Some Notes on Transitional Cartridges

In the long ago and far away (not so far away for some), armies were armed with smoothbore, muzzle loading, black powder powered muskets. They were not ‘accurate’ in the modern sense. Therefore, the soldiers of one side all lined up and fired a ‘volley’ – everyone in the front line shot on command – in the general direction of the enemy who were similarly lined up some fifty or sixty yards distant. The theory behind this was someone was bound to be hit. When enough soldiers on one side or the other had been wounded or killed, the remainder either broke ranks – a disgrace – or surrendered.

In the middle of the 19th Century, rifling was made practical for most all rifles and cartridge ammunition was developed. (The concept was invented some time earlier, but wasn’t ‘practical’ for mass production.) Which are stories all their own. This story begins in the latter part of the 19th Century…

In the past 150 (as of this writing) years, there have been two existential changes in the philosophy and theory of cartridges for military use. The first was the change from Black powder to Smokeless powder; and the practical and design changes either required or made possible thereby.

The second change is the change from ‘full power’ rifle rounds to ‘intermediate’ rounds; this shows itself in changes to cartridge and firearm design.

This discussion is limited to mainly infantry type rifles. Sporting rifles have followed the developments and inferences are easy to make.

Traditional Gunpowder – Black powder, commonly – has been around since at least the 14th Century in Western Culture and probably longer in Eastern Culture depending on who is writing the story.

It had drawbacks, but that’s another story. We will also forgo the development of guncotton a ‘beginning’ to what we think of as smokeless powder.

In 1864, a French chemist named Paul Vieille found a way to alter organic substances – generally cotton or wood pulp – into what currently is known as smokeless powder. The result was a compound – powder, more or less – which burned rapidly only under compression, was manipulable, and had three times the gas expansion (or power in cartridge context) as Black powder. We are skipping the further research part, as well. The French Government paid Mr. Vieille (by the way, I have no idea of how to pronounce the gentleman’s surname) 50,000 franks as a reward.

The existence of the powder was a French state secret for some years, but they developed and adopted for Army use the 1886 Lebel rifle. This was the absolute first rifle used by any army in the world to use a rifle firing a cartridge designed to use smokeless power. (Remember that the next time one wants to make condescending remarks about the French.)

State secret or not, very soon after the appearance of the Lebel rifle, the knowledge of smokeless powder was noted and everybody and everybody’s dog started working on how to duplicate it. Since the essential process is pretty simple, pretty quickly everyone had it.

So what did they do about it?

When black powder is used as a firearms propellent, it has a relatively slow burning rate. (However, it burns at the same rate whether confined or in the open – this made black powder great as a general explosive and rather dangerous to carry around.) The muzzle velocity an arm can attain is limited by this and black powder weapons top out around 2,000 feet per second. (This gets argued sometimes, but it is limited.)
Actually, smokeless powder also has top velocity limit as well, due to the velocity of expanding gases. As I understand it the limit is close to 6,000 feet per second and it will be some time until we push past that with current technology.

One of the side-effects of a ‘maximum’ velocity limit is the amount of energy available from the bullet. Currently, to give a specific bullet weight more energy, we – whoever ‘we’ are – design a firearm to handle greater pressure and make the bullet go faster. The kinetic energy in a particular projectile increases with the square of the velocity; in short, a bullet going twice as fast has FOUR times as much energy, all other factors being equal (the same weight bullet, primarily). Obviously, with a relatively low top speed, one had to increase the size (weight and diameter) in order to get more energy. One could make a .22 caliber bullet weighing 500 grains, but it would rather long.

So all military types rifles were relatively large bore rifles. In the latter part of the 19th Century, nearly all the military rifles were between .40 and .50 caliber. Bullets were heavy.

As examples:

U. S .45-70 Govt. cartridge fired a 405 grain lead bullet at around 1300 feet per second (fps). (There was a lighter ‘carbine’ cartridge, I believe the bullet was around 350 grains.)

U. S .45-70 Govt. cartridge fired a 405 grain lead bullet at around 1300 feet per second (fps). (There was a lighter ‘carbine’ cartridge, I believe the bullet was around 350 grains.)

