.404 Jeffery

    Designed by the great British gunmaking firm of W.J. Jeffery and released to the gun buying public in 1905 (1909 according to some sources), the .404 Jeffery, also known as the .404 Rimless Nitro Express and the 10.75 x 73mm, has long been popular for use in Africa and India for all types of game. Its main use has been as a dangerous game cartridge and since Jeffery decided to release the cartridge to the trade, it has been chambered by a wide variety of gunmakers. Prior to 1912, W.J. Jeffery built .404 Rimless Nitro Express rifles on ex-military, standard length, 98 Mauser actions that had the action and magazine box modified to fit. This was the result of John Rigby & Co. having the exclusive distributorship from 1898 to 1912 for the U.K. market of Mauser rifles and components that were manufactured by the Mauser firm. Once Rigby’s exclusive distributorship ended, Jeffery began using 98 Magnum Mauser actions to produce .404 Rimless NE rifles. Vickers also made up a number of guns on 98 Mauser actions that were used by the Elephant Control Department of Tanganyika. Cogswell & Harrison built .404 Rimless NE rifles along with Waffenfabrik Mauser and a host of others.



    The cartridge, as originally loaded, fired either a 400 grain bullet at 2,125 fps with a muzzle energy of 4,020 ft/lbs or a 300 grain bullet at 2,300 fps with a muzzle energy of 4,700 ft/lbs. The lighter bullet was intended to be used on thin-skinned game at long range and although the idea may have been a good one, the results of its use in the field usually left much to be desired. John “Pondoro” Taylor remarked in his book African Rifles and Cartridges that the 300 grain bullet was not a reliable killer of dangerous game and advised hunters to use it only on thin-skinned, non-dangerous game. His main complaint was the copper-pointed bullets loaded by Jeffery being too delicate for use in Africa. Granted, Jeffery designed the 300 grain copper-pointed bullet for long-range shooting in India, perhaps for hunters inclined to head for the Himalayas. Taylor did admit that he didn’t use the .404 Jeffery much since he preferred to use double rifles but other hunters did report problems with uneven bullet performance, even with the 400 grain solids. A close reading of the literature hints at poor bullet construction as the chief culprit, which can be remedied today by using some of the excellent bullets from Woodleigh or A-Square. However, other users stated that it performed its intended function quite well. Add to that the fact that the cartridge essentially duplicated the ballistics of the .450/.400 3” Nitro Express (one of Pondoro’s favorite cartridges) in a bolt action rifle that was significantly cheaper than the double rifles usually associated with African hunting and its success was assured.

    Although one would assume that the .404 Jeffery fires a bullet that measures .404”, it actually uses a .423” diameter bullet. Kynoch was once one of the biggest manufacturers of .404 Jeffery ammo and for many years, wherever the British flag flew, it was almost certain that a hunter could find ammo for a rifle chambered in this caliber. All that changed with the end of the British Empire and the decision made by Kynoch in the 1960’s to stop producing ammunition. Although RWS continued making ammunition, this singular event marked the long, slow decline of the .404 Jeffery into virtual oblivion. The introduction of the .458 Winchester Magnum at about the same time only hastened its disappearance from the game fields of Africa and India. The .458 Win. Mag. rifles built by Winchester were made up on standard length actions and cost a fraction of any comparable rifle with similar performance. A bit ironic considering the fact that .404 Jeffery rifles were popular because they were the low cost alternative of their day. A change in fortune arrived in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when a sudden resurgence of interest in African hunting created a demand for dangerous game rifles. Many of the old rifles made by British and Continental gunmakers were avidly sought after by hunters along with the ammunition for them. Combined with a soaring stock market and the newfound wealth it created, the conditions were ripe for a return of the .404 Jeffery and its brethren. Bertram brass made in Australia soon became available in the U.S. along with Woodleigh bullets.

    A word of caution is in order for anyone interested in firing a rifle chambered for the .404 Jeffery. As stated in the A-Square reloading manual Any Shot You Want, the original drawings for the cartridge specify a groove diameter of .418”, a bullet diameter of .422” and a chamber that has an “abrupt, funnel shaped throat.” The later German drawings call for a groove diameter of .423”. Unless you are absolutely certain that the rifle you are using has a groove diameter of .423”, do not fire any .404 Jeffery ammunition in it until the bore and chamber have been measured. Modern rifles are quite strong but it is the older guns that are likely to have a barrel with a .418” groove diameter and they are not nearly as strong as the stuff produced today. It is suggested in Any Shot You Want that owners of older rifles with .418” barrels should hang them on the wall and admire them, which is sound advice indeed.

