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The 450/400 Nitro Express
Classic African Cartridges Part VII
~Man has always looked for the perfect compromise, and the “all round cartridge” has been the hunter's Holy Grail since the invention of the brass case. The cartridge must produce sufficient power to cleanly take all game that may be realistically encountered, whilst producing as little recoil as is feasible.~

Left to Right: .450/.400 Jeffery, .450/.400 3¼", .404 Jeffery, .470, .458 Win. Mag.
  Left to Right:
  .450/.400 Jeffery, .450/.400 3¼", .404 Jeffery, .470, .458 Win. Mag.

Where dangerous game doesn’t occur the choice of an all round cartridge is fairly academic. For African use though, an all round rifle must be able to safely deal with elephant, buffalo and lion, and yet must not produce so much recoil as to make its use on plains game an unreasonable option.

None of the blackpowder cartridges could really be considered ‘all rounders’. The .450 and 500 bores threw soft lead bullets weighing 480 to 520 grains at between 1400 and 1800fps. All worked well on plains game, but would only just do for a ‘behind the shoulder’ shot on elephant or buffalo. Dangerous game rifles started at 10 bore, with 8 bores being the most common, and with many of the professional hunters of the day preferring the big 4 bores. The recoil from these shoulder mounted cannons is truly remarkable, and they are definitely only to be used when the target is likely to fight back. Probably the most successful of the blackpowder compromises were the .461 (.450) Gibbs and the .500 Magnum Express.

The advent of smokeless powder changed the whole hunting scene. Many hunters immediately fell in love with the new military small bore calibres such as the 7x57, .303 and 8mm Mauser rounds. These worked wonderfully well for brain shots on elephant, and were adequate for plains game up to eland. On buffalo, hippo and lion they were found to be sadly wanting. The British gun makers were quick to load up their blackpowder cartridges with the new smokeless powder and jacketed bullets to produce outstanding dangerous game calibres, notably the .450 Nitro Express and the .577 NE. Meanwhile medium bore blackpowder cartridges, that had been suitable for only the smaller plains game, suddenly took on a whole new appearance as great ‘all rounders’.

Article continues below.

One of the very first hunting cartridges to be converted to smokeless powder was the popular .450/400 Magnum Express (31/4"). In its blackpowder guise this threw a 325grain lead bullet at 1900fps. In its Nitro loading, a 400grain jacketed bullet was launched at 2150fps. A 15% increase in velocity and a 23% increase in sectional density combined with a nickel jacket made for a whole quantum leap in performance. The only problem was that the thin brass cases designed for blackpowder pressures tended to stick in the chamber with the new load, so in 1896 Jeffery introduced a new version with a slightly shorter neck, thicker case walls and an overall length of 3". Performance and chamber pressure remained essentially the same. Here now was a true ‘all round’ African cartridge. The ‘solid’ bullets possessed enough penetration for head and body shots on elephant, whilst the soft points were comfortably adequate for buffalo, rhino, hippo and lion. The velocity was high for its time, giving as flat a trajectory as the new small bores (original 8mm Mauser and .303 mkII rounds gave 2100 and 2150 fps respectively), making the .400 popular for use on even medium sized game.

Go to Page: 1 2 Related Articles: 450 Nitro Express
African Hunter Vol.5 No.2 April 1999
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