Short Magnums: A Flash in the Pan?

Short Magnums: A Flash in the Pan?

By Jon R. Sundra

The short, fat case design was a step forward, although a small one, in cartridge development.

Photo: In 1998, gun writer Rick Jamison, in cooperation with Ruger and Winchester, developed the .300 JRW, but it never made it to market. The author actually used Winchester-loaded  cartridges and a Ruger rifle to take a Texas nilgai that year.

For the nearly half-century I’ve been involved in the firearms industry — and several years before that as an avid rifle crank and hunter, I’ve seen a lot of trends in rifle/cartridge development. Some that immediately come to mind are belted magnums, synthetic and wood-laminated stocks, premium bullets and ammunition, all-stainless guns, and the AR phenomenon.

One trend I find most interesting is the rise of the short magnum. Many younger readers might assume this trend started in 2001 with Winchester’s introduction of the .300 WSM (Winchester Short Magnum). While that was certainly the seminal moment in the short magnum saga, its history is strewn with false starts and also-rans.

Further confusing the issue is the “short magnum” definition itself, because it has changed over the years. Before we take a look at the current state of the short mag, a little background is in order.

Prior to the 1950s, “magnum,” at least on this side of the pond, pretty much meant the .300 and .375 H&H cartridges of British origin dating back to 1912 and 1925, respectively. The magnum designation for rifle cartridges, however, goes back to the mid-1880s, when the ammo firm Kynoch began using it to indicate cartridges larger and/or more powerful than normal, whatever that meant.

Here in the states, Western Cartridge started loading both rounds in 1925, and Winchester began chambering its Model 70 rifle for them in 1937. Prior to that, anyone wanting either of the H&H Magnums had to buy an imported gun or have one built here.

Short Magnums: A Flash in the Pan?Foremost among the custom houses producing such rifles was Griffin & Howe, but most by far were built by individual gunsmiths using ’98 Mauser or ’17 Enfield actions. Being of .30-06 length, the Mauser required substantial modification to handle H&H rounds, but the Enfield was long enough to require only minor alterations. Everything changed in 1956 when Winchester introduced its .458 Winchester Magnum.

Like the plethora of magnums that followed, the .458 was based on the belted H&H case but shortened enough to cycle through ’98 Mauser and ’03 Springfield actions. That was an important consideration for Winchester because in those days, custom rifles based on surplus actions probably accounted for more new guns than all commercial rifles combined.

Winchester billed the .458 as a powerful round designed for dangerous game — rhino, buffalo and elephant. Two years later, in 1958, Winchester unveiled its .338 and .264 magnums, and Remington rolled out its 7mm Magnum in 1962.

These three cartridges, based on a shortened H&H case, really ushered in the belted magnum era. Make no mistake, though. Wildcatters had been doing the very same thing since the mid-1920s once that previously mentioned Western brass became available. 

To distinguish this new family of belted magnums that could cycle through .30-06-length actions from the full-length H&H rounds, they became known as short magnums. However, Remington muddied the waters in 1965 with the introduction of the .350 Remington Magnum, followed a year later by the 6.5 Remington Magnum. Both were based on the H&H belted case but further shortened to cycle through Remington’s Model 600 short-action carbine, which could only accommodate cartridges 2 3/4 inches in length.

Short Magnums: A Flash in the Pan?So now we had full-length magnums, short magnums, and . . . short short magnums?  Further complicating things was the fact that neither offered true magnum performance.

Yes, they were based on a belted case, which at the time was virtually mandatory to rate a magnum moniker. But the 6.5/.350 Rem case actually had less powder capacity than the .30-06. As a result, neither could quite match the performance of the wildcat 6.5-06 or .35 Whelen, respectively. Neither cartridge was a commercial success, either.

The first true short magnums were introduced in the mid-1990s by John Lazzeroni. They were short enough to cycle through a 2.8-inch-long action, and they did produce true belted magnum velocities. Moreover, they were based on beltless cases.

At one time, this line of proprietary cartridges consisted of six calibers ranging from 6mm to .416. Today, only four are still in the Lazzeroni line. Of those, factory-loaded ammo is only offered for the .300 Patriot. The other three, a 7mm, a .338 and a .416, are strictly handloading propositions.

A couple of years prior to the debut of John’s short mags, Dakota Arms introduced a line of proprietary cartridges also based on a fatter beltless case, but they required standard-length actions.

The yearly sale of Lazzeroni rifles in all calibers is less than a hundred, so we’re talking a miniscule market at best. However, John’s influence on the industry and the ascendency of the short magnum can’t be overstated.

So now we come to that seminal moment mentioned earlier, the year 2001, and Winchester’s introduction of the .300 WSM. Obviously, if we want to increase the powder capacity of a given cartridge, yet restrict its length so it will function in a short action, the only way to do it is to make the case fatter.

The WSM’s head diameter is a corpulent .555 inch. That’s close to the old .404 Jeffery, another British caliber that goes back to 1910. 

Short Magnums: A Flash in the Pan?The .300 WSM achieved Winchester’s goal of matching the ballistics of its own .300 Win Mag in a Model 70 rifle about a half inch shorter and a half-pound lighter than the standard-length gun.

It was a commendable achievement, but was it a sufficient reason to sell or trade-in a perfectly good .300 Win Mag? There has to be more to it than that. And there is.

