• Kev Thomas Writes

Musings About The .270 Winchester

My first experience using the .270 Winchester came about during mid-1985. I’d just taken up employment as a wildlife manager and PH for the Ciskei’s Parks & Wildlife Resources Board. For readers who may not be aware of it, the Ciskei was a pre-independent South African Bantustan, or Homeland, for a branch of the Xhosa people. It was situated in the southeast of South Africa and covered about 7,700 square kilometres. The Ciskei had a forward-thinking wildlife management philosophy ahead of its time, which was wholly based on sustainable yield. This translated into a mix of consumptive and non-consumptive tourism.

Photographic safaris aside, sport hunting with an international client base played the greater role in earning valuable foreign currency (US$), and as an important management tool to regulate wildlife numbers. We also used South African venison hunters as a management tool to reduce surplus numbers of female and non-trophy antelope. At one time the Ciskei was considered to have the best venison hunting packages available to sport hunters in South Africa. And before any anti-hunters and wokey types start vocalising it’s as well remember the Ciskei game reserves had no major predators. The rifle was the sole game population regulator.

There were three game reserves spread across the length of the country, and with their varied geographical ecosystems and topography from the dry far north to the coastal south, we had in the region of twenty-eight huntable species. The Ciskei is no more and what was the Ciskei now forms part of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. We lived on the northern most game reserve, Tsolwana, named after a pimple of a peak in the Winterberg mountain foothills, part of which were inside the game reserve. Because of the open plains, mountains, and grasslands, interspersed by large tracts of acacia Karoo, we carried high populations of springbok, mountain reedbuck, impala, blesbok, and black wildebeest, amongst a host of other plains game.

Included amongst the African antelope mix was an exotic, namely, fallow deer, and the population thrived. Relative to landmass, Tsolwana also had a healthy white rhino population. Under ideal conditions, impala, springbok, and mountain reedbuck are prolific breeders so culling was necessary. All our winter culls were scientifically based, after extensive aerial and ground counts. And there was no waste.

Above: The .270 Winchester using a 150grn bullet proved adequate for black wildebeest.

For most of my impala, springbok, and mountain reedbuck culling I made use of a bull-barrel Musgrave .243 Winchester shooting handloaded 100grn bullets, or a .22 Hornet with 50grn factory loads (as an aside, in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe during 1979 I culled over 500 warthog using a .22 Hornet). Our culls were done at night using a spotlight to dazzle the species we were culling, and to cut down on disturbance. In order to ensure carcass value for onward sales we only used head or neck shots. Periodically I also used the .270 Winchester, and particularly in the adjacent Chief Hinana Resource Area when culling extremely skittish blesbok. Out on the open plains they seldom stood for a spotlight, so we culled them during daylight hours. It was long-range shooting and never under about 300m. Fortunately, the area was dotted with termite mounds, which for a seated shooter using his jacket or daypack on top of a termite mound made an excellent rest. A colleague in a vehicle would drive the blesbok towards the shooters positions.

When I inherited the .270 from my predecessor it had already seen extensive usage. So much so, when doing a stalk or belly crawling to get closer you often left the bolt behind. It either slid out and fell away while you were doing a belly crawl, or simply fell out while you were walking. Seemingly, the bolt stop had broken, worn out, or was missing. I never really let it bother me because we all knew you had to be careful when using the rifle, or you’d leave the bolt in the dirt. We also reloaded for the .270 Winchester and the .243 Winchester using the extremely reliable Swedish Norma powder. A colleague of mine did most of our reloading although he was inclined towards distraction during his reloading sessions, quite often resulting in some seriously hot loads escaping his notice. I don’t think he’d ever seen the words Start Load in reloading manuals. Later, when out in the field these hot loads often gave us cause for concern (I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them travelled for a day or two!). Eventually, I decided to only use cartridges I’d reloaded myself, and although I used Nosler Partition bullets, with the passage of time the exact Norma propellant loads we used have slipped my mind.