The 1871 Mauser (11mm Mauser) fired a 370 grain bullet at 1430 fps.

The 1871 Mauser (11mm Mauser) fired a 370 grain bullet at 1430 fps.

The Brits .577 Snyder used a 450 grain bullet at 1300 fps.

The Brits .577 Snyder used a 450 grain bullet at 1300 fps.

And so on. Please peruse the following comparison information:
.45-70 Gov’t fired a bullet of 458 caliber, weighing 405 grains at 1330 fps.  This developed 1590 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 10 pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 24.37.
11mm Mauser fired a bullet of 446 caliber, weighing 386 grains at 1425.    This developed 1740 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 9.92 pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 25.9
.577 Snider fired a bullet of 570 caliber, weighing 480 grains at 1250.    This developed 1665 9.56 pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 29.94.
.30-06 fired a bullet of 308 caliber, weighing 150 grains at 2740.    This developed 2500 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 8.7 pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 15.93.
8mm Lebel fired a bullet of 323 caliber, weighing 198 grains at 2380.    This developed 2481 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 9.2 pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 17.54.
8mm Mauser fired a bullet of 323 caliber, weighing 154 grains at 2880.    This developed 2835 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 9  pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 16.95.
.30 Army (Krag) fired a bullet of 308 caliber, weighing 220 grains at 2200.    This developed 2365 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 9.3 pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 18.37.
8mm Kurz fired a bullet of 323 caliber, weighing 125 grains at 2247.    This developed 1408 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 10 pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 6.59.
7.62×39 fires a bullet of 311 caliber, weighing 122 grains at 2329.    This developed 1470 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 7.7 pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 6.68.
.30 Carbine fired a bullet of 308 caliber, weighing 110 grains at 1975.    This developed 955 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 5.2 pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 5.21.
.223 Remington/5.56 mm fires a bullet of 224 caliber, weighing 62 grains at 3100.    This developed 1325 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 7.18 pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 3.77.
.375 Holland & Holland fires a bullet of 375 caliber, weighing 300 grains at 2500.    This developed 4160 pounds of muzzle energy, and in the 9 (Win Exp)  pound rifle gave a recoil impulse of 42.64

Information comes from Cartridges of the World, Wikipedia (for arms weights), and recoil calculations from a friendly website.

Notice the heaviest recoil of any military smokeless powder rifle is less than the lightest recoiling black powder rifle. This is in connection with smokeless powder rifles are lighter – easier to carry – than black powder rifles.

Obviously, these are only a very few representative cartridges. They were all initially military, infantry calibers, except the .375 H&H, a sporting caliber.  (I put it in for comparison and as example of serious recoil.)

So when the various military designers thought about this new-fangled smokeless powder, they were still rather thinking ‘black powder’. Bullets were still round nosed and relatively heavy. The .30-40 Krag-Jorgensen was designed by the U. S. Government and adopted in 1898. It was a smokeless powder cartridge but had a 220 grain roundnose bullets and a velocity of 2000 fps.

Other developments in Europe included the 8mm Mauser. Initially using a smokeless powder loading, it used a bullet of around 230 grains at 2100 fps. Later, the Germany armed changed this to a lighter bullet and a faster velocity. That lighter bullet weighted 154 grains and left the rifle at 2880 fps. Also, making use of other developments, they made the new bullet a streamlined shape. The term they used was ‘Spitzgeschoss’ which means ‘pointy bullet’, more or less. In the United States, we still use the term ‘Spitzer’ for a projectile coming to a point, with ogives shaped as ‘radii’ instead of straight sides (spire point).

Since most everyone likes pictures, I have attached a few photos of various cartridges under discussion. As I write these lines, I realize readers would probably appreciate photos of the firearms as well. Sadly, I don’t have many of the rifles being discussed.

Somewhere during this period, both upper echelon officers in various armies and (cartridge and arms) designers realized infantry rifles could shoot faster in both muzzle velocity and rate of fire. Therefore, ‘lighter’ bullets could be just as effective as the older, heavier black powder era bullets on either enemies of the republic or Mr. Bear.

So bore diameters were reduced. Typical bore diameter for military rifles dropped from between 40 to 50 caliber to near 30 caliber (some smaller yet).

