Just about every time I open a gun rag (magazines dedicated to firearms shooting or handloading), I see some article promoting a new rifle cartridge. It’s not like I am opposed to new cartridges. I happen to think there are some niches that may not yet be filled by what is out there, but they are NICHES.
Yet most new cartridge introductions are aimed at mass market popularity, and usually fail to achieve this, because there is almost no way to significantly improve on the mass market popular cartridge offerings. The basic science behind how smokeless powder works, and how bullet aerodynamics work, were all determined back before WWI. There have been only increasingly small improvements made since then. There is no new-fangled high-powered 30 caliber cartridge that can do anything signifgantly better than .30-06.’ And if you are sold on the benefits of short actions, then you have .308, which is merely an attempt to match the .30-06′ in a smaller package (and it falls short, by the way). There is no small bore high powered cartridge that can do anything that a .243 Win or 6.5×55 can’t do (‘ya hear mean 6.5 Credemore fanboys). There is no smallbore intermediate cartridge out there that is significantly better than .223. A new varmint cartridge you say (‘ya here me 204 Ruger fanboys)…I reply with a yawn.
Now, there are niches out there, and I think new cartridges should fill these. There are also old and not so old introduced cartridges (not talking Wildcats here) that have merit, yet seem to be forgotten. It is one of these I would like to focus on: the 375 Winchester.
From left to right: 30-30, 375 Win, and 45-70 Government.
The 375 Winchester is theoretically a modern update of the 38-55 which was originally loaded with black powder. The 38-55 is actually a sort of parent to the venerable and popular 30-30 Winchester and the 25-35 Winchester, both offered in the very popular Winchester 94 rifle. Since the 30-30 became enormously popular in the 20th century, while the 25-35 and the 38-55 sort of died off (though have experienced a sort of revival as of late), I consider the 30-30 to be the true parent of the 375 Winchester, while the 38-55 is like great uncle that’s just the spittn’ image of the boy.
Indeed, 375 brass is drawn from the same coins on mostly the same machinery as 30-30. The only differences are in the final drawing and bottlenecking and trimming steps. The 375 is basically a straight-walled 30-30, though the pressure specifications are a bit higher, reaching into the 50,000 PSI zone, whereas 30-30 is 45,000 PSI. In fact, one can blow out a 30-30 case to convert it to a slightly short 375 case, as seem below.
Because of the greater surface area of the bullet of the 375, the greater pressure, and the greater case volume, the 375 Winchester outperforms the 30-30, pushing bullets about 25% heavier at the same velocities. The whippersnapper surpasses its lookalike the 38-55 by about 600 FPS at a given bullet weight. Since the 375 Winchester is basically the same size as a 30-30, it fits into the same basic platform–the lever-action carbine, the Winchester 94, Marlin 336, etc.
Now, when the 375 was introduced in the late 70s, a “big bore 94” was introduced along with it, and it featured beefed up areas in the receiver, making it stronger. Whether this was really necessary or marketing stuff is unclear, because the Marlin 336, which is a less strong design than a regular Winchester 94, had no such beefing up. Apparently the only difference was a heat-treatment that left the 375 chambered 336s slightly harder than the 30-30s. And re-boring a regular model 94 or 336 to 375 Winchester is a common and accepted practice. In fact, I can think of no better project to commit a 30-30 rifle with a rusted or worn barrel in otherwise good condition to.
Well, you might ask, this is all interesting but what merit does the 375 Winchester have? The 444 Marlin, 45-70 Government, and later 450 Marlin outperform it, and they are really “BIG BORE.” 375 caliber is normally considered medium bore. And therein lies its merit. Big bore stuff is really overkill for anything besides dangerous or potentially dangerous game. It’s hard on your shoulder, it isn’t very fun to shoot, and to get a bullet with good sectional density and ballistic coefficient you have to get so heavy that it is often quite slow, which means difficult to estimate rainbow trajectories at longer ranges.
I am a fan, for non-dangerous medium and larger game (Whitetails to Elk), of medium bores, which I define as between 30 caliber and 40 caliber, so 338, 348, 357, 375 calibers basically. I think they have a wonderful balance of being a bullet large enough that one doesn’t have to rely upon expanding bullets (and can opt for inexpensive homemade cast bullets) to produce adequate wound channels, but not so large that they are punishing, yet still retain respectable velocities around 2000 FPS, which delivers a flat enough trajectory out to 150 yards that holdover is unnecessary, but doesn’t cause unnecessary meat damage observed in many high-velocity cartridges.
I suspect that if more deer hunters butchered their own deer, instead of taking it to a processor, that they would abandon the use of cartridges like .308, .30-’06, and the “explosive” small bore high-velocity .243 Win, 6.5-284, 270 Win, etc. Entire sections of meat are destroyed or bloodshot by these high-velocity cartridges. Medium bore bullets have decent ballistic coefficients, and in the 200-250 grain weight range, have adequate sectional densities to pass completely through medium to large game animals. The medium bore slug goes in at moderate speed, makes a nice fat wound, and exits on the far side leaving two holes to bleed out (better blood trails and quicker death of animal) and deposits no bullet fragments in your food. The flat points needed on these bullets (because they are usually loaded in tubular magazines) improves the ability of the bullet to “mushroom” and lose velocity inside the body of the animal.
Another advantage they have, to my mind at least, is that they are easy to work with. Mid bore barrels are easier to get a brush and rod down. If water gets into them when you drop them into a creek, the water pours right out of a medium or larger bore (anything smaller than 30 caliber and this is questionable). And it’s easier to see the holes in a paper target, too.
375 Winchester is about the only cartridge that I can think of that may be a better on Whitetails than the 30-30 (though 35 Remington and 357 Herret may be, too), and it has the advantage of being truly able to deliver on Elk at shorter range, while still not being overkill on the Whitetails. I think its utility on ornery and/or large hogs would surpass the 30-30 or 7.62×39. But alas, the shooting public disagreed. Perhaps enamored with the big bore 444 Marlin or the resurgence of 45-70 in lever guns, the medium bore 375 was forgotten. Today, with the popularity of cowboy action shooting, the 38-55 is considerably easier to find, and the excellent 220 grain flat-pointed Hornady bullet designed specifically for 375 Winchester has been discontinued. I would like to see it once again factory chambered in the lever guns it was meant for, or in adequately strong single shots like the Ruger No1 and T/C Contender and Encore.
For residents of Indiana, 375 Winchester is particularly enticing. Being just over 2 inches long, and straight walled, the case can be cut down the 1.8″ (making it Indiana-legal on public lands) and still loaded safely with plenty of surface area to grip the bullet, and without much reduction in case capacity (simply seat bullet about 2/10ths of an inch further out). Since 375 headspaces on the rim, it will chamber safely in a regularly sized chamber with the cut down brass. The only problem may be some feeding problems in repeaters, but if the bullet is simply seated out further, roughly matching standard overall length for the 375 (which is the same as 30-30), it shouldn’t be a that big of a problem.