Breaking The Barrier

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Just Over 100 Years Ago, The .250-3000
Savage Electrified The Shooting Scene

By John Barsness

Evidently introducing new rifle cartridges used to be a more relaxed process. A 1915 magazine article by then-Lieutenant Townsend Whelen stated Savage first “exhibited a proposed model of the .250-3000 rifle at the National Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio, in 1913,” but Doug Murray’s book The 99 Savage says the .250-3000 didn’t appear in the Savage catalog until 1916.

Back then 3,000 feet per second was super-velocity, the reason Savage included the number in the cartridge name. Supposedly Charles Newton had a 100-grain bullet in mind when he designed the .250, but the people at Savage recognized the publicity potential in 3,000 fps, and the powders of the day couldn’t quite get there. So they dropped the weight to the 87 grains, for some obscure reason common in .25-caliber cartridges (and no, it’s not the avoirdupois equivalent of the metric weight, since 87 grains equals 5.64 grams). The little cartridge soon became known for its very flat trajectory, but back when the vast majority of rifles had iron sights a cartridge didn’t have to “shoot flat” very far.

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Even some newer rifles, like this Winchester Model 70 Lightweight Carbine
from the 1980’s, have the traditional 1:14 twist, so it won’t stabilize all
100-grain spitzers. The best accuracy often comes from the 100-grain Speer
Hot-Cor, the bullet used on this Montana mule deer doe on a cold November day
.

Fine Accuracy?

It also acquired a reputation for fine accuracy, but after owning 10 .250’s over the decades, I haven’t found it to be more accurate than most other cartridges. Six of the rifles were Savages, five 99’s and a Model 20, an early American “short” bolt action, introduced in 1920 and chambered for the .250-3000 and .300 Savage. The other four were newer bolt-actions, including three factory rifles, a Remington 700 Classic with a 24-inch barrel, and a Ruger 77 RL and Winchester Model 70 Lightweight Carbine, both with 20-inch barrels. The fourth was a custom rifle built by Charlie Sisk on a short Remington 700 action with a Brown Precision synthetic stock and 22-inch Shilen barrel.

The most basic problem in handloading the .250 is the original rifling twist of 1:14 inches, designed primarily for 87-grain bullets, though it would stabilize some 100-grain spitzers, along with 117-grain roundnoses, another weird-weight .25-caliber bullet which had been around since the .25-35 WCF. Rifling twists just enough to stabilize bullets were common in the early days of high velocity smokeless cartridges, because many jacketed bullets weren’t very well balanced.

Faster twists “over-stabilized” poorly-balanced bullets, resulting in mediocre accuracy, but slow twists caused problems when spitzers started to become longer and more streamlined. Even here in the thinner, high-elevation air of southwestern Montana, the two most reliably accurate 100-grain spitzers are usually the shortest—the Speer Hot-Cor and the Hornady InterLock. Unfortunately, Hornady recently discontinued the 100-grain InterLock, though some can still be found here and there, but the Hot-Cor is commonly available and normally works well. However, some 99’s won’t even shoot the 100-grain Speer accurately, including an 1899 takedown I once owned, though I tried every 99-accurizing trick—and I know quite a few, including some for take-down models.

Finally I measured the twist, which proved to be right around 1:15. Such variations weren’t uncommon back when many factories used adjustable sine-bar rifling machines, and apparently this barrel was made on a Monday. I tried 87-grain Speer Hot-Cor spitzers, originally designed for 1:14 twist .250’s, and they shot far more accurately than the 100’s.

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Newer Savage 99’s like this 99A carbine have 1:10 twists, so stabilize heavier
spitzers like the 115-grain Nosler Partition used on another mule deer doe. H4831
provides the highest velocities with heavier bullets and while accuracy isn’t
superb, it’s still plenty for .250 Savage hunting ranges.

ooting any 100-grain bullets longer than Speer Hot-Cors very well, whether Nosler Partitions or Ballistic Tips, Sierra GameKings, or any monometal such as the Barnes TSX. They may shoot in some 1:14 twists, especially in warmer weather or at higher elevations, but I’ve had mixed results even during summer in southwestern Montana. (However, an old 99 might actually have a 1:13 twist, which could help!)

