If you’ve read many hunting magazines lately, you may be under the impression that the only cartridges that exist are 6.5mms or overbore .300 magnums. Both are great and useful categories of cartridges, but neither is ideal for every purpose. Another entire family of big-game cartridges exists that gets little to no press and includes some of the very best rounds on earth for medium to heavy game at reasonable ranges. I’m talking about the medium bores, those very useful cartridges that lie between the .30 and .375 in bullet diameter. They just might be the perfect big-game cartridges.
The term “medium bore” is inexact at best, but my definition includes everything from the .303 British, .318 Westley Richards, .338-06, .350 Rigby, .358 Winchester, and the .35 Whelen. It also includes metric cartridges, including the 8mm Mauser, 8mm-06 and 9.3x62mm. Though I’ve had great success with the .338 Winchester Magnum and .33 Nosler on elk and comparable-sized game, for the purpose of this article, I’m excluding magnum rounds. These are fantastic cartridges, but in my opinion, their significant recoil puts them in a different category.
Medium bores are certainly not new. In fact, they probably peaked in popularity many decades ago when cartridges such as the .303 British, .318 Westley Richards, and .350 Rigby were in somewhat common use in Africa and India. In his landmark book, African Rifles and Cartridges, John “Pondoro” Taylor sings the praises of the medium bores. “With it [the .350 Rigby] I killed practically all species of African game from the elephant on down. I killed more lions with this rifle than with any other.” The original .350 Rigby that he is discussing pushed a long 310-grain FMJ at 2,150 feet per second.
One of the things these cartridges have going for them is penetration, which stems from a combination of long-for-caliber bullets with high sectional densities and mild velocities that don’t cause bullets to over-expand. Taylor used his .350 Rigby to take out a pair of problem lions with a single shot. The ability to break through four lion shoulders is about as much penetration as one can honestly hope for.
Taylor’s praise for these cartridges is a great starting point, but his book was released in 1948, so the information is dated to say the least. To find a more modern user, someone who actually shoots the medium bores in their intended environment against heavy game, we must travel north to the Alaskan Peninsula. Phil Shoemaker is a guide and outfitter who has four decades of experience on brown bears, interior grizzlies, and moose. Shoemaker’s daily choice for backing up his clients is one of two 9.3x62mm rifles he owns. He has also used a .35 Whelen extensively while guiding in Alaska’s interior, and his son, Taj, who is also a guide, carries one every season.
“I’ve used the 9.3x62, .35 Whelen, and the .375 Scovill and haven’t noticed a difference in killing or stopping power between any of them and the .375 H&H,” said Shoemaker. “One of my guides, who is a serious gun guy, used a .358 Winchester while guiding for me, and it also was a superb caliber.”
Shoemaker added that not only does the 286-grain 9.3x62 have the same sectional density as the 300-grain .375 H&H, but also in most rifles it can be loaded with five rounds in the magazine. “In 40 years I have guided in a lot of the state, from Kodiak to the Brooks and from the Peninsula and Yukon Delta to the Canadian border, which might explain why I have always been designing ‘the perfect all-around rifle.’ I have pretty well settled on short, lightweight, rugged carbines chambered in something between the .30-06 and the .375.”
The late Harry Selby, a professional hunter whose career in Africa spanned from the 1940s to 2000, was also a fan of the medium bores. In an email written to a friend of mine, Selby recommended a medium bore when asked his opinion on the “perfect” rifle for plains game: “Years ago I would have without doubt said the .318 Westley Richards with its .330-diameter 250-grain bullet at about 2,400 fps velocity. This cartridge had phenomenal knockdown power with softnosed bullets and unrivalled penetration with the solid. Today this cartridge is no longer loaded as far as I know, and .330-inch bullets are a custom proposition, but the .338-06 wildcat is very similar in performance. I am very fond of all .33 calibers with the 250-grain bullet as I feel the 30s are a bit light for the larger antelope such as eland.”
Of all these excellent cartridges, the one that stands out to me is the .35 Whelen. A former wildcat that was legitimized by Remington in the late 1980s, the Whelen is essentially a .30-06 necked-up to .358. Factory loads are a bit on the light side, but a handloader can safely push 225-grain bullets to 2,800 feet per second and 250-grainers to over 2,600 out of a 26-inch barrel, which bests the classic .318 by a good margin. Thanks to its parent cartridge, the Whelen is compatible with the magazines and bolt faces of a wide variety of rifles, which can save lots of time and money in the making of a custom gun.
Some excellent big-game bullets, including Nosler Partitions, Barnes Triple-Shocks, and Woodleigh solids, are available, and pistol bullets intended for the .38 Special/.357 Magnum can be used for small game or plinking. I recently fit and chambered a .35 Whelen barrel on a 1909 Argentine Mauser that will resemble a prewar Rigby once completed.
Because of diminished demand, factory rifles for medium bores are few and far between these days. Remington no longer catalogs a .35 Whelen. Ruger offers it in the single-shot No. 1 as a distributor exclusive. Lipsey’s commissioned a reported 250 Model 77 Hawkeye African rifles in 9.3x62mm from Ruger, and they are still listed on the distributor’s website as available. A few years back, I tested a peep-sighted No. 1 in 9.3x62 and found it to be a compact and powerful rifle, perfect for elk in the timber or eland in the African scrub. Sadly, it is no longer catalogued. Beyond the Ruger, the medium-bore rifle shopper really has only two options: buy used or have something custom built.
Not every hunter has the need, or even the desire, to use a medium bore, but for those tackling larger game, including moose, bears, elk, and most of Africa’s plains game animals, these cartridges can be hard to beat when the ranges are kept reasonable. They all have minimal bullet drop out to 300 yards, which is as far as most of us will ever find ourselves shooting. If I lived somewhere grizzlies roamed, I would like the idea of carrying a medium bore even when hunting deer-sized game to give me an additional insurance policy.
The medium bores are teetering on obsolescence in the marketplace, but for no good reason. These cartridges are no less useful today than they were a century ago, and with today’s premium bullets, they are even more effective.