Because bores were reduced, the ‘bottleneck’ cartridge was developed.

Since smokeless powder was far cleaner – relatively – than black powder – the arms didn’t require extreme simplicity to keep them functioning.

Since smokeless powder generates less smoke when firing, repeating arms and even machine guns became practical. The man or men operating such weapons were no longer enveloped in a cloud and unable to see. Nor did the smoke cloud invariably and instantly give away one’s position to the unholy. (Just to clarify, ‘smokeless’ powder does generate some smoke. However, relative to black powder, smokeless powder is ‘miraculously’ less smokey than black. Smokeless powder does leave some residue in the arm. Again, relative to black powder, it isn’t so much. And ‘corrosive’ ammunition since the advent of smokeless powder derives much more from (now obsolete) primer compounds that left ‘salts’ in the bore and workings which attract water; ergo rust. The primers didn’t have a direct corrosive effect on steel.)

Due to the proliferation of semi and fully automatic arms, the cases themselves needed to be re-designed. Rims and highly tapered cases were now a liability. In the ‘old days’, case bodies were nearly the same diameter from top to bottom. A ‘rim’ or ‘flange’ (as the Brits call it) keeps a cylindrical case from falling through the chamber and barrel. But a bottle neck case has a shoulder to stop the case from moving further forward, AND with the motion of moving through an automatic process of loading, rims became a problem. Better off without rims.

Highly tapered cases were useful with black powder. if the chamber was getting dirty from the black powder residue, a tapered case was easier to force into the chamber – especially in the heat of battle. Also, removing a tapered case is easier to extract after firing; as moving the case even a small distance removes the case from rubbing on the walls of the chamber. But a heavily tapered case is awkward to place into a magazine. Look at an AK-47 round and magazine sometime; note the taper of the AK-47 round and the curvature of the magazine, especially an extended version.

Over a period of time – fairly short, really – nearly all military rifle cases were relatively un-tapered (there’s still a bit) and rimless. Except of course, for the Russian/Soviet/Russian again 7.62x54R

Somewhere in the transition, bullet technology had to improve. Cast or swaged lead bullets worked well with the low velocities of black powder. They probably leaded, but as one had to clean the bore religiously, leading didn’t build up as much. However, with smokeless powder not leaving as much deposit in the barrel AND velocities being over twice the former velocity, lead bullets just didn’t work in rifles. I’m going to skip over the details, but jacketed bullets became the norm in just over twenty years. As it happens, a fully jacketed bullet is less prone to deform when being moved through the action of a rifle, let along semi or full automatic weapon, also a good characteristic.

Yet another benefit of jacketed bullets is the jacket holds the rifling better, which produces better accuracy. The higher echelon military leaders and thinkers and the designers quickly realized the new technology rifles could shoot both farther and more accurately than before. (What wasn’t realized is the distances of separation of hostile troops didn’t get much bigger. Fire-fights were still fairly close up and personal interchanges. That is a different story, however.)

At this point, the concept of “keeping up with Jones’ ” came into play. Since the French had smokeless powder, ‘we’ – whoever ‘we’ were – had to have smokeless powder as well. If ‘their’ rifle could theoretically hit a belligerent at XX yards, ‘our’ rifle had to hit a belligerent at XX and fifteen yards. If ‘their’ rifle could hold five rounds, ‘ours’ has to hold seven to ten. If ‘their’ rifle could be reloaded ‘instantly’, ‘ours’ has to be reloaded ‘instantlier’. Etc.

One notes nearly all the early smokeless powder cartridges featured (relatively) ’heavy’ bullets. Nearly all of them fairly quickly lightened the bullets used. With a lighter bullet, velocity and range was extended. This is a direct consequence of smokeless powder. Remember black powder can only push a projectile within limits. So does smokeless powder but the limit is three to four times as great.

In some instances, the government in question developed a ‘heavier than the infantry load, but lighter than the original load’ for use in machine-guns. Whereas a lighter bullet can be driven faster and therefore develop greater kinetic energy at ‘closer’ range, a heavier bullet will normally carry further and maintain velocity better.

The U. S. Government introduced a 220 grain bullet with the 1903 Springfield, then dropped the bullet weight to 150 grains in 1906. Then later developed a 174 grain bullet and load for use in medium and heavy machine guns.

