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Best-In-Class .416 Dangerous-Game Cartridges

by Joseph von Benedikt   |  June 12th, 2018 0
The various .416-bore cartridges offer an ideal balance of performance on dangerous game.

The various .416-bore cartridges offer an ideal balance of performance on dangerous game.

In the world of cartridges that can stop anything, the .416 Rigby, .416 Remington Magnum, and .416 Ruger occupy a middle ground. They possess neither the shocking quantities of elephant-stomping energy nor the clavicle-shattering recoil of cartridges such as the .505 Gibbs, .470 Nitro Express, and .458 Lott. Nor do they offer extreme versatility like the somewhat-flat-shooting .375s. They do offer one undeniably appealing virtue: legitimate hunt-anything authority at a level of recoil that most hunters can master.

Weatherby enthusiasts will rightly point out that the .416 Weatherby Magnum is the velocity king of the lot, and they might argue that it should be included in this discussion. I’m leaving it out because it’s properly in a different performance category. Pushing 400-grain bullets at 2,700 fps, it generates energy levels in excess of 6,600 ft-lbs. That’s way more than the other .416s and even more than .458 Lott and nips at the heels of the .505 Gibbs. Enthusiasts pay for that performance level in the form of sharp and vicious recoil.

The .416’s Forte

Performance on buffalos, elephants, hippos, and the really big northern bears often comes down to penetration. Shot angles on dangerous game—particularly during adrenaline-pumping encounters while attempting to finish off a job poorly started—are often less than ideal, and unless the bullet has what it takes to penetrate many feet after shattering massive bones and encountering shockingly dense, thick muscle, it may not reach vitals.

Sectional density is an outdated measure of a bullet’s penetrating ability derived from diameter and weight, but it is applicable to typical roundnose, flatbase dangerous-game bullets, such as the .416 Solid (left), but not so the modern VLD (right).

Sectional density is an outdated measure of a bullet’s penetrating ability derived from diameter and weight, but it is applicable to typical roundnose, flatbase dangerous-game bullets, such as the .416 Solid (left), but not so the modern VLD (right).

Assuming equal penetration, the larger the projectile’s frontal area, the more authoritatively it imparts shock. However, because increased diameter results in exponentially increased surface area, the larger the frontal area, the more resistance the bullet encounters and the less likely it is to penetrate adequately.

To overcome the greater resistance encountered by larger frontal area, the bullet must be driven faster. Terminal performance benefits, but recoil spikes. A balance must be struck.

Oddly enough, the old sectional density number that is virtually useless when comparing most modern bullets is actually applicable and helpful when comparing dangerous-game bullets. Aerodynamics play little part in the design of such projectiles. Most are roundnose and flatnose designs, and the weight/diameter ratio that sectional density is based on offers sound information. Sectional density numbers of capable dangerous-game bullets start around .300 and range up to .340 or so.

In terms of speed, a muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps has long been considered a threshold. Assuming a typical dangerous-game bullet’s sectional density of .300 to .340, any bullet exiting the muzzle at 2,300 fps or more typically provides outstanding penetration.

Traditional 400-grain .416 projectiles have a relatively high sectional density of .330, and the three cartridges spotlighted here all drive those bullets comfortably at 2,300 to 2,450 fps. Frontal area is admirable but not excessive, recoil is acceptable if not comfortable, and penetration is absolutely outstanding.

So which of the three is best? Let’s take a closer look.

.416 Rigby

Not only does the venerable .416 Rigby possess legendary panache, having been made famous by Harry Selby and others, but also it is widely available in various high-performance loads from high-quality ammomakers. Most pair an expanding-bullet load with a like-weight solid.

Not only does the venerable .416 Rigby possess legendary panache, having been made famous by Harry Selby and others, but also it is widely available in various high-performance loads from high-quality ammomakers. Most pair an expanding-bullet load with a like-weight solid.

