MISSILE INJURIES – Over a century of service: the .303 projectile and its wounding capabilities- a historical profile 1

In   Issue .


‘We shot  them under rule .303’1


The .303 military round has been around for over 100 years and went  from a round nose projectile full metal jacket,  Mks I and  II, to a soft point  Mk II*, the so called dum-dum projectile. The hollow  points, Mks III, IV and  V, followed before going back  to the round nose full metal  jacket bullet  Mk VI, and  finishing with a spire point Mk VII.

The projectile was dogged with controversy; first, for being not  lethal enough, then  too lethal, then  the non  full metal jacket bullets  were banned under the Le Hague  Convention in 1899  but were still used until 1904,  then  the projectiles  were considered too lethal again.  The spire  point  projectile was dual  cored making the centre of gravity at the rear  of the bullet causing it to tumble  when  striking tissue.

This paper  was originally a poster  at the  2001 Australian Military Medicine Association Conference in October  2001.


The .303 round first saw active service in India in the late 1800’s.  Australian Forces first used it in the Boer War with  the Lee Metford and  last used  it with  the No.1 Mark III*HT  (Aust) Sniper rifle 2, which was replaced in 1979  by a 7.62  NATO sniper ri£le3. In its first twenty  years,  the ball round went  through ten official changes and several unauthorised batdefield changes.


Powder  Rounds
The .303 round first entered British service  in 1889 as the Powder  Mark I, which  was loaded  with  black powder,  a boxer  primer  (one  using  a single  flash hole), and a full metal jacket bullet4.  The round was used  for only one year, as the jacket of the projectile

tended  to detach from the lead core, and in 1890  was replaced  with the Powder  Mark II that had a thicker jacket and improved  design4. This round again only lasted  one year as it also had a major design problem  like the 577/450 Martini­ Henry it replaced.  Being loaded with black powder meant  that, when fired, the smoke produced betrayed the shooters position and  obscured his field of fire4. The replacement round for the Black Powder  Mk II was loaded with smokeless  powder  and called  the Cordite Mark 1.4  None of these rounds saw active service as they were soon  replaced  by the Mark II round4.

Cordite Rounds
The Cordite  Mark II round, which  now had berdan priming  (twin  flash holes), started production in 1893 and was produced  in Britain as well as Canada,  India and New Zealand!. This round saw service in India and Africa. Australia started production of this round in 19005 and changed to the Mark VI round in 19045 or 19056. Complaints were soon coming back from the colonies that the new service  round lacked sufficient killing  power.  In Africa, there were complaints that in conflicts  the Mark II bullet lacked the damaging power  of the old Martini-Henry bullet?.  During  the Chitral  Operations in India, captured Mullahs  were executed in secret by firing squads using both  the old Martini-Henry and the new .303 rifles to compare the injuries at post-mortemS as the troops were complaining about  the lack of stopping power  as well9.

Dum-Dum Rounds
This  problem was addressed  in India with the introduction of the Mark II Special or Mark II*, made at the Dum Dum Arsenal4.   The term dum-dum has become synonymous with any bullet  not having a full metal jacket.  It was actually  a normal Mark II bullet with 1mm  depth  of jacket  at the nose removed and giving a 4mm-diameter circle oflead core exposed10_ This made it a soft  point bullet, which  was made in India  and Britain.

Much  was made  of the increased  effectiveness of the Mark II* projectile and it took on almost mythical proportions. The House of Commons requested a report on the effectiveness  of the bullets  used in India and this was presented on 8July 189911_ It is the definitive work  and lists the injuries of the Mark II &: II* bullets on people shot  by them from 1895  to 1898, as well as tests done on bullocks.   A field modification of the projectile where  1/12 of an inch was filed off a Mark II round was also tested.  The filing off of tips of Mark II bullets was commonly done in Indial2 and in Sudan4

Other Rounds
The British War Office was busy responding to the problem by trialling  six various hollow and soft point projectiles in 1896-1897 and decided  on a new round, the Mark m4.   The Cordite Mark III round was issued in October  1898 and withdrawn almost immediately due  to problems in production of the projectileB. It is of note that no loaded rounds are known  to still exist.

The  Cordite Mark IV round was issued in February 18994 and also suffered from design problems,  with the jacket sometimes staying in the bore of the rifle after firing14_   This round was manufactured in Britain, Canada and  New Zealand6. It was widely issued and was well reported  on by troops in the Sudan4, 12.  The Mark V round replaced it in October due again  to the jacket separating in the rifle bore4. Major Mathias,  RAMC, who inspected the battlefield after Omdurman, observed  a young man, who  had been struck twice by a Mark IV bullet,

He had a bullet wound of the left leg above the knee. The wound entrance was clean cut and very small. The projectile had struck the Femur, just above the internal condyle; the whol e of the lower end of this bone, and upper end of the Tibia, were shattered to pieces, the knee joint being completely disorganised.

He had also been wounded in the right shoulder… The whol e of the shoulder joint and scapular were shattered to pieces. In neither case was there any sign of a wound of exit 12.

