An amazing collection! 16 original English .600s! The consecutive Purdey rifles are 7 and 8 from the right.

History, Myth and Fact

Text and photos by Cal Pappas

Say it slow. Say it very slow: .600 nitro express.


There is something magical about those words. A magic not matched by other big-game cartridges. .450 nitro express? Doesn’t come close. .500 nitro express? Doesn’t make it, either. How about the .577 nitro express? Still, not quite there. Neither is 8-bore or 4-bore. But say “.600 nitro express” and heads turn. Maybe size does matter. The .600 was the largest-bore diameter of the smokeless cartridges in the golden age of Africa and India hunting. It fired the heaviest bullet with the largest number of foot pounds of muzzle energy. The rifles also had the heaviest average weight of nitro double rifles.


This magic gave an almost mythical status to those that hunted with the .600. Stories abound of heroic shooters and hunters surviving the ferocious recoil which caused their ears to bleed, tooth fillings coming loose, severe headaches, severely bruised or even broken shoulders, being spun around 180 degrees, being lifted off the ground, as well as elephant being bowled over and Cape buffalo being lifted off their feet… It never ends. So, let’s get the facts straight and take a complete look at the .600.

Origin of the .600

Many writers have used the year 1902 or 1904 to be the year of the .600 cartridge’s introduction. However, the .600 nitro express was discussed and planned in the late 1890s. It is basically a 3-inch 20-gauge brass shot shell launching a bullet of just over two ounces and with a thicker rim, thereby preventing its insertion in a 20-bore shotgun. Alexander Henry, prior to the turn of the 20th century, necked the brass 20-bore shot shell 2¾ inches long, down to accept a .577 bullet, and called his invention the 20-.577. His cartridge equaled the ballistics of the already-famous .577 3-inch black powder express. So, in the late 1890s folks were experimenting with the 20-gauge case for rifle shooting and it can be safely assumed that by 1898 it was a topic of discussion.


On 13 January 1899, drawing of a “Proposed Jeffery .600” Bore Cartridge” appeared. This original drawing specified a case of 2.8 inches, a powder charge of 110 grains, and a bullet of 800 grains. Modifications to this original drawing dated to 2 June 1902, increased the bullet weight to 900 grains, lengthened the case to three inches, and reduced the powder charge to 100 grains of cordite. There were also minor changes to the dimensions of the brass case. It was in 1899 that comments and questions about the new cordite cartridges, including the .600, began to appear in shooting magazines in the United Kingdom. The Field may have been the first to discuss the .600 in their issue of 21 October, 1899.


Writers have stated the year of the first .600 rifle as 1902, 1903, or 1904. The first Jeffery rifle has many times been given as serial number 12175. The fact is the first .600 rifle was Jeffery number 8231. The factory ledgers state the following statistics: .600 bore under lever snap action, single barrel, A&D (Anson & Deeley) action, 25-inch barrel, sighted to 150 yards, with Krupp barrels. The rifle was made by Saunders, purchased for 19 pounds and sold for 30 pounds on April 30, 1900. The next .600, and the first double rifle, was Jeffery number 8371. The ledger gives the following data: .600 bore, lever over guard, double rifle with back action locks, 25-inch Krupp barrels, sighted to 300 yards, and border engraving. The rifle was also made by Saunders, purchased for nearly 25 pounds, and sold for a 10 pound profit on 28 February, 1901.


Due to the rifle’s weight and power, the .600 was slow to gain acceptance and never really gained popularity. Jeffery has been credited with making 32 doubles and 24 single shots rifles in .600 nitro express.  Westley Richards has been listed as making three, Purdey and Holland & Holland with six each, Wilkes making nine. The total production of .600s has been quoted between 75 and 100.