The French did about the same thing with the 8mm Lebel round in roughly the same era.

Machine guns are currently utilized mostly direct fire mode. That is, machines are used much like rifles and fired directly at hostiles forces in line of sight.

Initially, machine guns were often used in indirect fire mode; very similar to artillery. The machine gun was fired at a high angle at areas unseen by the gunner to deny movement to hostile forces and cause casualties in the belligerent forces. That technique required ammunition to be capable of going a long way and still be effective.

The upshot of all this was rifles could now (back then) accurately disable or kill an enemy soldier out to a whole lot further than before. As a result, the sights on most rifles were refined quite a bit. The rifle sights of the First World War were predominantly ‘open’ type sights. The rear sights were some form of notch – usually a “V” or “U” shape. Front sights were either a post, squared off at the top, or a pyramidal shape.

The U. S. Rifle, Model of 1917, or ‘Eddystone’ (the one with the ‘bent’ bolt handle) was one of the first military rifle to feature ‘aperture’ sights. The front sight was a squared off post and the rear sight was a disc with a small hole (the aperture) in it. By the Second World War, nearly everyone had aperture – or ‘peep’ – sights.

By this time, most infantry rifles could – depending on the soldier – incapacitate a hostile out to possible 500 yards (or meters or paces, depending on where one’s rifle was made and how they marked them). Effective range became a matter of national pride.

However, it must be noted that armed encounters between armies (or more often, squads) were often much closer to each other than several hundred yards. Depending on terrain and plant life (trees, for instance), ranges of encounter could be quite short. In the battle called the Battle of Belleau Wood, fighting was so close shotguns were employed as assault weapons. So long range rifles were not always needed.

Now we mentally jump ahead to the Second World War. Gone is the trench warfare of much of the First World War, where one sat in trenches – some of the time – and ranges were perceived to be longer. In WWII the fighting was much closer and personal. Europe has – had, perhaps – much forested land and combatants could get much closer to one another. There were more trucks and troop carriers to get combatants to the ‘front’ as well as move laterally or forward in support.

There was lots of fighting in towns, cities and more or less ‘urban areas’. Both sides were fighting from house to house. Not much need for a five hundred yard rifle. But the rifle still had to have the power to incapacitate an enemy.

In 1943, the NAZI Army introduced the Sturmgewehr (StG) 44, also known as the MP43 and MP44. It was a breakthrough in design for several reasons.

Aside: The Soviet Union claimed they were working on a similar concept prior to the StG44. Truthfully, I don’t know if they were. History records the StG44 (in 1943, oddly enough) first. The finished Soviet project rifle, the familiar AK-47, was adopted and issued in 1947. So the STG44 gets the ‘honor’, as it were. End of aside.

The StG44 was one of the first actual rifles to be fully automatic – upon demand by moving the ‘selector’- hand held and issued to practically everyone. In the First World War, the U. S. had the Browning Automatic Rifle, but it was issued only to a limited number of troops (one per squad as I recall) and it weighed nearly twenty pounds. The StG 44 weighed – loaded – less than 11.5 pounds. The Garand rifle of the U. S. was about the same weight.

The StG 44 had a detachable box magazine holding thirty rounds. The Thompson submachine gun had magazines holding twenty or thirty rounds. Typically the twenty round magazines were used for convenience. The StG 44 had a bit further range and a bit more kinetic energy.

The StG 44 had a ‘new’ cartridge, the intermediate class round. Physically, it was the full size 8x57mm Mauser (actually 7.9x57mm) round shortened to 33mm, using a 123 grain (or so) at a muzzle velocity of around 2,250 fps. It is called – and I’m not sure who named it – the 7.9x33mm Kurz. (Kurz meaning ‘short’; go figure.) Here was a fully automatic rifle that could be (more or less) controlled by a soldier and didn’t hamper him.

The StG 44 had a bore diameter exactly the same as the standard 98 Mauser and machine-guns of the Reich. So existing machinery could be used. Additionally, the cases are very similar to the case of the 98 Mauser and that machinery also could be employed. No point in re-inventing the wheel.

