Flowing through this verbal muck was the curious convention that the term ”.45 Colt” always referred to a cartridge while “Colt .45” always referred to a gun. But which gun? The Colt 1873 Single Action Army, the Colt 1878 Double Action Revolver, the Colt 1917 Army revolver, or the Colt 1905 or 1911 automatic pistols?
Such ambiguity could have caused endless confusion in the trenches of No Man’s Land: “Quick! The Hun’s coming over the top, private! Toss me that Colt .45! No, not that one—that one! No, not that one! That one! No, that one! Now throw me that box of .45 Colt. No, not that one–that one! No! Not that one, you idiot!—whoops!” It’s a wonder we’re not all speaking German, nicht wahr?
After the end of the first War to End All Wars, talented tinkerers began wildcatting existing rounds into cartridges offering superior performance or greater efficiency. With forgivable vanity, these ballistic cowboys often stamped their own names on their latest creations.
Today everyone has heard of the competent .25-06 Remington, but who remembers that it first saw the light of day in 1920 as the .25 Niedner, named after its inventor, A.O. “Pop” Niedner of Dowagiac, Michigan?
The ultra-modern .22-250 Remington first hit the stands way back in 1937 as the .22 Gebby Varminter© (note the copyright) after its inventor. Other contemporary wildcatters also affixed their names to wildcat versions of the Varminter’s parent case, the .22 Savage High Power, which was itself originally called the .22 Savage Imp for reasons which are no longer apparent.
Possibly to compete with the wildcatters, the major ammunition manufacturers toyed for an all-too-brief period in the ‘30’s with jazzy, art-deco names for their latest creations: .22 Hornet, .220 Swift, .219 Zipper, .218 Bee. The last great cartridge name of this sort was the .221 Remington Fireball (1967), chambered in the Remington XP-100 bolt-action pistol. None of these stylishly-named cartridges set any sales records, however, and manufacturers have since reverted to humdrum proprietary names such as the .416 Remington and .450 Marlin. Yawn.
Savage seems to have been something of an iconoclast when it came to naming new cartridges. One of the very few manufacturers to break the Second Commandment when it chambered its Model 1899 lever-action in .30-30 Winchester, Savage had a knack for giving its proprietary cartridges rather sexy names.
In addition to the High Power and the Imp, Savage was responsible for the .250-3000 Savage. This was not a .25-caliber case crammed with 3000 grains of powder (oh, don’t be silly) but an excellent .25 that blasted an 87-grain bullet out the spout at the unprecedented velocity of 3000 feet per second. Later, when velocity dropped below 3000 fps with a 100-grain bullet, Savage emasculated the name into the plain old .250 Savage.
Of course, if one name doesn’t work out, you can always try another. Case in point: the .244 /6mm Remington. When Remington introduced the .244 in 1956 to counter the .243 Winchester, they assumed that its primary use would be as a varmint cartridge in their slow-rifled Model 740 semi-auto rifle. Winchester, on the other hand, marketed the .243 as a combination varmint/medium game cartridge and rifled their guns with a slower 1:12 twist to stabilize the .243’s longer deer and antelope bullets. Voting with their wallets, the shooting public favored the .243 ten-to-one over the .244.
Calling time-out and going into a quick huddle, Remington decided to re-rifle the 740 for the more forgiving 1:12 twist. By that time, however, the .244 had gathered considerable unwanted PR baggage, so Remington decided to change the name of the cartridge to the 6mm Remington. The rest, as they say, is history.
Remington must have felt a bit of deja-vu in regard to their excellent .280 Remington. Twenty years after its 1959 introduction, Remington’s marketeers decided to capitalize on the 7mm craze by relabeling the .280 the 7mm Remington Express.
The wisdom of this strategy was no doubt incontrovertibly proved in reams of corporate memos and white papers. When sales of the Express began to smell bad, Remington wiped the egg from its face, did a few months’ penance, and reintroduced the Express as—ta da!—the .280 Remington. Which just goes to show that, as Emerson said, it’s funny how things work out sometimes.
Even the most dull-witted shooter, among whose ranks I occasionally number, realizes that a cartridge’s given caliber designation needn’t bear any relation to the actual diameter of its bullet.
The .357 Magnum is just a long .38 Special, which is pretty much a 9mm, which is actually a .356-caliber, which dimension is also applied—now, keep up with me here—to the .356 Winchester rifle cartridge, which uses the same size bullet as the .358 Winchester, the .35 Remington, the .350 Remington Magnum, and the .35 Whelen. But don’t you dare confuse any of these thirty-fives with the .351 Winchester Self-Loader, which was, surprisingly, actually a .351-caliber. Somebody in New Haven must have got himself fired for that one.
The .308 Winchester is considered a .30-caliber, as are the .30-30, the .300 Winchester Magnum, the .300 H&H, the .300 Weatherby Magnum, the .300 Savage, the .30 Carbine, the .30-40 Krag, the .30 Remington, the .30 Mauser, the .30 Luger—but also the .303 Savage, the .307 Winchester, the 7.5 French MAS (how did that get in there?), and of course the .32 ACP, which is also known as the 7.65–not to be confused with the 7.62, which is just another name for the .308 Winchester, which is where we started in the first place. If this makes sense, you may have a career in the ammunition industry.
Lately, in the pre-dawn hours when every paranoid fantasy seems not only plausible but imminent, I’ve been waking up in a clammy sweat, fresh from nightmares about hideous wildcats. The .50-140-3-1/4/.38-40 Sharps-Winchester. The .45-.45-.45/.38/.32 Colt & Wesson. The .58/.25 Henry Miller Gallager Spencer Sharps Winchester. The 7.65/7.62/7.5-.458 Necked-Up Magnum.
I’d chalk it up to indigestion if it weren’t so close to the truth.