The .405 Winchester is one of the most misunderstood, and often maligned, cartridges that has ever prowled the hunting fields of the world. Praised by some and cursed by others, yet many of the negative comments are based upon hearsay and not actual use. Gun writer after gun writer have perpetuated many of the falsehoods about this cartridge by simply regurgitating the comments of their contemporaries without conducting adequate, independent research. In this article, I hope to paint a clearer picture, of this cartridge and, at the same time, dispel some of the myths and falsehoods that surround the .405 Winchester.
Introduced in 1904, in the classic Winchester 1895 rifle, the .405 was, for many years, the most powerful American cartridge and, until quite recently, it was also the most powerful lever action rifle cartridge. In the first category, the .405 was only eclipsed in 1937 when Winchester introduced the Model 70 rifle in .375 H&H Magnum. In the second category, the .405 was only tipped from this position with the introduction of the .450 Marlin in 2000, but the performance of these two cartridges is very similar and handloads could tip the balance either way. There are also some comments, to be found on the internet, that claim that the .444 Marlin replaced the .405 as the most powerful, lever action rifle cartridge, back in 1964. However, an examination of the factory ballistics of both rounds shows that the .405 is still the most powerful of the two, by a reasonable margin.
.405 Winchester rifles:
Most articles, that attempt to cover the history of the .405, talk about the 1895 lever action rifle as the main platform for the .405; which is true. They also usually make reference to the 1885 Hi-Wall single shots, refer to ‘some’ European double rifles being made in .405 and finish up with the Ruger No1 rifles that were available, for a time, in this calibre. However, there were a hell of a lot more makes and models of .405 Winchester rifles, than these commentators might suggest.
Indeed, the .405 Winchester cartridge has been factory chambered in the following firearms:
- Winchester 1895 lever action rifles,
- Winchester 1885 single shot rifles,
- Remington Lee bolt action rifles (in both the heavy and light sporter models),
- Manufrance Rival bolt action rifle,
- Ruger No 1 single shot rifles (Tropical models in both blued and stainless steel),
- C . Sharps 1885 Old Reliable Model 1875 single shot rifle,
- Thompson Centre Encore single shot rifle,
- There was even a Winchester Model 70 (at least one) that was factory chambered in .405 Winchester.
In addition, there were quite a few single shot rifles, double rifles, drillings, Cape guns and other combination guns, made in .405 Winchester. Some of the known examples were manufactured, or marketed, by companies such as:
- John Rigby & Co, who made one (1 only) Rising Bite double as part of a matched pair (.405 and .303) for the Maharaja of Karauli,
- Webley & Scott,
- E. J. Churchill,
- Manton & Co (although these doubles were most likely made in Britain or Germany and re-branded Manton for sale in India),
- Manufrance, in addition to the Rival bolt action, also made double rifles, combination guns and drillings in .405 Winchester,
- Westley Richards,
- Geoffrey Couderc, who is a present-day custom gunsmith producing top quality firearms including .405 double rifles,
- Butch Searcy & Co., who produces ‘The All-American Double” and has offered doubles in .405,
- James Bury (there is even a Bury double, .405 Winchester rifle that was owned by Hermann Goering who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe and Reichsmarschall of Nazi Germany in World War Two),
- Raick Freres,
- Many Belgium makers (too many to list), and
- Winchester even produced double rifle versions of their classic Model 21 shotgun chambered in .405 Winchester.
There have been lots of custom .405 rifles and some, that this writer has encountered, include the following actions and, without a doubt, there would be more than what is on this list:
- Enfield P14,
- Mauser 98,
- Mosin Nagant,
- Martini Henry,
- Remington Rolling Blocks, and
- H&R Handi Rifles.
The .405 Winchester in History
Many shooters are already aware of President Theodore Roosevelt’s (TR) 1 year long safari to East Africa in 1909. Many are also aware that TR took a Winchester 1895, in .405 Winchester, in addition to a Holland & Holland .500/450NE double rifle and a Springfield .30/03 (which was the predecessor to the .30/06). TR’s son, Kermit, also took an 1895 in .405 Winchester. What isn’t commonly known is that the Winchester inventory, for TR’s safari, actually lists three (3) 1895 rifles in .405 Winchester one being Kermit’s rifle and the other two, which were identical in specifications, must have been for TR. The third rifle, it would seem, was a spare in case of any issues with the other. However, TR only mentions one (1) .405 for himself and one (1) for Kermit in the book African Game Trails. What became of the additional rifle is not known.???
