Cartridge Discussion: .405 WCF
Here's a old cartridge discussion I put up on a forum several years ago. Not too much interest in the .405 I realize but it's offered here in case someone else has an interest.
The great .405 WCF is one of the most glamorous cartridges ever to fire my imagination. It’s always had a certain aura about it. The long straight-walled .40 round conjures up images of dark western forests and Alaskan alder thickets and of big game animals larger than deer. Because of the writings of Theodore Roosevelt, Stuart Edward White, and others who recounted their African hunting experiences of the early 20th century, the .405 will forever evoke images of the African safari. The .405 received star billing in an episode or two of the old Martin and Osa Johnson adventure films produced in the post World War I era. We watched their old 8mm movies that the Cleburne Gun Club obtained from the NRA for club meeting night viewing. This big Winchester cartridge development represents another time in the American experience. A time when we were a cohesive nation with a “can do” spirit and when our country’s star was in the ascendance.
The Rifle's Funny-Looking But It Works
This potent old round had its introduction to the shooting world in 1904 as a new addition to the available chamberings in the Winchester Model 1895. This innovative lever action rifle was another of John Browning’s “better ideas” for use by riflemen everywhere. The ‘95 had already been on the market for nine years when the .405 appeared. When introduced, the Model 1895 offered a convenient box magazine rather than the tubular magazine featured in previous Winchester lever rifle designs. It was also engineered, perhaps accidentally, with adequate strength to contain pressures generated by the new smokeless cartridges of the day. It’s size offered ample opportunity to chamber longer cartridges, up to and including the .30-06 when that round first saw the light of day a few years after the advent of the .405. The Model 1895 may look like it’s spilling its guts when the action is opened but it’ll feed its cartridges as slick as a whistle and is lightning fast for repeat shots from the shoulder. Rimless cartridges are no problem, but the key to proper function in a Model 1895 with the .405 or other rimmed cartridges is to load the magazine while making certain that the rim of each succeeding cartridge is placed in front of the preceding cartridge before pressing it home. This simple step completely avoids any of the feeding problems that gave rise to a certain bad reputation that the ‘95 rifle had with rimmed cartridges. I also once owned a model ’95 in .30-40 and both of my rifles never jammed. I’d be perfectly content to use my Model 1895 .405 as “lion medicine” just as Roosevelt did. It delivers a stout payload and will provide any needed follow-up shots rapidly and reliably.
"Magnum" Performance a Century Ago
Truth be told, as good as the .405 cartridge is, it’s on the light side for the really large beasts of Africa. It’s considered fully adequate for all species of North American game at ranges up to 200 yards and there’s not really anything else out there quite like it. The .40 bore is one of the more neglected calibers in a line-up of available rifle cartridges. African zoo animals aside, the .405 is still a powerful rifle cartridge, and all the more remarkable because of the lever action rifle with which it made its reputation. The .405 will shoot flatter than a .458 Winchester Magnum at all ranges but won’t hit with as much authority. I’ve fired my .405 from the bench at 200 yards on a single occasion and was surprised at how flat it shot. I expected more drop from the fat 300 grain Barnes X pointed soft point bullet I was using. I could reliably hit the boiler room of an elk at that range with the 10-inch groups I obtained, but that represents a reasonable limit of cartridge and sights. My rifle is wearing its factory provided semi-buckhorn rear sight and German silver front blade.
I’ve worked up handloads in my rifle that propelled the typically used 300 grain bullets up to 2402 fps. That’s only 150 fps less than the quoted factory figures for the .375 H&H Magnum with a 300 grain bullet. A .40 caliber (actually .412 diameter) 300 grain bullet doesn’t have the sectional density or the ballistic coefficient that a .375 diameter bullet of the same weight possesses. The bullet shape impairs the .405 in comparison with the .375 H&H more than does the decreased velocity, hence the .405 stands in the back row when considering appropriate rifles for truly large game. The .405 worked pretty well against elephant and other really big game animals when conditions were right. A few African hunters tackled elephants and rhino with their .405’s and got gored or mashed for their efforts with fatal results. In 1940 a charging rhino killed Charles Cottar, an American living in Africa, after Cottar failed to stop it with his .405. I have also read of a Dutch hunter who was killed by a charging elephant after shooting it with a .405. On the other hand, the Johnson film clearly shows Osa Johnson effectively stopping a charging rhino with her .405 at point-blank range. The camera continued to roll after the rhino was down and she is shown to be rubbing her shoulder because of the belting she took from her Winchester .405. Far better it is to massage a bruised shoulder than to be gored. The .405 could work and work well when accurately applied.
My old Winchester Model 1895 .405 is frankly a barking dog. I snagged it (or perhaps it snagged me) at Donn Heath gun shop in Fort Worth for a whopping $220 in January of 1984. I was lurking there at closing time when Donn came in and unloaded a large collection of guns he’d just bought, right onto the floor of his shop. I spied the rifle as he withdrew it from a case and immediately asked “how much”? He popped off and sold it before he’d even cleaned it up. It sounds like a bargain now but was probably too much money at the time. Though it sports a serial number that indicates a 1904 manufacturing date, the first year for the .405, the rifle was neglected at some point in its career and acquired some external pitting. Extra holes in the left side of it’s receiver bear testimony to installation of a Lyman side mount receiver sight at some point, so common to many 95’s of the era. Some jazbo polished the snot out of it, spiraling the barrel and egging screw holes with his strokes but not removing all the pitting. The rifle was then hot-blued. It’s a purty thang! At least the factory markings were all deeply struck and remain clear after the abusive polishing job. The bore shows the ravages of corrosive priming, so common to rifles used before the introduction of Kleen-Bore priming by Remington in 1927. The bore is about a six on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s just uniformly frosted, not deeply pitted and still stabilizes a bullet extremely well. The old rifle is pretty accurate for what it is, a century old hunk a’ junk.
I have to wonder what sort of tales it could tell. Rocky Mountain elk and mule deer hunts in the high, fresh air? Wet Alaskan moose and bear hunts? African sweat and humidity? It could have been only purchased as a novelty; the most powerful American hunting rifle of its day; its original owner a careless man who lived in Baton Rouge and who never cleaned it or wiped it down, along with a subsequent owner who wasted good money allowing a local gun shop hack to “restore” it. That’s ok, I’ll give it a cherished home, occasional exercise, and proper care and feeding.
Handloading and Field Use
After a season of experimentation with handloads using a borrowed copy of Ken Water’s book, a photocopy of a magazine article, and far too much seat-of-the-pants intuition I took the rifle on a few deer hunting excursions. Long discontinued, the .405 ammunition and cases were hard to come by in the mid 1980’s. I scared up three boxes pretty quickly and then three more boxes about a year later. All were 50 years old at that time so I was concocting .405 handloads in 1930’s vintage cartridge cases. Thankfully my rifle is spot on headspace-wise and the action is tight. I never lost a case and they’ve held up well on subsequent loadings too. Reloder 7 proved to be the prime powder to use in my rifle with the custom Barnes 300 grain bullets I was buying. Other good performers included the IMR powders in 4064, 4895, and 4320 guise, and Hodgdon BL-C2.
I’d read that the .30-40 case could be reworked to make a short .405 case but I wasn’t happy with the results I had and the few I made split easily.