Cartridge Discussion: .405 WCF

This is a discussion on Cartridge Discussion: .405 WCF within the Reloading forums, part of the Defensive Ammunition & Ballistics category; 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 ...

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Thread: Cartridge Discussion: .405 WCF

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    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.

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    .405 continued

    An original though came to me whilst sitting at the loading bench making factory equivalent handloads for the .405 there in the mid 1980s. Why not try .41 Magnum pistol bullets? The .411 diameter should be compatible with the .412 bore of the .405 and perhaps they could afford an inexpensive alternative to the purchase of custom bullets. Additionally, I could experiment with the creation of accurate reduced loads that wouldn’t loosen the fillings in my teeth each time I fired the rifle. And so I tried out the Sierra 220 grain half-jacketed .41 Magnum bullet. Sure enough these worked like a charm, and at 1750 fps and didn’t strike that far off of where the rifle was sighted with full power loads at 100 yards. More importantly the pistol bullet loads made the rifle much easier to live with from the bench rest. My very best 100-yard group ever fired with the .405 was with this load and came in just shy of 2 inches. Of course I then yielded to temptation and wound them up tight, driving them upwards of 2700 fps, a velocity I’m sure Sierra never intended for their product. Accuracy was abysmal and the recoil was back so it was a pointless endeavor. Expansion would likely be explosive though.

    On one of the deer hunting expeditions in the ‘85-‘87 period I took a fork horned buck at 90 yards with the 300 grain Barns/Reloder 7 load. This occurred on a ranch just west of Brownwood, Texas. A perfect broad side hit and he sagged to the ground like a stringed puppet that’s been dropped. A long, freshly plowed field was the backdrop with a hill at the far end. The instant after I fired at the buck a significant geyser of dirt erupted far out in the field. Texas white tail deer just don’t offer much impediment to the .405. He wasn’t as dramatically holed as he would have been with a hot 150 grain .30-06 handload. This deer-hunting event is most memorable to me because I felt so lousy. I’d caught a bad cold, felt feverish and very achy. I simply climbed up in a large oak tree and perched on a bough, standing there and leaning against the tree for a couple of hours before the buck came along. It was a cold, drizzly, and murky morning and I was feeling like yuck. In retrospect it’s a wonder the rifle’s recoil didn’t hammer me right out of that oak. I’d had so much fun playing with the rifle and handloads that I forgot all about the misery and was really pumped to collect venison with a .405. Unlike its previous owner, I proudly wiped down, cleaned, and RIGg’ed the wet rifle that very morning after its outing.

    The .405 was resurrected in a politically correct rendition of the Model 1895 about 10 years ago with a non-traditional tang safety. Apparently interest in the ancient round was piqued and Ruger began shipping several variations of its No. 1 single shot rifle in .405 WCF. Hornady began manufacturing .405 ammunition again, along with Old Western Scrounger and life is good.

    Though I veered off into low-end .375 H&H velocities with my 300 grain bullets and Reloder 7 the best load was found several grains under the maximum charge. I standardized on a charge that gave 2319 fps and 3580 ft./lbs of energy. This is more than enough power for anything up to and including pterodactyl if they happen to make a comeback. The light load with the .41 Magnum bullet would make a great deer load and plinking load too.

    Does It “Kick” Much?

    Assemble a rifle that weighs 8 lbs. Provide for excessive drop in the butt stock in relation to the bore line. While you’re at it make the butt stock short so that the cramped shooter must crawl the stock to sight the rifle. Fit an absurdly narrow and deeply curved steel butt plate with “point-y” corners to the butt stock and stoke the creation up with a cartridge that generates well over 3000 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy. This makes for a cushy and comfy long arm for the shooter to enjoy, round after round. If you believe that then I have some land in Florida for you; never floods either!

    The Winchester Model 1895 in .405 WCF kicks dreadfully and it’s reputation is not exaggerated. I’ve fired all manner of reputed hard kickers and the .405 is right up there with the best of them, worse than many. Of course a complete redesign would mitigate this to a great extent. As it is, the 19th century design, configured as it was for offhand shooting of much milder cartridges (and one supposes by much smaller people), is hopelessly inadequate for such a bruiser. The gun kicks all out of proportion to the size of the cartridge it fires and that round is fairly substantial to begin with. Rise from the bench after a couple of five-shot groups have been fired and one feels addled; almost as if he’s just been in a bad car accident and is staggering dazedly down the shoulder of the highway. The shotgun style butt was a popularly chosen option for original purchasers of the .405 along with various recoil pads, both factory provided and later add-ons. I’ve always kind of wondered how well the take-down version of the ‘95 in .405 chambering worked out. They did make ‘em. Seems to me that the rifle would shoot loose in short order.

    Not too many rifles out of the total Winchester Model 1895 production were chambered for .405. Only a very few Winchester High-Wall or the rare Remington Lee bolt action rifle were made in .405 and few foreign rifles were so chambered. Even allowing for the small numbers of .405’s produced in modern times there aren’t that many rifles in the world chambered for the cartridge. It’s a glamorous and seldom encountered cartridge that fills a unique niche in the annals of American hunting rifle history.

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    I would love to Have an 1895 in 405. But then I am a Winchester Leveraction fanatic. I have yet to buy an 1895, I passed on one in 30-06 because it was to expensive for my taste. That was before Winchester went belly up, Man do I kick myself now.

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