Few cartridges from the blackpowder era have survived to the present day, and many that have were those that were originally designed with smokeless powder in mind. One of those is the .303 British, which served as the standard British service cartridge for nearly 70 years.
First introduced in 1888 as a blackpowder cartridge for the British Lee-Metford service rifle, the .303 British was quickly upgraded to use smokeless powder, most famously cordite. It achieved its greatest fame in the Lee-Enfield rifle, the standard British service rifle from 1895 to 1957.
Serving in both World War I and World War II, the ballistics of the .303 British may not have been the most impressive. But the rifles in which it was chambered, and the training of the infantrymen who used them, made both rifle and cartridge an effective combination.
Today you’ll most often find the .303 British chambered in various Lee-Enfield rifles, some of which may still occasionally be available from surplus dealers. You’ll also occasionally find some Dutch Mannlicher rifles that were rechambered to .303 British for use in Indonesia.
The .303 British fires a bullet of .312” diameter, similar to those used in the 7.62x54R Russian, 7.7x58mm Japanese, and 7.65×53 Belgian/Argentine cartridges. As with many older cartridges, the .303 British went through a number of iterations, with numerous powder changes and bullet designs.
Originally featuring a 215-grain round-nosed bullet, the cartridge reached its peak with the Mark VII loading, featuring a 174-grain spitzer bullet traveling at 2,440 feet per second, with 2,300 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. While this pales in comparison to contemporary service cartridges such as the 8x57mm Mauser and .30-06 Springfield, it was necessary due to both the smaller size of the .303 British case and the weaker rear locking lug design of the Lee-Enfield rifles.
Despite that, the .303 British was an effective combat cartridge, not least due to the 10-round capacity of the Lee-Enfield rifles, double that of the M98 Mauser and the 1903 Springfield. With rear locking lugs and a well-positioned bolt handle, British soldiers were able to reload easily without having to lose their sight picture. Well-trained infantrymen were able to perform the “mad minute,” firing 20 to 30 rounds per minute for a sustained period of time, with much of that fire being incredibly accurate out to several hundred yards.
With modern powders, the .303 British is capable of pushing 150-grain bullets to 2,750 feet per second, and 174-grain bullets to 2,600 feet per second, for muzzle energy of up to 2,600 foot-pounds. That makes it a very effective hunting cartridge for large game.
As with most cartridges today, ammunition is going to be hard to find and expensive when you can find it. Expect to pay about $1.10 per round for surplus ammunition and $1.35 or more for commercial ammunition. Reloading accessories such as bullets and cases are readily available, and if you already shoot the fat .30s such as the 7.62x54R, cases and dies would be the only additional accessories you would need.
Today, many of the Lee-Enfield rifles reside in private hands, with only small numbers popping up here and there at dealers. If you have a Lee-Enfield and the means to feed it, it can certainly be an effective self defense and survival cartridge. But if you’re looking for a rifle to see you through a survival scenario, the lack of easily available ammunition might mean that you’ll want to look elsewhere than the .303 British.