Despite the serious limitation of the bolt constantly dropping out, the old .270 wore an incredibly good fixed x6 power scope, which I seem to recall was a Weaver, and that scope was certainly durable. I think I’m right in saying Weaver was eventually bought out by Vista Outdoors, who own Bushnell and they now service the Weaver range of scopes. Like company vehicles, department owned rifles are also often neglected and when I first took the old .270 out of the gun safe, the neglect showed. The barrel was back in the white with the original blacking totally gone, and the stock probably hadn’t seen a decent wood oil since manufacture. Sad. However, I used the .270 for about a year and shot a fair amount of game with it, and then, after I’d taken possession of my 7x57mm Mauser, I sent the .270 to our southern game reserve where I think they eventually wore the barrel out.

By way of illustrating the .270 Winchester’s reliability, on one occasion I had a client from Austria wound a blesbok in the Chief Hinana Tribal Resource Area and the blesbok decided to vacate the area. It was running on three legs although its handicap certainly didn’t slow it down as it loped up Ntabethemba, a 5,000-foot mountain. We’d climbed the mountain earlier in the day and I had no intention of going up again. When the blesbok was about a third of the way up, and almost directly above us, such was the incline, it stopped for a breather.

Above: Ntabethemba, a 5,000-foot mountain certainly challenged my shooting skills when I was using a .270 Winchester to anchor a wounded blesbok resting on a shelf above us.

Finding a slanting boulder which inclined upwards, and using my daypack as a rest I made myself as comfortable as I could, and then doing the whole gambit of breathing out halfway, holding my breath, and then slowly squeezing the trigger I put pin to primer and sent a 130grn bullet upwards towards the ailing blesbok. The bullet seemed to take ages to reach its target but suddenly with the sound of the shot still echoing off the sheer cliffs near the summit, the blesbok slumped to its knees and then fell over. Dead. Given the conditions under which I’d taken the shot, I couldn’t believe I’d pulled it off. And still find it hard to believe. We never had a rangefinder back then although conservative estimates by those present, was the shot had to have been at least 400m. Granted, there wasn’t any wind, but it was still a tricky shot.

After the hunting crew had slogged up the mountain and recovered the blesbok, and because of the almost vertical upward flight, the 130grn bullet had entered on the trailing edge of the left leg slightly above the belly line, and driven through the ribs destroying the heart. To this day I still think the shot was a complete fluke. It kept me off the mountain though, and for that I was grateful.

In the Speer Reloading Manual, (No.13), the .270 Winchester opening paragraph includes a sentence which states; When the topic of conversation in the hunting camp turns to “the best all-round rifle”, the .270 Winchester always gets lots of votes (my italics). I’m sure while this is a truism in North America, it doesn’t necessarily apply in Southern Africa although the .270 Winchester is a fairly popular calibre. When it comes to plains game calibres in South Africa, I’ve always found the leaning in general is more towards the .300s, and particularly so amongst PHs, with the .300 Win Mag certainly the preferred calibre for all South African plains game up too, and inclusive of eland. Equally popular are the .30-06, the .308 and the 7mm family.

Although the .270 Winchester has proven itself time and again globally, as a versatile medium game cartridge, as mentioned earlier I only used the calibre during the mid-1980s in the Ciskei and I’ve never owned one. However, numerous international clients I guided over the years carried a .270 Winchester as their preferred second gun for medium sized plains game while on safari. And they used them to good effect, including one client in Zimbabwe who took a nice leopard with his .270 while using a 150grn bullet. The .270 using the 150grn bullet at 2860fps also worked well on black wildebeest, quickly terminating their snorting abuse directed our way as they stood far-out on the plains. While I’m on about black wildebeest, they look a lot bigger when standing alive in the distance, than when dead. Lying dead at one’s feet on the ground they seem to suffer from what I call ground shrinkage. It only takes two reasonably strong people to lift one onto the vehicle tailgate, and one to pull the animal forward. Several Cape kudu also fell without fuss to a well-placed 150grn bullet.

