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Sunday, October 03, 2010

Call It “the Cher” If You Like

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, October 2, 2010.)

Bullets aren’t necessarily
the caliber they say they are.

Way back a hundred years ago, if people had agreed on a standard way of naming cartridges, life would be a whole lot easier for hunters and shooters.

Maybe you know that the .30-06 has its name because it’s a .30-caliber cartridge invented in 1906. Most hunters do. The “aught-six” is a centenarian, still with plenty of vigor.

Did the .25-06 also originate in 1906? No. Remington conceived it in 1969 by squeezing the .30-06 neck down to hold a quarter-inch bullet. Its name is just a hat-tip to its daddy.

So if we neck down a .30-06 case to hold a .28 caliber bullet, would it be called the .28-06? Nope. We’d call it the .280, and it shoots a .284" bullet. The .27 caliber child of the .30-06 is named the .270, and it shoots a .277" bullet. That’s a difference of a mere .007". Make sense yet?

The .30-06 has spawned a whole family of cartridges, and ego sometimes played a role in the name. Colonel Townsend Whelen had the idea of supersizing the aught-six to a .358" bullet, and called it the .35 Whelen. Then there’s the .338-06, which inherited the “-06” surname just as the .25-06 did.

Bullets aren’t necessarily the caliber they say they are. I once thought all .30 caliber bullets were .308" diameter. Then I met the .303 British, a relative slowpoke among most .30 caliber bullets. It measures .311". I don’t know why it’s not called the .31 British.

Another .30 caliber, a military veteran named the .308, also fathered a big family. Its name is its exact diameter. A couple husky kids followed in that lineage, the .338 Federal and the .358 Winchester.

The .243 is a small child of the .308, but it doesn’t shoot a .243" bullet. It shoots a .244" bullet. There’s a young upstart in that family with a metric name, the 7mm-08, but not because it started life in 1908, or 2008. The “-08” is simply a nod to the original bullet diameter of its parent case.

As a soldier the .308 was called the 7.62 NATO to accommodate the European members of the North American Treaty Organization. Europeans use the metric system not only for bullet diameter, but also for the other principle dimension of a cartridge – its case length. Thus, the 6.5 x 55mm is a cartridge with a bullet that’s 6.5mm in diameter, shot from a case measuring 55mm long. Then there’s the 7 x 57mm, almost a twin to its American cousin, the 7mm-08, but a little bigger and a little longer.

The metric system is mainly a European method of naming cartridges, but the 7mm-08 has no European genes. Its brother is the 6.5mm-08, more commonly known as the 260. Born in 1997, it’s a babe in the woods, as rifle cartridges go.

Another European name, the 5.56 x 45mm, is what we Yankees call the .223. It fires a bullet measuring .224", same as the .222, the .225, the .22-250, and several others. It’s another military recruit with the metric name 5.56 NATO. By the way, the 5.56 actually measures 5.7mm. Who knew?

What can make the world of guns and cartridges even more bewildering? Advertising. Yep, the ad men have done their part to baffle shooters.

Along about 1915, Charles Newton was trying to develop a new whiz-bang cartridge shooting a .257" bullet. The idea was for advertising men to brag that it pushed a 100-grain bullet along at a blistering (for the time) 3000 feet per second. It fell short, but succeeded at getting a bullet weighting 87 grains to go that fast, so the new baby was christened the .250-3000.

Then there’s the .222. Some people call it the “three deuces,” but its actual name often stands alone. Kinda like Cher. It has waned in popularity since its introduction at mid century. Kinda like Cher. In fact, for all the sense cartridge names have, if you invent a new one you could call it “the Cher” if you like.

If anything is clear from all this, it isn’t much. And don’t start thinking about magnums. The term “magnum” has no definition, other than, I suppose, “Here’s a bullet that goes a little faster than you might think. Maybe.”

Lucky for you, I’ve run out of space.


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