458 Winchester Magnum

458 Win Mag Ballistics

458 Win Mag Trajectory

Big Game Hunting with the 458 Winchester Magnum

World War II changed the world irrevocably. Amongst many other markers, it signalled the end of the golden age of big game hunting. However, in the post war affluence that followed, there was a rekindling of interest in African hunting that led to the development of the mighty 458 Winchester Magnum.

Many consider the golden age of big game hunting to be the period from the late 1800s through until World War II. It was a period when the British Empire was at its height, and hunting was a socially acceptable pursuit. The Great White Hunters were household names and their books best sellers.

It was also the period that ushered in the range of mighty Nitro Express big game rifles. These rifles were introduced for those intrepid hunters who expected to get up close and personal with the largest, and most dangerous, game animals on earth. Some of these fellows were professional ivory hunters. Others were adventurers stalking tigers in Indian jungles and other large and dangerous game.

Smokeless propellants had just been introduced. This was a revolutionary development in firearms. It allowed much higher velocities to be achieved. Up until then, black powder big game rifles were virtually small shoulder mounted canons. Limited in velocity, they sought to achieve the energy needed for big game hunting through projectile weight. Firing a ping-pong ball sized soft lead projectile, the rifles were massive, heavy and cumbersome to use in hunting situations.

Once cordite was introduced it was possible to achieve the hunting energies required through higher velocities. It also allowed lighter, more elegant rifles to be developed to handle these new calibres. This was the period where famous custom gun makers, drawing on their skills and experience in producing exquisite shotguns, began producing those wonderful big game double rifles still greatly admired today. A host of powerful big game Nitro Express calibres were invented, such as the 450, 465, 470, 475, 500 and so on.

Aussiehunter Merkel double in 470 Nitro Express 2

Essentially, the success of these big game calibres can be summarised down to the bare ballistic basics. They delivered outstanding effectiveness in hunting big game by firing a 500 grain projectile at about 2,100 feet per second. That era was just as prone to marketing spin as we are today and quoted velocities were often talked up a bit. Whatever the literature might lead you to expect, a rifle launching a 500 grain projectile at a fair 2,100 fps is a mighty stopper of big game.

After WWII it became increasing difficult to get ammunition for these Nitro Express big game rifles, as demand eased and makers went out of business. As post war affluence kicked in, a growing interest arose with US hunters keen to experience African hunting. Winchester saw an opportunity to fill a void in a growing market and this led to the introduction of the 458 Winchester Magnum in the mid-1950s.

Winchester wisely took the basic recipe that had proven so successful for the Nitro Express big game calibres and sought to deliver a 500 grain .458 inch projectile at about 2,100 fps. There has been a lot written about that introduction of the 458 Winchester Magnum, by various pundits, because it was initially not hugely successful.

In designing the 458 Win Mag, Winchester decided to keep the case as short as possible to avoid the need for a magnum sized bolt action. This meant that compressed powder loads were necessary in order to squeeze in enough propellant to achieve the 2,100 fps velocity. A lot of experienced shooters were uncomfortable with compressed loads, especially where hunting dangerous tropical big game was involved.

Apparently, concerned at possibly excessive pressures in tropical hunting locations, Winchester then quietly reduced the loading of its factory rounds in the newly released 458 Win Mag. This dropped the velocity back below 2,000 fps and had an obvious effect on the killing power on big game. In African circles the word spread that the new 458 Win Mag was under-powered and a lot of hunters shied away from it.

It was during these early years that the 458 Lott was developed. The legend is that Jack Lott, a well-known hunting writer of the time, was tossed by a Cape Buffalo after failing to kill it with his 458 Winchester Magnum. On musing on his near fatal encounter with one of the Big Five, he decided that what was needed in a modern 458 cartridge was a bit more case length to provide the necessary powder capacity for adequate velocity.

This was simply achieved by blowing out the shoulder of the 375H&H case and loading .458 projectiles. This provides an extra 0.35 inch of case length over the standard 458 Win Mag case. Many folks contend that 458 Lott is what the 458 Winchester Magnum should have been from day one.

The Lott can be loaded up to give a 500 grain projectile a muzzle velocity of over 2,300 fps. However, this comes at a significant increase in the already substantial recoil. Speaking of recoil, the 460 Weatherby Magnum, which was introduced in the late 1950s, is even more ferocious. Launching a 500 grain .458 inch projectile at about 2,550 fps its recoil is something to behold. Those extra few hundred feet per second come at a great cost in the recoil department. There are not many shooters who can consistently handle the recoil and shoot well with these extreme 458s.


Of course, many find the recoil of the 458 Winchester Magnum quite daunting too, and rightly so. Not surprisingly, its recoil is pretty much that of the classic Nitro Express cartridges. Recoil energy numbers can, I believe, be a bit misleading. The recoil energy of a fully loaded 458 Win Mag is about four times that of a 308 Winchester. However, my impression is that the felt recoil is nowhere near that severe, especially if you observe proper rifle holding technique. That is, you must hold a big game rifle tightly to your shoulder and be aware of the eye relief. Fail to do that and the 458 will punish you.

I bought my Ruger No 1 in 458 Win Mag, second hand, about twenty years ago. The fellow I bought it from was a big, strapping, country lad, and certainly no woos. It was not the recoil as such that prompted him to sell it, but rather the inconvenience of having a nose bleed nearly every time he pulled the trigger. That is not uncommon with some people using heavy calibre rifles. Some shooters also get a bad headache after a few shots as well. But these are the exception, not the norm.


A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the cartridge was introduced and I believe that now the 458 Winchester Magnum is everything that its designers originally intended it to be. Quality factory ammo can be had that delivers 500 grainers at 2,050 to 2,100 fps. Hand loading certainly puts 2,100+ fps within reach without overdoing it. And this is just what the classic Nitro Express calibres delivered as well. That combination of ballistics is more than enough for any animal on the planet and comes with a recoil that is quite tolerable.

A 458 Win Mag can be sited to shoot flat over 150 metres, which is more than adequate. While these calibres are intended for shooting large animals at close range they are generally quite accurate at distance as well. The 458 Win Mag is not the sort of rifle you would want to have a big session off the bench with, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, a bit of range work is often educational and it is quite common to produce 3 shot clover leaf groups at 100 metres with Winchester’s big 458.

Over the last 20 years I have had the opportunity to use my 458 Win Mag extensively on buffalo, scrub bulls and big old boars. I have also had the opportunity to both use and observe other big game calibres in use on such game. In a close up situation in thick scrub the 458 Win Mag has unsurpassed authority and is absolutely emphatic on potentially dangerous big game. It is everything it was meant to be.




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