The .303 British is one of the most well-known
cartridges of the 20th century. It served as the official British
military cartridge for more than 60 years and although not popular
in America, this rimmed cartridge was very popular for hunting in
all the former British colonies. It is still going strong in South
Africa, Canada and Australia.
for the Lee-Metford Mk I rifles in 1887, the .303 cartridge was
adopted by the British army in 1888. Its 215g bullet was driven by
70gr of black powder to a velocity of 1850fps. When smokeless
cordite replaced black powder, the velocity was increased to
1970fps. Unfortunately the hot-burning cordite powder eroded the
shallow Metford-type rifling very quickly and in 1895 the deeper
Enfield-type rifling was adopted and from then on the rifles were
known as Lee-Enfields.
The British used this rifle against the Boers during
the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 - 1902. Early in the 1900s when the big
military powers of the day (Germany and America) switched to lighter
bullets for their service rifles Britain did the same and shortly
before World War I the 215gr bullet was replaced by a 174gr spitzer
leaving the muzzle at approximately 2440fps.
As all British colonies were issued with .303s,
thousands came into South Africa after the Anglo-Boer War and again
before and after World War I. Many of these rifles fell into the
hands of local farmers and hunters who found the Lee-Enfield
reliable and accurate enough for general purpose hunting. Inevitably
it was used with military FMJ ammunition which was cheap and readily
available in large quantities.
Although deadly on humans, the .303 soon became a
controversial hunting cartridge because the military ammunition
produced mixed results. The FMJ bullets had aluminium tips which
shifted their centre of gravity back. When the Geneva Convention
decided that expanding bullets were inhumane for military use,
Britain sidestepped this restriction by designing a FMJ with an
aluminium tip. Within the first 100m or so these bullets with their
lightened tips were still yawing in flight and when striking a
target its "back-heaviness" caused the bullet to cartwheel or tumble
through the target, causing horrific damage.
On small animals the tumbling bullet often killed
like lightning, but if the shoulder bone of a large antelope was
struck or a raking shot was taken, the tumbling inhibited
penetration and the bullet often failed to reach the vitals.
At longer ranges the bullet stabilized, but then
punched a tiny, clean hole through the animal, doing very little
peripheral damage and often causing very slow internal bleeding.
Many animals thus escaped wounded or ran far before they went down
and were subsequently not recovered.
Such conflicting results had as many hunters
swearing at the .303 as swearing by it. Overall it developed a
reputation as a wounder which was not the fault of the cartridge,
but the bullet.
with appropriate expanding bullets the .303 is adequate for all
non-dangerous game at short and medium ranges. Under bushveld
conditions (out to 150m) a 174gr softnose at 2400fps is good
medicine for anything up to and including blue wildebeest and kudu
while a 215 grainer at 2150fps will down all game from duiker to
eland with ease. Although the .303 is not a long range cartridge for
smaller plains game species, 150gr bullets loaded to 2500 - 2600fps
will perform admirably on springbuck and blesbuck out to 220m. If
you own a rangefinder and are familiar with your bullet/loads
trajectory, taking on small game out to 300m should not be a problem
No manufacturers chamber rifles in .303 anymore, but
surplus military rifles can be bought at comparatively low prices
and turned into useful sporters. A number of manufacturers still
produce ammunition while reloading components are readily available
from several companies. Some, like Rhino and Claw, both South
African manufacturers, produce premium-grade hunting bullets for
this old warhorse.
Although the .303 is quite accurate in properly
tuned rifles, especially in ones built on the strong P14 action (a
K98 Mauser-type made in America), this rifle/cartridge combination
is not meant for long range varmint shooting. Its flexible action
and often oversized chamber count against it, but for general
purpose hunting any of the old military rifles with good bores will
do a stellar job.
Due to the flexible action and oversized chambers
full length resizing of cases is not recommended as head separation
becomes a common problem. Partial or neck-sizing will make cases
last longer and it is good policy to avoid maximum loads. In rifles
built on P14 actions handloaders can push the .303 easily into the
.308 Win class.
The .303 I own, was inherited from my late father
who bought the rifle second-hand in 1952 in the old South West
Africa, now Namibia. This old Lee-Enfield MkI of 1902 vintage came
with 200 rounds of military FMJ ammunition. I still have in my
possession the original licence that was issued to my dad, signed by
a Mr Genis. The date 1902 is stamped on the stock and action but
whether it ever saw action during the last months of the Anglo-Boer
War we will never know.
