Johan van Wyk

I don’t think too many people will disagree if I make the statement that cartridges such as the .30-06 and .375 H&H Magnum came to be accepted over the years as industry standards. They are popular to the point where ammunition, reloading components and factory rifles are commonplace just about everywhere where hunting is conducted and rifles and ammunition are sold, and hence they are the yardsticks (rightly or wrongly) by which many other cartridges are judged.

Well, in days gone by, a number of different “yardstick” cartridges were out there as well, and even though they are now to a large extent forgotten or only encountered in gun rooms full of interesting old rifles or on the workbenches of slightly eccentric handloaders, they were the standards by which many others were judged in the days when a manservant and a pith helmet was considered essential hunting equipment.

The .450 (3¼”) Black Powder Express was in all probability the most popular black powder sporting cartridge of all time. Just about every British gunmaker worth their salt chambered rifles for one or other version of the .450 BPE, and ammunition was loaded in Britain, Germany, France and Austria. A state police department in Australia even adopted the Alex Henry falling-block single-shot rifle in .450 BPE as a service rifle at some point, and both single-shot and double rifles were available. Original ballistics were somewhat all over the place – mainly due to different manufacturers preferring different loads – but generally ranged from 270-grain bullets at 2 000 fps to 365-grain bullets at 1 750 fps. Even though the idea of shooting a 300-grain-plus bullet from a modern rifles sounds like serious stuff today, the .450 was actually considered to be somewhat of an all-round rifle for its day and judged to be fine for antelope and the bigger cats, but somewhat marginal for the really big, thick-skinned critters, even though John Taylor reported killing elephant with the cartridge.

The bullets of the day were lead projectiles in a variety of shapes and designs, including hollow-points for rapid expansion and round-nose hardened lead bullets for deeper penetration on big animals. Paper-patching was also in widespread use and was a necessity in many instances to ensure a proper grip on the bullet by the shallower types of rifling designs in use back then, such as Metford and Henry. As the .450 BPE’s recoil was quite moderate due to the low chamber pressure developed by the ammunition of the day, the rifles themselves were quite light (down to 8½ pounds or so in some instances) and handy. All these factors combined to make the .450 BPE a roaring success. Looking back, I reckon it is fair to make the comment that the .450 BPE was the .30-06 of its day. It was effective on a wide range of game, had modest recoil and almost everybody had one.

Moving on, the next cartridge worth taking a look at is the .577 (3”) BPE. This is a cartridge steeped in history and tradition that immediately conjures up images of Samuel Baker and Arthur Neumann, and it certainly paid its dues in Africa in earlier times. As was the case with the .450 BPE, the .577 BPE was chambered by a great many makers and was popular enough that ammunition was available well into the 1920s. It is worth noting that the 3-inch Nitro version of the .577 had been available for decades by this time, and had become a favorite of some in the hard-core elephant hunting fraternity such as James Sutherland, but the black powder .577 was still hanging in there as well.

The .577 BPE’s ballistics were impressive, even for its time. Bullets ranging from 560 to 610 grains were available (with later Nitro-for-black loads maximum bullet weight being increased to a hefty 650 grains) at muzzle velocities ranging from 1 740 fps to 1 650 fps. These were powerful enough to get the attention of just about anything, and in addition to thin-skinned game, the .577 BPE was used with success on the largest animals. Thus, the .577 BPE can rightly be compared to the .375 H&H: popular, available and powerful enough for just about anything, although not quite possessing the outright punch of the larger 8- and 4-bore rifles of the time.

A few years ago I took part in a big-bore shooting competition where many of the contestants used classic old double rifles in various calibers and configurations. For the black powder category my host offered me a lovely old Holland & Holland hammer double rifle in .577 BPE. We stepped up to the line on a damp and rainy morning and when the range officer gave the command to shoot, I hefted the old rifle, levelled the express sights at the target and pressed the triggers, one after the other. The result was a hefty but not uncomfortable PUSH on each occasion, a great cloud of smoke that took some time to dissipate, and two very, very impressive holes in the target. It was a very satisfying step back in time!

As mentioned above, Nitro-for-black loadings for many of the popular black powder express cartridges were available for many years after the advent of the Nitro era. This ensured a new lease on life for many an old rifle, and they remained in use for decades after the .450 (3¼”) BPE became the .450 (3¼”) Nitro-Express, the cartridge that blazed a trail followed by many others. The .577 BPE was likewise turned into the .577 (3”) Nitro-Express, arguably the quintessential elephant cartridge of all times.