In my search of the Jeffery records in July, 2008, I found 70 rifles – 37 doubles and 33 single shots. No one will know the exact number produced by all makers but I would not be surprised if 125 doubles and 75 single shots were made during the vintage years. Wilkes did make nine to be sold under their name, but an uncounted number that were sold “in the white” to the trade. Holland made seven, including the “Last .600” of 1975, and more may surface. Purdey is listed with three up to 1949 and, again, more may surface. (Two Purdey .600s are consecutively serial numbered and owned by a friend). Westley Richard made six up to 1906 and perhaps another seven between 1906 to post WWII. Numerous other makers (whose records are unavailable) made from one to several. We will never know the exact production number. Post-WWII production increased the above numbers somewhat.


Original ammunition


This was Africa when the .600 was at its prominence.

With an approximate number of 200 pre-WWII .600 rifles produced, the next question is availability of ammunition. The .600 has been written as having two charges of cordite–100 and 110 grains. A figure of 200,000 cartridges has been given for the total production of .600 ammunition. However, .600 rifles have been discovered being regulated for 105 and 120 grains of cordite, and 130-grain charges are listed with Kynoch. The 200,000 figure has not been substantiated but, if it is correct, and 200 double and single shot rifles were produced in the vintage years, which equates to 1000 cartridges per rifle. Quite a number considering how little the .600 was actually used. It was considered as general knowledge that a .600 was not a hunter’s primary rifle but as a backup for a more common caliber, such as a .450.  In examining vintage cartridges, no less than 32 variations in the combinations of bullet styles, bullet metal, primer sizes and primer metal, head stamps, and the type and number of crimps have come to light. I’m sure more will be discovered in the future.

An interesting fact is that Jeffery and Westley Richards were in competition for sales in the largest of rifles. Jeffery touted his .600 and Westley Richards strongly promoted the .577 (the nitro version was introduced approximately the same time as the .600). Old Westley advertisements stated the .577 rifles were lighter in weight, produced less recoil, and had higher foot pounds of energy than the .600. The Jeffery, in turn, stated ballistics of 8400 foot pounds of energy rather than 7600. (The 8400 foot pound figure is indeed achieved with a cordite charge of 120 grains, but this was never loaded commercially).


The 100- and 110-grain charges were the most common, and at least two Jeffery rifles exists that are proofed for the 120-grain load. One writer stated that all Jeffery rifles were proofed for the 100-grain charge which is absolutely not the case. Only nine of the 70 Jeffery rifles list the cordite charge in the factory ledgers. It seems most Jeffery rifles were made for the 100-grain charge (and perhaps all of the single shot rifles) and it was a mixture of the 100- and 110-grain charge that was spread between the remainder of the makers. During my research, a unique Westley Richards single shot has been uncovered for a perhaps one-of-a-kind charge of 105 grains of cordite. In addition, Kynoch mentions in an early catalog (1905): “W.J. Jeffery uses 130 grains of cordite which we load on his responsibility.” The sentence was underlined to show its importance. To the best of my knowledge no ammunition for the 105- 120- and 130-grain charges have been discovered, nor has an original rifle regulated for the 130 grains of cordite. A 120-grain Jeffery was advertised and sold at auction around 2010 (I was out-bid), and at least one other exists..


A big cartridge must have big and impressive ballistics. 8400 foot-pounds of muzzle energy has been quoted in vintage catalogs and has been repeated in contemporary writings. Muzzle velocity has been quoted at 2000 feet per second and higher. The facts are, standard factory ammunition was listed as 1850 fps for the 100-grain charge of cordite and 1950 fps for the 110-grain charge of the same propellant. 2050 is the velocity for the 120-grain charge and many old catalogs quoted this figure as the accepted velocity for all .600 cartridges. This was to draw attention away from the .600’s closest competitor–the .577 nitro express. The 1850 and 1950 fps velocity figures are from 28-inch test barrels. To obtain an accurate velocity one must subtract approximately 25 fps per inch of barrel less than 28 inches. So, in common 24-inch barrels, the accepted muzzle velocity will be about 100 feet per second slower (i.e. 1750 and 1850 fps for the 100- and 110- grain charges of cordite). The single shot .600 made for 105 grains of cordite and the two known doubles made for the 120-grain charge must have come with custom-loaded ammunition as neither charge has been documented in Kynoch or Eley catalogs.