If we go back to the 1920s in cartridge development, the .30-06 had already proven itself as a reliable and flexible cartridge for all forms of North American game. Back then, there had also been ingrained historical American resentment towards German calibres, partially as the result of an expensive lesson learned on the receiving end of the 7x57mm during the Spanish-American war of 1898, and then again with the German 8mm during WW1. Metric calibres raised a red flag amongst American sport hunting enthusiasts. Winchester overcame this metric aversion in the US by creating a similar cartridge with a calibre designation of .277” (7mm).

And then in 1925 Winchester launched their .270 calibre chambered in a Model 54 bolt-action rifle. It had a 24” barrel and the first factory load bullets for the calibre were 130 grains with an MV close to the advertised figure of 3160fps. Interestingly, and during the same year as the .270’s release, Winchester also offered a 7x57mm in a Model 54 bolt-action rifle. Despite Winchester’s hoped for sales success with both calibres offered, the popularity of the sporterised ex-military 30-06 Springfield eclipsed both. The most important deciding factor was no doubt due to the 30-06 offering a 150-grain factory load at an advertised 3000fps. Certainly, a harder hitting load than the .270 calibre’s 130 grain bullet.

Despite Winchester’s initial woes over the negativity regarding the .270, they had a champion for their cause about to arrive on the scene. Respected US gun writer, Jack O’Connor, bought a .270 Winchester Model 54 in 1925, the year of its release. Thereafter, his positive gun writing regarding the calibre probably saved the day for the .270. O’Connor, who also liked and owned other calibres, regularly sung the praises of the .270 in his writing and killed 36 species of game with it across four continents. He also favoured the 130 grain Nosler Partition bullet which was capable of deep penetration with excellent shock delivery. On a personal note, in the Ciskei, I was always used handloaded Nosler partitions and much later I found Nosler’s AccuBond bullets also worked very well.

Over the years on safari, I had clients who insisted they would never use the .270 Winchester, and yet others swore by it. My own experience of witnessing the .270’s field performance on safari was favourable. I never witnessed or experienced the calibre letting any of my clients down, although I need qualify that observation with correct ‘shot-placement’ having been the all-important factor, coupled to ideal shooting conditions. Once or twice though, I found the 130grn bullet struggled a bit in a crosswind. Understandable. I don’t think it was coincidence either that several women sport hunters on safari used the .270 Winchester. Its low recoil no doubt contributed to the fairer sex favouring it, not to mention the flat shooting trajectory.

I have read of hunters complaining the 130 grain bullets did meat damage and tore large holes in skins. To offset this, Winchester apparently then produced the 150-grain load at a more moderate velocity although sales remained low. In the end they reduced the propellant charge behind the 130-grain bullets which brought the MV below 3000fps. Interestingly, a dated South African reloading manual I have on South African loads and bullets indicates S365 propellant gives a PMP soft-point 130-grain bullet in front of a max load of 54.0 grains 3114 ft/s. All the other loads using S365 and S385 powder behind 130-grain and 150-grain PMP soft-points show velocities below 3000 ft/s.

Because I never used the .270 Winchester calibre other than in the Ciskei during the mid-1980s, I guess I never really used it enough to become more familiar with its field performance, and for that reason I’m not qualified to write with authority on the calibre. However, and having witnessed plenty of other hunters using it I’d certainly endorse the calibre on all of Southern Africa’s smaller and medium sized antelope, and on larger antelope up to kudu. I’ve also seen it used to good effect with the heavier bullet on zebra, and blue wildebeest, although like all hunting, correct shot-placement will mean the difference between success and failure, and I most certainly wouldn’t recommend the .270 Winchester as a suitable calibre for eland.

Above: I’d endorse the .270 Winchester on all of Southern Africa’s smaller and medium sized antelope, and on larger antelope up to kudu.

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