Sadly for ‘them’, (good for the free world) it was too late to effect the war much. But it did start a new ‘transition’ in rifle ammunition. When the Second World War was over, the 7.9×33 Kurz was done. There are some rifles chambered for it as a curiosity, but no one mass produces rifles – either full or semi-automatic – for it anywhere. The accuracy and range limits are not well established and rather immaterial at this point.

Next in this cavalcade of intermediate rounds came the Soviet 7.62x39mm round. It also fires a bullet of 122 grains (both this and the Kurz round were designated in grams, so they don’t seem ‘even’) at a muzzle velocity of nearly 2,400 fps. It is more powerful than the U. S. .30 Carbine, but just a bit less than the .30-30 Winchester round.

The Soviet round is another short cased round. The then current Soviet rifle was the now familiar Mosin-Nagant 1891/30 rifle. The 7.62×39 round uses the same bullet diameter so the same machinery for boring and rifling barrels can be used; and the same machinery to manufacture bullets can be adjusted and used to make ammunition.

Currently, the AK-47 rifles and the round do not enjoy a positive reputation for accuracy. They do enjoy a great reputation for reliability and functioning under adverse conditions, like mud and dust. However, there are reasons for both these reasons and they are much the same. I’m going to let that lie for this essay.

Both the NAZI and Soviet round have an outside range of about 300 to 350 yards. Which actually covers most current fighting around the world. Maybe. (Wait for it…) Both rounds are suitable for shooting hostile combatants, but have little margin for error. However, they were designed to be light and shoot a lot. Both rifles employ loaded cartridges lighter than the full sized rifles preceding them, so number of rounds carried can be increased for the same weight.

Aside: The U. S. did have an ‘intermediate’ round already. The .30 Carbine was adopted in 1942. However, it was never employed as a primary combat weapon officially. It was to replace the pistol, rifle and submachine gun for non-front line troops. The round is not as powerful as either the 7.9mm Kurz or the 7.62×39 Russian cartridge. The .30 Carbine is not classed with the ‘intermediate’ cartridges for these reasons. End.

So, once again military cartridges have ‘transitioned’ from one ‘form’ to another. What is interesting is the change from fairly short range to long range back to short range. Another interesting thought is military theory and tactics with firearms began with our side firing a huge number of shots at their side with the expectation (hope?) of hitting some of them. Then military theory and tactics went over to the idea of shooting at a specific enemy ‘target’. Now ‘we’ (most of humanity) is back to the fire a huge number of shots at their side and expect (hope?) some of them get hit.

Humanity will have more wars and armed conflict in the future. Someone will see it and write a semi-cynical essay about it.

Left to right: 8x50 Lebel, .303 British, 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser, .30-40 Krag, .30-06 Springfield, .308 Winchester (7.62x51 NATO) 8mm Kurz, 7.62x39mm Russian, 5.56mm NATO, .375 Holland & Holland.

Left to right: 8×50 Lebel, .303 British, 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser, .30-40 Krag, .30-06 Springfield, .308 Winchester (7.62×51 NATO) 8mm Kurz, 7.62x39mm Russian, 5.56mm NATO, .375 Holland & Holland.

Cartridges shown in photo:

8 x 50R(mm) Lebel 232 grain flat nose bullet 2060 feet/second Rimmed case
Adopted in 1886, this is the first smokeless powder cartridge ever used by a military in the world. By modern standards it looks ‘crude’, but at the time, it was ahead of anything else. The cartridge in the photo is the original loading, the “Balle M”; the bullet (balle) weighs fifteen (15) grams or 232 grains, has a lead core, a cupronickel jacket and a wide flat meplat (the very tip) for use the 1886 Lebel rifle with tubular, under barrel magazine. Muzzle velocity – so I am told – was 628 meters per second; in dog years that’s 2,060 feet per second.

In 1898 the round was changed to the “Balle D” configuration. The “Balle D” was a light 12.8 grams (198 grain) spitzer – boat tail type bullet made of mostly brass. Muzzle velocity was 700 meters per second (2297 fps). The “D” was the first time a military power used a spitzer – boat tail officially. So the 8mm Lebel was in fact a real trend sitter.