As to the 130-grain charge of cordite: nothing has been seen on the 130 grains charge except the quote as mentioned above by Kynoch, and no rifles have surfaced. To speculate a bit, 130 grains of cordite would propel a bullet of 900 grains at 2150 fps. This would give a muzzle energy figure of 9240 foot pounds of energy. Quite a handful to state the least!


Weight of the .600 rifles

Powerful rifles need added weight to control recoil. My 4-bore Rodda weighs in at 23 pounds and with black powder the recoil is unbearable with a 4¼-ounce bullet (1882 grains). The average weight of .600 rifles has been listed as high as 18 pounds, but actually the average is 15½ pounds. While the recoil of a .600 is heavy it is not unmanageable. That said, I owned one of the last batch of seven .600 Jeffery single shot rifles, made for 100 grains of cordite. Acceptable recoil in a 16-pound double rifle, but the recoil was horrendous in my 11-pound single shot. After two shots, I sold it!


I have read that in the 1980s, when Bill Feldstein was developing the .700 nitro express, in conjunction with Holland & Holland and Jim Bell, it was determined the most recoil a man could handle was that of a .600 nitro express. To make a .700 to have the felt recoil of a .600, the rifle was to weigh 19 pounds. With that in mind, I have a theory: When the .600 was developed (and then revised in 1902) the .577 nitro express was already in production and the recoil of it was at a shooter’s and hunter’s limit. To make the .600 to have the felt recoil of a .577, the rifle’s weight was increased to average in the 15—16 pound range (about 2-3 pounds greater than the .577).


Makers of the .600

Every maker of .600 rifles will never be known as so many factory ledgers and records were destroyed in the bombings of WWII. For the same reason the exact number of .600s will never be known. While some makers of the .600 are still in business today (Holland & Holland, Westley Richards, Purdey and others) .600 rifles were also sold by Army and Navy, Evans, Churchill, Greener, Lancaster, Lang, MacNaughton, Osborne, Rodda, Webley & Scott, and Wilkinson. On the continent, Belgium, French, and German makers produced the .600. The retailers in India included P. Orr, Walter Locke, RB Rodda, Lyon & Lyon, and Manton, and they sold .600s from the makers if requested by a sportsman. They also purchased .600s “in the white” and finished in company shops with their name and serial number. W&C Scott and Son made countless rifles for retailers. (My 12-10-8- and 4-bore rifles and shotguns in the same bore sizes were made by Scott, but all are from different retailers). There were many more .600 makers and retailers, no doubt, and we won’t know of them until a rifle surfaces.


Writers throughout the 20th century have stated that all Jeffery rifles were snap action and that all Jeffery doubles were on boxlock actions. Not true! While Jeffery produced the most .600s and most of these were on their snap action, Jeffery also produced a few sidelock double rifle and their first double was an exposed hammer with a Jones under lever. Holland & Holland, Purdey, and R.B. Rodda also produced sidelock .600s. The .600s show a variety of top lever, under lever, snap action, boxlock, sidelock, and falling block single shot rifles produced.


The Last .600

Much has been written about this rifle and its near mythical status. It has been written that the owner of this rifle was offered a huge sum of money if he relented and allowed Holland to continue building the .600s. That the rifle was made for an eccentric collector who wanted the best of everything money could buy. That the rifle is stored in an underground grain silo, etc. I have seen and held the last .600. Here are the facts.


It was common knowledge in the 1960s that the years of elephant hunting were about over. Ammunition was getting scarce with no hope of Kynoch continuing production. To honor the great .600 cartridge, Holland & Holland decided to build what many at the firm still believe to be the finest rifle they ever manufactured. Began in 1970 and completed in 1975, it was ordered by, and sold to, a gentleman from the Midwest. He and his son had a 50-50 share in this rifle. The son, who is the owner of the rifle now, told me he wanted to go in 50-50 with his father so it would be in his collection someday. Holland stated it was to be the last rifle of this caliber they would produce. The rifle was sold with that understanding. The father and son hunted in Africa numerous times and collected many fine rifles–including several vintage .600s–as a labor of love, long before it was stylish to do so. The “last .600” remains in the family collection and is unfired to this day. It is most assuredly NOT in a grain silo!


