The possible reasons for this aberration I’ve long speculated upon, and my best answer so far is this: In the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. military establishment made an uninspired compromise; later on, bored and lazy gunwriters found they could entice readers by promoting the compromise as though it were a dazzling example of firearms creativity; the military believed the gunwriters because it transformed one of their dreary committee decisions into something a little more interesting; American rifle and ammunition manufacturers accepted the specious claims of the military and the gunwriters because it simplified their product lines and therefore their lives; the American shooter, if he was in the habit of buying factory rifles and factory ammunition and reading newsstand gun magazines and especially if he had spent some time in the army, became convinced that the ultimate rifle, beyond which no rational man dare tread, was an off-the-shelf 30-06.
A similar phenomenon occurred later in that century which placed complicated, oversize European pistols firing squeaky miniature bullets in the hands of Americans fighting for their lives. This latter mistake, one more result of mind-numbed bureaucratic bumbling and journalistic slavishness, is in the process of being corrected.
The flat-earth-society’s proclamation of the 30-06 as the end of the gun world was subject to enlightenment as well, had not virtually every gunwriter in the country made a living for decades repeating imaginative phrases such as “the good ol’ 30-06 is all you’ll ever need,” “the 30-06 will kill anything on the planet,” “the 30-06 represents the practical limit of human recoil tolerance,” “if the 30-06 is good enough for the army it’s good enough for anything,” “there’s no need for exotic cartridges when you’ve got a good ol’ 30-06.”
When the military downsized the 30-06 to the .308, gunwriters simply replaced the numbers and carried on, adding one new phrase: “the .308 will do anything the good ol’ 30-06 will do.”
There were voices of opposition to these politically correct chants. The raucous voice of Elmer Keith was one. Keith’s observations and demonstrations of the clear and unsurprising superiority of large-bore bullets over small-bore bullets was accepted in the handgun community. But Keith was largely shouted down in the rifle community by the high-pitched squealing of recoil-allergic smallbore-lovers like Keith’s nemesis Jack O’Connor.
O’Connor was a smallbore man and aggressively self-righteous about it in a way that only a college teacher could be. He derided Elmer Keith and those who agreed with him with such phrases as “the crazies that follow Elmer” and continued to preach that small bullets were just as good if not better than big bullets. He constantly complained about recoil while insisting that his gunmakers build him simple, straight-comb stocks that did nothing to manage it. With the same schoolmarm glibness he used to lecture American shooters on his amazing theory that the smaller the hole in the muzzle the better, O’Connor proclaimed his other amazing theory that a straight stock which delivers the entirety of a rifle’s recoil energy directly to a small area of the shooter’s shoulder actually reduces recoil. Enough American stockmakers believed him to enshrine O’Connor’s concept of the unbent stick, a better idea for a pool cue than a big-bore rifle stock, as the “American Classic.”
O’Connor’s much repeated conception of the perfect cartridge was the .270 Winchester. He was getting paid to say that by Winchester, of course, but I think he had convinced hiself that it was true. He admittedly admired the observed performance of the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum if not its recoil which he considered excessive and he was persuaded to use it a few times in Africa, though he saw no need for any stateside hunter to use an “elephant gun” to hunt anything in North America and advised against it. He recommended the .270 for grizzly bear. World renowned Prescott gunmaker Fred Wells told me once that he had built a .458 Winchester Magnum for O’Connor, but the only reference to a .458 I could find in any O’Connor literature was a statement he once made that he had a fine .458 at one time but got rid of it because it kicked too much.
Throughout his career, O’Connor was constantly receiving accounts of large animals such as elk and kudu that ran off after multiple hits in the lungs with .270s and 30-06s, but O’Connor never believed any of these stories. He was quick to call all reporters of such heresy liars and to accuse them of being undercover Elmer Keith operatives. Toward the end of his career, O’Connor got in a big fight with the Kenya game department which was extremely upset because O’Connor’s wife Eleanor, with Jack’s encouragement, was going around wounding lions and elephants with her 30-06.
[For any reader who finds Jack O’Connor of interest, Jack O’Connor: Catalogue Of Letters (Trophy Room Books, Agoura, CA 2002) is a must-read. The book summarizes decades of personal correspondence between O’Connor and his close friend John Jobson, revealing much of O’Connor’s self-obsession and his private opinions of rifles and cartridges (“I seriously doubt that a .416 would kill a bit better than a 7x57”), his readers and fans (“Boobiens Americana”) and other gunwriters (“The big bore guys are a bunch of Nazis -– real psychopaths”). The original letters themselves are also available from Trophy Room.]
Jack O’Connor and his wife were not the only American writer/hunters to leave a trail of blood and gore across Africa because of their deluded adulation of the 30-caliber rifle.
