A Brief History of Cartridge Design


SOF Support
Feb 8, 2007
Land of Swine and Maple Syrup
Competition Cartridges
A Brief History of Cartridge Design by Cheechako

Introduction--The .222 Remington
I am a competition shooter, a cartridge collector, and an amateur historian, not necessarily in that order. I thought that this Forum would be a good place to share a little of my interests with you by describing a few of the competition cartridges from my collection and giving a little history of how they came to be. I'll start with one that everybody knows, the .222 Remington.

In 1948 Remington introduced their new Model 722 rifles. The first “short action” Remington, it was chambered in 300 Savage and 257 Roberts and advertised as a new, lighter weight, big game rifle. But even before the first 722 found its way to gun store shelves, Remington was looking at the rifle as the foundation for a new live-varmint cartridge, something that would fill the gap between the 22 Hornet and the 220 Swift. Rather than try to modify one of the existing cartridges, Remington R&D decided to develop a completely new case. The prototype looked very much like todays 221 Fireball. It was 1.450" long and loaded with a 48-grain soft-point bullet. Different primers, powders, and powder charges were tested for velocity and accuracy. But Mike Walker, the designer of the 722 action, thought the cartridge was too short to feed reliably through the 722 action and so he recommended a slightly longer case. With the redesigned cartridge in hand, he and F&S Gun Editor Warren Page set forth to test it in the field. They found the bullet to be too hard resulting in ricochets and unreliable expansion and recommended the weight be increased to 50 grains, the jacket thinned, and the velocity increased to 3200 fps. All three changes were adopted and the new .222 Remington was introduced in early 1950.

Both Page and Walker were Benchrest shooters and saw the potential of the new cartridge for 100 and 200-yard benchrest. It was first used in competition in 1951 and started winning everything in sight, dominating for more than 20 years. But there's not a Benchrest shooter alive who doesn't think a good cartridge can be made better and even it was wildcatted. Shown below are six cartridges from my collection. A .222 Prototype, a standard .222 Remington varmint load, a .222 Remington Benchrest load, and three wildcats, the 222-35, 222-40, and 222 Haney.

The 220 Russian and Derivatives

There can't be a benchrest shooter alive today who hasn't heard of the 220 Russian. After all, his PPC brass carries that very headstamp. Todays shooters almost exclusively use Lapua 220 Russian brass but anyone who was around before the 1990s will also recognize the Sako 220 Russian cases. Sako brass is what Dr. Lou Palmisano used for his very first PPC case and most benchrest shooters adopting the round in the 1970s and 80s used it too.

But how many shooters have actually seen a 220 Russian cartridge? I don't mean the brass made in Finland by Sako or Lapua, but a real 220 Russian made in Russia. Not too many, I'd say. And probably not many more know the story behind the origins of the 220 Russian.

Pictured above are a 7.92x33mm Kurz, a 7.62x39mm Soviet, an original box of 5.6x39mm Russian ammunition, a steel-cased 5.6x39mm Russian cartridge, a brass cased Sako 220 Russian cartridge, and the descendant and end of the line for them all, a 6mm PPC.

You might say that the 220 Russian was inspired by a cartridge that was inspired by another cartridge. For the beginning we have to go all the way back to 1942. In that year of World War II the German army first tested its new 7.92x33mm Kurz cartridge in actual combat against the Russian army. A shortened 8mm Mauser cartridge, the Kurz and the MP43 "assault rifle", or Sturmgewehr, caught everyone by surprise and the idea was quickly copied by the Russians themselves. By the war's end they had developed their own version of the assault rifle, the SKS, and later the AK and AKM. All used a cartridge very similar to the Kurz, one that is still used today, the 7.62x39mm Soviet.

During the Cold war there was very little exchange of information between the east and the west particularly when it came to weapons and ammunition. But we do know that by the late 1950s the Soviets had necked down the 7.62x39mm to 5.6mm (actually .221 bullet diameter) and were using it in a steel cased cartridge for running deer competition. With Finland so near, and with the 7.62x39mm being the official Finnish military cartridge, it was no surprise that the 5.6x39mm cartridge was also manufactured and used in that country. Both Sako and Lapua began production of the 5.6x39mm brass cartridges around 1965 and when imported to the United States they were headstamped SAKO 220 RUSSIAN and LAPUA 5.6x39 (later changed to LAPUA 220 RUSSIAN).

