The .450 Nitro Express
Charlie Haley
~This round, one of the greatest and best dangerous game cartridges ever devised, was also the first. Not the first dangerous game calibre, but the first to use the then new smokeless powder and jacketed bullets. It was a revelation, and took the hunting world by storm.~

The .450 N.E. with some of its contemporaries. Left to right - .450 N.E., .500/.450, .450 no.2, .465 and .470. All have virtually the same performance.

Introduced by the famous British gunmaking firm of Rigby’s in 1898, it is astounding to think that it is now over 100 years old. Smokeless powder had come crashing into the shooting scene in 1886 with the French military 8 x 50R Lebel, which drove a jacketed bullet at previously unheard of velocities.

There was a general scramble among the major nations to adopt some equivalent smokeless powder jacketed smallbore round to replace the .45 calibre black powder lead bulleted cartridges then in vogue. Not too many years before these same .45 rounds were considered smallbores, and pretty advanced too. It is hard for us now to appreciate the startling new developments taking place at that time in history, when new developments would render all that had gone before obsolete virtually overnight.

By 1895 the British military had the .303 round, propelled by the new smokeless Cordite nitro powder, and the Lee-Enfield rifle. Hunters immediately took to these new smallbore wonders with their amazing velocity and penetration, and found that on general game they were the best thing since cheese biscuits. However, when dealing with heavy dangerous game, hunters were suddenly finding themselves killed, or at least finding that their general physiques had been re-arranged in a most distressing fashion by large animals which remained less than impressed with these new marvels, and could not be persuaded otherwise. The penetration was generally there, but something more was needed.

Enter the .450 Nitro Express. Rigby’s utilised the already existing (and highly popular) .450 Black Powder Express case, loaded it with 70 grains of Cordite and topped it off with a 480 grain jacketed bullet. This happy combination launched said bullet at 2150 fps, and was found to be absolutely ideal. Now one had the velocity and penetration of smokeless powder and jacketed bullets combined with adequate bullet weight and calibre, which made it a reliable and dependable performer on the largest game animals on the planet. One could now duplicate and even exceed the performance of the old 4-bore and 8-bore black powder cannons in a slim, trim and light recoiling rifle. Anyone who has carried an MAG around (or an M-60 or whatever) will know what it must have been like lugging one of these black powder behemoths. The recoil from these monsters was also quite capable of knocking the firer over if due attention was not given to stance and hold. The .450 Nitro-Express must have seemed like the answer to a great many fervent prayers. 

There were problems to begin with, however. This was early days, remember, and hunting with these new rounds was an exponential learning curve. The most serious problem was fired cases sticking in the breech. The .450 N.E., being a rimmed round, was not suitable for bolt actions but instead found favour in double rifles and single shots. Both these actions lack the primary extraction power of a bolt action. Furthermore, the cases were becoming stuck in the first place for two main reasons. Firstly, some very early .450 N.E. ammunition was constructed with thin walled black powder cases, designed with 11 tons of pressure in mind. When subjected to 17 tons of cordite pressure, these cases of course swelled and stuck. Increasing the strength of the brass cases solved this problem. Another potential pitfall lay in the sensitivity of Cordite to ambient temperature. Loads which were developed and tested in the coolness (and coldness!) of England performed very differently when subjected to the 40 plus degree temperatures of the Zambezi Valley, manifesting signs of excessive pressure. Eventually the manufacturers responded with “tropical loads”, with reduced propellant charges which would not give problems in hot climates.

The .450 N.E. (L), next to the .458, its modern counterpart.

Nonetheless, these initial problems gave rise to one or two different versions of the .450. Holland & Holland developed their own version, created by necking down the .500 B.P.E. case to .450 calibre. The slightly larger case capacity allowed the same ballistics at reduced chamber pressure (15½ tons, to be exact). Jeffery also introduced the .450 No. 2 Nitro-Express, a huge, stoutly constructed beast of massive case capacity which gave a mere 13 tons of pressure. It was a seriously impressive looking round, but still pushed the same bullet weight at about the same speed as the original .450. By this time, though, all the ailments of the .450 Nitro-Express had been rectified. It was the undisputed darling of the hunting fraternity, and easily the most popular and widely used big game round. All was looking rosy for the .450, but clouds were gathering on the horizon.