Robert Ruark, who admonished other hunters to Use Enough Gun, couldn’t bring himself to give up his little Remington 30-06. He used it to perform such tricks as killing a Grant’s gazelle quite dead with only six shots, and almost killing a Thomson Gazelle with 14 shots. (Another hunter, his wife, finished off Ruark’s Tommy three days later.) On his first safari to Africa, Ruark also took a Winchester .220 Swift, with which he shot a wart hog, causing the pig to squeal and run away, and shot a hyena nine times to no avail, finally killing it by blowing its head off with a .470 Westley Richards.
As every Hemingway fan knows, in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, the cowardly client shoots a lion five times with a 30-06 only to see it trot into the tall grass there to await the brave PH, his .505 Gibbs and a valiant death.
C. J. McElroy, the founder of Safari Club International, went on his first African safari armed with a .458 Winchester Magnum for black rhino, buffalo and elephant. “For everything else,” he said, “I had a 30-06 Remington pump.” He shot a fringe-eared Oryx with that 30-06 and broke the animal’s shoulder, which caused him to run off. McElroy “picked up the track and we found the Oryx dead less than three hundred yards from where I had shot it.” Variations on this phrase are common throughout McElroy’s writings. “We found the waterbuck about a hundred yards from where I had shot it.” (See, among others, McElroy Hunts the Antelopes of Africa and Antlered Game, Trophy Room Books 2002) Apparently, 30-06 shooters are accustomed to shooting an animal once or twice and watching it run for a few hundred yards before it dies. It’s a good thing the direction those animals generally take is away from the hunter.
Hunting literature is filled with such tales of the good ol’ 30-06 used inappropriately on animals larger or tougher than man or deer. On the other hand, you’ll also find plenty of hunters who will tell you about the time they dropped a big animal in its tracks with one shot from a 30-06. The fact is, any bullet in the brain can be counted on to end the life processes. When the central nervous system is shut down, the rest of the body follows. A heart that suddenly ruptures in the chest of an unprepared animal, killing him before he has a chance to switch to his spare adrenaline tank, will get the job done. But betting on these ideal circumstances is betting against the house. Sooner or later, as surely as the earth revolves around the sun, you will lose your bet. And you, your hunting companions, the animal you’ve just poked a painful hole in and, in the case of some rather cantankerous creatures who are not known for turning the other cheek, everybody who lives within a 40-mile radius will be required to suffer the consequences.
So where did this vastly overrated little brass and lead 30-caliber icon come from anyway?
The worldwide firearms industry was going full-tilt in the early years of the 20th century. The transition from black powder to smokeless was complete for all serious purposes, and new improved smokeless powders were being developed practically every day. There were lots of little wars and military build-ups going on around the globe, marching inexorably toward the big wars soon to come. European and British colonists in Africa had discovered an endless continent filled with big, tough, dangerous game. Paul Mauser had perfected his bolt-action repeating rifle and powerful, high-quality guns could now be manufactured for the same cost as single-shot military rifles and a fraction of the cost of the big double-barreled hunting rifles which were obsolescent even then.
America, as we often do, looked to Germany for technological help in a changing world. The U.S. Army licensed most of Mauser’s patented innovations for use in the Springfield rifle action, which turned out to be a pretty good if less than perfect copy. Most of the rest of the world was buying Mauser rifles and Mauser-developed cartridges primarily in 7mm, 7.65mm and 8mm. These new high-velocity smallbore rounds were proving effective on the military targets for which they were intended -– soft-skinned 160-pound men not under the influence of exotic drugs or adrenaline overloads.
The U.S. chose the 7.62mm (.308”), made the brass 63mm long so it just fit in the standard Mauser action and, in 1903, called it the 30-03. In 1905, the Germans developed the 8x57JS Mauser cartridge, the first modern military cartridge loaded with a lightweight spitzer bullet at very high velocity (154-grain bullet at 2800 fps). The U.S. immediately reacted by modifying the ’03 cartridge to fire a 150-grain spitzer bullet at 2700 fps and called it, in 1906, the 30-06.
Overall ballistic performance of the 30-06 Springfield was better than the older rimmed 30-40 Krag (the U.S. military’s first smallbore experiment) and .303 British and, by a shade, even the 7x57 Mauser. It was almost as good as the 7.65x53 and 8x57 Mauser cartridges. Today, American ammo factories load the still-popular 7mm and 8mm Mauser cartridges at minimal velocities and the 30-06 (and its shorter military replacement and almost equal, the .308 Winchester or 7.62x51mm NATO) at near maximum, presumably to make their bread-and-butter product look better by comparison.
