The Best Cartridge, Rediscovered

best-cartridge-375-ammo-092216She’s been described as the queen of the medium-bores. Medium, as in bigger than .30, smaller than .45. Smack in the middle, the .375 H&H qualifies in many ways:

A hundred and three years old at this writing, she’s one of the oldest hunting cartridges in use. Birthed in London by Holland and Holland, she soon became loved and loaded internationally. She’s the mother of almost all belted magnum cartridges still in production. A charter chambering in Winchester’s M70, “the rifleman’s rifle,” she was also the most potent.

She has earned the unwavering loyalty of African Professional Hunters and Alaskan bear guides. With softs and solids, her bullet roster (still growing!) spans a weight range of 235 to 350 grains. Deadly on Africa’s dangerous game, she’s the minimum legal standard in many places. Flat-shooting enough for a 200-yard zero, she’s arguably the most versatile of hunting cartridges.

If you’ve used the .375, you can probably add to this list. The first animal I shot with a .375 was a Cape buffalo quartering away. The full-patch bullet, of European make, bent on entry and cut a scimitar path to wind up under the near-side hide. Follow-ups made for an exciting time in thick thorn. The square noses of the old Winchester solids I thumbed into the breech hung up on the magazine’s radius….

This episode in no way colored my view of the .375. I made a poor bullet choice and a poor hit. I failed to check feeding with all my handloads.

Geoff McDonald makes deep-driving .375 (and big-bore) Woodleigh bullets for doubles, bolt rifles.
Geoff McDonald makes deep-driving .375 (and big-bore) Woodleigh bullets for doubles, bolt rifles.

The next day I fired at a big warthog 175 yards off. It dropped like a brick and didn’t twitch. Such results have since become routine – even as aging eyes have forced a change from iron sights to scopes. An elephant fell dead to a brain shot with a 350-grain Woodleigh solid. A buffalo, doomed by a Trophy Bonded softpoint through the near shoulder, dropped to a solid that broke both. I’ve shot lesser game too. A leopard crouched in tall grass a fly-rod’s length from my tracker rocketed into the air at the impact of my hastily fired bullet – and landed dead. An eland bull collapsed at 200 yards to a couple of quick shots from the same Montana rifle. Those holes were half an inch apart – good fortune but not, oddly enough, a big surprise. Such is my confidence in that bolt gun and the .375 H&H.

The English gun-making firm of Holland and Holland introduced the .375 Belted Rimless Nitro Express in 1912. Western Cartridge Company offered it as the .375 H&H Magnum beginning in 1925, adding as well the .300 H&H Magnum, or .30 Super – a necked-down .375. Griffin & Howe made plenty of quid building .375s on Magnum Mauser actions. In 1937, the cartridge appeared with a handful of other useful numbers in Winchester’s new Model 70. At that time, owning a .375 meant you were an advanced collector or planned to hunt enormous animals. Even Alaska didn’t hold game tough enough to challenge the .375. Land sakes, brown bear guides were still packing .30-30s!

Beginning in the early 1940s, Roy Weatherby put “magnum” in every shooter’s vocabulary. The first Weatherbys were fashioned from blown-out belted Holland hulls. The .257, .270 and 7mm were cut to about 2 ½ inches so the cartridges would fit standard (.30-06-length) rifle actions. Roy chambered for the .375 H&H, but also his own minimum-taper .375 with radiused “venturi” shoulder. Like Roy’s .300, it boasted a full-length (2.85-inch) case. The .375 Weatherby died young but has been revived.

Remington listed this .375, on a Mauser action. Now Mauser has a double-square-bridge 98 Magnum.
Remington listed this .375, on a Mauser action. Now Mauser has a double-square-bridge 98 Magnum.

The enduring popularity of the .375 H&H has been earned honestly, in the field. Jack O’Connor called it “probably the best all-around cartridge ever designed.” He noted that a .375 zeroed to send 270-grain bullets 3 inches high at 100 yards hits “on the nose at or around 225.” He used the round for brown bears, lions and “one very large tiger.” Were he to hunt with just one rifle, he wrote, “it would be a .375.”

John “Pondoro” Taylor lauded this elegant magnum in his classic 1948 book, African Rifles and Cartridges. Of a buffalo hunt, he recalled, “I gave him the left barrel fairly in the center of his great chest … [the effect being] as though there had been a steel hawser stretched across his path….” The cartridge is noted for driving its bullets deep, and for killing better than ballistics charts suggest.

Once, after observing an elephant cull in 1985, I interviewed the Zimbabwean rangers about their rifles. All but one carried government-issue .458s; the odd man out preferred his .375. “More penetration – and it doesn’t rattle your molars like a four-five-eight.” I had watched him shoot an elephant quartering away. His 300-grain solid had exited the forehead after powering through neck, spine and skull.

The .375’s original light-bullet load, a 235-grain softnose at 2,800 fps, expired after disappointing hunters who expected heavy-bullet penetration at the end of a flat arc. Modern spitzers, 250 to 270 grains, beat it ballistically. Barnes lists a 235-grain TSX, which can be stoked to about 3,000 fps. The handful of lighter .375 softpoints sold now suit the .375 Winchester, a much smaller cartridge for rear-locking lever-actions.