For the record, there are several other varieties of 8mm Lebel ammunition. Do a web search. (This applies to all the other ammunition listed and most that isn’t listed here.)

.303 British 175 grain bullet 2440 feet/second Rimmed case
Adopted in 1888 as a black powder cartridge with 215 grain (round nose) bullet at 1850 feet/second. Updated in 1892 to use cordite (smokeless) propellent – with the same bullet – for 1970 feet/second. Updated again in 1910; bullet weight dropped to 174 (or 175) grain bullet at 2440 feet/second. This last loading was used until 1957 when the cartridge and rifle were replaced.

6.5 x 55mm Swedish Mauser 139 grain (9 grams) bullet 2625 feet-second Rimless case. It was adopted in 1894 as smokeless powder round. Initially loaded with a 156 grain (10.1 grams) bullet at 2370 feet/second, it was updated in 1941 to the lighter bullet giving higher velocity.

.30-40 Krag or .30 Army 220 grain bullet 2200 feet/second Rimmed case
The first U. S. smokeless powder cartridge adopted (1898), the rifle showed to be overloaded with issue ammunition and was replaced in 1903 by the Springfield.
.30-06 Springfield 150 grain bullet 2740 feet/second Rimless case
The ’06 cartridge is a re-work of the original .30-03 cartridge. The ’03 cartridge used a 220 grain bullet at 2300 feet/second. In 1906, the cartridge and loading was altered; the case was shortened by .07 inches and the load updated to 150 grain bullet at 2740 feet/second. This was far more ballistically advantageous and shows the advantage of smokeless powder over black powder as a propellant. The ’06 round was also loaded by the U. S. Government with a 172 or 174 grain bullet at 2640 for machine gun use. This change extended the range of the machine gun a good deal, as the heavier bullet would carry further.

308 Winchester or 7.62 x 51(mm) NATO
Adopted in 1957, the 7.62 x 51 NATO essentially duplicated the ballistic ability of the .30-06 Springfield infantry round with a case about .5 inches shorter. Additionally, the case was altered internally, making the head and web area stronger for use in machine-guns and semi-automatic rifles. This was not actually a transitional round and is included only for comparison. Also used in light and medium machine-guns, this is probably the last ‘full charge’ rifle round designed for military rifles. Note: The two cartridges are the same dimensionally, internally and pressure limits. The only potential difficulty is using commercial .308 Winchester ammunition with bullets heavier than those used in semi and fully automatic arms. The extra bullet weight somewhat retards the pressure curve and may transmit too much pressure to the operating system. The heaviest bullet used in military M-14 rifles is a target load, with a 172 to 174 grain bullet; much like the old 30-06 machine gun round.

7.92 x 33mm Kurz
Historically the first intermediate infantry cartridge (argued by the Soviet government). This round could almost be considered experimental, but it was used by the NAZI Army in WWII in the Sturmgewehr (44) rifle. It is a shortened 8 x 57mm case shortened to 33 mm and uses a lighter (125 grain) bullet at 2247 feet/second. This physically began the transition from ‘full charge’ rifle rounds to ‘intermediate’ rounds which are easier to control in fully-automatic, hand held weapons. As it happens, it is the same length as the .30 Carbine round.

7.62 x 39mm Russian
Adopted by Soviet Union in 1947 with the AK47 and arguably the best known military rifle in the world. Designed as an ‘intermediate’ range infantry cartridge, rather than a ‘full charge’ rifle round, it was employed in various rifle and machine-guns in the Warsaw Pact (Soviet Bloc) nations. Like the 7.92 Kurz, this was never a black powder round, but is transitional from ‘full charge’ rifles and loads to the intermediate level infantry rifles.

A further ‘transition’ occurred in 1974 when the Soviet Union adopted the AK-74, using the 5.45x39mm Soviet round. It seems to be the 7.62x39mm cartridge necked down to accommodate .221 or .222 inch projectiles of roughly 55 grains. The ‘smaller’ round became ‘smaller’ still.

5.56mm NATO
Sometimes referred to as the 5.56x45mm NATO rifle round. It is also – somewhat inaccurately – called the .223 Remington. They are exactly the same size and dimension, but they are NOT interchangeable. (They’re sort of interchangeable; the commercial .223 Remington can be safely fired in 5.56 NATO chambered rifles, but the military (5.56 NATO) round develops higher chamber pressure AND the U. S. military rifles have somewhat different chamber and throats than sporting rifles.