None of these cartridges was designed for big-game hunting. But because of the proliferation of inexpensive military and sporterized military rifles along with seemingly endless supplies of military surplus ammunition, they were and are widely used for such by cost-conscious and casual shooters and hunters. The 30-06 vied with another American 30-caliber rifle, the 30-30 lever-action, as the most commonly used deer rifles in the United States. But it did not take American firearms designers long to offer a vast improvement of the 30-06 (known in Europe as the 7.62x63mm). And again, we looked to Germany for inspiration.
The pioneering German colonists of Cameroon (which was quickly snatched up by the French and British), German South-West Africa (including today’s Namibia) and German East Africa (including Tanganyika, which is now Tanzania) had an urgent need for a true all-around magazine rifle that could be used to provide plenty of game meat for the table primarily from antelope which ranged in size from smaller than our smallest whitetail to larger than our largest elk and moose, dispatch British and French invaders, and drop hungry lions, ravaging elephant, charging buffalo and psychopathic rhino in their tracks. Military cartridges were neither versatile nor powerful enough for the task.
Berlin gunmaker Otto Bock came up with the answer in 1905 in the form of the 9.3x62mm Mauser. With its .366” bullet, typically of 286 grains with high sectional density, driven at velocities of 2360 to more than 2500 fps, the 9.3x62 did it all and did it all exceedingly well. It quickly became the most extensively used all-around caliber in Africa as well as the preferred big-game caliber in Europe. Even after two world wars which saw the destruction of Germany’s African colonies, the 9.3 remains one of the most popular calibers in Africa. It is still the premier big-game cartridge in Europe. And, by all rights, it should be one of the top big-game cartridge in North America. The 9.3x62mm Mauser is simply the best all-around rifle cartridge ever invented.
Back in New York, the gunmaking firm of Griffin & Howe was well aware of what was happening in Europe and Africa. Around 1912, they looked at the 30-06 case, necked it up from .308” to .358”, loaded it with enough powder to drive a 250-grain bullet at 2400 fps, and thus achieved a level of performance that approached the 9.3 as closely as possible within the limitations of the 30-06 case. They called this new cartridge the .35 Whelen.
The .35 Whelen was, and is, superior to the 30-06 in every way. An invisible line in performance capability had been crossed. There has never been a shortage of big-game hunters who will tell you that the difference between hitting an animal with a 30-caliber bullet and a 35-caliber bullet is graphic and conclusive out of all proportion to the seemingly small difference in bullet diameter. Loaded with lighter bullets at higher velocities, the Whelen gives nothing away to the ’06 in terms of range and still delivers far greater knock-down power because of its substantially larger frontal area and momentum value. Loaded with heavier bullets at better penetrating lower velocities, the Whelen is fully up to Africa and has been used extensively and quite successfully for plains game as well as thick-skinned dangerous game up to and including elephant and buffalo. The North American bison, moose, elk, brown and grizzly bears that have fallen, and fallen quickly, to the .35 Whelen are legion. If the 9.3x62mm Mauser is the best all-around rifle in the world, and you can find more professional and experienced hunters who agree with me on this than you would care to count, then the closely following .35 Whelen is the best all-around rifle ever invented in America.
A serious problem exists with the 9.3 and the .35, however. The fact is that many, if not most, American shooters have never even heard of either cartridge. Not the great American wildcat .35 Whelen and not the 9.3x62mm Mauser with its solid one hundred years of impeccable performance. More have heard of the .35 Whelen than the 9.3, but not enough to ever convince more than one or two commercial ammo manufacturers to bring this wildcat into the mainstream. Remington offers two loads, with ordinary 200- and 250-grain bullets, and Federal has more recently offered a single 225-grain premium-bullet load. Few American rifle manufacturers have even chambered the round for any length of time. In 1965, Remington duplicated .35 Whelen ballistics in the shorter fatter belted .350 Remington Magnum which fit in its short-action rifles. It was a brilliant, forward-looking idea which also flew right over the heads of American gunwriters and therefore American shooters.
The problem is that these great cartridges, American .35s and European 9.3s, inhabit that never-never land beyond the .30-caliber-size imagination of the typical American shooter. When we’ve felt the need for something more powerful than the 30-06 we’ve simply put the same bullet in a bigger piece of brass, added more powder, poured on more speed and called it more powerful. Speed rather than size. Midget race cars rather than freight trains. The semi-commercial 30-378 Weatherby, perhaps the most vastly overbore cartridge ever invented, is typically loaded with a 200-grain .308” bullet at 3000 fps. While it delivers about the same muzzle energy as the .458 Winchester Magnum, the cartridge is totally useless for anything but punching paper or blowing up small rodents at 1000 yards. If anybody were ever foolish enough to shoot a Cape buffalo at close range with a 30-378 the bullet would probably bounce back and hit them in the face. In the meantime, the lethal .35 Whelen and .350 Remington Magnum languish, and no American manufacturer has even thought about chambering a rifle in the even more deadly 9.3x62mm.