This was why Savage switched to 1:10 twists around 1960, when they also modernized the 99 action, the most obvious change being a tang safety. The first .250 I owned was a straight-grip, tang-safety 99A carbine, and while it didn’t shoot as well as a typical .243 Winchester bolt-action, it was accurate enough for varmint shooting out to 250 yards. Unfortunately, somebody offered me significantly more money for the carbine than I’d paid, and two subsequent tang-safety 99A .250’s (supposedly purchased to replace it) shot about like iron-sighted .30-30’s, despite having scopes.

Somewhat strangely, in the 1980’s Winchester put 1:14 twist barrels on their Lightweight Carbine Model 70’s in .250. Mine shot all right with 100-grain Speers, though not spectacularly. But despite 1:10 twists, my other bolt-action .250’s didn’t shoot much better, except of course the custom Sisk rifle. It was spectacularly accurate with 75-grain Hornady V-Maxes, and did well with heavier bullets, but its primary user was my wife Eileen. She grew disenchanted with the .250 after discovering it didn’t shoot nearly as flat as her .270 Winchester, so eventually the Sisk also went down the road.

My most recent .250 is an E.R. Shaw barrel with a 1:10 twist made for Savage bolt actions. A couple years ago MidwayUSA offered them for a very good price, and I happened to own a Savage Axis in .22-250. The Shaw barrel was easy to screw onto the Axis action, and fit the factory stock’s barrel channel perfectly.

One reason .250’s don’t always shoot well is mediocre brass. As with many other low-demand rounds, some manufacturers don’t replace their case-forming dies very often, so many .250 cases end up lop-sided. They also don’t make them very often.

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IMR4451 and 117-grain Sierra GameKings proved to be one of the most
accurate combinations in the Savage Axis with a new E.R. Shaw barrel.

Many handloaders solve both problems by necking up .22-250 cases, normally formed in newer dies. This works well, and I had a pile of Winchester .22-250 brass on hand—but soon after installing and test-firing the Shaw barrel, Hornady started offering .250 Savage cases. All the recent Hornady brass I’ve tried has been very good, so I ordered some. All 50 cases turned out to be very consistent, so were used in the most recent tests.

Per usual, before trying various loads I searched all current data, picking loads listed as producing higher velocity, finer accuracy, or both. As can be seen from the results, the rifle shot very well with the right loads, partly because—as all .250 fans know—recoil is very mild.

Though velocities with the H4831 loads for 115- to 120-grain bullets have always been fast, accuracy has always been just OK, never great.

However, the new Enduron IMR4451 turned out to be very accurate with 117-grain Sierras, and while velocity wasn’t quite as fast as with H4831, it was close. It should also be mentioned with modern powders it’s pretty easy to get 3,000 fps with 100-grain bullets—though not always in Savage 99’s, where brass can stretch and cause sticky levers with maximum loads.

Mild recoil is also one reason the .250 has a reputation for being very effective on big game. Hunters don’t flinch, so they place their shots correctly. However, the ballistic coefficients of .25-caliber bullets aren’t all that high, so unlike some more modern rounds (including the .243 Winchester) it’s not normally chosen for long-range hunting. But out to 400 yards the .250 works even better than it did a century ago, and thanks to Hornady there’s consistent brass with the right headstamp.

Half of John Barsness’s dozen books are on firearms and shooting. His latest is The Hunter’s Guide to Handloading Smokeless Rifle Cartridges, published in 2015 by Deep Creek Press. It’s available through www.riflesanrecipes.com, P.O. Box 579, Townsend, MT 59644, (406) 521-0273.

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