Planning the perfect safari battery is always a challenge. With Africa’s great variety it’s almost impossible to be perfectly armed for everything one might encounter. In the old days, the African battery was typically three rifles: “Light” for small to medium plains game; “medium” for the largest antelope and perhaps lion; and a “heavy” for the big stuff — and sometimes it’s fun to have a shotgun as well! Today it’s increasingly difficult to take more than two firearms on safari, which means we have to compromise.
In 2017, headed to Mozambique, I didn’t take a “buffalo rifle.” That is uncharacteristic because hunting those swamp buffaloes is always a primary pursuit. Fortunately, I knew my buddy Gordon Marsh was taking his Sabatti double chambered to .450/.400-3” Nitro Express (NE). I knew we could share it, and among our camp that little rifle accounted for four buffaloes. There were six shots expended, no runners, all down within a few yards.
I love the .450/.400 for buffalo! We have the first modern Heym chambered to this cartridge, and also a scoped Ruger No. 1 so chambered. Both are great rifles with several buffaloes to their credit, and the Heym has accounted for a couple of elephants. But back in Mozambique in 2018, I didn’t take a .450/.400, and Gordon wouldn’t be there with his. Instead, I took another Sabatti double in .450-3 1/4” Nitro Express (NE). I also used it in Caprivi, two buffalo bulls down, no problems. Both cartridges are among my all-time favorite dangerous game cartridges. Both are (originally) British Nitro Express cartridges dating to end of the 19th Century, and both are extremely viable today. Although their designations start with “.450,” they couldn’t be more different!
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The name of a cartridge should give us some idea of the bullet and bore diameter, and perhaps some inkling of the power level. However, we round numbers up and down, and there are American, British and European protocols with exceptions to every rule. The .450-3 1/4” NE is straightforward. Developed by John Rigby in 1898, it was the first large-caliber cartridge designed specifically for smokeless propellant (nitrocellulose-based, thus “Nitro Express”). The .500 and .577 NEs preceded it, but both were based on existing blackpowder cases. “.450” is the nominal bullet diameter, actually .458-inch, rounded down. The British often appended the case length, as in .450-3 1/4”, 3.25-inch case. The case is rimmed, intended for use in double rifles and single shots for ease of extraction, and is straight with gradual body taper. It was occasionally called the “.450 Straight” and is also referred to as “.450 NE.”
Despite the first part of its designation, the .450/.400-3” is a totally different cartridge with much reduced power level. Taking an existing cartridge case and changing the neck diameter (thus bullet diameter) has been common as long as there have been metallic cartridge cases. Americans tend to use the actual bullet diameter first, sometimes referencing the parent case second: “.25-’06” is a .25-caliber cartridge based on the .30-’06 case necked down; the “7mm-08” is a 7mm (.284-inch) cartridge based on the .308 Winchester case necked down. The British tend to use the parent case first, followed by the approximate bullet diameter. So, the .450/.400-3” is not a .450-caliber cartridge at all! It is a .450 case necked down to take a .40-caliber (actually .410-inch) bullet, and it uses a three-inch case.
There are two versions. The .450/.400-3 1/4” NE dates to the early 1890s and was based on a blackpowder cartridge case necked down to .40-caliber and using a 3.25-inch long case. At higher smokeless powder pressures, there were some early issues with weak cases designed for low blackpowder pressures. Stronger cases solved that, but John Rigby was undoubtedly considering reliable extraction when he developed his .450-3 1/4” cartridge.
At about the same time, using heavier brass with a thicker rim and shorter case, the rival firm of W.J. Jeffery introduced the .450/.400-3”, commonly also known as the “.400 Jeffery.” Both case lengths were popular, and although ballistics are almost identical, the two are not interchangeable. That complicates the picture a bit but, although there are other .450-caliber Nitro Express cartridges, there is only one .450-3 1/4” NE and there is only one .450/.400-3” NE. Despite the confusing nomenclature, they are different cartridges with different purposes, and both have made significant comebacks.
BRINGING ‘EM BACK
After World War II, Great Britain began releasing far-flung colonies in both Africa and Asia. With a greatly reduced market, the British gun trade floundered and Kynoch started discontinuing production of Nitro Express cartridges, a process that was complete by the mid-1960s. For 20 years ammunition grew ever scarcer for the British big bores. Aging ammunition (and brass!) was carefully hoarded while American handloaders used RCBS dies and Barnes bullets. In the mid-1980s Randy Bell of Brass Extrusion Laboratories Ltd. (BELL) offered new cases. New rifles from Heym, Krieghoff, Merkel, American Butch Searcy and others rekindled interest in double rifles, but initially it was mostly a .470 Nitro Express world.
