Johan van Wyk
The term “warhorse” is synonymous with a hard-working beast of burden that goes about its chores with a minimum of fuss and care but still gets the essential job done. In the old days, when armies were dependant on beasts of burden, horses were indeed an essential part of the logistical chain, and even though things have changed, and diesel and electricity has replaced hay and coal as the primary propellants of the major logistical systems worldwide, we still have a few warhorses left today in the world of cartridges.
The 1890’s saw the birth and coming of age of so-called “smokeless” propellant. The new propellant offered opportunities that the earlier black powder simply could not match. It was only natural that the militaries of the world, who were then – just as now – engaged in feverish development of small arms, would take note of and embrace smokeless propellant and the many advantages it offered. The British were at the forefront of military developments during this era, and spearheaded the introduction of smokeless propellant in 1892 for their military round of the time – the .303 (which was originally introduced as a black powder round in 1888). The .303 is still very much with us today as a sporting round and there are still many thousands of old Lee-Enfield .303’s doing their thing all the way from Africa to Canada and Australia. If ever there was a true warhorse of a cartridge, it must be the .303 British.
Not to be outdone, the Germans officially adopted the 8x57J cartridge in 1888. Initially it fired a 226-grain .318” bullet at a rather sedate 2 100 fps, but this was changed in 1905 to a .323” 154-grain bullet travelling at 2 880 fps – a powerful and flat-shooting number for its day that saw the Germans through both World Wars, and was also adopted by Poland and Czechoslovakia, among others. The 8×57 was, and is, a very fine sporting cartridge as well, especially with heavier bullets in the 200- to 220-grain category at short to medium ranges. It earned an excellent reputation in Africa on all sorts of game and is reasonably popular to this day on the Dark Continent, even though it has been eclipsed to some extent by many more modern contenders. It is a cartridge I have always wanted to own, and one day a nice old Mauser rifle is sure to come my way.
The 8×57’s older brother, the 7×57, was originally developed as a military cartridge for Spain and saw use in this guise in the Spanish-American War of 1895. Just a few short years later the cartridge was in the thick of the action again, but this time in Africa in the hands of the hardy Boers who were defending their two republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, against invading British forces. The 7×57 is a very popular cartridge in South Africa to this day, and enjoys legendary status there, and rightly so. With lighter bullets it is a low-recoiling and flat-shooting rifle that is just about ideal for many plains-game species, and with heavy 175-grain bullets it is sure death on the bigger soft-skinned antelope such as kudu and wildebeest. The good sectional density, especially of the heavier 7mm bullets, ensures good penetration, as Karamojo Bell amply proved on hundreds of elephant, although I’ll be the first to admit that elephants were probably not quite what the cartridge’s designers had in mind for it in 1893!
Internationally, the 7×57 seems to ebb and flow in the popularity stakes. Every now and then a manufacturer chambers a few rifles for the cartridge and the flame burns brighter, only to simmer down to a flicker again in a year’s time. One thing is certain, though. The 7×57 deserves a place next to the fire, and it is just too good to die. I did a lot of my early hunting with a nice little 7×57 and I often wonder why I bother with all the other stuff instead of just getting a 7×57 again.
Possibly the most popular cartridge of all time, the .30-06 Springfield, firmly traces its heritage back to military roots as well. It was originally a US military development that eventually ended up seeing the US through two World Wars, Korea, and a number of other less conspicuous trouble spots before it was replaced in the 1950s. By the time its replacement arrived on the scene, however, the good old ’06 was so firmly entrenched as a sporting cartridge that nothing was going to knock it off this particular perch, and this is pretty much the situation still today.
While some view the .30-06 as a mixed blessing, the fact is that there is very little that cannot be hunted with the cartridge. It is an all-rounder par excellence, with the ability to fire a wide range of bullets from 110- to 250 grains, and the plethora of .308” bullets available make it a reloader’s dream. Factory rifles and ammunition are available from almost every source imaginable, and this more than anything else makes the ’06 a fine choice for the travelling hunter who may find himself stranded somewhere where nobody has ever heard of a .300 WSM. I have probably hunted more animals, both large and small, with a .30-06 on two continents and in a number of African countries, and I can attest to the fact that it is an excellent cartridge for just about anything short of dangerous game when loaded with appropriate ammunition. Love it or hate it, but the .30-06 is one warhorse that is here to stay.
Notwithstanding newer military cartridges such as the .308 Winchester and .223 Remington, both fine cartridges in their own right, the older ex-military warhorses still hold a lot of appeal. With a newer generation of ammunition and rifles to fire that ammunition (even the .303 was recently given a new lease of life in the form of a limited run of the Ruger No 1 single-shot falling-block rifle) they are as good – and even better – as they ever were, and they are always worth a second look for the hunter on the lookout for a cartridge with a bit of history and a proven track record behind it. Give an old warhorse a second chance!