In the beginning of metallic cartridges their names had meaning. As in .44 Henry Rimfire, where “.44” for bullet/barrel bore diameter, “Henry” for make of rifle and then “Rimfire” for type of ignition. Next came ones like .44 WCF and .38 WCF (Winchester Centerfire). Simple, those names were, accurate they were not. The .44 WCF was introduced with a 0.425-inch bullet so it was actually a .43 caliber (if we round up). The .38 WCF was introduced with a 0.400-inch bullet so it was truthfully a .40 caliber. Both rounds’ names eventually segued into .38-40 and .44-40 meaning they carried 40 grains of black powder.Later Winchester started adding the powder charge to cartridge names. The WCF was tacked on at the end: such as .40-82 WCF, .45-90 WCF, .50-110 WCF. After the turn of the 20th century “centerfire” disappeared and just “Winchester” was a suffix to bullet or bore diameter. Such were .33 Winchester, .348 Winchester, etc. Winchester Repeating Arms actually made their Model 1907 .351 WSL (Winchester Self Loading) take 0.351-inch bullets. But then turned around and had their Model 1910 .401 WSL use 0.406-inch bullets.

Marketing people like to give names with zest to small-bore varmint type cartridges.

Cartridge names have not always been uniform. These were all for what today is called .30-40 Krag.

Groove Or Bore?

Then there was the matter of bullet, bore and groove diameters. Earlier American ammunition makers used bore diameters as caliber. Such as .270 was the rifle’s bore diameter but 0.277-inch was its groove diameter and consequently the diameter of its bullets. Eventually, American cartridges became named for their barrel groove/bullet diameters: .243 Winchester .257 Roberts, .308 Winchester, etc.

That brings us to peoples’ names in cartridges. “Roberts” was Ned Roberts, a wildcat experimenter. Col. Townsend Whelen, another wildcatter and firearms writer whose idea was opening .30-06 necks up to take 0.358-inch bullets. Decades after Whelen’s death Remington made his wildcat a factory load and named it .35 Whelen in his honor. To the best of my knowledge the most recent factory introduced cartridge to use a person’s name was the 7-30 Waters, named for Ken Waters, a very popular firearms writer of the second half of the 20th century. That one came about in 1984 and was a levergun cartridge. It used the .30-30 case necked down for 7mm bullets.

In these cartridges (from left to right), .45 Colt, .44 Special, .357 Magnum and .38 Special,
both .45 and .357 are accurate to actual bullet diameters but .44 Specials actually use .43
caliber bullets and .38 Specials are loaded with .35 caliber ones.

Evolving Names

Let’s look at some American military rounds that also became popular in sporting rifles. Sometimes it took a while for civilian headstamps to become uniform. Consider our government’s first .30 caliber cartridge. I have a Winchester round headstamped .30 Army, a Remington one saying .30 USA but today’s are marked .30-40 Krag.The .30-06 was treated likewise. It started out simply termed .30 US or .30 Government. Note: this is the bore size of rifles meant for it, not their groove diameters. When civilian rifle and ammunition makers adopted it, they also included the year it was introduced—1906. Early on, some commercial ammunition was headstamped; .30 G. Model 1906. So was the .25-06 introduced in 1906 also? No—it was simply the .30-06 case necked to take 0.257-inch diameter bullets.

Before standardization, the round at left carries a headstamp once used for .30-06.
The G stands for Government. At right is today’s standard.


Many handgun caliber names and headstamps do not represent the actual size of their bullets or the barrels meant for them. Our current .44 calibers are good examples. The .44 Russian, .44 Smith & Wesson Special and .44 Remington Magnum cases all share the same case head, differing only in length, i.e., 0.97, 1.16 and 1.29 inches in the same order. Proper bullet diameter for all three is 0.429 jacketed and 0.429 to 0.431 inch for lead alloy ones. They are not .44 caliber and no handguns ever made for them had true .44 caliber barrels.The same goes for the .38 S&W Special. Bullet diameter is 0.357 inch for jacketed and perhaps another 0.001 inch for lead alloy ones. That was nominal groove diameter for Smith & Wesson revolver barrels. But get this: Colt always used 0.354 inch for their .38 Special barrels! And nothing changed when .357 Magnum came along. S&W’s barrel/groove diameters were nominally 0.357 inch but Colt stayed with 0.354 inch for theirs.Long ago small, relatively high velocity cartridges meant for small game or varmints got zesty names such as .22 Hornet, .218 Bee, .219 Zipper, .22 Jet and .220 Swift. One of the oddest names is .22-250. It’s a .22 caliber centerfire based on the .250-3000 case. And the “3000” in “.250-3000” meant not a year or a powder charge. It was simply the advertised velocity of its 0.257-inch, 87-grain bullets.In modern times marketing is taught as a major course of study in higher education. So now cartridges get some really far out names. There’s a .300 Ultra and a .300 SAUM—names that fit hot .30 caliber magnum cartridges. And now Nordic legends are included such as 6.5 Grendel. Of course to American riflemen Creedmoor is synonymous to long-range shooting, so it got attached to a new 6.5mm round used in such competitions.None of this even touches on cartridges—domestic or foreign—with metric names. What on earth is a 7mm-08? Or, is the 8mm Mauser actually 8mm or even a Mauser-designed cartridge? Those questions will have to wait for another column.

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