The .500 Nitro Express made a mild resurgence, and in 1996 Krieghoff introduced the .500/.416-3 1/4” NE. Both the .470 and .500 are great cartridges, and the .500/.416 is awesome, but with a 400-grain bullet at 2,350 feet per second (fps) it develops about the same energy as the .470, thus has pretty much the same recoil.
In the 1990s I had a lovely boxlock .450/.400-3” by unknown British maker Thomas Turner. Hard-hitting but mild in recoil, I loved it and should have kept it! In the early 2000s, with doubles becoming ever more popular, it seemed to me there was a need for an effective medium-power double rifle cartridge that didn’t kick you into next week.
Hornady was interested in expanding its “Dangerous Game” line, so while in camp in the Zambezi Valley I talked Steve Hornady and Ruger’s Randall Pence into taking a look at the .450/.400-3”. Ruger made a run of No. 1 single shots in .450/.400-3” and, over time, virtually all current makers of modern double rifles adopted the chambering. With a 400-grain bullet at about 2,100 fps, the .450/.400 develops around 4,000 ft.-lbs. of energy. In the old days it was considered adequate for any large bovine, and acceptable for elephant, but with much less recoil than the big bores.
This resurrection was not without challenges. Both the non-interchangeable .450/.400-3 1/4” and .450/.400-3” were popular and chambered by many makers. The longer version, as originally loaded, was a bit faster and slightly more powerful. My opinion remains that the three-inch version was more popular, but there is no proof that is correct. Gunwriting colleague Ross Seyfried, extremely knowledgeable on such things, thought I was wrong and gave both me and Hornady grief for choosing the three-inch version. However, my recommendation wasn’t based on whim. The British loaded Cordite, an early smokeless propellant formed in long sticks or “cords” that was highly volatile. They always used extra-large cases for more expansion during ignition and thus lower pressure. With modern propellants, the bigger cases serve little purpose. Both .450/.400s being essentially equal in performance, I figured we’d get better load density (less empty space) using modern powders in the three-inch case. Anyway, done is done. The .450/.400-3” has become extremely popular in new doubles and is also a wonderful choice in single-shots. The .450/.400-3 1/4” is available from other sources, but few new rifles are so chambered today and the .450/.400-3” has been a solid winner.
In big-bore double rifles the .470 is King, probably followed by the .500-3” NE. The .470 is excellent for everything up to small armored cars, but the .500 gives you a bit more with little increase in recoil. Thing is, the .470 and .500 share the same rim and base diameter. I’ve had several .470s over the years, and currently have a Krieghoff in .500-3”. You won’t catch me knocking either cartridge, both are superb, however, I’m allowed to have favorites.
My favorite big-bore double rifle cartridge has long been the .450-3 1/4”. The reasons are subtle. From the .450s up through the .465, .470, the three .475s and the .476, performance is identical: Roundabout 480- to 520-grain bullets at about 2,150 fps with around 5,000 ft.-lbs. of energy. The .470 won the popularity race but, again, only the .500 gives you a wee bit more.
Aside from being the original 1898 cartridge that set the standard, the .450-3 1/4” has a smaller base diameter than the rest, most of which are based on the .500 case necked down. That means it can be housed in a trimmer action. In 1956 the .458 Winchester Magnum made the .458-inch bullet a world-wide standard. With so many bullet choices to today, this isn’t as important, but everybody who makes large-caliber bullets makes .458-inch bullets. Finding .458-inch bullets is never a problem! Also, since it has a straight case rather than bottleneck, the load density advantage applies.
Yes, ‘twas me who convinced Hornady to bring back the .450-3 1/4” in a modern load, and God bless them. Since it uses a smaller rim and base diameter than .500-based cartridges (including the .470), another small rationale was that the .450 3 1/4” NE is essentially the largest existing cartridge that can be housed in the Ruger No. 1 action without hogging out the bottom of the receiver. Ruger has done runs of No. 1s in this cartridge, but it has not been as successful as the .450/.400-3”. In a lighter rifle like the Ruger single shot, recoil is snappy!
Although both the .450/.400 and .450- 3 1/4” projects seemed quite straightforward, there were issues. References suggest .411 as the correct bullet diameter for the .450/.400-3”. In actual fact, .450/.400s vary more in bore diameter than most British cartridges. Perhaps that is because they were offered by so many small shops, but older .450/.400s can be encountered with bores as loose as .412-inch and as tight as .408-inch.
Modern rifles are standardized at .410, and that is the bullet diameter Hornady settled on. In older rifles it’s a good idea to slug your bore and find out exactly what you’re dealing with. Since the .458 Winchester Magnum came out, 500 grains has been the standard .458-inch bullet weight. John Rigby’s original bullet for his .450-3 1/4” was 480 grains. Hornady started with 500-grain bullets in its initial Dangerous Game loads. A four percent difference in bullet weight won’t make a difference to any pachyderm!
