April 06, 2021
Arthur Savage established the company that bears his name just before the turn of the 20th century at a time when smokeless powder development was in its infancy. As many readers know, he developed a lever-action rifle with a unique internal rotary magazine. He offered it up for military trials chambered for the .30-40 Krag round, and when it was not accepted, he developed the civilian Model 1895 chambered for a then-new rimmed, bottleneck .30-caliber round first known as the .30 Savage (later called the .303 Savage). Initially, four versions of the cartridge were offered, including a smokeless round topped with a 190-grain jacketed bullet, which had a factory-rated muzzle velocity of about 1,890 fps.
Savage touted the rifle/cartridge duo as the deadliest package for hunting “grizzlies or grouse.” Savage rifles and ammo accompanied noted hunters over the U.S. and Alaska, Africa, and Asia. Advertisements depicted a tiger and a huge moose that fell to the potent .303 Savage. Elk, lion, and even, supposedly, an elephant were no match for the devastating effect caused by the .303’s high-velocity, metal-patched bullets.
Eventually, Savage modernized and improved the rifle, changed its name to Savage 99, and chambered it in several popular hunting calibers, including a new higher-velocity .300 Savage cartridge that was intended to compete with the .30-06. Although it didn’t quite meet the .30-06’s ballistics, the .300’s significantly increased performance sounded the death knell for the .303 Savage. Production ended about 1930 with an estimated 150,000 rifles shipped. Ammunition was readily available until the 1990s.
I recently acquired a vintage .303 Savage 99G deluxe takedown carbine that was made in 1923. It has a lightweight 20-inch barrel, shotgun-style buttstock, checkered pistol grip, and trim fore-end with a Schnäbel-style tip. The only recent source of readymade ammo was an HSM load and a short run by Hornady for Graf & Sons. Fortunately, I acquired two boxes each of the Hornady load and some old Winchester 190-grain Silvertip ammo.
I also obtained some old Norma .303 Savage cases from Huntington’s and some Prvi Partizan and Jamison brass from Graf & Sons. Barnes recently introduced an original cup-and-core 190-grain softnose bullet, and Hornady’s 160-grain FTX bullet is compatible for reloading the .303 Savage, so I used them along with the 150-grain Pointed Core-Lokt bullet from Remington and a 165-grain PBFN from Missouri Bullet Co. for making handloads for my new-old Savage 99G.
You might infer from its name that the .303 Savage uses 0.311-inch-diameter bullets. Not so! Savage 99 barrels have typical bore/groove diameters of 0.300 inch to 0.308 inch. By virtue of its rotary magazine, the Savage 99 can safely handle pointed bullets in addition to roundnose and flatnose types. Hornady, Lee, and Redding offer reloading dies.
So components and dies can be obtained relatively easily, but unless you have reloading manuals dating back to the 1980s, you won’t find any load data specifically for the .303 Savage. Lyman’s 46th edition and earlier manuals list recipes for jacketed and cast bullets using currently available IMR and Hodgdon propellants, and I have that manual.
The .303 Savage and .30-30 Win. case capacities and max chamber pressures are about the same; however, the .303 cases I purchased were much heavier; therefore, they had less case capacity. Even so, I felt comfortable using .30-30 recipes with recent propellants, but I kept my charges close to the recommended starting charges. As the chart shows, my test loads performed pretty well considering my aged vision and the 99’s iron sights.
After working with the .303 Savage, I have concluded that in spite of Savage’s aggressive advertising, it should not be your first choice for big or dangerous game—except maybe for stopping a black bear climbing the tree to your deer stand. The .303 Savage performs on par with the .30-30 and .35 Remington, so if you enjoy a challenge and have the opportunity to acquire a nice shooter, I say go for it!