Firearms and the cartridges are chambered in shape the world we live in. Whether for hunting or exploration, for war or peace, there is no getting around the effect these three cartridges have had.
The Gun that Won the West
Take for example the .44-40 Winchester. This hefty round, introduced by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, was offered with their Winchester Model 1973, a lever-action rifle. The pairing of a large-caliber cartridge and a high, 14-round capacity rifle (depending on the variant) proved to be especially popular, especially after some subsequent revolver designs, also chambered in .44-40, provided ammunition commonality between rifle and pistol.
The combination proved to be immensely popular. Outlaws, lawmen, homesteaders, adventurers, and just about everybody in between recognized the advantages the rifle and brass-cased cartridge offered compared to muzzle-loading muskets of the time. Thanks to both a robust and reliable rifle design and powerful cartridge, the Winchester Model 1873 rifle is today known as “the gun that won the West.”
From 1891 till Today
The rifle cartridge that takes the cake as the world’s oldest still-in-service cartridge was developed by the Russian Empire—in the late 1870s. Like the .44-40, the 7.62×54mmR is a rimmed rifle cartridge, though the Russian round is considerably longer than most modern rifle cartridges.
Originally the 7.62×54mmR was developed for the venerable and iconic Mosin-Nagant rifle, which became both the Russian Empire’s standard-issue bolt-action rifle, as well as the Soviet Union’s for most of World War II. The Mosin-Nagant rifle and the 7.62×54mmR cartridge were regarded as robust and dependable, though not particularly refined, typical of Russian standard-issue service weapons.
Today, 7.62×54mmR ammunition is still widely available, both in the form of USSR-era surplus, as well as ammunition of modern manufacture. It’s also still in service in Russia—several general-purpose machine guns and designated marksman rifles are still chambered for the round, which can offer slightly better performance than the NATO-standard 7.62x51. The 7.62×54mmR has till now enjoyed nearly 130 years of continuous service and likely won’t go away soon.
The Father of Assault Rifles
Perhaps no other rifle cartridge has greater bearing on today’s rifle design than the Nazi Germany-developed 7.92×33mm Kurz.
As an intermediate round, the 7.92×33mm Kurz fell in between Germany’s then-standard rifle cartridge, the large, full-powered 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridge, and the smaller 9×19mm Parabellum pistol cartridge. The Kurtz was a compromise: it offered greater range and stopping power than a submachine gun, and a greater rate of fire and less recoil than bolt-action rifles.
The weapon most associated with the Kurz, the StG 44, was in many ways very similar to today’s assault rifles. Using a 30-round box magazine and shorter, 16.5-inch barrel length, the StG 44 was effective out to 500 meters or so—ideal for typical engagement ranges. Though produced too late and in insufficient numbers to alter the course of the war in Nazi Germany’s favor, the Kurz’s advantage over other weapons at the time was prodigious.
The effect the StG 44 assault rifle and 7.92×33mm Kurz cartridge has exerted on modern firearm design cannot be overstated. One has just to take a cursory glance at the world’s most-produced firearm, the iconic AK-47 to see the visual similarities. The ammunition they use is also somewhat similar.
Taken together these three rifle cartridges are all very different, but have had a direct bearing on the course of firearms design — and the world today. The fact that they are still produced in some capacity is a testament to their continued value, be it of direct military importance, or for historical reasons.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.