June 01, 2022
By Lane Pearce
Charles Newton is noted in the annals of early-20th-century firearms history for his unique rifles and proprietary cartridges. The .256, .30, and .35 Newton rounds delivered exemplary ballistic performance not matched until years later. He also designed the .22 Hi-Power and .250-3000 for Savage. Newton also purportedly toyed with a .22-caliber .250 Savage case and shared his idea with J.E. Gebby years before Gebby debuted the .22 Varminter wildcat.
Newton was a brilliant engineer, but he was not successful as a business entrepreneur. After several failed attempts, the last Newton rifle manufacturing facility folded in 1927. Only 5,000 rifles had been produced, and Western Cartridge made the last .256 Newton ammunition in the late 1930s.
The .30 and .35 Newton cartridges were original designs, i.e., there was no parent case. They’re definitely “magnum” rounds but without the ubiquitous H&H belted case. The relatively more common .256 Newton round was based on slightly shortening and necking down the .30-06 case. The “.256” nomenclature is often confusing because it refers to the rifle’s bore diameter. So it’s not the precursor of the .25-06 (as I once thought) but is actually 6.5mm (0.264 inch) caliber similar to but, again, not the same as the 6.5-06.
I have become so interested in Newton’s unique rifles/cartridges that I purchased a vintage 1916 First Model chambered in .256 Newton. Reloading was the only option if I was going to shoot it.
Fortunately, Redding still had a set of dies in stock. VP Robin Sharpless informed me Redding’s seater die cavity is machined to closely support the case as the bullet is inserted, so he said I could use the seater die (bulletseating stem removed, of course) to partially reshape .30-06 or .270 Winchester brass. After a brief learning curve, I successfully reworked three boxes of parent brass into serviceable .256 Newton cases with only a few pieces that were rejected.
After cleaning my rifle’s bore, I inspected it with a Lyman BoreCam. Between Newton’s unconventional segmental rifling, repeated firing with corrosive-primed ammunition, and likely poor maintenance, it looked really rough. Sure enough, my target groups looked more like shotgun patterns. Not wanting to rebarrel an original Newton rifle and to drill the receiver for scope mounts, I returned it to the vault and began searching for a suitable bolt action to convert to fire .256 Newton. I found and purchased an early-production Ruger Model 77 in .270 Win. and had my gunsmith (Isaac Gallagher) pull the barrel, which I shipped to Lothar Walther Precision Tools and had them make a contoured and crowned, 26-inch, .256 Newton barrel threaded to fit the action. There was no need to alter the boltface, magazine, or rails to ensure reliable cartridge feeding and extraction. Gallagher used a Dave Manson precision reamer to cut the chamber. Using a dummy round I’d made, he carefully headspaced the barrel and action, bead-blasted and Cerakoted the metal parts, and refinished the slightly battered stock.
RCBS’s .256 Newton form and trim die is a single-purpose reloading tool I acquired several weeks after starting this project. As noted earlier, I had already reformed several cases with the Redding die set, but as you might expect, using a tool specifically designed to reform the parent case into the wildcat format yielded 100 percent success.
Case capacity of the reformed .256 Newton brass is approximately 58 grains of water to the base of the case neck. That’s about 5 percent less than the capacity of a .30-06 or .270 Win. case. Using my trusted Powley slide rule, I quickly determined that a load recipe with the Berger 130-grain VLD Hunting or Hornady ELD-Match bullet and 50 grains of H4831 would likely be a safe starting point.
I have several old load manuals in my library that reference .256 Newton loads. They are, however, often way too hot! Developed using an actual firearm instead of a precision-chambered pressure barrel and calibrated transducer, the data is usually not safe. I asked an industry source at Alliant for advice, pointing out that the .256 Newton case capacity is essentially the same as the 6.5-284 Norma. “Yes, but the Norma case shoulder is much sharper, and the case body is shorter and fatter, i.e., it’s more efficient.” However, he shared this tidbit of information: “Reloder 23 is the premier powder for the 6.5-284, and it beats H4831 hands-down!”
For this project, I began test-firing loads using different 130-grain bullets and cautiously substituted other propellants. With Hodgdon H4831, IMR 4831, Alliant Powder Reloder 23, Reloder 25, and VihtaVuori N560 and the Berger 130-grain VLD hunting and the Hornady ELD-Match bullets, I safely recorded up to 3,070 fps from the 26-inch barrel. I also loaded a few Barnes 120-grain TSX bullets and achieved excellent results. Load recipes determined using Quick Load were helpful as starting points, but my rifle achieved max predicted velocities at several grains less than the corresponding max charge weights. Lesson to learn: Computer predictions are just calculated estimates. Be safe and handload conservatively!