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

Schematic of MKII Bullet, MKV Hollowpoint and MK7 Spitzer.


I can certainly attest to the effectiveness of this design, having seen first-hand the effects of .303 rifles during post mortems. Typically it breaks into bits, and the sight of the aluminium tip on an X-ray is always a sure sign that you are dealing with a .303. Interestingly enough, the tip is not always of aluminium. Sir Sidney Smith, an eminent forensic pathologist and pioneer forensic ballistics experimentor, had cause to examine a great many wounds caused by .303 rifles during the riots and nationalist upheavals in Egypt during the 1920’s. He found that some of the bullets had a wood pulp tip under the jacket, and accordingly wrote to the War Office pointing out that (a), some ammunition manufacturers were using wood pulp instead of aluminium in their bullets, (b) that the wood pulp tips appeared to be achieving the same results as the aluminium, and (c) if this were so, would it not be much cheaper to use wood pulp in all ammunition instead of aluminium? The War Office replied, saying that they were aware of the substitution as it had been authorised during the First World War at a time when aluminium was in critically short supply. Furthermore it would not, as supposed, be cheaper to use wood pulp, as the pulp had to go through a number of sterilising procedures to ensure that wounds would not become infected or contaminated by it. This struck Sir Sidney - as it does me - as a rather delicate thoughtfulness for the victim of a gunshot!

Actually, this engineered instability within the Mark 7 .303 bullet has largely been the cause of its controversial reputation in the hunting fields. Its predecessor, of moderate speed and round nose, was renowned for its penetration, and a great many of the old professional ivory hunters made a start with an Army surplus Lee and a crate of Mark 2 ammunition. The arrival of the Mark 7 bullet severely curtailed penetration, and performance was erratic even on the larger soft-skinned species (let alone elephants)! Of course, if one used round nosed solids when penetration was needed and the excellent Kynoch 215 grain soft noses for lighter game, all was well. The abundance of Mark 7 ammo meant that not many did this, of course, so the .303 began to get a bad reputation in the hunting field, which it by no means deserved.

The .303 continued as Britain’s standard military round right up until 1958, when it was ousted by the 7.62mm Nato round in the S.L.R. rifle. It was remarkable that it lasted so long, given that the .303 case design was dated even when it appeared. Indeed, attempts were made to adopt a more modern round, but inconvenient things like World Wars kept interrupting. It was not until the conclusion of the second global unpleasantness that any real progress was made, and even then it took another thirteen years. It would be a mistake to imagine millions of .303’s being cast aside overnight, though, as they continued to give service in a great many out of the way parts of the world.

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Nowadays there are more in private hands than anywhere else. Recent sales of Government surplus Lee-Enfields have ensured that it is one of the most widely used centrefire rifles in this part of the world. Along with them came quantities of Mark 7 ammunition, so remember - for hunting, best substitute that military bullet for a good 180 or 215 grain soft nose. The .303, when so loaded, is one of the finest bushveldt cartridges around. Despite its rimmed and tapered case, the .303 must rank as one of the most significant and successful rounds ever made. Well over 100 years old, it still gives sterling service world wide, and it more than deserves the accolade “venerable”. There is no reason why it should not go on for another hundred years.

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African Hunter Vol.5 No.4 August 1999
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