Newton in Africa

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Wayne van Zwoll
2610 Highland Drive
Bridgeport WA 98813
File name: AHGnewton18

Newton in Africa

Brilliance couldn’t trump his bad luck. But a century later Newton’s rifle excelled on safari!

On his first safari, he carried a Remington 30S and a Winchester 1895. Springbok and warthog, kudu and wildebeest collapsed to the sting of that .30-06 and .405.

Roosevelt comes to mind; but T.R.’s 1909 safari predated the Remington 30S. He paired his .405 Winchester ‘95 with a Springfield in .30-06. More than a century later, Barry Fisher had picked his rifles because … well, because he likes old rifles.

Me too. So last year I asked his Namibia-bound daughter Tamar if she’d use Barry’s .256 Newton on safari. I’d be in Jamy Traut’s Panorama camp then as well, and was keen to see it afield. Besides her Kimbers in .308 and .270, Tamar had a new Sako, a .270 scoped with a Zeiss 4-16x Conquest. “I won’t really need two rifles,” she said. “And Dad has only a few .256 factory rounds.”

“That’s precious ammo,” I agreed. “But I once had a .256 in the shop and loaded for it. Happy to share data if you can find brass. You can also make cases.”

“Oh, we have .256 empties…”

Lickety-split, I sent the data, followed by new, unlabeled ammo boxes. With her brother’s help, Tamar was soon pumping cases through dies at Barry’s bench. Cleverly, she duplicated the graphics on his one box of Western cartridges. Applied to fresh cardboard, her labels looked almost original!

The .256 was just one of Charles Newton’s developments. Based on black-powder and smokeless rounds, his WW I-era cartridges ranged from fast-stepping .22s to big-bores for the heaviest game. One shared feature: They were all ahead of their time.

Born in Delavan, New York, 8 January, 1870, Newton worked on the family farm until finishing school at age 16. After a couple of years teaching school, he studied law and joined the state bar. Then he left the practice of law. Six years in New York’s National Guard whetted his appetite to design cartridges using new smokeless powder. Gunmaker Fred Adolph would help with his early efforts to engineer rifles.

Smallest, but perhaps best known of Newton’s high-octane small-bores, was the .22 High-Power. A 1905 wildcat on the .25-35 case, it shoved 70-grain .228 bullets at 2,800 fps. The “Imp” was hailed for killing animals as formidable as tigers! Realistically, it inspired hunters to ponder shooting deer beyond the range limits imposed by iron sights and big blunt bullets.

In 1912 Newton necked the .30-06 to .257, forming the .25 Newton Special. While the .25-06 is commonly credited to Neidner, it could well have appeared on Newton’s bench first. His 7mm Special foreshadowed the .280 Remington by half a century – as did the 7×64 Brenneke developed in Germany. Also in 1912, Newton fashioned for Savage a short rimless .250 for the 1899 lever rifle. His 100-grain softpoint at 2,820 fps would live long in factory loads, but Savage promoted an 87-grain bullet at 3,000 fps, and called the cartridge the .250/3000. This fast .25 later became raw material for J.B. Smith, John Sweaney, Harvey Donaldson, Grosvenor Wotkyns and J.E. Gebby, all of whom necked it to .22. A 1937 version by Gebby and Smith became the .22-250. Remington began loading it in 1965.

Newton fashioned what may be one of the best .30 magnum ever. It was of clean rimless design, the 2.52-inch hull and 3.35 loaded length matching dimensions of short belted magnums that RoyWeatherby, then Winchester and Remington, would develop beginning in the 1940s. A powerhouse in 1913, the .30 Newton drove bullets as fast as the longer .300 H&H Magnum Western Cartridge would start loading in 1925. Likely it was inspired by the .404 Jeffery. A .35 Newton on the same case made its debut in 1915. Charles Newton played a role in introducing the .300 Savage, in 1920. A single-shot enthusiast, he also experimented with rimmed cases, from the Sharps 3¼” to the .405 Winchester.

“Dad urged me to take the Newton, so I’m packing two rifles.” Tamar’s e-mail included a photo of her new Sako with its 4-16x Zeiss. “That .270 will surely see most of the action, but I’ll bring enough .256 ammo for a few pokes at paper.” I salivated.

Tamar’s flight schedule took her to Windhoek, then Jamy Traut’s camp a few days early. She met me with a grin.

“I initiated the Newton on springbok!” She’d sneaked within iron-sight range of a ram and steadied the .256 on Jamy’s sticks. Centering the bead in the Williams aperture sight (the rifle’s only non-original feature), she’d sent a Hornady Spire Point through the shoulders, dropping the animal neatly.

Other hunters who had arrived with me were eager to get afield. So next morning after checking zeros, we jumped onto the Land Cruisers. My tryst with the Newton would have to wait.

“I got a wildebeest with the Newton!” We weren’t two days into the hunt before she gave me that update. “A lung shot. The bullet passed through!” Impressed with her shooting and with the performance of that small-bore round, I could tell the odds of her relinquishing the rifle, even briefly, were slipping. A rifle case on each shoulder next morning, she set out again.

Having shot her way through several safaris since her first with me several years earlier, Tamar had killed fine specimens of most common plains game, plus an outstanding waterbuck. So for the next couple of days she watched others in her Cruiser stalk and shoot. But eventually she got another chance to use the .256. “I bagged an impala with the Newton!” she gushed as my party, after hunting another sector, slunk in. We’d been beaten by gemsbok that stayed beyond scoped-rifle range!