When I got the rifle the barrel was in bad shape so
I shopped around until I found an original BSA barrel in good nick
with the same profile as the old one. As I wanted a handy carbine
for short-range bush work, I asked the gunsmith to shorten the
barrel to 21-inches. In addition to a standard front bead and a wide
V rear sight, I had a custom peep-sight made which mounts on the
cocking piece. It has a so-called ghost ring aperture, measuring 5mm
in diameter. With this sight the rifle will produce 1.5", three-shot
groups at 50m all day long.
My oldest son, Dandrej, gradually developed a love
for the old Lee-Enfield and in 2005, at age 15, announced that he
wanted to hunt with it. When he handles this rifle, I can often see
he is dreaming of an era when it was natural for a young man to roam
the bush with a rifle in his hands.
American and Norma ammunition are available in South Africa, we
prefer to use the local PMP products (factory ammunition and
components), which are good enough and much more affordable. When
reloading, we use a 174gr PMP softnose in front of 38gr S335 (a
local extruded powder, very similar in burning rate to the American
IMR 3031). Muzzle velocity out of the 21" barrel is just over
2300fps - ideal for short-range bushveld applications.
Many modern-day hunters regard the .303 cartridge as
inferior because of its old-fashioned, rimmed design and its mild
ballistics. They also criticise the two-piece stock and the fact
that the Enfield-action is not as strong as most Mauser-types. The
slow lock time and the Enfields relatively heavy trigger pull are
two more drawbacks which count against this 120-year-old veteran.
Yet, despite all its "warts" the .303 will still bring home the
bacon if the hunter does his bit.
Using an open-sighted rifle with all the drawbacks
Ive mentioned, force the hunter to get close to his quarry, to take
extra care and ultimately it puts the hunting back into the hunt. On
his first hunt with the Lee-Enfield Dandrej learned just that. We
travelled to the Northern Cape to hunt on Wintershoek, a property
about 50 miles south of Kimberly. The acacia-studded plains and the
broken veld (rocky hills) are very similar to the vegetation and the
topography of the area where I grew up in South West Africa and is
therefore this part of South Africa is one of my favourite hunting
working hard for two days, Dandrej managed to shoot a warthog and
then decided to go after springbuck. As you probably know, these
animals prefer open plains and getting close enough for a shot
proved extremely difficult. I carried a scoped .308 as backup and
offered it several times during the hunt to the young Nimrod, but he
refused to use it. Finally he told me that he has made a commitment
to hunt with the Enfield and by breaking it, he would cheat on
himself. Can a father ask for more?
Forced to work even harder than for his warthog,
Dandrej learned a lot more about hunting than he would, had he been
carrying a scoped rifle. And then our luck changed. On the last day
of our hunt we managed to sneak up to a small herd of springbuck,
but they stayed so bunched up that Dandrej could not shoot and
eventually the group sensed our presence and drifted off.
We followed patiently and eventually caught up with
four rams on the far side of a small blackthorn thicket. After some
careful stalking we managed to sneak into range and get Dandrej into
a shooting position. The springbuck knew we were there, but had not
identified us positively, which gave me a chance to set up the
shooting sticks for Dandrej. The animals were facing us at a slight
angle and when the old Lee-Enfield barked, I heard the 174gr bullet
strike with a loud, "dup". Then I saw how the ram on the extreme
right dropped in his tracks. Dandrej, who shot from a sitting
position, jumped to his feet and reloaded quickly, but it was not
necessary, the ram was down for good. An autopsy back at camp
revealed that the bullet had broken the near shoulder, passed over
the heart, destroyed all the "plumbing" above it and then ploughed
through the rumen before exiting in front of the far back leg.
Barnard is an ex-professional hunter and a full time gun
writer, having published hundreds of articles. He was
born in Namibia and has been a keen hunter since his
This old Lee-Enfield was the only centre-fire
hunting rifle my father ever owned and he used it expertly until his
ageing eyes made it difficult to use the open sights. I am in my
50th year and shooting with open sights is now becoming a bit of a
challenge for me too. However, it is good to know there is a young
man who loves to hunt with this old rifle. I wish them both many
happy hunting hours.