The short, fat case is more efficient than ones of longer, more slender configuration. A shorter, fatter powder column puts more of the powder charge closer to the primer flame, and combustion is completed closer to the chamber than in cases with longer powder columns.

The .300 Win Mag case holds about 93 grains of water by weight; the .300 WSM only 83, yet it matches the former’s ballistics and does so with lighter charges and with faster-burning powders. 

Attendant with this combustion efficiency that allows the use of lesser amounts of faster-burning powders is less recoil. The reduction is not enough for the average shooter to discern between a short magnum and a belted magnum of identical weight and stock design, but recoil is reduced nonetheless.

With  lighter charges of faster-burning powder, more of it is burned within the barrel, so there’s less ejecta. In other words, there’s less unburned powder, if any, exiting the muzzle. This, in turn decreases muzzle turbulence as well as recoil. And the less muzzle turbulence a bullet encounters, the more likely it will fly true.

Many experts believe that was the primary reason the short, squat cases of the .22 PPC and 6mm PPC cartridges that appeared on the benchrest scene in the early 1970s quickly came to dominate competitive shooting.

To this day, the PPC and similarly squat rounds are the ones to beat when it comes to trying to put every shot into the same hole.

The .300 WSM was such an immediate success for Winchester that within six months, Remington got in on the action with its .300 Short Action Ultra Mag.

Based on a drastically shortened version of its full-length .300 Ultra Mag case, the .300 SAUM case had about 6 to 7 percent less capacity than the WSM hull, yet Remington claimed .300 Win Mag velocities for it.

Moreover, they did Winchester one better by introducing a 7mm SAUM at the same time, which matched the ballistics of its highly popular 7mm Rem Magnum.

I attended the unveiling of the SAUMs to the press at the company’s headquarters in Madison, N.C., and I can tell you they had high hopes for their new siblings.

Short Magnums: A Flash in the Pan?Six months later, Winchester countered with a 7mm and a .270 WSM, the latter of which for all intents and purposes matched the ballistics of the .270 Weatherby Magnum, assuming barrels of equal length. Weatherby uses 26-inch rather than SAAMI-standard 24-inch barrels to establish nominal muzzle velocities.

Then in 2004, in an effort to continue to capitalize on the short magnum phenomenon, Winchester introduced an 8mm version. But because this metric caliber never really caught on here, they called it the .325 WSM.

Anxious to capitalize on the excitement surrounding its WSM series, and betting on that trend to continue, Winchester took the short magnum concept to the extreme with the introduction of its .223 WSSM (Winchester Super Short Magnum) in 2002, followed two years later by the .243 and .25 WSSM.

Remington wasn’t the only competitor to come up with its own versions of the short magnum. Ruger commissioned Hornady to develop a series of cartridges they could call their own. The result was the debut of the .300 and .338 Ruger Compact Magnums in 2008.

Both the Winchester and Remington shorts are based on the same basic case with a head diameter of .555 inch. With the Ruger case, the head diameter is the same as the rim/belt diameter of the H&H case. It is unique among non-proprietary commercial cartridges in that it does not step down to form a belt, but continues forward at that .532-inch diameter. The result is a case body that averages .020 inch larger in diameter with a corresponding increase in powder capacity compared to an equal-length H&H case.  

It’s been 10 years since the short magnums have been with us, and I think it’s safe to say their collective future doesn’t look nearly as bright as it once did. Remington, for example, doesn’t chamber its Model 700 or Model Seven for either cartridge, though you could still order one through the custom shop.

It’s the same story with Winchester’s Super Shorts, as they were given the same reception in the marketplace as Remington’s SAUMs.

Browning no longer chambers for any of the Super Shorts in their A-Bolt and X-Bolt, nor does Winchester in its Model 70.

Short Magnums: A Flash in the Pan?All in all, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs for a cartridge family that’s less than 10 years old.

As for Winchester’s WSMs, I see them surviving, if not prospering. The .300 is by far the most popular. Both Remington and Federal load for it, as well as the .270 and 7mm.

Only Winchester loads all four, leaving the future of the .325 open to speculation.

I also think the .300 and .338 Ruger Compact Magnums will do okay for a couple of reasons. The RCMs are based on a unique case that is proving popular with wildcatters, and that tends to contribute to success.

Secondly, using propriety loading techniques and propellants, Hornady, the sole source of loaded ammunition, is able to match the ballistic performance of the larger-case WSM, and do it with less powder. 

I see no reason for anyone owning a .270 Weatherby, 7mm Rem, .300 Win or .338 Win Magnum to sell or trade   just to get similar ballistics in a rifle that’s just a few ounces lighter and less than an inch shorter, all other things equal.

As for the .325 WSM, it remains to be seen if there are enough fans of the 8mm bore to keep it alive. It does, however, occupy a unique niche in the cartridge lineup. Too, it’s an excellent round capable of taking any non-dangerous game in the world.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking to acquire a new rifle in any of the respective caliber and power levels we’ve discussed here, and you deem the slight technical and handling advantages already discussed as being worthwhile, then by all means the short magnums are worth serious consideration. They do represent a step forward, if only a small one, and I refuse to be left behind!

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This article was first printed in the July 2011 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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