I’ve shot a lot of 500-grain bullets in my .450 doubles and, so long as velocity is normal, regulation has been fine. However, doubles are notoriously finicky; Hornady’s current .450-3 1/4” loads, in both DGX-Bonded and DGS, are 480 grains.
.450/.400 YESTERDAY AND TODAY
Taken together, the two .450/.400s were easily the most common chamberings in larger-caliber British doubles. Individually, each was probably more popular than several of the big bores. Part of this is sheer utility. We tend to forget that far more vintage British doubles went to India than to Africa. The .450/.400 was considered perfect for tiger, and of course was Jim Corbett’s choice. However, we also forget that, in addition to tiger, India had more varieties of dangerous game than Africa: Elephant, rhino, gaur, water buffalo, sloth bear and both lions and leopards. The .450/.400 was considered perfectly adequate for the Asian jungle and for the African bush.
With a 400-grain bullet at around 2,100 fps, it develops about 4,000 ft.-lbs. of energy. This is 20 percent less bullet weight and energy than the .450 and .470, and a greater reduction in recoil. Penetration is excellent, and no one, including John Taylor (who loved big bores), has ever suggested that the .450/.400 is inadequate for elephant. Without question the big bores are more adequate, but the .450/.400 is a whole lot easier to shoot (and to shoot well).
Prior to Hornady’s resurrection, nobody really wanted a .450/.400. It didn’t have the sex appeal of the big bores, and ammo was scarce. Older rifles were plentiful and at a fraction the cost of, say, a .470 (which is the cartridge everyone wanted). Things have changed, and all vintage doubles have skyrocketed in value. However, the .450/.400 is now an important part of today’s double rifle world. Everybody makes them. Considering the mild “paper ballistics,” effect is awesome and they are fun to shoot. Since they’re fun, you will shoot a .450/.400 more and shoot it better. And it really is manageable! Donna has used the .450/.400-3” in both single shots and double rifles and has used it for both buffalo and elephant. It does its work very well without hurting you.
.450-3 1/4” YESTERDAY AND TODAY
Although I’m in the minority, I think the .450-3 1/4” is the best of the British big bores for double rifles. It could have become the dominant double rifle cartridge but for two things. First, the British proprietary system. All British gunmakers were small shops compared to a Remington or Winchester and the larger houses had to have their own cartridges. The .450-3 1/4” belonged to Rigby.
Holland & Holland soon followed with its .500/.450. Developed by Eley, an ammo company and thus not a proprietary, the .450 No. 2 followed with a massive 3.5-inch case, but similar ballistics. The .450 No. 2 was popular, but in about 1907, because of unrest, the .450-caliber was banned in India and Sudan (same bullet diameter as the .577/.450 Martini Henry cartridge).
That opened the floodgate. In a couple of years, the Brits had .500/.465, .470, .475, .475 No. 2, .475 No. 2 Jeffery and .476 Nitro Express cartridges — all with similar ballistics. The .470 emerged as the most popular today, but “in the day” there were no clear winners.
Still, the .450-3 1/4” had its following. Kermit Roosevelt used one in 1909 while Theodore Roosevelt used his famous .500/.450. Denys Finch-Hatton used a Rigby .450-3 1/4”, as did more recent ivory hunters such as John Taylor and Ian Nyschens. Today, for better or worse, the .450-3 1/4” isn’t nearly as popular as the .470, although at least equally effective. I got my first .470 nearly 40 years ago, but I always wanted a .450-3 1/4”. It took a while, but I’ve had one or another .450-3 1/4” for nearly 20 years. Now, with ammunition more available than ever, the .450-3 1/4” makes a sound alternative to the .470.
WHICH TO CHOOSE?
As with most cartridge selections, it depends largely on what you intend to do with it. Although clearly very effective, I’ve taken only few buffaloes with the .450-3 1/4”, but several elephants. It has a lot of recoil (same as the .470) which would be fine if necessary, but that level of power is not essential for buffalo. On the other hand, the .450-3 1/4” is superb for elephant; not necessarily better than the .470, but at least as good.
The situation is reversed on buffalo. Over the years, we’ve taken a lot of buffaloes with the .450/.400-3”, and I’m convinced it is exactly perfect: Not just plenty of power, but visibly more impact and effect than a .375 can deliver. I am certainly not suggesting it’s “better” than the .416s. It’s actually similar in effect, but in a double rifle, which is usually a bit heavier than a bolt-action, it delivers well without undue punishment.
If you’re looking for a double rifle that will be used mostly for buffalo, then I think the .450/.400-3” is the way to go. It certainly has plenty of power for elephant, but the .450/400’s strongest suit is buffalo. On the other hand, if you intend to concentrate on elephant, then the .450-3 1/4” may be a better choice. Of course, you can always follow the crowd and get a .470 or take a step up and get a .500. Today there are plenty of new rifles and lots of ammo. It’s nice to have choices!--Craig Boddington