If you ask dyed-in-the-wool dangerous-game hunters which .416 cartridge they prefer, the answer will almost certainly be the .416 Rigby. Introduced in 1911, this classic cartridge is legendary in terms of performance, possesses unmatchable panache virtue of its history with and connection to a storied British firearms house of almost mythical proportions, and is available in factory-loaded form across most of Africa.

A much-loved characteristic of the rather cavernous cartridge case is that it operates at fairly low pressures, so fired cases eject easily even in steamy tropical temperatures. Plus, even though it burns considerably more gunpowder to achieve the same velocity as its more modern siblings—and theoretically generates more foot-pounds of recoil on paper—low pressures make for a long, rolling recoil impulse that is almost comfortable.

Big-bore cartridges are easy to handload. Since they often encounter rough handling in the field and because actions are often run fast and hard in the heat of the moment, it’s best to prime with hard-cup primers like those by Winchester and CCI.

Big-bore cartridges are easy to handload. Since they often encounter rough handling in the field and because actions are often run fast and hard in the heat of the moment, it’s best to prime with hard-cup primers like those by Winchester and CCI.

The cartridge was originally designed for use with bulky strands of Cordite propellant, and today’s handloaders can take advantage of that massive capacity. Most .416 Rigby rifles (currently available from CZ-USA, Dakota Arms, Montana Rifle Co., Ruger, and Sako) are built on robust, strong actions, and cartridge cases are stout. Cautious handloading can significantly increase the .416 Rigby’s muzzle velocity.

A disclaimer is called for here. Reloading manuals do not provide high-pressure data for the .416, and handloaders should proceed with extreme caution! Candidly, if you feel the need to shoot 400-grain 0.416-inch projectiles faster than 2,450 fps, you are better off with the .416 Weatherby.

Governed by Europe’s CIP (Permanent International Commission for the Proof of Small Arms) and not SAAMI, the .416 Rigby is spec’d with a maximum allowable chamber pressure of 47,100 psi. In contrast, the .416 Rem. Mag.’s maximum is 62,000 psi.

Traditional pressures offer all the performance necessary for even the biggest bull elephant or hippo. Modern .416 Rigby factory ammo by Barnes, Federal, Hornady, HSM, Norma, Nosler, Swift, and Winchester all push a 400-grain bullet at or slightly in excess of 2,400 fps. Muzzle energy is almost 5,200 ft-lbs, and even roundnose solids or softpoints carry almost 4,000 ft-lbs at 100 yards.

Different bullet weights offer versatility. Woodleigh’s 450-grain solids and softnose bullets can’t be pushed quite as fast—2,300 fps is about the limit—but they have a high sectional density of .371. Penetration is very good. On the other end of the stick, Barnes’s 350-grain TSX, Swift’s 350-grain A-Frame, and Cutting Edge’s 350-grain MTH can be driven to 2,600 fps or a bit more and offer legitimate 250-yard usefulness on hooved game and the biggest bears.

Want even more speed? Try Cutting Edge’s 300-grain Safari ESP Raptor, a unique reversible bullet that serves as either a polymer-tipped expanding bullet or a flatnose solid and can be pushed to well over 2,700 fps. Assuming your rifle shoots it well—and you’re rifleman enough to place your shots precisely—I wouldn’t hesitate to use it out to 400 yards or so on moose and the biggest antelope species.

All things considered, the .416 Rigby has only one real drawback. The cartridge’s case is so beefy, it’s difficult to shoehorn into standard-size magnum-length rifle actions. In most cases, oversize bolt actions are employed when building rifles chambered in .416 Rigby. While superbly built rifles by Rigby and similar premium companies still manage to be sleek, well balanced, and of not-burdensome weight, most affordable .416 Rigby rifles have a slightly fencepost-like feel when compared to .416 rifles using sleeker cases and built on standard-size actions.

The .416 Rigby is a very forgiving cartridge to handload. Use hard-cupped primers, such as those by Winchester and CCI, paired with medium-slow burn rate powders, such as H4831, Reloder 22, and IMR 7828.

.416 Remington Magnum

The .416 Rem. Mag. has many virtues, ranging from compatibility with standard-size magnum actions to plentiful ammo availability.