The Mark II* and Mark IV rounds were considered by other  world powers, predominantly Germany15 and some Irish MPs in the House  of Commons8, to be inhumane and should be banned. In 1898,  Professor von Bruns, of Tubingen in Germany, published a work titled, ‘The Effects of Lead-Pointed Bullets (Dum-Dum Bullets)’l6_   His experiments were flawed as there were no control experiments, the  word ‘explosive’ was used to describe the effect of the bullets when they contained no explosive, and  the tests were not done  using British Military Bullets but with modified German  military  bullets and soft point  hunting projectilesl6. It was believed the paper was written  to promote  his desire  to have these projectiles excluded from civilised warfare by international agreement16.

Ogston, in Britain, did a series of experiments on cadavers with  the Mark 2, 2* and  IV, and Mauser Game bullets  to compare their effects17_  He admits that the experiments are difficult  to do as it hard to hit the same part on different  bodies and  the peculiarities of the bullet must  be taken into  account. His results bring Von Brun’s experimental results  into question and one wonders on the political bias on both experiments. It was at this time that  the Hague Convention was coming to an end.

The Peace Conferences’ or the Hague Convention’s Final Act, as published in ‘The Times’  on 1 August 1899,  was a document designed  to maintain  the general peace, unite the members of civilised nations and extend  the reign  of international justice18, and is called the ‘Hague Convention’.  The Third  Declaration prohibited contracting parties (including Britain), ‘from making use of bullets which  expand  or flatten easily  in the human body’18_

In 1899,  the Lancet published an article tilted ‘Modern Military Bullets: A study  of Their  Destructive Effects’, where cadavers and bars of soap, were again shot  to compare  current British and German  military rifle bullets 19. This was of significance as the Boer War started  on 11 October  189920 and the Boers were supplied rifles by Germany21.

The use of Mark IV &: V ammunition in South Africa by the British Forces and soft point ammunition by the Boers is always one of conjecture. The British Government sent  an order to the General Officer Commanding South  Africa in july 1899,  that only Mark II ammunition was to be issued  on mobilisation22_   This was reinforced  after the outbreak of war that all hollow  point  ammunition was to be returned to England22_   The Boers used a number of different  military  rifles as well as hunting rifles21, and battlefield recovery has shown the use of both  Mark IV by the British Forces  and soft point ammunition by the Boer Forces6,21_

The Cordite  Mark V round,  identical  to the Mark IV round apart  from the addition of 2% antimony to the lead core and an additional 1.3 mm in length, was issued in October  18994.  It was controversial from the start  as it violated  the Hague Convention. The round was soon withdrawn from service and  replaced with  the Mark II in the interim  until the Mark VI

came into service in 1904,  with this round being almost a replica of the Mark u4. The Mark V was reissued, as a limited production, into service in Somaliland where the British forces were up against the forces of the ‘Mad Mullah’22. It is interesting to note  that  the use of Mark 2*, III, IV & V ammunition was only acceptable  against savages and not Europeans9,12,22,23.

later Rounds

The Mark VI was the standard round  from  january 1904 and was identical to the Mark II bullet  except for a slightly thinner jacket. The Mark VI was only an interim measure until  a more effective round could  be made  that was in accordance with the Hague Convention. This was the Mark VII round4.  Australia produced the Mk VI round from 19045  until january 1918, when  it changed to Mark VII ammunition6. Australian  Forces  a t Gallipoli and the Middle East6 used Mark VI ammunition, but not on the Western Front where  the British Forces standard round for all forces was the Mark vu24.

The Mark VII issued in November 1910  became the standard .303 round thereafter, although a Mark VIII round was issued from 1938 for use in Vickers Machine  Guns4. The Mark VII round  was of unusual design for the time as it had a dual core  of aluminium in the nose and lead in the rear.  It was also the first British military  round  to have a spitzer or pointed tip4.

With  a pointed bullet, the centre  of gravity is at the rear of the projectile  and, with  a lighter  nose, more sol2. A slight deflection of the tip, such  as entering the body and striking hard  tissue, will cause the rear of the bullet  to rotate on its transverse axis or tumble25.  Experiments on recently  killed sheep  and horses in 1911 showed  that bullet  tumbled in 63% of the wounds12. A German  surgeon seeing wounds inflicted by British rifle ammunition in 1914 remarked upon  similar results26.  It was also noted  that  the bullet broke  up and the cores separated, causing an ‘explosive action’, and he suspected that  the sometimes the tips were being broken off before firing by soldiers26. This could  be achieved  by breaking them  off in a hole in the action  and the author has been able to do this.

The cores were  not always made of aluminium, as it was a strategic material and could  be used  to make aircraft instead of bullets, so other  materials  were chosen4.  In WWI, the British used pressed cardboard27 and in WWII  pressed cardboard and plastics.  In WWII Australia used red plastic27.


The  .303 round went  through many changes  in its first 20 years of production. It went  from black powder to smokeless  powder, boxer  to berdan  priming and  from full metal jacket  projectiles  with a lead core, to soft points, hollow points  and then  to a dual core round. lethality was a big issue with  these rounds, and was politically sensitive  from 1895-1905.

The round was the mainstay  of the British Empire through many conflicts, and on a television report of a supposed aircraft highjacking in India on 4 October 2001, there were police or military  at the airport armed with .303 rifles.   Not bad for a cartridge originally designed  over  110  years ago.




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