Back in the Jurassic era, when I was a budding gun wienie, I pretty much knew what a magnum was, and so did everybody else who was into guns. Back then — I’m talking the mid-1950s — there was little mystery as to what was and wasn’t a magnum.
We had the Weatherby line, the .308 and .358 Norma Magnums, and the .300 and .375 H&H, which had been around since 1912 and 1925, respectively.
However, all were proprietary cartridges, and of those, only the two H&H rounds were loaded and only by Winchester, which, along with Remington, was the only major sources of generally available factory ammunition.
Moreover, the rifles chambered for any of the aforementioned rounds were custom jobs or limited production guns.
The bottom line is that in 1955, there was not one magnum cartridge of American origin being offered in a production-grade rifle from any major domestic gun manufacturer.
What really started the magnum era in America was the appearance of the .458 Win. Mag. in 1956, followed two years later by the .264 Win. and .338 Win. Mags.
Finally, we had ‘our own” magnums, and they were just like all the others in that they were based on the ubiquitous H&H belted case.
Yes, the ammo was a little more expensive, as were the domestic production rifles chambered for them, but not to where they were out of the financial reach of Joe Average.
Before going farther, let’s try to establish what was actually meant by the term “magnum” in those days.
The consensus definition was that any cartridge officially designated as a magnum provided ballistic performance that was appreciably better than that which theretofore had been considered the standard for a particular caliber.
Of course, there have been plenty of exceptions to that rule since, and we’ll get into them. But for now, let’s use that as our definition.
A classic example is the .30-06. It has set the standard for “standard” .30-caliber performance since its inception in 1906, and a very high standard it was.
It wasn’t until the introduction of the .300 Win. Mag. in 1963, that the magnum was set for that caliber.
Granted, the existing .300 H&H was superior, and the .300 Weatherby even more so, but neither was a mainstream commercial cartridge, nor were the rifles chambered for them, and that has to be our criteria — generally available and affordable production rifles and ammunition from the two industry giants, Remington and Winchester.
A few years earlier, in 1955, the .243 Win. and .244 Rem. were introduced, establishing a brand new bore size and the performance standard for the caliber, because both were almost identical ballistically, and there were no other existing cartridges of that caliber.
Actually, they were preceded by the 6mm Lee Navy of the 1890s, but very few commercial sporting rifles were chambered for that round, and production of it ceased in 1935.
For all intents and purposes, the .243 and .244 cartridges set the 6mm performance standard.
The appearance of the .270 Win. in 1925 set up a situation similar to that of the 6mms in that it established a new bore size.
With no other commercial rounds to compete with, the .270 Win. set the bar for the .277-caliber. (That bar, of course, was shattered by the .270 Wthby. Mag., but, again, that was a proprietary cartridge, so that doesn’t count in the context of this article.
It would be quite some time before a mainstream rifle/cartridge would set the magnum standard for this caliber.
In the 7mm bore size, it was not until 1957 that we had an American commercial cartridge: the .280 Rem.
Before its appearance, the only round that had achieved even a modicum of popularity here was the 7x57 Mauser, and that was found virtually only in surplus military and custom-built rifles.
It was the .280 Rem. that set the performance standard for the 7mm — a standard that was eclipsed five years later, in 1962, with the introduction of the 7mm Rem. Mag.
The same can be said of the 6.5mm. There were several European and Japanese military 6.5s, but in the United States, the most popular by far was the 6.5x55 Swedish version, and, again, it was in surplus military rifles in various stages of customization. It was blown out of the water by the .264 Win. Mag.
So in 1963, we had five homegrown magnums: the .264, .300, .338 and .458 Wins, and the 7mm Rem. All five, as well as the other proprietary magnums already enumerated, were based on the H&H case and varied only in length and shoulder configuration.
Blurring the Lines
It began to change in 1960, with the introduction of the .256 Win. Mag., a cartridge based on a necked-down .357 Mag. pistol round designed exclusively for the Ruger Hawkeye handgun.
But long before the Hawkeye went into production, Marlin chambered for the round in its Model 62 Levermatic rifle, so it was listed as a rifle cartridge and, as such, it was hardly a magnum.
In those days, the .257 Roberts set the .25-caliber performance standard. Also, the .25-06 was one of the most popular wildcat cartridges, and if ever there was a magnum that wasn’t labeled as such, it was the .25-06, which ran circles around the .257 Roberts.
By 1965, the belted H&H case had became so synonymous with magnum that if a cartridge didn’t have a belt, many questioned its qualifications.
Then came the .350 and 6.5 Rem. Mags, which really confused the issue.
Because the .300 and .375 H&Hs were full-length magnums requiring action/ magazine lengths greater than standard (as set by the ’98 Mauser), the Winchester and Remington magnums were based on shortened H&H cases to where overall cartridge lengths did not exceed the 3.34 inches of a Mauser- length magazine.
