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 In 1894 Winchester brought out their new model 1894 chambered in 30-30 and this was the first time any US arms maker used very strong barrel steel for use with brand new smokeless powder, for the civilian market. Yes, the 30-30 was the first commercially produced cartridge that utilized smokeless powder, available to civilians. Smokeless powder had many advantages over black powder and we will not cover all of those in this short article, but one advantage was that “smokeless” would drive a bullet much faster than “black” ever could……this was accomplished by operating at much higher pressures than “black”, so barrel steel for use with “smokeless” had to be much stronger than traditional “black” barrel steel of the day.

The 30-30 utilized a smallish for the time .308 inch diameter bullet. Traditional black powder loads relied on big diameter bullets to kill effectively, because velocities were so slow with “black” loads. However, the 30-30 started a trend and clearly killed deer well by utilizing a small bullet, but by driving it fast…..a 170gr. bullet traveling at 2,000 fps (or a 150gr. bullet @ 2,300 fps) is not fast by todays’ standards, but it was extremely fast in its day and it killed deer sized critters all-out-of-proportion to its size, thanks to smokeless powder, but (this is a big but) if you fire “smokeless loads” out of a barrel that utilized the old steel for “black” loads, you can blow that barrel to shrapnel.

While all 30-30 rifles were made with “smokeless” steel since the introduction of Winchesters model 1894, other rifle chamberings were not!!!! The Winchester 1894 was made in other chamberings such as 38-55 and for the first several years of production, the older “black” steel was used, because Winchester had so much of it in stock and cartridges like the 38-55 were seen as “black” only cartridges. I’ve heard estimates that Winchester used “black” steel in their model 1894’s chambered in 38-55 clear up until  1910 or even a bit later, but other estimates say that by 1900 the 1894’s chambered in 38-55 were using smokeless barrel steel—I do not have any sort of definitive dates about when rifle makers all switched to “smokeless” steel in various chamberings. In the Winchester 1886 and 1892 models that started life as “black” only chambering’s, before “smokeless” even existed, all of those early rifles were first made with “black” barrel steel. It is not uncommon to see these old Winchester, Marlin or Savage rifles. As one (only one) example, the 1886 action is the strongest lever action ever made, but if you have an old one that has a barrel made of “black” steel, chambered for 45-70 and you shoot a modern “smokeless” high pressure 45-70 load, like we and other cartridges manufacturers make, you can blow the barrel to pieces. It does not matter how strong the action is, if the barrel is made of soft/weak steel. So how do you know if you have an early rifle utilizing steel for “smokeless”?


After 1894 Winchester continued to use “black” barrel steel in traditional chamberings other than the 30-30. As previously mentioned, around the turn of the last century (1900) Winchester slowly started to use “Smokeless steel” in those older traditional black powder cartridges and Winchester, Marlin and Savage all stamped their barrels thusly……..The stampings on Winchester rifle barrels read “SPECIAL STEEL FOR SMOKELESS POWDER”“PROOF STEEL”, “NICKLED STEEL”, etc. I bought a 1922 manufactured Savage (chambered in 300 Savage) last week (this article is written in 02-2016) that reads “High Pressure Steel” on the barrel. I also have a Savage 30-30 made in 1917 that reads the same. To the best of my knowledge, all arms makers started stamping their “smokeless” barrels to define the type of barrel steel being used as they started to use “smokeless” steel……this began happening  in 1894 for the new 30-30 cartridge, but for other cartridges, “smokeless” barrel steel was phased in over a several year period. They did this barrel stamping/identification into the 1930’s, 40’s or in some cases, the 50’s and after that time, all current barrel steel had been “smokeless” for decades and was simply assumed to be so, so arms makers quit stamping the barrels thusly. By then, the onetime amazing velocity of 2,000 fps generated by the 170gr. 30-30 load was being far surpassed by cartridges like the 30-06 that was propelling a 180gr., .308 inch bullet @ 2600 fps. (“30-06” stands for-- .30 cal. released in 1906) Now days, .308 cal. magnum cartridges are propelling a 180gr. bullet at well beyond 3,000 fps out of hunting weight rifles. Even the lowly 30-06 with todays loads fired in modern rifles will attain 2,800 fps with 180gr. bullets.

What does all this mean? (Please pay attention) This means that if you have a 1902 made model 1886 (as one example) chambered in 45-70 and the barrel does NOT say that some sort of high pressure steel is being utilized in that barrel, DO NOT SHOOT “SMOKELESS” high pressure loads through it. ANY CIVILIAN RIFLE made between 1894 and the 1930’s that does not mention the use of high pressure steel on the barrel, should be considered unsafe (pending more detailed investigation) to use “smokeless” high pressure loads in, UNLESS those smokeless loads are employing low energy smokeless powders made to imitate good old black powder pressures and velocities, but burn much cleaner than traditional “black”.

We make modern 38-55 ammo that operates at 38,000 CUP (same operating pressure of the 30-30) and is completely safe in any 38-55 barrel that is made with “smokeless” steel, but if you fire that ammo in any old Marlin, Winchester or Savage rifle that utilized “black” steel, you will destroy the rifle and possibly yourself in the process. Ditto that statement when using our full power +P 45-70 ammo.

I have an old 1894 Winchester 30-30 that my mother owned and used when she was a young adult. It was made in 1902. She bought it used from Purcell’s Gun Shop in Boise, Idaho…..Bob Purcell eventually became my uncle by marrying my mothers’ younger sister. With proper loads, this old 30-30 will produce incredible accuracy of around 1 MOA. I treasure the rifle because of its family history. When I was a young teenager, I killed deer with it. As I grew into adulthood I continued to use this rifle and shot thousands of hand loads through it. I used to shoot 200 yard steel gongs with it until the barrel was so hot, it could literally cause a severe burn on your hand if you were dumb enough to touch it and I was, repeatedly. I no longer shoot this rifle even though in theory it should be safe to shoot! Why? It is a treasured antique with historical (to me) value. If you have any of these old rifles, you may want to reconsider shooting them, even high pressure steel can eventually fatigue if used enough. Be thoughtful when using these antiques. If you knew the monetary value they hold, you would likely go buy a new rifle for your general use…..never mind that some of these rifles hold a sentimental value that cannot be numbered. Really THINK about what you are doing.

I’ve seen old Colt SAA revolvers, (worth about $10,000.00+) blow to pieces because their owner simply loved shooting them with “black” equivalent loads, but the steel eventually fatigued and the gun blew. Of course we are speculating that steel fatigue caused the failure, but why keep shooting these old valuable guns, unless it is done on a very limited basis?

We make these short technical articles available to the shooting public as a service to the industry and to our customers. We know of no other place you can get such common sense, non-politically correct information and straight talk with little-to-no ass covering, regarding guns and ammunition. That said, NONE OF THESE ARTICLES are super comprehensive and do not contain every last bit of information that could be disseminated on any of these subjects. These “Technical Articles” are meant only as a general guide to open your minds to further research and understanding some of the industry wide, unexplained dynamics that shooters may find themselves dealing with. We hope the concepts discussed in these articles are of benefit to some readers.

Good shooting and God bless,

Ps The 30-40 Krag was the first US military cartridge designed to use smokeless powder. It was released to the military in 1892 in the Krag bolt action rifle.