The Origins of the .308 Winchester
Even as World War II was still being fought and billions of rounds of 30-06 ammunition were being manufactured in arsenals across the country, the US Army began looking toward a new generation of small arms. More specifically they envisioned a new “light rifle” to take the place of the 30 Carbine and M1 Garand, firing a smaller cartridge but still maintaining the range and power of the 30-06.

In 1944 the Chief of Ordnance instructed the Frankford Arsenal to develop such a round. The Arsenal bought a supply of commercial 300 Savage brass from both Winchester and Remington and assembled them into test cartridges to determine pressures, velocities, and appropriate powders and primers. Once it was established that the project was feasible the Arsenal produced 10,000 new cases for further development and designated the new cartridge as the T-65. Over the course of the next 5 years the cartridge went through several design changes including neck length, shoulder angle, and case length. The final design was approved in 1949 and continued in use until August 1954 when it was standardized as the 7.62 x 51 NATO. In 1952 the Chief of Ordnance gave Winchester permission to use the case commercially . Winchester first called the new cartridge the 30-80 WCF but the name was quickly changed to what we know it as today, the 308 Winchester.

Adoption of any cartridge by the military means almost immediate use in competition. Even before adoption by NATO, the 308 National Match ammunition was being manufactured by the Lake City Arsenal for use in Service Rifle matches. Palma competition requires the use of the 308 cartridge loaded with a special 155 grain Palma Hollow point bullet. Benchrest shooters found the round to be competitively accurate although the substantial recoil limited it’s use almost exclusively to Heavy Bench or Unlimited Class rifles. Long Range benchrest shooters use the 308 in competition with long, heavy VLD bullets. But where the 308 case excels in competition is in the various wildcats of every imaginable size and shape, so numerous that they will be left for another chapter.

Pictured above left to right are (1) the original prototype using a 300 Savage case, (2 ) T65 with 30 degree shoulder and 47mm case, (3) 49 mm case with 30 degree shoulder, (4) the final version, a 51mm case with 20 degree shoulder. (5) Is a 308 Winchester Silver Tip. The various full length competition rounds that follow are (6) a Benchrest loading with a 168 grain Sierra HP, (7) an M118 National Match round with 173 grain BT bullet, (8) a Palma round with 155 grain bullet, and (9) a Long Range benchrest round with a 175 grain VLD bullet.

222 Rem Magnum and Derivatives
If you've followed my threads on Competition Cartridges you may have noticed a trend. Does it seem to you that many have U.S. military connections? Well you aren’t imagining it because it’s true. The one that follows is no exception.

In the early 1950s, Springfield Armory envisioned a small caliber, light infantry weapon for the future. In a joint effort with the Aberdeen Proving Ground and Remington Arms, they designed and constructed a couple of custom rifles and a quantity of ammunition for testing. Essentially a longer version of the brand new 222 Remington, the cartridge was unofficially called the “22 Special”. Remington used a conventional 55-grain SP hunting type bullet for the tests. Results were very encouraging.

But during this same time, Frankford Arsenal was developing a short and light 30-caliber weapon system and cartridge that it hoped to sell to NATO countries. (See my thread on the origins of the 308 Winchester). Other NATO members favored a small caliber weapon and the Army was fearful that the 22 Special would compromise their push for the 30 caliber and so they instructed Springfield Armory to abandon their project. Since Remington had been a cooperative in the project they were given permission to market the new cartridge commercially if they so wished. They did eventually, and today we know it as the .222 Remington Magnum.

Any new cartridge is an automatic candidate for wildcatting and the .222 Remington Magnum was no exception. Even though the .222 Remington was able to deliver all the goods in short-range Benchrest, there were shooters who thought they could do better. (Sound familiar?) There isn’t much that can be done to a cartridge the size of the .222 Remington Magnum but all of it was done. The shoulder angle was increased to 30 (22 Tom Cat), then 40 (22-40), then 45 degrees (22-45). When that limit was reached they went in the other direction, shortened it and called it the 222 ½. Since the Sporter Class required a cartridge not less than .23 caliber, the .222 Remington Magnum was simply expanded to .243 and the original 6x47 was born (not to be confused with 6x47 Swiss Match). It too was “improved” by increasing the shoulder angle to 40 (6x47-40) and then 45 degrees (6x47-45).