Now it has been widely reported, in modern literature, that Theodore called his .405 ‘Big Medicine’. However, there does not appear to be any references to this nickname prior to the re-release of the .405 in 2001. Indeed, it seems that the first time this term appears is in the Winchester catalogue for 2001 and it appeared in nearly every subsequent Winchester catalogue, that featured the .405, It was only in 2014 that Winchester finally dropped the ‘Big Medicine’ misnomer. Perhaps some over-zealous, advertising ‘guru’ thought that inventing this name would help sales. In any event, it only helped cloud the history of the .405. Regrettably, many gun writers just took Winchester’s catalogue and regurgitated that term in almost every article written about the .405 since 2001. However, what TR really said about the .405 Winchester, in African Game Trails, is:
‘…for the Winchester .405 is, at least for me personally, the medicine gun for lions.’
When you read all of the modern literature, about the .405 Winchester, you could easily get the impression that TR was the only hunter to have hunted Africa with the .405. However, TR was neither the only hunter to use the .405, in the Dark Continent, nor was he even the first – and he certainly won’t be the last. Indeed, in the early parts of the 20th Century, there were many hunters who used the .405 to hunt dangerous game in Africa and India. The .405 was also used in North America, of course, but also Australia, South East Asia and South America.
In regards to the first use of the .405 in Africa, that distinction might possibly go to a man named Gerrit Forbes. Gerrit Forbes had been hunting in Africa, with the .405, since 1907. From a prominent Boston family he was also a friend of TR and was called upon, by TR, for advice on rifles and calibres to take to Africa. Initially, TR was determined to take his favourite Winchester 1886 in .45/70 to Africa but advice from Forbes, and with input from others, convinced TR to take the .405. It may be of interest to note that Gerrit Forbes was also friends with Walther Dalrymple (Karamoja) Bell (having participated in some of Bell’s safaris), Townsend Whelen and Elmer Keith.
Another contender for the title of first African hunter to use a .405, was the Belgium industrialist, Earnest Solvay. Solvay also hunted Africa in 1907 and again in 1908. On the 1907 safari, Solvay took three (3) Winchester 1895s; two (2) in .405 Winchester calibre and the third in .303 British. The other members of his party carrying a variety of other rifles. On his 1908 safari, he again took his two .405s but both of the other members of the party, his sister and his doctor, also took 1895 rifles in .405 Winchester. On both safaris a wide variety of game, including rhino, buffalo and elephant, were taken with the .405s and the hunters reported excellent results. Indeed, the expedition doctor, who was present on both safaris, wrote to the Winchester company and extolled the virtues of the .405. A copy of this letter was provided to TR, during the planning stages for his safari and this information, along with Gerrit Forbes’ advice is, undoubtedly, what lead TR to take the .405 to Africa.
There have been many other hunters, who have used the .405 Winchester in Africa and we may never know who some of these people were or what they thought of the .405 on African game. However, we do know a number of famous .405 users. Hunters such as:
- Charles Cottar who was the first American PH in East Africa,
- Martin and Osa Johnson who were documentary film makers and superstars from the 1920s,
- Stewart Edward White who was a popular novelist in the first half of the 20th Century,
- Edison Marshall who was another popular novelist of the same era,
- Edgar Beechar Bronson who was a cattle rancher, photographer, author and African big game hunter,
- Eldridge Reeves Johnson who founded the Victor Talking Machine Company which, later, became RCA Records, and
- Of course, we shouldn’t forget Kermit Roosevelt.
In India the .405 was quite popular for tiger hunting. Among the hunters known for using the .405 in India, we find Kenneth Anderson who, like Jim Corbett, had a reputation for hunting maneaters and he wrote many books about his experiences. Between the late 1930’s and 1960’s, Anderson used an 1895, in .405, almost to the exclusion of all other rifles and calibres, the only other firearm, which he used when conditions warranted it, was a 12 gauge shotgun.
In 1924, the ‘father’ of the US Airforce, Brigadier General ‘Billy’ Mitchell and his wife both hunted tigers as guests of the Maharaja of Surguja. In their hunting battery were two 1895 Winchesters in .405 calibre. While the General took his first tiger with a double .450, Mrs Mitchell later shot a tigress, through the heart, with her .405, and shared in the kill of a big tiger with her husband, again, with the .405.
Obviously there were many hunters who used the .405 in North America and it would be impossible to list all of them, but here are a couple of the more famous names that are associated with the .405:
- Allen Hasselhorg, better known as ‘The Bear Man of Admiralty Island’,
- Malcolm S. Mackay,
- Townsend Whelen, and
- Elmer Keith.
In Part 2, of this article on the .405 Winchester, I will talk about the effectiveness of the .405 on game up to, and including, the Big Five of Africa and in Part 3, I will discuss reloading and shooting the .405 today.
Please also note that this article will be continuously updated as more information comes to hand.
Copyright 2021 Robert E. Pretty