The .416 Rem. Mag. has many virtues, ranging from compatibility with standard-size magnum actions to plentiful ammo availability.

While veteran dangerous-game guides may personally opt for the nostalgia of the Rigby cartridge, when asked to recommend a .416, most guides will suggest the Rem. Mag. version. It was introduced in 1989 and is currently available from Barnes, Federal, Hornady, HSM, Nosler, Remington, Swift, and Winchester.

A huge variety of suitable projectiles adds versatility to all .416 cartridges. From left: Cutting Edge 400-grain Safari Solid, Barnes 400-grain Banded Solid, Barnes 400-grain TSX, Hornady 400-grain DGS, Hornady 400-grain DGX, Swift 400-grain A-Frame, Swift 350-grain A-Frame, Cutting Edge 350-grain MTH, Barnes 350-grain TTSX, Barnes 350-grain TSX, Cutting Edge 300-grain ESP Raptor, and Barnes 300-grain TSX.

A huge variety of suitable projectiles adds versatility to all .416 cartridges. From left: Cutting Edge 400-grain Safari Solid, Barnes 400-grain Banded Solid, Barnes 400-grain TSX, Hornady 400-grain DGS, Hornady 400-grain DGX, Swift 400-grain A-Frame, Swift 350-grain A-Frame, Cutting Edge 350-grain MTH, Barnes 350-grain TTSX, Barnes 350-grain TSX, Cutting Edge 300-grain ESP Raptor, and Barnes 300-grain TSX.

It’s sleeker and fits in standard magnum actions, such as the Remington 700, Winchester Model 70, and Kimber 8400. Ammunition, reloading components, rifles, and rifle parts are all readily available. Even though the Rem. Mag.’s case has less capacity than its much older sibling, it operates at significantly higher chamber pressure. As a result, both factory ammunition and judicious handloads produce more velocity with similar bullet weights. In fact, when staying inside approved pressure limits, the .416 Rem. Mag. is the fastest of the three .416s, comfortably pushing a 400-grain bullet in excess of 2,450 fps.

To achieve the .416 Rem. Mag.’s unprecedented performance, Remington engineers started with 8mm Rem. Mag. cases. Nominally based on the .375 H&H, the cases feature an “improved” shape with blown-out walls and a steeper shoulder. More importantly, 8mm Rem. Mag. cases feature robust construction to withstand significantly higher pressures.

On the subject of higher pressures, one largely unfounded criticism of the .416 Rem. Mag. is the potential for pressure spikes and sticky extraction when used in very hot tropical climes. Today’s gunpowders are for the most part very temperature insensitive, and although spec’d with a fairly high pressure limit, most factory ammunition is loaded well short of high pressures. As a result, the .416 Rem. Mag. is the soul of reliability.

Knowing the intended purpose and destination of their carefully constructed ammo, performance-seeking handloaders can opt to push the limit. For big northern bears, a Barnes 350-grain bullet can be driven at 2,700 fps and a Cutting Edge 300-grain Safari ESP Raptor at 2,800 fps. Hardcore performance indeed! When loading for the torrid temperatures of Central Africa, handloaders can take it back several notches and push 400-grain solids or softnose bullets between 2,400 and 2,500 fps. And if you want truly serious penetration, you can drive a Woodleigh 450-grain bullet at 2,300 fps.

Or because it works, handloaders can opt—as I often do—to build lower-velocity .416 Rem. Mag. ammo of modest pressure, pushing a 400-grain bullet at around 2,250 fps. Recoil softens and lengthens, becoming a mellow push rather than a sharp slam. Best of all, performance doesn’t suffer. With its admirable sectional density of .330, a 400-grain bullet driven at 2,200 fps is still big medicine capable of cleanly and efficiently dropping any buffalo or elephant that roams the veldt.

Handloading it is straightforward, and like all dangerous-game rounds, prime with a hard CCI or Winchester primer; charge it with a medium burn rate propellant, such as Varget, IMR 4895, or Reloder 15; and top with the projectile of your choice. Bullets in hard-kicking cartridges are typically crimped to prevent movement during recoil; for best accuracy, trim case mouths perfectly square using a premium trimmer.