In the end, the only truly successful competition cartridge based on the 222 Remington Magnum was the original 6x47. Federal actually produced new, nickeled brass with a 6x47 headstamp. But it was only a few years until the newfangled PPC cartridges appeared and all the 222 Remington Magnum based cartridges became a part of ancient history. And here they are.

Score Shooting Cartridges (Hunter BR)
The first short-range benchrest tournaments were nothing more than a bunch of good ol' boys getting together on a Saturday afternoon with their favorite varmint rifles trying to show each other up by shooting the smallest group. But there were also other good ol' boys doing the same thing, only with their hunting rifles. Not shooting for group but for score.

When the National Benchrest Shooters Association (NBRSA) was founded in 1951 it was composed exclusively of the group shooters and little thought was given to any other types of shooting competition. It wasn't until 12 years later, in 1963, that the Board of Directors first discussed the idea of establishing a Hunter Rifle Class (HBR). It took another three years before they finally adopted a set of rules patterned after those used by the Richmond (California) Rod & Gun Club. Intended to entice the average deer hunter into benchrest, the concept was really at odds with the basic premise of benchrest shooting which is the development of extreme accuracy in rifles and ammunition. As a result, the new class struggled for recognition and support and it was not until several years later when the rules were relaxed to allow shooters more freedom to experiment that it really caught on.

The first HBR cartridges were predetermined by the readily available rifles that complied with the original rules. More specifically they were the 243 Winchester, 244 Remington, and 308 Winchester, but only because the Remington Model 700 and Winchester Model 70 were the rifles most likely to be used. All three are first class hunting rounds but are not sufficiently accurate in a hunting rifle to be considered a competitive benchrest cartridge. HBR shooters realized they could be competitive only by developing cartridges with the same accuracy potential as those used in the Varmint Classes, and as the rules were liberalized it became a custom-rifle game and a wildcatters' dream come true. The basic rule governing HBR cartridges is that the case must have at least 45.0 grains water capacity, measured to the top of the neck.

At first, many of the cartridges were 6mm wildcats, but since HBR is shot for score rather than group, shooters quickly learned, the hard way, that larger diameter bullets meant higher scores and the race to find the ultimate 30-caliber small cartridge began. But not just any 30 caliber. It had better be able to shoot ones, or small twos at worst, or you won’t hear your name being called during the Awards ceremony. The race is still going on and a single dominant cartridge is yet to emerge. New ones show up at matches every year. Al Nyhus and Stan Ware have developed a radical "Wolfpup" wildcat with nearly no neck that has won a number of matches in 2006. Basically, Al and Stan started with a 30BR and blew the shoulder forward until they had enough water capacity (45.0 grains) to satisfy the rules. The Wolfpup neck is only about .080".

It would be impossible to show and describe all of the HBR cartridges that have been used over the years. Just the ones based on the 308 Winchester would fill your flat screen monitor. But here is a representative sampling from my collection.

Stepped-Neck Cases for Tension Control
While no shooter can prove that one degree of neck tension is superior to another, all will agree that round-to-round uniformity is vital to supreme accuracy. Such uniformity is usually achieved by reaming or turning case neck walls to a consistent thickness and then using a sizing die that will result in the individual shooter's concept of ideal neck tightness, or looseness. Other methods, such as closely fitting the case neck to the chamber, which results in no expansion upon firing, have been tried with varying degrees of success. One shooter resolved the problem to his own satisfaction simply by using a single, carefully prepared cartridge case, reloading it at the bench for each shot. It worked after a fashion but wasn’t too practical, especially when the time allotted to fire a group began to run out.