In those days, there were still tens of thousands of rifles being built on military and commercial Mauser actions, so for a new cartridge — magnum or otherwise — to have a chance at commercial success, it had to be short enough to fit Mauser actions (i.e., .30-06-length).
As a result, the Winchester magnum family, along with the 7mm Rem., were designated “short magnums.” But with the introduction of the .350 and 6.5 Rem. Mags., those rounds were based on yet even shorter versions of the H&H case to an overall cartridge length of 2.8 inches so they would cycle through Remington’s short action.
So then we had short magnums and short-short magnums. Further confusing the situation was the fact that neither the .350 nor the 6.5 Rem. Mags, were true magnums.
From the 1970s to themid-’80s, it was fairly quiet for new commercial belted magnums, but that’s because wildcatters had increasing access to readily available supplies of newly manufactured .404 Jeffery cases.
Introduced in 1910, the .404 goes back farther than the belted H&H case.
Not only was the Jeffery hull as long as the .300/.375 H&H, it was fatter and, thus, held about 20 percent more powder.
Moreover, it didn’t have a belt, which, from the handloading standpoint, made it more desirable because it made controlling headspace easier.
It also had a rebated rim. In other words, even though its body was fatter than the H&H, its rim diameter was the same, so it would fit a conventional magnum bolt face without alteration.
First out with an entire line of proprietary cartridges based on the Jeffery case was Don Allen, founder of Dakota Arms.
His line consisted of six cartridges ranging from 7mm to .416, all based on full-length and shortened versions of the .404. All Dakota cartridges provided performance superior to their belted H&H equivalents.
Not to be outdone, in the early 1990s, John Lazzeroni came out with not one but three lines of beltless magnum cartridges. One of Lazzeronis lines was called Short Action Magnums, and those were designed accordingly, as to overall cartridge length.
Mainstream Goes Short
It turns out he was a bit too optimistic with his hopes for the market for his expensive rifles and ammunition, and the Lazzeroni cartridge line has now been drastically reduced to a few calibers.
Nonetheless, the interest generated by his and Allens Dakota line of proprietary cartridges did not go unnoticed by mainstream American gun and ammo manufacturers, and in 1999, we had the introduction of the .300 Rem. Ultra Mag.
Finally, we had a generally available cartridge that upped the performance bar set 50 years before by the .300 Win. Mag., and it was a full- length magnum cartridge requiring a magnum-length action.
Soon thereafter, Remington added 7mm, .375 and .416 versions to the Ultra Mag line.
Winchester went the other direction in 2001 with its introduction of the .300 Win. Short Magnum, and perhaps no other cartridge since the 7mm Rem. generated more interest from manufacturers and consumers alike.
In fact, it caused so much excitement in the firearms media that Remington couldn’t stand being on the sidelines.
Within six months of Winchester rolling out its .300 WSM, Remington countered midyear with its own .300 and 7mm Short Action Ultra Mags.
Neither offered any ballistic advantage over the Winchester versions, nor did they best the old 7mm Rem. and .300 Win. Mags.
In fact, the only thing either line had going for it was that they matched belted magnum ballistics in cartridges and rifles that were about a half-inch shorter and a couple of ounces lighter in weight.
The old definition of short magnum, which had been used to describe the Winchester and Remington belted magnums of the 1950s and ‘60s, was out the window.
Now a “short magnum” meant something else.
Winchesters .300 WSM was quickly followed by .270, 7mm, and .325 versions.
They have been reasonably successful, particularly the .300 and .270. The same can be said of Remingtons Ultra Mags, which, in all four cases, raised the magnum performance bar for their respective calibers.
Unfortunately for Remington, its SAUMs did not offer any advantage over the WSMs, which arrived first.
The market simply couldn’t support two lines of short magnums, and within five years, both were dropped from the Remington 700 and Model Seven lines.
On the heels of its success with the .300 WSM, Winchester decided that if short was better, super-short would also sell.
Thus, in 2002, it introduced the .223 Win. Super Short Mag., followed in 2004 by a .243 and a .25-caliber version. But Winchester had miscalculated — big time.
Not only did no other rifle manufacturer adopt the chamberings, but Browning and Winchester went through the added expense of developing special super-short actions to accommodate the squat rounds. By 2010, the three calibers had been dropped from the Winchester and Browning rifle lineups.
The bottom line is that there are now super magnums, magnums, magnums that aren’t, and cartridges that qualify ballistically as magnums but are not labeled as such.
Further confusing the issue is that Ruger, Marlin, Federal and Thompson/Center have, in the past five years, also developed proprietary cartridges.
Clearly, what is and what isn’t a magnum these days is nowhere nearly as sharply defined as it used to be.
But in the end, even with the demise of many relatively new cartridges, we still have twice as many to choose from as we did just a couple of decades ago.
And that’s good.