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Classic African Cartridges Part VIII: The .303 British - Charlie Haley

Britain could have argued the point, but was walking a bit of a political tightrope at the time in the form of the Boer War. The Boers did not wage war in any form of barbarous or inhumane fashion, and the use of expanding bullets on such an opponent was not justified by any means. What to do now? Britain responded by withdrawing all hollowpoint ammunition from the South African theatre, and went back to the drawing board. What was needed was a bullet which would abide by the letter of the Hague Convention for use in Europe, should the necessity ever arise, but which would still retain adequate effectiveness in other theatres of conflict should one desire one’s hit foe to realise this and stay hit. The Mark 6 bullet was briefly flirted with in 1904, having a thinner jacket, but this was far from satisfactory and did not solve the problem at all. However, in 1905 the Germans startled the military world with the adoption of their revolutionary new bullet for the 8mm Mauser. This was the sharply pointed lightweight 154 grain bullet at nearly 2900 fps, which by virtue of its greater speed and superior ballistic coefficient bestowed by its streamlined shape gave ever greater advantages of range and trajectory. This once again shook the military world, and the new German “Spitzgeshoss” (or “pointed bullet”) lives on in modern bullet designation in the “spitzer” term, meaning the same thing. The exterior ballistic advantages of this new bullet were certainly not lost on the British, and the terminal effects of the enhanced velocities were beginning to be appreciated as well.

At these greatly increased velocities not only was there another quantum leap in even flatter trajectories, but now there was a greater effect evident on those hit by such bullets. Not only were the lighter, pointed bullets more unstable, tending to deform in flesh, but the velocity of the bullet was causing damage to tissue even some distance away from the actual bullet track, and exit wounds were now large, gaping, unpleasant affairs. Although not fully understood at the time, these were manifestations of hydrostatic shock. “Hydro” is, of course, anything to do with water. Among its other properties, one of the physical characteristics of water is that it is incompressible. This means that shock waves radiate through water very efficiently (just watch ripples on a pond when you throw in a stone, a half brick, the dog or whatever). Guess what the human body is largely made up of. That’s right - water. This is the same phenomenon that causes the familiar blood-shot, bruised meat in an animal when hit with a high velocity hunting bullet. All in all, anyone hit by one of these new bullets stayed hit! You can be sure that this was not lost on the British Army.

There were one or two problems, however. For one, the .303 round did not have the capacity of the 8mm Mauser case, and for another the Lee action was not as strong as the Model 98 Mauser when it came to handling high pressures. Furthermore, the British were unwilling to go to a pointed bullet of less than 174 grains. This bullet could only be safely driven to a velocity of 2440 fps in the Lee, and while this velocity produced hydrostatic shock effects it was not as spectacular as the Mauser. The British army, sensitive to the earlier failures of the Mark 2 bullet, felt that a little bit extra was needed. This little bit extra was provided by the Mark 7 spitzer bullet, adopted in 1910.

Article continues below.

To all intents and appearances, the new Mark 7 bullet was a fully jacketed pointed bullet weighing 174 grains. However, things were not as they may have appeared. Beneath the full metal jacket lurked a radical bullet design, for anyone who sectioned one of the new bullets found an aluminium tip under the point, which extended fully one third of the bullet’s length. Beneath this aluminium tip was the conventional lead core. This design firstly ensured that the bullet was long for its weight, which is not a bad thing at all for enhanced long range performance. Mainly, however, the bullet’s centre of gravity was now further to the rear, which caused it to be unstable on impact and prone to tumbling. This of course greatly increased its wounding potential, but never mind - it had a full metal jacket to keep the politicians happy! Hypocritical, isn’t it? Here was a bullet far more devastating than the original “dum dum”, but which was now acceptable because it didn’t actually expand - it just tumbled through like a buzz-saw! That’s politics for you. Are you surprised? No, I didn’t think you would be.

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African Hunter Vol.5 No.4 August 1999
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