Gun Digest

Greatest Cartridges: .458 Winchester Magnum, Taming Dangerous Game

When facing brutes, such as Cape Buffalo, the .458 Winchester Magnum has become the modern standard. Dangerous game hunters wouldn't want to face Mbogo with anything less.
When facing brutes, such as Cape Buffalo, the .458 Winchester Magnum has become the modern standard. Dangerous game hunters wouldn't want to face Mbogo with anything less.

In the days when “the sun never set” on the British Empire, the colonization of vast areas on the African continent and most all of India resulted in a requirement for heavy caliber, powerful rifles and ammunition to protect the homesteads from large and often dangerous animals.

In addition, a fledgling business of outfitting and guiding foreign hunters in pursuit of these animals was developing, primarily in Kenya, but spreading throughout the continent. Rifles chambered for such exotic sounding names like .470 Nitro Express (NE), .475 #2 NE, .500 NE, and many others, along with the necessary ammunition, began showing up in both Africa and India. With few exceptions there was but one source of the necessary ammunition, and that was the UK firm called Kynoch.

Things went along just peachy for a while. Eventually, however, Kynoch learned that, as necessary as the ammunition manufacture for these big game cartridges was, they couldn't make any money loading them. The volume requirements required to make it profitable just weren't there, so, they did what prudent businessmen do and ceased production on most of the cartridges. This had the effect of turning lots of very handsome and very expensive firearms effectively into boat anchors. Without ammunition they were essentially useless.

In the early fifties, the Management at Olin Corp. saw an opportunity to fill the void by introducing their famous Winchester Model 70 bolt action rifle in some new chamberings, one of which was designed specifically for dangerous-game hunting in both Africa and India. They called it the .458 Winchester Magnum.

Olin introduced it to the shooting world in 1956. It was designed to duplicate the ballistics of the .450 NE, .470 NE and other similar cartridges. Winchester engineers modified and shortened the .375 H&H cartridge case, and loaded a 500 grain bullet in front of enough powder to provide a muzzle velocity of about 2150 feet per second (FPS), basically replicating the Nitro Express cartridges ballistically.

Olin then hired African Professional Hunter David Ommanney to be their “Winchester's Man in Africa,” and followed up with a blistering advertising campaign to sell both rifles and ammunition. It became an initial success, with PHs, wardens, wildlife managers and other professionals, along with the few visiting hunters venturing to that part of the world searching for elephant, buffalo, rhino, lions, tigers, etc., arming themselves with the new development.

The .458 Winchester Magnum became the world standard dangerous-game cartridge rather quickly, due in part to the fact that both the ammunition and rifles to shoot it were very substantially less expensive than British-made rifles, particularly since no ammunition was being produced for them.

Alas, after a few years in the field, problems began cropping up. Muzzle velocities were often discovered to be substantially less than the advertised velocities, frequently less than 2000 fps instead of 2150, and erratic performance issues.

Winchester investigated and found that the heavily compressed loads of ball powder that they were using, had a habit of clumping together causing fickle ignition and less than desirable performance. These were not welcome attributes for a dangerous-game rifle. Winchester addressed the problem and corrected it, but considerable damage was already done to the reputation of the cartridge.

A comparison of different .458-caliber ammunition. From the left, .458 Winchester Magnum, .458 Lott, .460 Weatherby Magnum. Photo: Peter Gnanapragasam.

Well known outdoor writer Jack Lott, managed to get himself into a tussle with a cape buffalo he had wounded using the .458 Win Mag. Needless to say, he didn't win the wrestling match and was hammered pretty good. He didn't do Winchester any favors writing about his experience in the outdoor press. As a result of his experience, he lengthened the .458 Winchester cartridge case by .300” and called his creation the .458 Lott. The added powder capacity, as well as advances in powder technology, made achieving Winchester's goal with the Win Mag round easily achievable.

Even so, the .458 Winchester Magnum set the standard for dangerous-game cartridges.

Most ammunition manufacturers load factory ammo for it, and most rifle manufacturers make rifles chambered for the round. In spite of past glitches with the ammo, it works and it works very well. Armed with a quality rifle chambered for the .458 Win Mag, and the ability to shoot it accurately, the hunter need fear very little in today's hunting world.

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