Years ago several Benchrest shooters used what is called a stepped neck. A stepped neck case is a specially prepared cartridge case that is closely fitted and matched to the individual rifle and is not interchangeable with other rifles. First, very precise measurements of the chamber, bullet, and neck diameter of the cartridge case are taken. After calculating the proper dimensions, the outside diameter of a new case neck is reduced, but only to the point on the neck where it is determined the base of a loaded bullet should be. The case is then loaded and fire-formed. When the neck expands to fit the chamber walls, it reverses the outside turning process and creates a step inside the neck for the bullet to sit on. To load the case, the fired primer is knocked out, a new primer seated, a powder charge is thrown, and the bullet slipped into the case with the fingers. Voila! No neck tension means uniformity to the nth degree.

Identifying a stepped neck case takes only a few seconds. Look for a very slight ring on the outside of the neck between the shoulder and mouth. This is the last vestige of the place where the outside neck turning was stopped. The step may or may not be visible inside the neck but can usually be felt with a sharp pencil point. Inserting a flat-base bullet of the proper caliber should result in the bullet sliding smoothly into the case and then stopping at the location of the step.

Those shown here were all used in competition. On the left is a 308W case with a new shoulder partially formed and the neck outside turned, ready for fire-forming. Next to it is the completed case with a stepped neck, a .30 x 50 Improved (.308W shortened to 50mm with a 40-degree shoulder). Next is a .23-40 (.223 Remington with a 40-degree shoulder) with a stepped neck. On the right is a very unusual benchrest cartridge. It is a .22BR Short (1.390" CL) with the rim lathe-turned to .222 Remington dimensions, and a stepped neck. Like most benchrest shooters, the users of these three cartridges hedged their bets and combined the stepped neck with other changes in case shape and dimensions.

Stepped neck cases worked exactly as intended but are never seen on the firing line today. Shooters learned that the time and labor to prepare such cases seldom, if ever, resulted in accuracy gains over the simpler methods of controlling neck tension. They are, nonetheless, a unique part of benchrest and unless identified and preserved will soon be lost to history.

Long-Range and 1000-Yard BR Cartridges
1000-yard benchrest shooting in the United States is barely 40 years old but “conventional” competition at long range can be traced back more than 150 years. In the second half of the 19th Century most long distance shooters used large caliber rifles, firing black powder cartridges topped with long, heavy paper-patched lead bullets. Tournaments were headline events with the winning teams and individuals garnering near-celebrity status. Shooters were primarily those with leisure time and disposable income. Expensive Sharps, Remington, and Ballard rifles put the matches beyond the means of the ordinary American. But with the development of smokeless powder, emphasis switched to the small caliber, high-velocity cartridges as adopted by the military of most countries. Finally, even the middle class could afford to compete.

For most of the first half of the 20th Century the 30-06 dominated conventional long range shooting in the United States. However, in 1935, something happened that had a profound effect and started a trend that continues to this day. In that year a shooter named Ben Comfort won the Wimbledon Cup with a rifle chambered for the 300 H&H Magnum, shooting factory match ammo of all things. The magnum craze took over, at least temporarily.

After a lull during World War II, “any rifle” competition at the longer distances started anew but shooters had not forgotten that big belted H&H case, and the BBAB (Big Bullets Are Better) theory prevailed . For the next 40 years it was a rare firing line that did not bristle with 30-caliber rifles firing long boat-tail bullets of 180 grains or more. A few 30-06s and even an occasional 300 H&H were seen but most competitors turned to wildcats of large, and even larger, capacity.

One of the more popular was the 30-338, a wildcat based on the 338 Winchester Magnum case necked down to 30 caliber. Its near twin, the 30 Short Ackley Magnum, was seen in matches in the western states. In 1963 Winchester introduced the new 300 Winchester Magnum which eventually took the place of both. One or two shooters might be seen using the big 300 Weatherby or the equally big, full size Ackley Magnum. The U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) developed their own cartridge, another big 30, that can be mistaken for the Ackley if you’re not careful. Only its headstamp gives it away. Even when seen side-by-side it is difficult to tell one 30 magnum from another.