The 5.56 NATO round was invented (designed?) in the middle 1950s and adopted for use in 1964, along with the M16 rifle. The round and rifle do not match the power of earlier rifles, like the .30-06 Springfield and .308 Winchester. However, it is lighter and suitable for ranges of 350 yards and less. And one can carry two or three times the number of rounds for the same weight load.

Something curious and perhaps ironic about this cartridge: Remember all the early smokeless powder rounds began with very heavy bullets and then reduced the weight of the bullet? The 5.56 NATO reversed that action. The first accepted round for the M-16 (5.56 NATO) was the M193 round, using a 55 grain bullet at muzzle velocity of 3250 fps. In 1980, NATO changed the official round to what they called the SS209 round. It uses a 62 grain bullet at 3100. The U. S. identifies the SS209 round as the M885.

Changing the bullet weight required re-barreling all extant rifles and fitting new rifles with barrels of faster twist to stabilize the longer bullet. Just for the record, the heavier bullet can be safely fired in the slower twist barrels, the pressure is not changed; but if a particular bullet isn’t spun by the rifling enough, the bullet is not stable and will ‘wobble’ in flight and be inaccurate.

The heavier bullet was desired to give the round more distance and retain more energy at distance. Even with the heavier bullet, the rifles so employed recoil much less than any of the older, more powerful rifles.

.375 Holland & Holland
This is sporting – hunting – round. Introduced in 1912 (as a smokeless powder cartridge) the .375 Holland & Holland will kill most everything in the world graveyard dead with a minor amount of attention on the part of the shooter. Factory loads are either a 270 grain bullet (FMJ for penetration) at 2650 feet/second, or a 300 grain FMJ bullet at 2500. Soft point bullets are also available, but tend not to be as desired for dangerous game

Even so, it is probably not best for animals of the Cape Buffalo or larger class IF they are charging. (I prefer a 3.5 inch rocket launcher, myself.) But this round has done it all. It has never been a military cartridge. I add it to the discussion for those who feel the ‘full charge’ military rifles of the era were too harsh in recoil.

NOT shown in group photo:

8 x 56(mm)R

8 x 56(mm)R

8 x 56(mm)R 208 grain bullet 2300 feet/second Rimmed case
Designed in 1930 and first used in the Solothurn machine-gun. Shortly after, it was also used in the Austrian and Hungarian rifles (the Austro-Hungarian Empire) designed by Ferdinand von Mannlicher designated the M95 (1895) rifle. (Initially the rifle used the 8 x 50R round; an originally black powder load.) All the rifles were converted to the 8 x 56R cartridge (officially at least) shortly thereafter 1931.

The 8 x 50R Mannlicher

The 8 x 50R Mannlicher

The 8 x 50R Mannlicher used a 244 grain, round-nosed bullet and developed just over 2000 feet/second. The 8 x 56R uses a 208 grain bullet at 2300 feet/second. As a curiosity, these two related rounds use a bullet diameter unique in the known Universe. Although ‘named’ an 8mm, the actual diameter is .329 inches. (See notes on 8 x 57 Mauser for alternative solution.)

8mm Mauser or 7.92 x 57 Mauser

8mm Mauser or 7.92 x 57 Mauser

8mm Mauser or 7.92 x 57 Mauser
The round was actually designed by the ‘Commission’ who designed the 1888 German Infantry rifle, not Paul Mauser. The initial loading was a .318 inch diameter bullet (round nosed) weighing 226 grains (14.6 grams) with a muzzle velocity of 2093 feet/second. In 1898, the well known Mauser 1898 replaced the 1888 rifle. In 1905 the rifle and cartridge was updated to a
.323 inch diameter bullet weighing 154 grains (just shy of 10 grams) with a ‘spitzer’ shape at 2880 feet/second. Other than opening the case mouth a bit more, the case is the same for both cartridges.The larger diameter load was deemed unsafe to fire in the smaller diameter barrels. The smaller diameter round is since then called the “J” round – long story- and the larger diameter round is designated “S” for spitzer to tell them apart – mostly on packaging.
In retrospect, this seems to your humble correspondent as being a ‘new’ cartridge. But it wasn’t so treated. (Perhaps attorneys were not as prominent in those days?)

