as it was developed. Officials at Enfield Lock, which was then managed by John Rigby (descendant of the John Rigby), put it through its paces in laboratories, on target ranges, and in the hands of select troops around the world. Their comments on the ammunition and the early rifles were carefully considered and incorporated.
The selected cartridge design was loaded with a 215-grain cupro-nickel round-nosed solid, with Cordite as a propellant. It left the muzzle at about 2000 feet per second. We say “about” because there were many variations tried. This was the load, ultimately known as the Mk. VI, with which the British fought the Second Anglo-Boer War.
Mk. VI ammunition was in use until 1910, when it was replaced by the Mk. VII, loaded with a 174-grain spitzer solid at 2440 fps. This remained the standard military load until the .303 was finally retired from service in the 1960s.
Not surprisingly, British riflemakers latched onto the .303 as a hunting round almost as soon as it was introduced. It was a natural for stag-stalking in Scotland, and was chambered in some of the finest double rifles ever made. It was also chambered in break-action and falling-block single shots, and a few custom bolt rifles. Military-issue Lee-Enfields and Lee-Speeds were customized or completely rebuilt by such as Holland & Holland.
By modern standards, the .303 case is somewhat archaic with its pronounced taper and heavy rim, but those perceived drawbacks are actually virtues in a cartridge used in double rifles and single-shots in hot climates. The .303 never sticks in the chamber, regardless, and you’d need an arbor press to strip the rim.
Ballistically, both the Mk. VI and Mk. VII loads were good for hunting. In the hands of a good hunter and careful shot, the 215-grain solid accounted for many elephants, taken with brain shots. Although his 7x57s and 6.5×54 Mannlichers get the attention, W.D.M. Bell took many of his elephants with the .303.
For long-range work – sniping and target matches – the .303 British need apologize to no one. In the Guards Museum in London there resides a break-action Holland & Holland rifle that was being built for a German client when war broke out in 1914. The rifle was diverted to the Irish Guards and used in the trenches as a sniper rifle for the next four years. Its exploits in the hands of various sharp-shooting NCOs is mentioned in Rudyard Kipling’s official history of the Irish Guards, the regiment in which his only son served, and was killed, in 1915.
Various English gunmakers introduced .303 cartridges that were “improvements” on the original, but not a single one gained a foothold, and most are forgotten.
The reason is simple: The .303 British can hardly be improved upon for its intended purposes – military, hunting, or target work. That statement is likely to get some argument, but the facts speak for themselves. Attempts at “improving” the .303, in Canada by gunmaker Ellwood Epps, and by various individuals in Australia, never really went anywhere. Partly this was due to the difficulty of converting military rifles, but it was also due to the fact that you wouldn’t gain enough to warrant the effort.
Hard as it may be to believe, 20 years ago, double rifles chambered for the .303 British were selling for a relative pittance, and many were rechambered and rebored to cartridges like the 9.3x74R. But, fortunately, there were thousands of .303 double rifles made, most of which were boxlocks with such names as Army & Navy or Manton & Co., and so there’s no shortage.
For a handloader, it is easy to duplicate original ballistics or create ammunition that will shoot well, and it’s a deadly cartridge for deer, bear, or – the modern form of shooting on control – feral hogs.—Terry Wieland