With dozens of new cases to experiment with, there’s never been a better time to reload.
By Jon R. Sundra
Many historians would like us to believe that the Golden Age of Wildcatting was the 1920s and ’30s, but don’t you believe it. It’s now! Back in those days, only a handful of basic cases could be used to form wildcat cartridges; today there are literally dozens to tempt the ballistic experimenter.
So many new cartridges have been introduced that it’s hard to visualize a performance gap in any caliber from .17 to .458 that one could use to justify either opting for an established wildcat, or going the whole nine yards and designing one’s own. But then, wildcatting has never had anything to do with need or practicality; that’s why it remains as popular today as it’s ever been.
Before taking a look at the current state of affairs, let me tell you what started me in this fascinating pursuit, and thereby shed some light on some of the motivations that drive others to do the same.
I became afflicted with wildcat fever very early on in my career, several years, in fact, before I got into this writing business. I was still in college when I took a Remington 722 in .257 Roberts I had purchased in a pawn shop, and had it rebarreled to .22-250. At the time, this hot-rock .22 centerfire had not yet been legitimized by Remington, so it was still a wildcat, and I was now a wildcatter! I thought the .22-250 was a more balanced cartridge than the .220 Swift, and it came within 100 feet per second of matching its ballistics.
Nearly a decade passed before I again succumbed to feral fever. It was 1976, and I was about to embark on my very first African safari to what was then Rhodesia during the height of that country’s civil war. With Cape buffalo on the agenda, I planned to use a Ruger No. 1 in .375 H&H, but immediately after acquiring it, Remington introduced its 8mm Rem Mag, which was essentially a .375 H&H case “improved” to the max. It had a minimum body taper, a sharper shoulder and a shorter neck to maximize powder capacity. Even before 8mm Rem Mag ammo and Model 700 rifles were on dealers’ shelves, I had my Ruger rechambered to what became my .375 JRS — an 8mm Rem Mag simply necked up to .375 inch with no other changes. It was a practical cartridge in that it not only bested the H&H version by about 150 fps, but also factory .375 H&H ammo could safely be used in a pinch. With that gun, I took my first elephant and Cape buffalo, along with a superb sable on a later safari.
For “regular” hunting, i.e. non-dangerous game, I’ve always been partial to the 7mm bore, so when the 7mm Remington Magnum was introduced back in 1962, I wanted it to be the cartridge with which I would start my hunting career once I was out of school. Upon graduating in ’65, one of the first things I did was build a Big Seven.
Over the next 10 years or so, I used various 7mm Rem Mags almost exclusively, but I eventually came to dislike belted cases and went to the .280 Rem, despite the fact it was a less capable cartridge. It didn’t take long, though, before I missed the added performance and started researching wildcats based on the .280 case.
I decided to go with the .280 RCBS, a mildly improved version of the factory .280, which, when all was said and done, only increased case capacity by about 2-3 percent. The gain in velocity was negligible enough that I soon began looking at other feral .280s. I dismissed the Ackley version because, aside from considering its 40-degree shoulder as being too steep for reliable feeding (that had been my experience, anyway), it didn’t increase case capacity over the RCBS version by more than another 2 percent. I then looked at the .280 Gibbs, which moved the shoulder forward to increase powder capacity. But in my mind, it was too excessive because it resulted in a neck too short for my liking. I wanted a neck length of at least one caliber — .284 inch. So I decided to design my own .280-based wildcat.
It was simple enough. I told Dave Manson, of Manson Precision Reamers, that I wanted him to start with the basic dimensions of the .280 Rem case, reduce its body taper to a mere .015 inch from head to shoulder, give it a neck length of .300 inch, and whatever body length resulted by so doing, make the shoulder angle 35 degrees. Just those three stipulations were enough to “design” a new wildcat cartridge — the 7mm JRS. Using Norma brass — the most voluminous of the various .280 Rem cases — I had a cartridge with a water capacity of about 70 grains. Over the next 10 years I had three rifles built that were chambered in my 7mm wildcat, and with them took more game in more places around the world than with any other cartridge I’ve used before or since.
Essentially, in rifles with a long throat to allow seating bullets flush with the base of the neck or shoulder, the 7mm JRS virtually duplicated 7mm Rem Mag performance, with a case that allowed stuffing five rounds in a magazine instead of three belted mags. Granted, forming cases is a lot more complicated than an “improved” wildcat, which is derived by simply fire-forming factory loads in the new chamber, but it was well worth it. Beside, it only took a couple of hours to form 60 cases, and that was enough for handload development and several years of hunting.