    Beyond that, the .404 Jeffery is a fine choice for anyone hunting thick-skinned game in Africa or the big brown bears of Alaska and Kamchatka. The rimless case feeds smoothly in bolt action rifles and the recoil is not as heavy as the more powerful .416 Rigby, .458 Lott and .505 Gibbs making .404 Jeffery rifles easier to shoot accurately. The guns are often much lighter than the big double rifles employed in Africa with ammunition that is significantly cheaper. The last time I checked with Midway USA (December 2008), .404 Jeffery ammo costs about $4.00 to $10.00 per round compared to $6.00 to $20.00 per round for a .470 Nitro Express. Handloading cartridges will lower the cost of ammunition even further although die sets may have to be special ordered. I was lucky enough to find a set of .404 Jeffery dies made by Redding Reloading Equipment that was stocked by Graf’s about a year ago and have found them to be excellent. The fit and finish of Redding products puts them (in my humble opinion) a cut above their competitors and I have never been disappointed with their performance.

    Interestingly enough, another reason for the resurgence of interest in the ,404 Jeffery has been the use of the parent case for some of the newer cartridges made available to shooters and hunters by the likes of Dakota Arms and Remington. Dakota has an entire family of cartridges such as the .300 Dakota and .330 Dakota that are based on the .404 Jeffery while Remington has its line of Ultramag cartridges. Both companies load their cartridges to pressure levels that modern guns are capable of withstanding which produces ballistics that are superior to many of their magnum competitors. Theoretically, since the .404 Jeffery and its offspring headspace on the shoulder and have no belt like the .300 Weatherby Magnum, it makes for a more accurate cartridge. To be honest, I’ve owned and fired rifles chambered for many of the belted magnum cartridges and found them all to be very accurate if they are fed good ammunition, either factory fodder or handloads. I have a Remington 700 chambered in 7mm Weatherby Magnum that shoots well and my friend Dan Poff had a Sako carbine with a full-length, Mannlicher-style stock chambered in .375 H&H Magnum that shot very small groups. Just goes to show that theory doesn’t always translate to actual practice.

    My current .404 Jeffery rifle is a Cogswell & Harrison built on an Enfield action. I don’t know much about the history of the rifle but when I bought it many years ago, it looked as though it had led a very hard life. The front sight bead was missing and the express sights were so loose I was afraid they would fall out. The stock had a crack in it just behind the rear tang and most of the finish was gone. I asked Mr. Pete Mazur of Pete Mazur Restorations to restore it for me and after 6 years and several thousand dollars, the result was a rifle that looked almost new. I’ve had a couple of rifles restored by him and it always amazes me how he can take something that looks like an absolute basket case and turn it into a firearm that is not only elegant but functional to the point of giving a shooter absolute confidence in his weapon. If you’re interested in having any sort of restoration work done to a fine rifle or shotgun, give him a call at 530-268-2412.

    Happily, there is quite a selection of components and ammunition for the owner of a .404 Jeffery rifle to try out. Barnes and Woodleigh make excellent bullets of .423” diameter and brass is currently offered by Norma. Bertram brass can also be found on occasion and Hornady is planning to offer it soon. Woodleigh solids are constructed much like the original steel-jacketed bullets used in .416 Rigby ammunition sold in the early part of the 20th century. The steel jackets are thicker in the nose section and have bases that are crimped into the rear portion of the core, resulting in a bullet that is unlikely to deform under any circumstances. Ammunition is available from A-Square, Hornady, Kynoch and Norma. Norma’s ammunition is loaded quite a bit hotter than the original specs call for and is almost as powerful as the .416 Rigby. My take on that is if you want the performance of a .416 Rigby or .458 Lott, go out and buy one. The .404 Jeffery has recoil that is fairly mild compared to either one and that is one of the reasons why it was so popular. Loading the cartridge to higher pressures than the original loading calls for negates the design philosophy of most of the old British cartridges used in Africa and India since they were generally used in temperatures that would more often than not be over 100 degrees F, increasing the possibility of sticky extraction. Granted, they were designed that way because Cordite was used to load the cartridges and it was very temperature sensitive, showing dramatic increases in chamber pressure in hot conditions. Today’s smokeless powders are not nearly as sensitive but I still prefer to use the original loadings, as provided by the factory or with handloads. Obviously, if you only own one rifle and it happens to be a .404 Jeffery, by all means use the Norma ammo if it is safe to fire in your gun.

    So there you have it. A grand old cartridge brought back from near extinction that has found a new lease on life. If you asked me 20 years ago if there was a future for the cartridge and its brethren, I would have laughed. Just goes to show how much and how fast the world can change. Let’s hope the .404 Jeffery lasts for at least another hundred years and shooters and hunters never give up on it like they once did. -- W.M. Oberndorf


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