.30 Carbine

.30 Carbine

.30 Carbine
Never a ‘rifle’, this round was designed for a carbine to replace the Garand (full sized rifle) and the .45 Automatic pistol for some troops in WWII. It can be considered an ‘intermediate’ level round, but the U. S. Government never officially intended replacement of the (full) rifle as in the case of the NAZI and Soviet armies.
The round uses the same diameter bullet as the rifle, but the bullet weight is 110 grains with a muzzle velocity of just under 2000 feet/second.

.30 Russian or 7.62 x 54(mm)R

.30 Russian or 7.62 x 54(mm)R

.30 Russian or 7.62 x 54(mm)R
Adopted in 1891 for the Mosin-Nagant rifle. Also used in machine-guns, the Drogonov sniper rifle and some sporting arms. Initially, the round sported a 210 grain, roundnose bullet (Full Metal Jacket, of course) with a muzzle velocity of 2020 fps. This round was found lacking in the Russo-Japanese war and in 1908 the loading was changed to a 147 grain bullet at 2840 feet/second. There are some other varieties of ammunition extant for specific purposes.
It is still in official use in current Russia (machine guns and specialty rifles) and is the oldest military round in continuous use in the world.

Currently, the U. S. is NOT fighting a war in the Middle East against ISIS or anyone. However, soldiers from the United States are currently shooting at people who are shooting back. The terrain being rather “flattish” and only what in the United States would be called ‘scrub brush’, the combat range is lengthened; much further away than in Vietnam, for instance. The current U. S. rifle, chambered in 5.56mm NATO seems to be somewhat less than overwhelming at longer ranges and the obsolete M-14 rifles shooting the 7.62x51mm NATO round is being employed.

So maybe I’ll see another ‘transition’ in my lifetime. I’m only in my middle 60s; there’s time.



Filed under Firearms and their use, History, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Some Notes on Transitional Cartridges

    • I am most flattered. I have a couple more ‘general information’ essays in the works; I hope they shed a bit of light as well.

      • You’re welcome. I have readers who have an interest. One who has a blog with three years under his belt as a shooter and he will read this with interest. I was explaining the balloon head cartridges to him, and a photograph you have in the article is of the 11mm balloon head cartridge. I had a 7x57mm Spanish Mauser once, and it had the balloon head bolt face. Every time that thing was fired, the rifle hissed, the gas port spewed, and the primers were backed out. Also a Sharps 1873 breech loader in .45-70, it did not like modern ammo. Before the flood of SuperStorm Sandy in 2012, I used to reload and surgically load rounds. Some did not understand that, and only liked loading as fast as they could. When harvesting game, the surgical precision, all became as clear as a bell. I dropped a six-point buck from 660 meters (720 yards), with one round from my then 7mm Magnum Ruger 77R accurized and goodies were a KDF recoil arrestor, and Leupold 4-12 Vari-X II. Buck stood up on his hind legs, nose to the sky, and never took another step, dropped like a sack of potatoes. I have other stories about hunting with reloads. Great past time, at the reloading bench and researching, back in the days when we used those things called, “books”.

  1. As you might surmise, I reload. Currently I load for – ah – a bunch of handgun and rifle rounds. (Don’t do any shotgun.) I have loaded very precise ammunition and now save the ‘surgically precision’ process for a couple very accurate rifles. My experience it is hard to load inaccurate handgun ammunition – unless one gets really soft bullets that won’t hold rifling.

    I’m with you, research and development is as fun as shooting. I don’t hunt anymore, it’s too uncomfortable. Keep up the good work and I’ll be by to see what you have to say. Another view is always good.

  2. Rifleman, something I omitted in my response. Somewhere in my hoard of reloading components, I have some ‘balloon head’ cases in .44 Special. They were quite common in various calibers at one time as they were easy to manufacture in bulk with the industrial technology (stamping presses, I guess) of the day.

    I’ll see if I can find them. I have to clean out the reloading facility anyway.

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