• Kev Thomas Writes

The .500 NE 3" a Golden Oldie

A few years back our son Keith, who is now a well-known and established gunmaker in the UK, built the pictured .500 NE 3” for an Africa based PH who hunts in Tanzania. The .500 NE was originally designed for hunting large and dangerous game in Africa and India. Although the cartridge was primarily designed for use in double rifles, various single-shot rifles in the calibre have been produced using the Farquarson action. Heym, a major company, did produce the .500 NE in a bolt-action configuration. The cartridge is available in two lengths, 3.00in (76mm) and 3.25in (83mm), and both versions are loaded to the same performance levels.

The original cartridge was merely known as the .500 Express, although other loadings are now known as the .500 Black Powder Express (BPE) and the .500 Nitro for Black Powder (Nitro for BPE). These designations are of more modern origin in order to help differentiate between them. The .500 cartridge is one of the original Express cartridges which evolved during the black powder era, and then successfully made the transition into the smokeless powder era.

Although it’s unknown who, or which company originally designed the .500 Black Powder Express it is known that it was designed in the UK sometime during the 1860s. Several firearms manufacturers produced rifles, and loaded ammunition for the cartridge, although significant differences and variations existed between manufacturers. Despite the variations between manufacturers, due to the relatively low working pressures of the rifles and ammunition there was little danger associated with the use of these cartridges in a particular rifle.

It's of interest to note that the .500 Nitro for Black Powder cartridges used the same general case type as the .500 Black Powder Express but was loaded with cordite instead of black powder, and first appeared at some stage during the 1890s. This cartridge was specifically intended for firearms designed to fire the .500 Black Powder Express, and pressures were kept low enough to allow for safe operation in the older black-powder firearms, and provide a substantial increase in performance over the black-powder loaded cartridge.

Cordite was invented in 1889 and because it gave cartridges greater performance than black powder at the expense of pressure, rifles designed for use with cordite cartridges required stronger actions which were able to withstand the significantly higher pressures, and to take advantage of the increased performance offered by cordite. Because the working pressure of the .500 Nitro Express cartridge was markedly higher than the black-powder cartridge, manufacturing variations between different brands of the same ammunition would’ve resulted in damage to the firearms, and injury to the shooter. Due to this important fact, there is an acknowledged standard between manufacturers for the .500 Nitro Express, however, this wasn’t the case with the earlier black powder cartridge.

Use of the word ‘Nitro’ as a differentiation prefix was due to cordite containing guncotton, also called nitrocellulose, and nitro-glycerine. The word ‘Express’ describes the comparatively higher velocity of the cartridge drawing from a comparison of the express trains during that historical era. As the UK rid herself of her colonies post WW2, by the granting of independence, the popularity and demand for Nitro Express cartridges began to dwindle. However, with the growth of the hunting safari industry in Africa, by the early 1960s this interest was renewed, and the .500 Nitro Express once more became a respected cartridge for the hunting of dangerous game.

Above: The .500 NE 3" on an African buffalo taken in Tanzania.

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