“When a client shows up in camp with a .375 Holland & Holland, you immediately know that you have a practical and able chap as a customer, a wise and knowledgeable hunter who will listen to reason. When a client shows up in camp with a .458 Win Mag, you know that most likely the only experience the hunter has had is reading the pages of Outdoor Life magazine, probably 30-year-old editions. When a client shows up in camp with a Remington or a Weatherby in any caliber, you know the hunter’s experience probably does not extend past the clerk at the gun counter. When a client shows up with a double rifle, you know you have an elitist for a customer, much like the guy coming down the charter boat dock at the marina carrying a fly rod, and you approach him with caution. When a client shows up with a .416 Rigby, you know you have someone who has studied and respects the rich history and traditions of the sport of dangerous-game hunting. And when a client shows up in camp with a .404 Jeffery, you know this is someone who cares enough about said history and traditions to go to the immense trouble of building and loading a gun and cartridge long sacrificed to the gods of mass production and commercialism. You take a liking to this guy immediately.”
You might think a wizened old man with an albatross around his neck told me this story. Not so. This PH was 29 years old. He’d heard the story at the beginning of his hunting career more than ten years ago and has since confirmed its wisdom to the point of repeating it whenever he senses a sympathetic audience. The legend of the .404 Jeffery is alive and well indeed.
Ruger attempted to bring the .404 back into the mainstream a few years ago but, by all accounts, screwed up the chamber specifications and soon canceled the project as complaints mounted. The Ruger No. 1 seemed to work okay, but the Ruger 77 had a short chamber, which didn’t work okay at all.
CZ, in its aggressive stance of recent years, who already chambers its factory rifles in .375 H&H and .416 Rigby and converted its .458 Win Mags to .458 Lotts as it saw that wave coming, is now making rifles in .505 Gibbs and .450 Rigby as well as .404 Jeffery. You can bet that CZ will not screw it up. They are offering their own factory ammunition in all of these exotic calibers as well, and it’s likely that somebody like Hornady will soon follow. Thus the legendary .404 Jeffery returns to the commercial limelight. The relatively small, highly sophisticated and enormously influential market of dangerous-game hunters and rifle connoisseurs could not be happier, though many of them have been building .404s on existing or custom Mauser actions and loading their own ammo for years.
Somewhat shrouded in the London fog that seems to have blurred much of cartridge development in the first few years of the 20th century, the best authorities have it that the .404 Jeffery, whose actual bullet diameter is .423-inch, was introduced by W. J. Jeffery in 1905 to duplicate the ballistics of the popular cordite-loaded .450/400 double-rifle cartridge, namely a 400-grain bullet at a velocity of 2125 feet-per-second delivering 4020 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. Even in its original black powder incarnation, the .450/400 was highly acclaimed for its excellent straight line penetration on dangerous game. Using the new lower pressure, higher velocity cordite that was being introduced at the time, the .404 Jeffery could easily have achieved a velocity of 2400 fps with its 400-grain bullet, much as it is usually loaded today, though the standard back then seems to have settled on a more conservative 2200 fps.
At one time Kynoch loaded 300-grain copper-capped bullets at 2600 feet-per-second, reportedly a devastating load on thin-skinned game and widely used in India and Ceylon. The less ballistically sophisticated hunters of the time, however, too often used this light, rapidly expanding bullet on thick-skinned game and failures predictably occurred. Kynoch soon discontinued the load in the face of its misuse but, as new factory .404 Jeffery ammo becomes available again it certainly might be worth reviving.
Conventional wisdom says that Jeffrey developed the first .404s on ex-military Mauser K-98 actions, mostly because the exclusive commercial Mauser distributor in Britain at the time was Rigby. However, I have it on excellent authority that the very first rifles offered by Jeffery were in fact built on single square bridge magnum Mauser actions with Krupp steel barrels. In either case, the military actions worked fine, as the original case length of the .404 was a little shorter than it would become around 1911 when longer actions were required to accommodate the new .375 H&H and .416 Rigby cartridges.
Even in the beginning, Jeffery did not attempt to keep the .404 proprietary but released it to the trade. With Jeffery and all the other London makers using Mauser actions and Krupp barrels, the heart and soul of the .404 Jeffery was German, and Mauser built its own .404s, with the European designation of 10.75x73mm Mauser, as early as 1908. The cartridge was sometimes referred to as .404 Jeffery Rimless or .404 Rimless Nitro Express as well. With all the London makers involved, there was some typically British fiddling with the specs for the .404 Jeffery, which may account for Ruger’s recent confusion, and it is actually the 10.75x73mm Mauser specs that should be used today.
The original 404 Jeffery cartridge was shorter in case length than it is today. In 1911 Kynoch changed the name to 404 Kynoch and this case was .007 inches longer than the original Jeffery, indicating that the ballistics of the .416 are achievable in certain rifles.
Ballistics expert Keith Luckhurst ran some trajectory tests comparing a .404 Jeffery loaded with 400-grain bullets at 2280 fps, a .458 Winchester Magnum loaded with 500-grain bullets at 2090 fps, and a .375 H&H leaded with 300-grain bullets at 2550 fps, all sighted in at 100 meters. According to Luckhurst, “At 250 meters the .375 Magnum has dropped 11 inches, the .404 has dropped 13 inches and the .458 has dropped 18 inches. But at 150 meters there is a spread of only one inch between these calibers, and at 200 meters it is four inches. Most gunwriters would describe the .375 Magnum as flat shooting and the descriptions of the .458 tend to include words like ‘rainbow trajectory.’ In reality, the point of aim for any of the rifles is virtually the same out to 150 meters.” Luckhurst concludes that the .404 Jeffery, with better penetration and less recoil than the .458, a trajectory almost as flat as the .375 H&H, and overall performance similar or equal to the .416 Rigby, is a particularly well-balanced rifle for the largest and most dangerous game.
There are all kinds of ways to bring home the buffaloburger these days, including the latest short-fat-ugly cartridges that, on the rare occasions when they decide to feed from the magazine into the chamber, spit bullets at ungodly velocities out of lackluster stainless steel barrels cradled in the same kind of hardened chemical concoction you might use to wrap the handle of your hammer or float your boat. I wonder why nobody has any romantic stories to tell about those kinds of guns?