From 1888 to 1950, the .303 British was the official military cartridge of England and the countries that made up the British Empire. It was originally loaded with 70 grains of black powder and a 215-grain full-jacketed round nose bullet. The muzzle velocity was about 1,825 feet per second.
In 1892, the black powder was replaced with Britain's famous cordite smokeless powder (long strands of powder cut to the full length of the cartridge case.) This new powder increased the muzzle velocity to about 1,975 feet-per-second.
In 1914, just prior to the start of World War 1, the 215-grain bullet was replaced with a lighter, but longer, 174-grain pointed spitzer-type bullet. This new bullet was somewhat different from ordinary military bullets. The forward portion of the core tip inside the copper jacket was made of aluminum while the remainder of the core was the conventional lead alloy. The reason for this was to place the weight further back in the bullet. Such an arrangement would make the bullet very unstable upon impact causing it to keyhole or tumble, thus tearing a severe wound. The British government later admitted this was their way of getting around the international restriction against expanding or dumdum-type bullets for military purposes. The United States copied this idea of bullet tumbling with the .223 bullets that are chambered in the M-16 rifles used in the Vietnam Conflict.
After the Boer War, the British government sold great quantities of military rifles with ammunition to the African settlers. This cartridge became the most widely used in Africa because of this. Every kind of game in Africa has been killed with British .303 ammunition including thousands, not hundreds, of elephants.
In the 1950s, the British replaced the .303 with the 7.62 NATO and, in the 1980s with 5.56 NATO, for military roles. Since then, millions of surplus military rifles chambered for the .303 British have been sold to the civilian market at bargain prices. These rifles have seen much sporting use in Australia, Canada, and to a lesser extent, the United States. In Canada, sportsmen have found that the British .303 has adequate stopping power for all game except for the great bears.
Most rifles chambered for the British .303 are military type, but there have been a few sporting rifles chambered for it over the years. Some of them include the Parker-Hale Sporting Rifle manufactured in Birmingham, England, the Remington Number 5 Rolling Block Single Shot, and the Winchester Model 1895 lever action.
British .303 sporting ammunition is still manufactured by the major producers in the United States (Federal, Remington and Winchester). The major companies also produce reloading equipment and components. The advertised ballistics of sporting ammunition manufactured today include a 150-grain pointed soft point bullet with a velocity of about 2,725 feet-per- second and a 180-grain soft point round nosed bullet at 2,460 feet-per-second.
I have never fired a rifle chambered for the British .303. However, any person who has studied rifle ballistics has to have respect for this cartridge. I consider the British .303 one of the 10 most-underrated cartridges manufactured in America.
It would really be interesting to see a sporting rifle chambered for this classic cartridge once again, but I doubt if it would be a good seller.
Reloaders of the .303 British cases need to remember that the diameter of the bullets is .311, not the .308 diameter of American .30 caliber cartridges. Reloading bullets of .311 diameter are readily available from Hornady, Sierra, and Speer.
Below are three good handloads for the British .303:
1. Case Remington
Primer Remington 9 1/2 (large rifle)
Powder & Weight IMR 4895; 41.0 grains
Bullet Speer 150-grain Spitzer Soft Point
Note: Good whitetail load up to 200 yards
2. Case Remington
Primer Federal 210 (large rifle)
Powder & Weight IMR 4350; 46.0 grains
Bullet Hornady 174 Round Nose Soft Point
Note: Very effective at medium ranges
3. Case Remington
Primer Remington 9 1/2 (large rifle
Powder & Weight IMR 4320; 41.5 grains
Bullet Remington 180-grains Soft Point (Core-Lokt)
Note: Elk and Moose load