The .256 Newton is an anomaly, in that it’s not a 25-caliber round as the numbers suggest (.250 bore, .257 groove diameter). Instead, it uses 6.5mm (.264) bullets. Its inventor was no doubt influenced by the popularity of 6.5mm rifles in both arsenals and game fields at that time.

Explorer Frederick Courteney Selous and the celebrated hunter W.D.M. Bell reportedly used the 6.5×54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer on Africa’s biggest animals. Its long solid bullets penetrated elephant skulls. Charles Sheldon also liked the 6.5×54. In Alaska he found it adequate for brown bears, sheep and moose. The flat arcs of mid-weight spitzer bullets – and trim, fetching Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbines so chambered – were a hit in open country.

Oddly enough, in Newton’s U.S. homeland, no 6.5mm hunting cartridge would enjoy the favor lavished on .30s or the .270. That drought would last until the 2009 debut of the 6.5 Creedmoor.

Developed at Hornady in Dave Emary’s shop, the 6.5 Creedmoor was named after Creed’s Farm in New York, birthplace of long-range rifle matches in the U.S. Rather than use Winchester’s .308 case, Dave chose the shorter .30 T/C, whose neck kept long pointed bullets within the limits imposed by short magazines. Mild recoil endears this 6.5 to hunters and long-range target shooters alike. Sales have jetted past those of popular magnums.

But ballistically, the Creedmoor has nothing on the .256 Newton when it’s blessed with modern powders and bullets. My turn with Barry’s rifle came the final evening of our safari, as Tamar shoved it into my hands and Jamy said the larder could use a wildebeest cow. A red-planked sunset and a south wind sent me through low bush, scooting along the hem of a herd moving briskly north. I tried to stay up with the leaders. Alas, the animals were stringing out in grass that offered scant cover.

Wind or movement? I couldn’t tell which had alerted them. But the bull’s snort told me this frolic would soon end. I bellied into thorn whose branches hid me but also prevented a shot. Through the tight lattice, I saw other wildebeest stop feeding. Several eased forward to follow the bull’s stare. I crabbed to the side by inches, the Newton’s barrel bobbing gently.

There. A slot. The muzzle slid forward, the bead quivered just inside the shoulder of a cow quartering to. “Crrrack!” An audible strike followed, but I lay still until dust settled in the herd’s wake. The trail was short and bright; the cow had died quickly. I knelt and gave thanks, as is my habit.

Newton had long dreamed of building his own rifles when in 1914 he formed the Newton Arms Company in Buffalo, New York. With a factory under construction, he traveled to Germany to secure a supply of rifle actions from Mauser and J.P. Sauer & Sohn. Alas, his timing could not have been worse! The first two dozen Mauser rifles were to arrive 15 August, 1914 – Germany went to war on the 14th. He turned to Marlin Firearms for barrels bored to .256 Newton and threaded for Springfield actions. Then, with famed barrel-maker Harry Pope in his shop, he designed his own action. It appeared 1 January, 1917.

But again Newton’s timing was off. The U.S. entered the war in April, and the government took control of all cartridge production. While the Newton Arms Company loaded its own ammunition, it bought cases from Remington, which now couldn’t supply them. Without cartridges, Newton rifles lost their market.

The dogged Newton started other enterprises. Despite his brilliant rifle and cartridge designs, all failed. In ’29 the Buffalo Newton Rifle Corporation folded. Later that year Wall Street collapsed, dashing the dreams of a nation. Newton died in New Haven, Connecticut, 9 March, 1932. He was 62.

Surely, Charles Newton’s high-performance cartridges paved the path for the post-WW II debut of short belted magnums. A generation before Roy Weatherby, Newton loaded long-range game bullets to over 3,100 fps. His rifles’ interrupted-thread lock-up predated Weatherby’s Mark V rifle by 30 years. His three-position safety appeared 20 years before Winchester installed one on a Model 70. He developed a partitioned hunting bullet in 1915, when John Nosler was two years old.

Charles Newton’s rifles and cartridges heralded trends that would evolve over decades. Hunting with the .256 put me in touch with his spirit and genius. Tamar probably felt the same, because first thing every morning on her Namibian safari, she picked up “the Newton.”

That scoped Sako could wait.

Newton: First wildcatter?

Stateside, the term dates back over a century. “Wildcat” can be noun or verb, ditto “wildcatting.” Following the U.S. Civil War, whale oil had become so costly, the government subsidized men looking for petroleum. Its price rose from 35 cents a barrel in 1862 to nearly $14 within the decade! Wildcatters drilled where oil hadn’t been found. By 1867 John D. Rockefeller had entered the industry. No wildcatter, conservative J.D. focused on refining and transporting oil. Standard Oil Company, founded in 1870, soon controlled most of the nation’s refineries and rails! At its zenith, Rockefeller’s net worth would amount to 2% of the country’s GDP!

The industrial age that had secured the future of petroleum also brought labor unions. Collective bargaining followed. So did strikes. Those outside the purview of unions were wildcat strikes.

The first cartridge called a wildcat probably dated to that era. Adoption of the .30-40 Krag by the U.S. Army in 1892 introduced shooters to small-bore smokeless rounds that begged “customizing.” The .30-06 encouraged further experiments. So did development of stronger rifle actions with improved steel. Handloaders re-barreled Springfields, Mausers and other infantry arms, cheap after the Great War.

Wildcatting cartridges, riflemen tested performance ceilings much as automobile buffs do when hiking the horsepower in hotrods. Then there’s the appeal of designing a cartridge (or “wheels”) uniquely yours.