But in just a few short years, the glamour of the 30 caliber faded and by the late 1990s more and more 7mm, 6.5mm, 6mm, and even 22s were seen at 1000-yard matches. Availability of new powders, new bullets and better barrels seemed to peak at the same time. Today, shooters realize that accuracy is all that matters and they’ve learned that it’s not exclusive to the big boomers. Where it will lead is anyones guess. At the recent Williamsport World Open, the Overall Two-Gun Winner shot a big 30 (.308 Baer) in both Heavy Gun and Light Gun, but Mark King's little 6mm Dasher was second overall, and Jason Baney won the Heavy Gun class with a standard 6mm BR.

Military Match Cartridges
The history of U. S. Military match ammunition is a long one, spanning more than 125 years. It may not be as exciting as my other narratives but it is an important part in the story of competition cartridges nonetheless. Here are three of the oldest, the .45-80, the .30-40, and the .30-06.

In 1879 the National Armory in Springfield began the development of the first competition cartridge ever undertaken by the U.S. Army. But, as curious as it may sound, you will not find any records as such. In 1879 the United States Congress was not likely to approve appropriations for arms and ammunition for things such as “target shooting”. So, under the pretext of producing a “sniper” or “long range” military rifle, the first competition rifles and ammunition were manufactured. The rifle was the well known 45-70 Springfield “Trapdoor” with modifications including vernier tang sights and spirit level front sights. The cartridge was a specially made 45 caliber copper cartridge, with 80 grains of black powder and a 500 grain bullet. Officially called the “Lengthened Chamber Cartridge” or “2.4 inch Case” the cartridge is known by collectors today as the 45-80-500 Sharpshooter.

Beginning with its adoption in 1892, though hardly considered a match cartridge, the 30-40 Krag with its slow moving 220 grain bullet was good enough to win many matches using the standard ball ammunition. Attempts were made to increase long range accuracy through the use of specially made bullets, such as the Remington 172-grain Thomas Pencil Point (very similar to today’s modern VLD). Even though such improvements succeeded, the cartridge itself was short-lived and was destined to be replaced a few years later by one without equal, before or since, the 30-06.

For most of the first half of the 20th Century the 30-06 was the predominant long range competition cartridge, in all its various military match configurations. Civilian shooters had neither the financial resources nor time to experiment, so supported by organizations such as the NRA and National Guard units, military rifles and cartridges were the norm at all tournaments. Prior to WW I it was usual to hold a competition to determine which manufacturer would furnish 30-06 ammunition for the National Matches. Though commercially manufactured, the cartridges were all standard Cal .30 M1906 ammunition with the 150 grain flat based bullet made to arsenal specifications. Then in 1925 the 30-Caliber M1 service ammunition was standardized with an 172-grain boat-tailed bullet and ordinary ammunition was taken from stock to be used in competition. Starting in 1930, National Match ammunition was selected from arsenal lots showing better than average accuracy. For Palma and other International matches where extreme long range accuracy is required, specially prepared cartridges, usually commercially loaded, were used.

After the new 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge (aka 308 Winchester) was adopted in 1954 the '06 was used less and less. It's seldom seen on the firing line today since most shooters, including the military, prefer to use one of the newer, more modern long range cartridges. In 1992 it was officially dropped as a Palma cartridge but it remains legal for most classes of competition and is one of the required cartridges for “as issued” matches.

Showing all of the various 30-06 competition cartridges would take more space than we have here and would likely bore you to tears. I will picture just a few of them for you.


The 50 BMG and .50-Caliber Cartridges
During World War I the United States was armed principally with 30-caliber rifles and machine guns. Very much impressed with the 11, 12, and 13 millimeter heavy machine guns used by other countries, the Army obtained samples of the ammunition and proceeded to investigate possible new machine guns to handle the larger cartridges, which were mostly rimmed cases. General John Pershing insisted that much time could be saved by simply scaling up the 30-06 rifle cartridge and the Browning M 1917 machine gun to handle it. Fortunately, the General's advice was followed and by the end of 1918 the Caliber .50 Browning Machine Gun (50 BMG) had been perfected.