One unconfirmed story is that Holland &Holland, knowing the glory days of elephant hunting and cartridges for the rifles were coming to an end, was to build a series of three “last” rifles–.600, .577. and .500 nitro expresses. Only the .600 was produced. Why the .577 and .500 were not produced has been lost to history–if they were planned to be made at all.

In the 1980s an American collector and hunter with vast African experience approached Holland & Holland to build him a .600. The company refused as they were bound by the contract with the purchaser of the “last .600.” As the .600’s production at Holland &Holland was at an end, the company designed the .700. A few years later, when Holland & Holland was approached by additional collectors regarding a .600, they came to an agreement with the owner of the “last .600” to again begin production. A pair of Royal 20-bore shotguns, in individual oak and leather cases, was produced for the owner, and Holland & Holland again resumed .600 production as they were released from the contract.

The engraving on the author’s .600 Wilkes was recognized by John Blower as Bill Pridham’s rifle.

Vintage users of the .600

As with anything, no matter how good or great it is, detractors will always surface. David Blunt wrote, “the double .600 has too heavy a bullet for the charge of cordite.” James Sutherland wrote of the .600 having less penetration than the .577 and also the heavier weight (16 pounds compared to the .577’s 13 pounds) “…renders it a much more awkward weapon to handle.” J.A. Hunter was not too fond of the .600 but did admit the power of the .600 was great. “If you hit an elephant on the head with one of these bullets, he will be knocked back on his hunkers.” However, most comments were positive.


Marius Maxwell, an early 1900s photographer, owned perhaps the finest .600 of his day. His Greener was ordered with two sets of barrels and the engraving was of the highest quality.


Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton used a .450-400 and a .600; both rifles by Jeffery. His hunting and endorsements are prevalent in early Jeffery catalogs. “In answer to your inquiry as to how I like the rifles you made for me for my recent expedition in Equatorial Africa, I am pleased to say that they gave me every satisfaction. The .600 Cordite Ejector is the handiest and least uncomfortable to fire of any large bore I have used. Its accuracy, penetration, and stopping power I consider all that can be wished. One frontal shot fired at an elephant at 40 yards penetrated 27 in. Through successively skin, bone, flesh, bone, brain, and bone, the beast of course dropping at once.”


F.W.F. Fletcher, a tea farmer in India, wrote, “Encouraged by my experience with the .450, I invested in a .600 high velocity rifle by Jeffery. Of the tremendous power of this rifle, it is scarcely possible to convey on paper…”


Karl Larsen, a Danish hunter, used a .600 rifle regulated for the heavy 120-grains cordite charge. He is quoted in a Jeffery catalog, “This photo of the skins of seven lions shot by him in two minutes on the 20th of January, 1909, in P.S.W. Africa with the .600-bore made by them for him in 1907.”


Hans Schomburgk, of Germany, hunted with a pair of .600 rifles by Jeffery and a third from Simson of Suhl, Germany. Hans wrote, “Right from the start I had a keen eye on Larsen’s rifle…(we) came to terms and he traded his .600 for my .400 Express and an amount of cash.”


Charles Mahauden of Belgium hunted with a .600 as did elephant hunter, Bill Pridham. John Blower, Bill’s partner for a time stated his .600 Wilkes was his “insurance policy.”


R.L. Sutton, MD, used a .600 Jeffery in his African safari, and Elmer Keith wrote of the rifle, and a well-known photograph of Elmer supposedly in full recoil with the barrels pointing skyward supposedly in full recoil.


John ‘Pondoro’ Taylor owned two .600. One he sold as it double discharged so he could only load one barrel. He wrote extensively of his .600 experience in his classic African Rifles and Cartridges. While Taylor agreed the .577 had greater penetration, he said the .600 penetrated enough!


