.303 British Rifle – the .30-06 of the British Empire

By Bob Shell

303 British MK ll Rifle
303 British MK ll Rifle

Apache Junction, AZ –-(Ammoland.com)- In 1888 the British decided that the 577/450 was obsolete and adopted a smaller caliber rifle called the 303 British Rifle.

It was approved in December of 1888 and put into service in February of 1889. The cartridge for the 303 was a derivative of the rimmed Schmidt Rubin cartridge that was a few years older. The Brits went about loading the round in a strange way by using a compressed charge of black powder instead of smokeless which was known at the time though but still quite new.

Like many other countries, they adopted a round nose bullet, theirs weighing 215 grains. The velocity of the black powder load was 1860 producing some 1600 FT-LBS of energy. In 1892 they changed the powder to cordite still using the 215 grain bullet. That raised the velocity up to about 2050 with the corresponding energy of 2010 FT-LBS.

In 1910 they went to a pointed bullet weighing 174 grains which produced 2440 FPS giving 2310 FT-LBS of energy. Later on, in keeping up with modern developments in ammunition, they went to nitrocellulose powder.  That was the load they used until it was discontinued in 1957 being replaced by the 7.62 X 51 NATO cartridge.

The 303 round and the rifles were very successful and were widely distributed throughout the British Empire. They were widely used in Africa, India, Canada, and Australia and to this day are still used for hunting large game. It was the official British cartridge used in WW l and WWll.

303 British Rifle Action
303 British Rifle Action and rear Sight

The early bullets had a bad reputation for not stopping fanatic natives as they were non-expanding. An example is in the late 1890’s the British military took the 303s to the Punjab Providence against the Pushtun fighters. Unfortunately, they found that the 303 rounds would not stop the Pushtuns unless shot several times. They brought back the 577/450 on a temporary basis which resolved their dilemma, until a Capt Bertie Clay designed an open point bullet which would expand upon impact.

They were known as Dum Dums because of the name of the arsenal that they were made at. Later on the bullets for the MARK VII had aluminum or fiber cores which made them longer then normal and they would tumble on impact causing more serious wounds. There were just many types and variations of the 303 that were used by the military. They included blanks and grenade launcher rounds.

Old military ammo loaded with Cordite.
Old military ammo loaded with Cordite.

The rifle was designed by an American, James Paris Lee. Since the US did not buy Lee’s design he took it to Great Britain and the first rifles were known as Mark 1’s. The deeper Enfield type of rifling replaced the shallow Medford type in 1895. Throughout the years there were other similar changes made to all of the MARK models.

There are some authorities who feel that it was the best military rifle of that period because of ease of follow up shots and the 10 round magazine. The 303 British was also rugged and reliable which did not hurt its reputation. It cocks on closing, a feature that I don’t care for but that is my personal opinion. In theory that will help extract an empty casing from the chamber.

There were other rifles and machine guns chambered for the 303 round. Some Martini-Henrys were chambered and can be found for sale occasionally. The Lee Enfield pattern 14 was chambered and used in the world wars to supplement the Lee Medford rifles. Some Ross repeating rifles also chambered for this round. Various semi-auto rifles and machine guns were also employed this round. There is no sporting rifle chambered for the 303 in the US but at one time the Winchester model 95 was so chambered.

Happily, if you want to shoot this gun today, there is some ammo available and components for reloading are no problem. Several companies make brass and bullets. For best results, bullets should be .311 or .312 in diameter. The same bullets that are used in the 7.65 X 53 Mauser and the 7.7 Jap can be used in the 303. The case is easy to load and is flexible. Cast bullets can also be used with good results. I have found that the 303 is a very accurate rifle with good loads. For light loads a 32 pistol bullet will work but they would not be suitable for the full powder stuff.

LOAD                             BULLET                  VELOCITY                            COMMENT

  • 46 X AA 2460                 125 grain Speer         2854                                        nice
  • 46 X AA 2460                 125 grain Sierra         2987                                       accurate
  • 10 X Unique                    125 grain Sierra         1438                                       small game
  • 45 X AA 2460                 140 grain milt            2728                                        ok
  • 33 X 209                          165 grain gas check .312 1869                                 consistent.
  • 44 X 4320                        150 grain Speer         2565                                       very accurate
  • 44 X AA 2460                 150 grain Sierra         2671                                       deer load
  • Military FNB-80              175 grain                   2353                                       consistent
  • Military RAL-64              175 grain                   2316                                       good load
  • 48.5 X H 414                   180 grain Rem          2441                                        consistent
  • 44 X AA 2520                 180 grain Rem          2502                                         bear

In power, it is similar to the 7.7 Jap and the 7.65 X 53 Mauser. Some people compare it to the 30-40 Krag but it outperforms the 30-40 because it can operate at higher pressures in the military guns chambered for their respective rounds. Some of the later 303’s were rechambered to the 308 round which can operate at about 62,000 PSI which would speak to the strength of the British rifle.

If you are looking for an interesting military rifle that has seen duty in all most every world conflict, the 303 British MK ll Rifle is as good a place to start.

About Bob Shell
A Custom Reloader of Obsolete and Antique Ammo, Bob Shell, writes about the subject of Guns, Ammo, Shooting and Related Subjects. Visit: www.bobshellsblog.blogspot.com

Bob Shell

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ian allen

James Paris Lee Lee was born on August 9th, 1831 in the southern Scottish town of Hawick to George and Margaret Lee. The family emigrated to Ontario when James was just 4 or 5 years old, and he spent his boyhood growing up in the town of Galt (now called Cambridge). James took naturally to the forests around Cambridge, as well as inheriting his father’s mechanical aptitude (the man worked as a talented watchmaker and jeweler). Lee never did gain US citizenship, although he reportedly did apply for it. Lee was awarded patent #221,328 on November 4th, 1879 for the… Read more »


boy that’s shiney , some one refinished the stock on it. that ruin old guns in my book

ehsan asadi

hi i live in iran. can I buy 303 ammo in iran?

Cuban Pete

Gee, I can't believe he has to take the rifle off his shoulder to work the bolt. C'mon!!


I believe that pictures #1+3 are of the Canadian Ross rifle. I think they are of the Mk2. The other rifle is the WW2 No4/1.