The guns I like aren't that old
By JIM MATTHEWS
I used to think it was a product of my advancing age that I was becoming increasingly interested in older firearms, but I’m not sure nostalgia is the reason. I’m finally buying and shooting guns that I’ve wanted much of my life. In a sporting arms world that is increasingly dominated by AR-style rifles, which I find tremendously ugly, older guns are also more esthetically pleasing and -- well -- better. If not better, they are certainly just as good.
Don’t get me wrong, the ARs are a hoot to shoot, and if chambered for one of a vat-full of contemporary cartridges designed just for them, they are fine for deer hunting. A lot of the new ARs shoot just as accurately as most of my bolt-action or lever-action relics. But my guns are prettier, they have greater history, and the cartridges they shoot generally have more power and flatter trajectories, making them far better for hunting a wider variety of American game.
I hate to say this, but there really hasn’t been much progress in modern sporting firearm development in about 100 years, especially when it comes to ballistics. Even the function of today’s firearms is based on actions that were being developed as we entered the 20th Century. It turns out there is only so much you can do with a cartridge case holding a bullet and gunpowder. Once you settle on that method of design and delivery, everything becomes a variation on a theme.
The graduation from black powder and muzzleloaders to the era of smokeless powder and brass cartridge cases was really the last big advancement, and even that was merely a variation that allowed for one big step forward: the development of repeating firearms, when everything before that had been limited to single shots (or two shots in the case of muzzleloading double-barreled shotguns). There were curiosities with multiple barrels, but it was the cartridge case that really started the era of repeating firearms. Smokeless powder allowed the guns to function longer with far less cleaning -- short term and long term cleaning. Lever actions, bolt-action, and the first semi-automatic rifles were all developed in this era, with most bolts and semi-autos coming along about the same time smokeless powder became the standard around the turn of the last century. There hasn’t been a lot of progress since.
It was 100 years ago this year that one of my favorite rifle cartridges was introduced – the .250-3000 Savage. It was the first sporting round to have its bullet reach 3,000 feet per second, A well-known designer of that era, Charles Newton, designed the .250-3000 cartridge for Arthur Savage’s revolutionary Model 1899 rotary-magazine lever action rifle. Other lever guns of the era had long, tubular magazines attached beneath the barrel requiring the use of flat-nosed bullets. While they held more rounds than the new bolt-action guns being phased into use around the rest of the world, they were pretty much short-range guns because of the limitations of the stubby bullet. The Savage Model 1899 grabbed the American hunter’s passion for lever guns and paired it with a magazine that allowed the use of pointed bullets and higher velocity cartridges in its comparatively strong action. The stage was being set for some marketing genus.
Newton had already produced one high velocity round for Savage when he created .22 Savage High Power for the Model 1899 in 1912. This was essentially a necked down the .30-30 round, and it hurled a pointed 70-grain bullet at around 2,800 feet per second. The .22 Savage High Power, while promoted as a big game round, was really a little underpowered for game that size. Meanwhile, the .25-35 had a decent reputation on deer-sized game (justified or not). Newton also likely realized the world was moving away from rimmed rounds for modern bolt actions. His mind was probably processing all this information when Savage asked for a new high velocity round. So Newton shortened the newly adopted, U.S. military rimless 30 caliber round, the 30-06, to a length that would function through the Model 1899 action. He tapered the case so it fed easily, squeezed the caliber down to 25, and then took it to Savage suggesting they use a 100 grain bullet at 2,800 feet per second -- 600 feet per second faster than the increasingly popular .30-30, still a relatively new development.
It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall to hear the conversation when Newton and Savage were discussing the new round. Savage was probably well aware of the news from Canada that its Navy’s new military round, the .280 Ross, was hurling a bullet at 3,000 feet per second -- the first time any bullet had left the end of a barrel at that speed in a rifle cartridge. He wanted to match or top that. Newton probably suggested that he could get that velocity with an 87-grain bullet, but that it wouldn’t be as effective on game as a 100-grainer. Savage could see the marketing hype and knew what would sell more firearms. Newton, who was never as good a businessman as Savage, was more practical. It would not be the first time hype won out over practicality in the firearms industry, and it wouldn’t be the last. After all, it was Savage’s company, so we know who won the conversation. In a brilliant marketing move, instead of being called just the .250 something-or-other, it was called the .250-3000 to tout its incredible velocity achievement in its name. Arthur Savage took his genus to the bank. Newton had a couple of rifle companies and a whole line of ahead-of-his-time cartridges that wore his name, but they all failed and died before Newton. The 250-3000 Savage is still alive today 100 years later.
I have one chambered in a Savage Model 99 (the model name was changed from “1899” to just “99” so the gun didn’t sound so last century) with that silky smooth rotary magazine. My gun was probably made in the 1950s or 60s when I first starting lusting for a .250-3000. I also have another one made up on a modern bolt action. Interestingly, for those of us who handload with modern powders, it is possible to use Newton’s desired 100-grain bullet and reach Savage’s 3,000 feet per second goal, and I shoot 87-grain bullets from my guns at over 3,100 fps. Think of it as a .243 that has had 100 birthdays.
There aren’t many AR rounds that have comparable ballistics. Besides, the .250 round and the Model 99 both have a proven track record over the past 100 years. Frankly, they are as modern today as they were back in 1915. They can’t be improved upon. It make us aging guys think the same is true about us.