Drawbacks? The .416 Rem. Mag. really doesn’t have any. Rifles for it are available from Winchester, Kimber, Remington, Montana Rifle Co., Sako, and Blaser. Compared to the classic .416 Rigby, it’s still a young cartridge, but it has already displaced the .458 Win. Mag. as the readily available go-to favorite across much of Africa. Compare the ballistics to see why: The .416 Rem. Mag. packs more muzzle energy (roughly 5,200 ft-lbs versus approximately 5,100 ft-lbs), retains as much energy at 100 yards (about 4,000 ft-lbs) as the .458 Win. Mag. does at 75 yards, recoils significantly less, penetrates more, and fits into the same size rifle action. In short, it’s a superior dangerous-game cartridge.

.416 Ruger

Compact and efficient, the .416 Ruger fits into standard .30-06-size actions and provides factory load performance on par with the other two .416s.

Compact and efficient, the .416 Ruger fits into standard .30-06-size actions and provides factory load performance on par with the other two .416s.

This newcomer (it was introduced in 2008) faces serious challenges; however, it is probably the most efficient of the three. And in some minds, it is the most practical.

Proponents point out factory ammo achieves performance on the same level as the two older cartridges but in a smaller package. The .416 Ruger achieves this by running at high chamber pressures—like the .416 Rem. Mag.—and burning a blended, proprietary propellant.

The .416 Ruger uses the non-belted, sharp-shouldered, parallel-sided .375 Ruger cartridge case as its parent and fits into standard, .30-06-length bolt actions. Internal case capacity is about five percent less than that of the .416 Rem. Mag.

Rifle actions appropriate for this relatively compact .416 are shorter than those for the Rigby and Rem. Mag. Plus, because the cartridge is shorter, more functional bore exists in a short 20- or 22-inch barrel than when reamed with a longer chamber. In other words, the .416 Ruger shines in a compact rifle.

Because factory ammunition is stoked with proprietary, blended propellants unavailable to individuals, handloaders will struggle to match factory velocities with the .416 Ruger. However, it’s plenty fast enough with powders such as Reloder 15.

Because factory ammunition is stoked with proprietary, blended propellants unavailable to individuals, handloaders will struggle to match factory velocities with the .416 Ruger. However, it’s plenty fast enough with powders such as Reloder 15.

Detractors correctly counter that the .416 Ruger barely achieves on-par performance with special gunpowders available only to ammo manufacturers, and that handloaders struggle to match factory ballistics with even rigorously charged home-brewed ammo.

It’s a valid point, but in reality, it’s moot. A 400-grain bullet—whether a Barnes Banded Solid for use on pachyderms or a Nosler Partition for stopping big coastal brown bears—loaded to 2,250 fps is completely capable of the task. The cartridge also is relatively versatile with lighter bullets. Little handload data for those bullets exists, but a Swift 350-grain A-Frame or Barnes 350-grain TSX can be pushed to 2,600 fps, producing trajectories much like heavy-bullet .30-06 ammo but with a ton more—literally—impact energy.

Handloading the .416 Ruger is easy—as long as you don’t demand velocities out of its comfort zone. Top velocities can be achieved with Alliant 2000-MR powder. However, Hornady recommends Reloder 15, which is extremely consistent and accurate in the .416 Ruger and provides near-top velocities.

Naysayers point out the dearth of available rifles and—worse—factory-loaded ammunition. Aside from custom gunsmiths, only Ruger builds rifles, and only Hornady manufactures ammunition.

That ammo is loaded with a choice of two 400-grain bullets: the DGS (copper-clad, steel-jacketed solid) and the DGX (copper-clad, steel-jacketed bonded softpoint).

At its essence, the .416 Ruger—although possibly the best engineered of all the .416s here—simply doesn’t measure up to the .416 Rem. Mag. Sure, it’s a tad shorter, but its performance is a tad short, too.

 

 

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