Britain was undergoing a series of internal insurrections in the East, and one of the most popular and widely used rifles of the fractious anti-British locals was the .450 calibre Martini-Henry. In order to combat this problem, in the early 1900’s an administrative decision was made to ban the importation of all .450 sporting rifles and ammunition into India and the Sudan. This was to try and deny the rebels access to any pilfered sporting ammo for their rifles, and what of course was meant was .577/.450 black powder Martini ammunition. However, in typical bureaucratic style this blanket ban affected all .450 ammunition - including the .450 Nitro-Express. This was serious, as India especially was a favourite destination of the British sportsman and hunter. The Indian Maharajas also purchased a great many sporting rifles, and all in all India was a major market. If the .450 was banned, something else would have to be substituted.

This turned out to be a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to end all opportunities for the British gun - making firms. Competition was keen and rivalry was intense between them, and a scramble started to see who could develop another heavy round which would become the new industry standard. All strove to duplicate the performance of the .450 Nitro-Express with new rounds which were not quite .450 calibre. This gave rise to five other calibres, ranging between .465 to .476 in calibre, which all had virtually identical ballistics and gave the same performance on big game. There really is no practical difference between any of them. From then on the popularity of the .450 declined. Although still useable in Africa, the manufacturers concentrated on those calibres which were suitable for both Africa and India. 

After World War II, all of the old British heavy rifles and calibres went into a significant decline. Britain's economy was in ruins, there was virtually no domestic sporting rifle market, gunmaking firms were folding one by one and ammunition for surviving rifles became harder and harder to find. The Americans cottoned onto the post-war safari and wanted suitable heavy rifles to take with to Africa. Doubles were hard to find, very expensive and un-American. What was needed was a bolt action that duplicated the performance of the great old British heavies. Winchester chose to duplicate the performance of the .450 Nitro-Express with a modern belted round in its magnificent Model 70 rifle, the result being the amazingly popular .458 Winchester Magnum. It looked like the end of the road for the old British calibres, including the .450, despite imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. However, recent years have seen a tremendous increase of popularity and interest in the old British heavies. Brass and bullets of superlative quality are available, and the proud owner of a .450 is now able to shoot his treasure again. Even factory ammo is available again from the likes of Kynamco and others. A couple of very important caveats here:- original .450 Nitro-Expresses are getting very old, so have them checked out first and keep pressures low. The case capacity considerably exceeds that of even the .450 Ackley, but do not take that as licence to try and duplicate Ackley ballistics!

A double rifle with an old box of Kynoch ammo 
and an even older box of Kynoch ammo!

Also, make very sure that your rifle is not a .450 Black Powder Express. The case dimensions are identical to the Nitro version, and Nitro ammunition will generally fit well in black powder chambers. To fire such a combination will almost certainly destroy a fine old firearm (not to mention a fine old shooter, too), so don’t!

The .450 Nitro-Express is my favourite old double rifle cartridge. Were anyone to present me with the double of my choice, the .450 would be it. (Anyone out there listening?) Big enough without being too big, its slim dimensions allow the building of a rifle noticeably trimmer and lighter than similar calibres would allow. The case is big enough to allow full velocities at very moderate pressures with modern powders, yet is not so huge that case fillers have to be used to avoid erratic ignition. Alas, of all the old Nitro-Expresses it would seem that the one currently riding the crest of popularity is the .470. This is not to decry or malign the fine old .470, for of all the post-.450 developments it was the .470 which became the new standard and was the most popular after the .450 ban. However, it does nothing which the .450 cannot do. As stated earlier, ballistics are virtually identical - the .470 has 20 grains more bullet weight and 25 fps less velocity - and their terminal effect is the same. It does deny the original .450 its true recognition and place in the sun, however, and I find myself wishing that more shooters would pay the .450 more attention. Nonetheless, the .450 Nitro-Express will continue to be appreciated by that circle of cognoscenti who recognise that it was the first, the best in its class and all anyone would ever need when facing the most dangerous game on Earth.