Overheard at a gun show sometime in the distant past.
“Where can I get bullets for that old gun? I’d sure like to have one like that!”
"Well sir, to my knowledge there is no one who loads ammunition today for the old rifle. I don’t believe it was ever loaded in the United States.”
The conversation carried on with the potential buyer bewailing the fact that cartridges were unavailable and how much he wanted the rifle. The dealer apologized once or twice then told the wannabe buyer cartridge cases were easily formed from a common case and could be handloaded. That statement went completely over the buyers head and I watched as he almost stormed off.
“I have this old gun Grandpa brought back from World War Two and everyone tells me I can’t get bullets for it. I’d sure like to shoot it and hunt with it but I guess it will have to hang on the wall.”
I’ve heard that one a lot also. Neither circumstance need end with someone being disappointed providing they are an advanced handloader or know and trust someone who is. With that knowledge in hand some very fine firearms can often be had for a lot less than they would normally be worth if chambered in common cartridges. Indeed, seeking out rifles chambered in those rare or unknown and obsolete cartridges and putting them back to work has become a serious hobby of mine.
Below is a 9.3 X 57 formed from 30-06. '06 on left, 9.3 X 57 on far right. First step neck to 9mm and set shoulder, second step open to 9.3. Trim and fireform. Ready for use!!!
All these cartridges were formed by me from a "parent" case and loads developed by me with help from others. Left to right; 10.5 X47R, a BP cartridge, from 43 Mauser brass which started as 348 WCF brass. Second is what I call a 9 X 57USR from 30-40 Krag. No known comparable. Third is 9.3 X 62R from 9.3 X 72R brass and is also a BP cartridge. Simply trim and load. Fourth is 9 X 71 Peterlongo from 9.3 X 74R brass. After forming and trimming lathe work is required. The last on the right is a 9.3 X 75R Nimrod from 9.3 X 82R brass. Full length size, a sizing die had to be made to reduce body diameter, trim, fireform.
The first thing a person must do when acquiring such a rifle is determine what cartridge it is chambered for, if that can be discovered. Wildcatting cartridges is nothing new and has been going on probably ever since brass, reloadable cartridges came on the scene. We all know what “wildcatting” a cartridge is, correct? Taking an existing cartridge and necking it up or down, changing the length, shoulder angle, body taper or anything else an inventive mind can conjure up. It is a fact that by the 1880’s a gunsmith named Stahl in either Germany or Austria was wildcatting cartridges on the then German military cartridge 11.15 X 60R, also known as the 43 Mauser. I have no doubts it was being done in Great Britain and the United States as well, I simply have no documentation of it. The point of that is if and when one acquires an old rifle from any country, even though it may be stamped somewhere on the rifle, we cannot positively know that is correct until we make a chamber cast and slug the bore.
There is many videos and articles on casting a chamber and slugging a bore so for the sake of brevity doing either will not be delved into.
Once one has the chamber cast and the bore slug in hand the search begins for what cartridge it might be. There is several sources that can be utilized for identification. Cartridges of the World is quite good for US cartridges. Sometimes they’re a little off for British and European cartridges. Donnely’s is another good book to have on hand and there is several sources on line that offer dimensions.
If Dame Fortune is along for the ride soon the dimensions will be matched and we’ll know what cartridge we have. If the good Dame has made herself comfortable in the seat next to us the cartridge, even if quite old, might have loading data available.
Just to make things a more challenging and, hopefully the article a bit more interesting, let’s say the cartridge case cannot be identified. Hmm…where do we go from here? That is a fair question and one that deserves answered.
The first thing I do when confronted with such a situation is consider the era of the rifle. Proof marks, if so stamped, can be a great help. Proof houses of various countries have stamped proof dates on firearms from time to time. Knowing when that began or ended can help date the firearm. Sans a proof date a person has a bit more of a challenge. This is where knowledge of when what kind of action, type of rifling, style of stock and metal work, when what styles of engraving were popular, if present, and/or knowledge of the particular make of firearm can narrow the date significantly.