Wayne’s first .375, this early Model 70, is still in service. It has taken elk as well as African game.
Wayne’s first .375, this early Model 70, is still in service. It has taken elk as well as African game.

Want high velocity, flat flight and pile-driver hits at distance? Swift offers 250- and 270-grain A-Frames. Nosler sells 260-grain AccuBonds and Partitions. Sierra has a pointed 250, Hornady a 270 (both also list 300-grain boattails). The 270-grain Barnes TSX is another top choice. Maximum loads can hurl 250s at 2,900 fps, 270s at 2,800. Loaded well below the .375’s pressure ceiling, a 260-grain AccuBond will fly flat as a 180 from a .30-06 – and hit harder at 200 yards than the ’06 at the muzzle!

More African game has probably been taken with 300-grain .375 bullets than with other weights. It’s the standard choice when you must use solids, and many hunters prefer using softs of the same heft to get the same point of impact. Though exit speed for 300-grain bullets has long been pegged at 2,530 fps, Hornady’s Superformance ammo pushes them at 2,700. Norma-loaded 350-grain Woodleigh solids may seem stodgy at 2,300, but penetration is astonishing. I dug a Woodleigh from the hip of an elephant killed with a frontal brain shot.

Some hunters argue the .375 “knocks down” lesser game. Not true. Bullets cause collapse only when they strike nerve centers or break supportive bone. Another misconception is that big bullets cause excessive meat damage. Actually, a 300-grain .375 softpoint designed for tough game may destroy less meat than does a faster missile half its weight. You get more violent upset from a 7mm magnum bullet clocking 3,100 fps at impact than from a .375’s at 2,400. The bigger, slower bullet wreaks less havoc on the periphery of its path but drives deep and straight and carries significant energy to the off-side.

Despite its authoritative punch, the .375 has manageable recoil, and appears often in nimble rifles. Most hunters can point a mid-weight bolt gun more deftly than they can a heavier double. They can also fire it without cracking their zygomatic arch. And because they don’t expect injury, they don’t flinch.

Sure, .375 ammunition costs more than it did in, say, 1945, when a 20-round box brought $2.83. But you’ll spread some of the pain by researching automobile and gasoline prices of that era. Or compare the .375 with big-bores. To feed a .505 Gibbs, you’ll now pay about $125–for 10.

Handloading the .375 is easy. I neck-size only when using just one rifle. Relatively slow powders like 4350 work fine behind heavy bullets. A couple of years ago I found a box of mild 300-grain loads I’d assembled three decades earlier with surplus H4831. They printed a 1-inch group from my Montana rifle.

This cat was crouched just feet away when Wayne killed it with a quick shot from his Montana .375.
This cat was crouched just feet away when Wayne killed it with a quick shot from his Montana .375.

With loaded cartridges taping 3.60 inches, the .375 requires a long action. Steep case taper and a shoulder angle shy of 13 degrees may have suggested a belt to ensure positive headspacing. A belt is now widely considered unnecessary. Holland & Holland introduced a flanged (rimmed) .375 for double rifles. It was loaded to slightly lower pressure. The flanged form has faded, as belted hulls work fine in doubles.

Initial demand for .375s came mainly from bolt-rifle shooters. While standard ’98 Mausers could be gunsmithed to accept the round, such alteration came dear. At $78.45 in 1945, Winchester’s Model 70 offered returning GIs an affordable magnum.

Beginning in 1948, the Remington 721 challenged the M70 with chamberings to .300 H&H. In 1961 and ’62, Remington’s Custom Shop cataloged a Kodiak Model 725 in .375 and .458 Magnum. It wore a 26-inch barrel with integral brake. Just 52 of these 9-pound rifles left the factory, but the subsequent M700 stable included a .375. It sold for $310, as did the M70 African in the early ’60s. Those 700s were built from leftover 725 Kodiak stock.

Rifles in .375 H&H Magnum have proliferated. Among the lightest, at 6 3/4 pounds, is Browning’s X-Bolt. The heavyweights include CZ’s 550 Safari Magnum, at 9 1/4. Winchester’s M70, now again with Mauser extractor and mechanical ejector, is bored for the .375 in conservatively-styled Alaskan and Safari Express versions. As this is written, Remington lists the .375 H&H only in its Model 700 XCR II. Kimber has it in the 7 1/2-pound Talkeetna and 8 3/4-pound Caprivi.

Before tackling real buffalo, Wayne practices offhand with full-power loads, here at the FTW Ranch.
Before tackling real buffalo, Wayne practices offhand with full-power loads, here at the FTW Ranch.

Among my favorite .375s is Sako’s 85 stainless Kodiak, a well-balanced 8-pound rifle. The gray laminate stock has clean, sharp checkering. The 21-inch barrel wears a barrel-band swivel stud, a shallow V-notch rear sight and a big, white, concave front bead that won’t reflect light off-center. The three-lug bolt features a short, powerful extractor and a mechanical ejector. The flush, four-shot detachable box can be loaded in the rifle – a blessing, should you need to top it off fast.