To save time, let's jump ahead 67 years to 1985 when the Fifty Caliber Shooters Assn., Inc. (FCSA) was established to advance the sporting uses of the .50 BMG cartridge. Rifles used in 50-caliber competition would be considered extraordinary by anyone’s definition, typically weighing between 30 and 100 pounds, sporting long barrels, massive stocks, and large muzzle brakes, but still fired off of conventional front and rear sandbag rests or bipods. Primary emphasis is on use of the original BMG cartridge but there are other 50-caliber cartridges being used in FCSA competition. The six described and illustrated typify those found on the firing line today.

Most often encountered is the daddy of them all, the 50 BMG. As required by FCSA rules, any rifle competing in the Light Class (less than 32.5 pounds) must be chambered for the unaltered BMG cartridge and must accept an FCSA approved chamber gauge. The one shown here has 750-grain Hornady A-MAX UHC bullet.

A 50 wildcat that is destined to grow in popularity is the 50 DTC. Designed by "DanTec", a shooter in France, it is intended for use in countries where military cartridges are prohibited. It is essentially a BMG shortened one tenth of an inch with the shoulder angle increased from 15 to 18 ½ degrees and a small reduction in body taper.

Every wildcatter worth his salt will take any cartridge case he can get his hands on and try to improve it. The 50 BMG is no exception. With the case body blown out to a minimum taper and a 45-degree shoulder, the 50 BMG IMPROVED approaches the upper limit of case capacity and not much can be done to improve it further. The one shown here is loaded with an 800-grain solid bore-rider bullet.

Many 50-caliber competitors consider the case volume of the original BMG cartridge to be more than adequate for 1000 yard shooting and they seek improvements in the form of more precision rather than added velocity. Taking a page from the small caliber benchrest bible, they are turning to shorter cases in their search for an increase in accuracy. There are numerous examples but all are based on the 50 BMG case and most share the common traits of reduced body taper and sharper shoulder angles. The popular 50 McMURDO, shown above. is loaded with a 705-grain bore-rider bullet.

Another often seen cartridge is the 50 BAT. Using the military Cal. 50 Spotter-Tracer M48, M48A1, or M48A2 case, the round shown has had the primer pocket enlarged and a brass flash tube with a standard large rifle primer installed. The cartridge shown sports a GI 700 grain M2 bullet.

A discussion of 50-caliber benchrest cartridges would not be complete without mention of the largest of them all, the 50 FAT MAC. Developed by rifle maker Gale McMillan, the Fat Mac is made from a drastically altered 20mm Vulcan cannon case. The shoulder is pushed back to a 30° angle and the case trimmed to a length of 2.6" with a very short neck. The primer pocket is modified for installation of a stainless steel flash tube and a standard BMG primer. Whereas the 50 BMG Improved can launch a match bullet to 3000 feet per second, the Fat Mac will propel the same bullet in excess of 3400 fps.

The future of 50-caliber benchrest shooting in the United States is a cloudy one. California has already enacted a law severely restricting the possession and use of the 50 BMG cartridge and rifles for any purpose. There is no doubt that shooters will have to make adjustments to this type of legislation. The answer may lie in wildcat cartridges such as the 50 DTC. Even more restrictive statutes are being proposed in other States. In effect they would completely ban all 50 caliber weapons and ammunition. A showdown between law-abiding citizen riflemen and anti-gun politicians is inevitable.

Cartridge Collecting & "Headstamp Hunters"
Several of the big-time cartridge collectors are what we call "headstamp hunters." That means they specialize in one or two cartridges such as, say, the 30-06 or 9mm Luger, and try to collect every known headstamp of that particular cartridge. This pursuit can last a lifetime and could involve hundreds, if not thousands, of specimens. I do not do such a thing but I do watch for different or uncommon headstamps. There are only a few unusual ones among my competition cartridge collection and even these will probably be recognized by any shooter who has competed for more than a few years. But for you who would be interested in such things, here are 6 of them. Keep your eyes open! Some of these are rare and are worth more than a gallon of gas.

I've been asked if the 222 Special has a large primer (it may seem that way in the above photo). No, it uses a small rifle primer just like the 223 Remington. Only the headstamp is different. Later ones were headstamped REM-UMC 223, and the final version is what we see today, REM-UMC 223 REM. It's interesting that the original 222 Remington Magnum was called the 22 Special on the boxes but was not headstamped. I guess Remington liked the word "special".


An excellent read.