.600 Nitro Express

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I’ll be dating myself, but as a child, Saturday mornings saw my brother and I glued to the TV watching the allotted half hour of cartoons that was our reward for doing our chores that week. The Wile E Coyote and Road Runner skits were my favourites and I can pinpoint the moment when I first learned the word “nitro.” A child of 6 or 7, I had no clue what the definition of the word was, but after watching Wile E. get blasted through a mountain by the miniscule discharge from an eyedropper, I instantly knew what the word meant. Nitro was unstoppable, overwhelming and powerful, capable of destruction on an unprecedented scale.

Nitro, in that cartoon, was short for nitroglycerine – a component of dynamite. Nitro in reference to cartridges is short for nitrocellulose, the base of the first smokeless gunpowders.

Legendary British gun makers John Rigby and Company are thought to be the first to add “Nitro” to a cartridge when, in 1898, they launched the .450 Nitro Express. Express rifles and cartridges had been around since the mid 1800s. The term “express” came from the world of trains, where it meant a fast, non-stop trip. James Purdey was the first to use it in a cartridge designation. In cartridges, Express became synonymous with faster-than-normal or high velocity cartridges. Soon every cartridge was faster than normal or an express.

Even so, the cartridges like the legendary .577 Express were still qualified for nothing more than antelope and perhaps the big cats of Africa. On the cusp of the epic African safaris, dangerous game rifles for elephant or buffalo were still huge, black powder muzzleloaders. These shot lead balls that weighed up to a quarter pound and more each. The rifles were only effective at an extremely short range, so not only did it take a real man (or dementia) just shoot one of these rifles, he also had to have hair on his chest to kill an elephant with it as well. Many men didn’t make the grade and became toe jam for angry pachyderms. There is a humorous riposte on the development of nitrocellulose powder that states the gun makers needed a more powerful propellant to stop the loss of wealthy clients, as they were running out of clients!

The new powder delivered unmatched performance, but also developed pressures far in excess of what the old black powder express rifles were proofed. Adding the “Nitro” designation to a cartridge was the easiest way to warn shooters that this cartridge was more powerful and could be safely shot in a black powder rifle. Nitro Express came to mean smokeless and fast. Now it was possible to kill an elephant with a cartridge rifle and the golden age of side-by-side Express rifles was born.

Over the next couple of years, small improvements and competitive escalations produced slightly more powerful cartridges. Most of the progressions are simply old black powder cartridges stuffed with the new smokeless powder.

Fast forward to 1903, W.J. Jeffery decided it was time to go all in and produce the final word in power and destruction – the 600 Nitro Express. Jeffery worked up a completely new cartridge for the behemoth. The first version was 2.8 inches long and the same diameter as a .28-gauge shotgun shell. By the time it was launched, the case had been stretched out to three inches. There were three standard loads of 120, 110 and 100 grains of smokeless powder, all using a 900-grain bullet. The most popular 110-grain load produced a muzzle velocity of 1,950 feet per second and a pachyderm flattening 7,600 foot-pounds of energy. The rifles were epic in size as well; something had to control that terrible recoil. At 15 pounds or better, the 600 Nitro Express was thought to be the gun that started the trend of a gun bearer. Ammunition is still loaded for the 600 today. Historic British ammunition maker Kynoch still loads the round – five cartridges will set you back $180!

Of course the classic rifle was the side-by-side Express rifle. The barrels were regulated to hit dead on with the aiming point at a distance determined by the gun purchaser. The 600 Nitro is one of the most rare Express rifles made. Jeffery, the inventor, built 32; John Wilkes built nine, Westley Richards built three, Holland & Holland reports building six rifles and Purdey built another six. The records from the turn of the century are incomplete, as well you might imagine. There are more, but the grand total of true express rifles in 600 Nitro built for Africa at the turn of the century is believed to be less than 150.

The 600 Nitro Express has stood the challenges of usurpers to the crown of greatest stopping cartridge for over a century. While larger and more powerful have been built, none are steeped in the lore and legend that the Nitro Express name delivers.

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