By John Barsness, GUNS Magazine
The development of practical smokeless powders in the 1880s led to rapid changes. As usually happens with firearms, the fastest changes occurred with military rifles, and the United States was a little slow on the uptake. By 1892, when the US Army approved a smokeless cartridge and rifle to replace the .45-70 “trapdoor” Springfield, they were already behind many other countries. The result was a bolt-action rifle designed by Norwegians Ole Krag and Erik Jorgensen, and a rimmed cartridge strongly resembling Britain’s .303 Enfield.
Variously called the .30 US, .30 Army and .30 Government, the cartridge eventually became known as the .30-40 Krag, listing the caliber and powder charge. The rifle didn’t feature clip loading, like either the British Lee-Enfield or the 1892 Mauser, and when a higher-velocity load was introduced in 1899, the single-locking lug often cracked, leading to the Krag’s replacement with the 1903 Springfield. However, there was never anything fundamentally wrong with the cartridge itself; as evidence, Britain’s almost identical .303 defended the Empire through two world wars.
The .30-40 Krag was the first smokeless cartridge to appear in any Winchester rifle, first in the 1885 single-shot and later in the 1895 lever-action rifles, and also appeared in the Remington Rolling Block single-shot and Remington-Lee bolt action. Due to its moderate velocity, the .30-40 quickly acquired a fine reputation for hunting big game even with the cup-and-core bullets of the day, with the 220-grain roundnose favored for animals larger than deer.
After 1903, half a million Krag-Jorgensen military rifles and carbines started making their way into the civilian market. Far more recently, the .30-40 has been nostalgically chambered in a few rifles, including the Ruger No. 3 single-shot and reproductions of the Winchester 1885. It remains popular enough that both Remington and Winchester offer factory ammo and, occasionally, empty cartridge cases.
My first .30-40 was a reproduction Winchester 1885 “High Wall” made by the C. Sharps Arms in Big Timber, Mont., and I still don’t know why I sold it, since with an Axtell tang sight it was capable of 1-1/2-inch groups at 100 yards. After that I owned both an original Krag-Jorgenson rifle and a “sporterized” carbine with an old Redfield aperture sight, and today have a Ruger No. 3 and an over-under double rifle built by an unknown gunsmith on a Ruger Red Label 20-gauge shotgun frame. (The double was purchased years ago at a gun show by my friend Tim Crawford. The seller had no idea who made it, and Tim couldn’t tell me anything more when I acquired it from him.)
The .30-40 case has slightly more powder capacity than the .308 Winchester, so it could theoretically match .308 velocities, but in Krag-Jorgensens, Remington Rolling Blocks and any other relatively weak action, pressures should be kept mild, which is the reason the limited amount of today’s published .30-40 Krag handloading data maxes out at around 40,000 psi.
This mule deer doe was taken with a 180-grain Winchester Power Point
from a reproduction Winchester High Wall from C. Sharps.
Some .30-40s, however, can take more pressure. Evidently quite a few have been made on Siamese Mausers, since they were originally chambered for the a rimmed 8mm round and have a slanting magazine box allowing rimmed cases to feed. A Winchester High Wall made of modern steels or the Ruger No. 3 are very strong actions, and even my Ruger Red Label is probably stronger than an original Krag-Jorgensen. But there’s no sense in trying to “magnumize” the .30-40 Krag. Its virtues arise from moderate velocity, and if you want more zip the world is already full of .308 Winchesters, 30-06s and .300 magnums.
Next, loading, shooting and the guns