In the present day, Bill Feldstein used a .600 on many of his Africa safaris and Mark Sullivan has more experience with a .600 than any living hunter.​

The Jeffery .600 owned by the Maharaja of Rewa.

The author’s .600 Wilkes

In the early 1990s I saw a John Wilkes .600 double for sale at a local antique store in Anchorage, Alaska. The price was out of my reach then—$10,500 was on the tag and it sold for $1000 less. Some months later I noticed the Wilkes at a friend’s house. I enquired about the rifle, said I admired it a few years prior, and asked should the owner wish to part with it to give me first refusal. 


Well, over a dozen years passed. John and I have been friends for decades but one day in 2008 he phoned and asked if I was still interested in the Wilkes .600 as it was time for him to pass it on. Was I still interested? Does a bear…? My check book flew out of my pocket when the echo of the price was still fading in the air. The rifle rested in a new oak and leather case that was made in South Africa with a nice complement of accessories. Also were dies, a bullet mold, and enough jacketed bullets and brass cases to last a lifetime or two.


The rifle shot well and the recoil was nowhere as horrible as past authors wrote. I decided to do a book on the .600, had 2000+ copies printed and they have long since sold out. In my research of the caliber and the glorious rifles that chambered this magnificent big-game cartridge, I began to backtrack my .600 to see if I could determine its origin.


The factory ledger did not supply the name of the original owner, but I did find out Wilkes made nine double .600s with their name, and an uncounted number sold to the trade “in the white.” Interestingly, about half of the Wilkes .600s weighed a proper 15½ to 16 pounds. The remaining half were built on a .500 frame and weighed 10½ to 11 pounds. I imagine the recoil was quite stiff on those lighter rifles (a friend has one but I have not shot it)!


I located one-third of the Wilkes rifles and another two I was unable to make contact with. I did learn my rifle came from the UK before it turned up in the Anchorage antique shop. I also learned an elephant hunter in the post WWII years hunted with a .600 Wilkes: Bill Pridham. As I wanted to learn about Bill, I asked about him when visiting Zimbabwe. Retired professional hunter John Northcote said Bill had passed away after living out his years on the Isle of Man, but his widow was still there. He also suggested I contact John Blower, Bill’s partner. 


I contacted Bill’s widow. His .600 was put in storage with the police when he retired from his hunting career. After many years the time limit of police storage was over and the rifle needed to be sold. It left the UK a short while before turning up in Alaska. The trail’s scent was getting stronger.


I also emailed John Blower in Wales. John and his wife had a summer home in the UK as he loved gardening. In the winter he lived in southern Vermont at his wife’s family home. (His wife, Wendy, and her family were the inspiration for the book and movie Life With Father). In the winter of 2010-11 I was planning to vacation at my mother’s home in western Massachusetts and hoped to visit John. What a small world! John and Wendy’s home was a 20-minute drive from my mother’s home and only a mile from my mother’s parent’s summer home on the West River—just across the river on a covered bridge. Mom knew John’s home and swam in the river as a child.


John’s life and his romance with Wendy is a storybook tale. His game department adventures gave him a lifetime of memories of an Africa that will never be seen again. He was setting up a game department in Uganda when Idi Amin came to power, and John departed to Ethiopia to work there. I brought my Wilkes on the 5500-mile drive and showed it to him. He recognized it immediately as Bill’s rifle from the engraving and wood grain! Then he wrote a short note confirming this in his book, Benagi Hill, that I purchased and brought with me for John to sign.


My rifle is even more treasured now, and shooting it is still great fun. I load 160 grains of IMR 4831 powder to propel a 900 grains Woodleigh soft-nose bullet at 1900 fps mv. and 155 grains of the same powder I use with a Woodleigh solid. Over the years I have taken several Cape buffalo, three water buffalo, two hippo, an Alaska moose, and plains game such as warthog, wildebeest, waterbuck, and zebra. The rifle turns heads in the field as it does at the range. 


Time goes by and I am getting on in years. Soon it will be time to pass the Wilkes .600 on to another to treasure as have I.

Cal Pappas



The author with Holland’s Last .600.