We will assume we have the date of manufacture narrowed to a window from 1880 to 1900. For those who know that should be an interesting choice of dates. Right at the time the transition was being made from black powder to smokeless powder. If the firearm is of foreign make, by foreign I infer British or German, and is not stamped nitro proofed it is a black powder firearm. If it is proofed for nitro/smokeless powder use some sense in working up loads. The old thing is still over 100 years old and obviously made from steel not as strong as today’s. As the US does not nor has ever had a government proof house the date of manufacture can hopefully be determined from serial numbers, if available. The date the piece was made is important, if not vital, to know whether it is suitable for smokeless powder or will be relegated to black powder.
I digressed a bit so we’ll get back on track. With the chamber cast and bore slug we have a facsimile of the cartridge case and know the groove diameter of the projectile. That’s all good and well but how do we know what weight of bullet to choose? Actually that’s pretty easy to find. Simply measure the twist of the rifling. Once that is known referring to and calculating from the Greenhill formula will give you the length of projectile best suited for that twist. Once the length is known finding a bullet of that length in that caliber will tell you what weight is needed.
Believe it or not we’re making progress. We have a facsimile of the cartridge case but not the name of it and frankly, that is of no consequence. Who cares what it might have been called? We also know the groove diameter and weight of bullet that is appropriate. Now the question is what is a starting load?
Much ink has been spilled, hair pulled and arguments started over extrapolating data for an unknown cartridge. With the advent of programs such as Quickloads some, or perhaps much, of the work of finding an appropriate load has been reduced. From friends who have and use such programs I have been told that a good dose of common sense and a great deal of knowledge and experience still need be applied. To use the phrase of a friend, “sometimes said program gets wonky”.
If the firearm is not proofed for smokeless the load will be obvious. It’s black powder, usually Ffg, to fill the case and provide for a bit of compression, leaving room for an over powder wad then seat a bullet of the appropriate weight and cast alloy. That will get a person started.
In “my old days” the way a starting load was decided upon was actually quite simple. Today it isn’t recommended by those who supposedly know what they’re talking about even though they’ve been proven wrong enough times to choke a mule. Old guys used to start by finding a cartridge for which data is available from the same era, with the same kind of proof used in a rifle of the same or very similar action. Ideally it would be of the same caliber and very close or the same in case volume. Data for our unknown cartridge would then be extrapolated from that known and tested data. As an example; we will give our unknown cartridge a water capacity of 22cc’s of water and a groove diameter of .321 and put that cartridge in a break action, single shot rifle. We have found a similar cartridge from the same era with a similar profile, a published volume of 20cc’s of water and a groove diameter of .318. Both cartridges are known to have been chambered by the same maker in rifles identical to the one we have acquired. The cartridges are so similar it is entirely possible they are variations of a cartridge with the same name. That was a frequent and common occurrence in the days before SAAMI and CIP. It was sometimes also done intentionally so that owners of a rifle by Enos would have to buy their ammunition from Enos. It made for a captive market for Enos. Perhaps not as off putting to us today as it seems at first glance.
The comparison of the two cartridges shows our unknown case with a greater volume and a larger bore diameter. A little study of interior ballistics tells us that given the same charge of the same kind of powder under a bullet of the same weight will give slightly lower pressure. The reason being our case has a slightly greater capacity and slightly larger groove diameter thus more room for the powder gases to expand. The old timers would then decide that the starting load for the cartridge they found would be safe in the cartridge for which their rifle is chambered. Once proved safe, load development would continue in a manner that would be familiar with today’s handloader.
The preceding explanation does not cover every detail involved in the process. That would take a book. It was written hopefully as a basic and understandable description of how some things were in the early days of handloading. Some of the information might help someone identify the cartridge for which an old firearm they own is chambered. With a little luck they might find they can “get bullets” for it. I can’t and don’t recommend anyone derive data for cartridges in the above described manner. However, it is how it was done “in the old days”. That it was done without danger to ones self or others is a matter of history. Those who used the above method were highly experienced handloaders with a double dose of knowledge and common sense. As a young man “back when” I knew several gentlemen who derived data that way. Not one of them ever had the first unpleasant incident or accident. They were good. They paid attention to every detail about the rifle and the ammunition. Today with all the information and data available it is still mandatory one pay attention to every detail when handloading ammunition. If a person doesn’t they have no business loading ammo.