My next attack of the fever came in 1999, when Winchester announced its .300 Short Magnum. Based on a brand-new case that reflected the short powder-column concept of the PPC benchrest cartridges, the .300 WSM was the answer to a ballistic experimenter’s prayers. I had the opportunity to hunt with the cartridge long before guns or ammo were available, and I liked it a lot, but thought it would make an even better 7mm. By the time the .300 WSM hit the shelves, I was already in Africa with a 7mm version of the cartridge. Of course, it remained a wildcat only until the following autumn, when Winchester rolled out the .270 and 7mm WSMs.
Not to be outdone, Remington unveiled its own stubby cartridges, the 7mm Short Action Ultra Mag and the .300 SAUM. Upon seeing the case for the first time in May 2001, and learning that it had 7 percent less powder capacity than the WSM case, I decided it would make a perfect vessel for a .25 caliber. It was another no-brainer; I simply necked down the 7mm SAUM case to .25 caliber with no other changes. The result was a highly efficient cartridge that bested the .25-06 by a couple hundred feet per second, and came very close to the .257 Weatherby Magnum using a much smaller case and a lot less powder.
I’m now in the midst of a project that will take the new .375 Ruger and neck it up to .416. I know for a fact that such a project is already being done at Hornady Manufacturing, the company that developed the .375 for Ruger. [Editor’s note: In a joint venture, Ruger and Hornady introduced the .416 Ruger in 2008.]
Indeed, being a brand new case that has the same capacity as the .375 H&H, but is short enough to fit standard-length actions, it is another godsend for us wildcatters. I’m sure we’ll see a whole family of cartridges based on this case.
For me, the rationale for the .416 Ruger is simple enough: The .375 is an extremely useful middle bore, but it’s not a stopping caliber. A .416 based on the .375 Ruger case would have the highly desirable trait of being able to fit in standard-length actions, yet launch a 400-grain bullet with enough authority to be a genuine stopping cartridge well-suited to any dangerous game, including buffalo and elephant.
Adopting an existing wildcat or designing one’s own can be motivated by many things — often the least of which is sheer velocity. Things like just wanting to express one’s individuality is reason enough to want to own a wildcat. Then there’s the tremendous satisfaction of designing your own perfect cartridge, one that provides the exact ballistics you want with the exact case size and shape you want.
Remember, too, that thousands of wildcats were conceived with a specific hunting application in mind, like the perfect brush round, antelope or elk cartridge. Consider also that wildcatters love to handload as much as they love to shoot; it’s the perfect symbiotic relationship — they handload so they can shoot, and they shoot so they can handload.
A fact that’s seldom touched upon, yet is an important byproduct of wildcatting, is that it literally forces one to become more knowledgeable about everything pertaining to guns — from internal and external ballistics, to burn rates and cartridge design. In short, it just naturally makes one more savvy than the typical handloader.
Following up on my opening assertion that the Golden Age of wildcatting is now, consider all the new commercial and proprietary cartridges we have today that didn’t exist less than a generation ago. In the old days, the more common basic cases that wildcatters had to work with were the .22 Hornet, .219 Zipper, .220 Swift, .250 and .300 Savage, 8mm Mauser, .30-06, .348 Win and .300 H&H.
If that sounds like a lot, consider the various sizes and types of basic cases today’s wildcatter has at his disposal. In proprietary hulls, there are two different head sizes and about six different lengths among the Lazzeroni and Dakota cartridge lines. Among the various commercial offerings, there are the Winchester Super Short (WSM); the Remington Ultra Mag;; the .240 Weatherby, 6.5-284 Norma, .308 Marlin Express, .30 T/C, .338 Federal, .376 Steyr, .375 Ruger and .444 and .450 Marlin. Add to that several versions of the belted H&H case ranging from the 6.5/.350 Rem Magnums, through the longer 7 Mag/338 case, the longer yet .300 Win Mag, and the longest of all — the 7mm STW and 8mm Rem Mag.
I’m sure I missed a few, but you get the picture: It is hard to visualize a new cartridge for which there doesn’t already exist several cases on which to base a wildcat capable of virtually any practical velocity level attainable in a given caliber.
I do think, however, it’s going to be a long time before we see another new rim diameter. Despite the plethora of commercial cartridges, the vast majority are based on cases having one of four rim dimensions: .222 (.378”), .30-06 (.473”), belted H&H (.532”) and .416 Rigby (.585”). All require actions specifically designed and dimensioned to handle each family.
Not included in the foregoing list are oddballs like the Hornet, the PPCs, the Dakota family, .348 Win, .375 Win, .376 Steyr and .444 Marlin, all of which have different rim diameters. Yet these too can serve as a basis for all kinds of wildcats.
To introduce yet another new rim diameter in a popular sporting rifle caliber simply isn’t practical, nor is it needed. We already have more than enough basic cases with which the various gun and ammo companies can continue to introduce new cartridges for a long time to come — which is exactly what they’ve been doing.
Yep, wildcatters have never had it so good!
Reprinted from the July 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.