If you’ve come into money lately, you’ll consider the Dakota 76, perhaps the most elegant of .375 bolt rifles. Or a semi-custom project from Kilimanjaro or Hill Country Rifles. Until recently, there were very few alternatives to a traditional square-bridge Magnum Mauser. The Granite Mountain Arms action, and the Johannsen Express Rifle come to mind. But at the 2015 SCI convention, Mauser unveiled a new M98 Magnum. Its double-square-bridge action and 24 1/2-inch barrel is snugly bedded with twin recoil lugs, pillars and crossbolts in figured Turkish walnut. Barrel-band swivel and front ramp, double-folding-leaf rear sight, of course. The magazine holds five .375s. I remained weak-kneed long after my swoon.

Best value in sturdy, reliable, accurate .375s? That short list must include Weatherby’s Vanguard Synthetic It’s a fast-pointing rifle; the stock proportioned for instant aim through its iron sights or a low-mounted scope. The bolt slicks up cartridges reliably, and runs smoothly as a piston. Good trigger! $799.

Wayne shot this Namibian gemsbok with his Montana rifle in .375: “nimble, accurate and versatile!”
Wayne shot this Namibian gemsbok with his Montana rifle in .375: “nimble, accurate and versatile!”

Ruger has chambered for the .375 H&H but does not now. Like Savage and Mossberg, it catalogs bolt rifles in the shorter .375 Ruger. Developed a decade ago to suit .30-’06-length actions, the .375 Ruger has about 10 percent more capacity than the .375 H&H Magnum, courtesy a wider body with little taper. It can push bullets 5 percent faster from a hull .27-inch shorter. Its .532-inch head diameter is the same as the Holland’s; but the Ruger round has no belt. It headspaces on a 30-degree shoulder.

“The .375 Ruger uses powder more efficiently,” explains Hornady engineer Mitch Mittelstaedt, who contributed much to that project. “We wanted the .375 Ruger to wring from a 20-inch barrel what the .375 H&H could from a 24-inch.” Both cartridges are designed to operate at a maximum average pressure of 62,000 psi.

My first .375 H&H was a pre-war Winchester 70 with a wrist crack. I repaired it, hid the pin and glue well enough, installed a Redfield receiver sight and took it elk hunting. One morning I heard antlers clack behind a small hill. I waited. A cow ghosted through the lodgepoles. I moved too soon. She saw me and stiffened. The clacking stopped. I had muffed my chance! A spike bull became my consolation prize. When the gold bead steadied on a rib, I launched the 300-grain softpoint. The elk galloped off, then came unhinged and piled up.

That Model 70 accounted for several animals on my first safari. Since then, I’ve killed more game in southern Africa with my .375 from Montana Rifle Company and with a straight-pull Blaser R93. The R93 (like the later R8) can be carried safely with a round up the spout, as it’s not cocked until you thumb a tang switch forward. Repeat shots come as quickly as the flick of your hand.

Weatherby’s new, nimble, slick-feeding Vanguard Synthetic is affordable: just $799 with iron sights.
Weatherby’s new, nimble, slick-feeding Vanguard Synthetic is affordable: just $799 with iron sights.

Several fine .375s have slipped away. I foolishly sold an M70 with a gorgeous fiddleback stock by Iver Henriksen. The household budget dictated I return, after shooting trials, a dropping-block Miller (by Dakota) that delivered a 3/4-inch group over open sights! An M70 Legend rifle from D’Arcy Echols’ shop drilled a knot miking .17! It wore a 3x Leupold, a superb optic on .375s.

After a century afield, the .375 is getting looks from hunters who will never stop an angry buffalo a lorry-length away, or reach across alders to tag an Afognak bear. New rifles and loads give this queen of medium bores even more utility. But she’s lost none of the allure that in my youth inspired dreams of far-away adventure. Dating to the Hapsburg Empire, the .375 H&H wears its age very, very well.

2 thoughts on “The Best Cartridge, Rediscovered”

  1. As soon as I saw the title I knew the article would be about the .375 H&H magnum. Mr. Van Zwoll’s experience with the cartridge eclipses mine; to date I have used this great cartridge to take a polar bear, black bear (at 310 yards!), muskox, Alaskan moose, eland, blue wildebeest, and a common duiker. Our daughter-in-law used my .375 H&H to take a big common springbok because it was the rifle we had with us when the springbok appeared, and I used mine to put a finishing shot in my wife’s Alaskan Peninsula brown bear. Our .375 H&H rifles – a Winchester Safari Classic and a Dakota Model 97 – are incredibly accurate, something that I have discovered to be very common in this chambering. Were I limited to one rifle for everything, and thank goodness I am not, it would be a .375 H&H.

    1. Everything said about the 375 HH is true. But, for North America the 338 WinMag is better as is the 9.3×62. The 338-06 is better than the 338 WinMag but is strictly a handloaders’ cartridge. Note re bias: I never travel by common carrier to hunt anything. If I can’t get there in my Ford truck from Austin, Texas, and bring back the meat, I have no interest. Gourmet cooking is almost as big an interest for me as the hunt.

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