America’s single attempt at a big-bore rifle cartridge beyond blackpowder-level performance was the .458 Winchester Magnum, and even this was limited by 30-06 thinking. The first design requirement was that the cartridge must be short enough to fit into a standard 30-06-size action, thus limiting the amount of powder that could be forced (and forced it was) into such a small space. Performance of the .458 on African game has always been marginal. Its popularity, like that of the 30-06, has been based on the wide availability of low-cost factory guns. The recent highly successful commercial introduction by Ruger and Hornady of the longer .458 Lott (invented by American Jack Lott in 1971 after a near-fatal failure of the .458 Win Mag on Cape buffalo) promises to render the 30-06-size .458 obsolete in short order.
Hope is on the horizon. There are indications that American shooters, and even American gunwriters, are finally getting bored with the good ol’ 30-06 and all of the pointlessly speedier launching platforms for the committee-designed 7.62mm bullet. Smallbore shooters are discovering that ever smaller projectiles meet their needs with far more precision and satisfaction. Big-game hunters are discovering the joys of knocking down game in the decisive manner of Elmer Keith.
The current gunwriter-inspired trend toward short fat smallbore cartridges is causing shooters to take another look at the short fat big-bore cartridge, the .350 Remington Magnum, that has been available for 40 years. The cult of .35 Whelen aficionados has never been larger. The 9.3x62 is slowly but surely taking hold in America, partly because European riflemakers in the American market, like CZ of the Czech Republic, chamber popularly priced rifles in that caliber. CZ rifles are also equipped with the other two requisites of a dangerous-game gun -– a Mauser controlled-round-feed action and a properly un-straight stock. The .376 Steyr, introduced with Jeff Cooper’s Scout Rifle (which gunwriters killed by mislabeling it a military rifle rather than a hunting rifle) and then put on the shelf because Americans weren’t buying it, is a popular custom chambering in both the U.S. and Africa. I personally know of four custom .376s being built right now, including one of my own. The .376 Steyr is the ballistic equal of the 9.3x62, which is to say it is kissing close to the .375 Holland & Holland, which displaced the 9.3 as the most universally used all-around rifle in the world when the British beat the Germans in Africa. Today, Americans are buying .375 H&H rifles in unprecedented numbers, despite Jack O’Connor’s warning that the fierce recoil may turn them into Englishmen.
Some of these rifles are destined to do their historic duty in the hunting fields of Africa. Most will stay right here, bringing down America’s great bears, elk and moose for which they are ideal. Many will be used on deer, because hunting that encourages closer stalking and cleaner kills is more satisfying. Frankly, a lot of these big rifles will be used on jackrabbits, coyotes and even smaller varmints just because shooting big rifles is a lot of fun no matter what you shoot with them, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Finally, the micromanaging bureaucrats of bloated fish and game departments throughout the country, aided and abetted by the brainless Bambiists of anti-hunting organizations such as the Humane Society, ASPCA, Fund for Animals, PETA, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, have almost completed their transformation of the great American sport of hunting into an activity that can only be approached by those with the wherewithal, not only to contribute outrageous license fees to the welfare of the state, but to hire lawyers to interpret thousands of pages of petty rules and regulations, accountants to calculate the odds in game lotteries, and secretaries to schedule hurried hunts of limited duration in restricted areas many months or years in advance. These days, a man who can afford the money and tolerate the hassle required to hunt elk in Arizona can just as well hunt southern buffalo in Africa. Americans are beginning to think bigger.
When the imagination expands to include the continent of Africa, it must also include those cartridges that have defined the African experience for a century. Leaving aside double rifles with five-digit or even six-digit price tags, bolt-action rifles in traditional African chamberings represent an old world that Americans are finally embracing with a new-found enthusiasm. And beyond the 9.3 and .375 H&H lies an even bigger world of over-40-caliber rifles (and I don’t mean the 45-70 or the .458 Winchester Magnum), an exciting arena most American shooters have yet to enter.
A PH of my acquaintance recently admitted to me that he “would rather see a plains game client show up with a 30-06 he can shoot well than a .375 H&H he’s afraid of. A perfectly placed 30-06 with the proper bullet will usually do the trick on thin-skinned game, and if it doesn’t that’s why I carry a .416 Rigby for back-up. But I can’t allow a client to hunt dangerous game with that little 30-caliber gun. It’s illegal, inhumane, improper and foolish. It endangers not only the client, but me and my trackers and anyone else who may be in the neighborhood. If a client can’t at least handle a 9.3 or a .375 I won’t take them out after anything that bites back. The fact is, in my experience, few American clients shoot well with anything larger than a 30-06 or maybe one of the little .300 magnums. I suppose it’s just what they’re conditioned to shoot.”
I think it’s time we changed that.