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Woodleigh Bullets History

Geoff McDonald

The earliest recollection I have of shooting was during the big flood of 1956. My father Ian, and Angy Heffer were shooting rabbits in their squats with .22 rimfires. Dad’s was a Lithgow Model 1 single shot. Despite the plague numbers of rabbits, they mostly used single shots. This was very exciting to me, and I soon became very keen on hunting.

My first shotgun was a Spanish made single shot 12 ga. A brutal kicker, which shot low to the aim, nevertheless, I learnt to shoot ducks with it.

My first rimfire was a Gevarm E1 semi-auto. It was fitted with a Nikko 4 x 40 scope. It delivered a lot of satisfaction. I shot all manner of small game with it, sparrows, parrots, crows, ducks, rabbits, foxes and even the odd kangaroo.

This was followed by my first centre fire rifle, a SMLE 303 in very rough condition, bore like a gravel road. My brother Noel and I cut the stock down and “sporterized” it. It was not very accurate, still I spent many years shooting with it. It accounted for a good number of roos, pigs and emus. The desire for better rifles and guns was forever present.

In 1977, I bought my first double rifle, a nice old Charles Boswell 577 x 2 ¾” BPE, hammered underlever. I also bought a Sako magnun action, fitted to a 458 Win Mag barrel.

During 1979, long time fishing mates, Buck Salau and Alan Morton suggested a safari to the Northern Territory to hunt water buffalo. We were given a contact in the Territory by Tony Moodie a Melbourne collectable gun and ammunition dealer. The contact, Dave Lindner, then a Territory Parks and Wildlife ranger.

Contact with Dave was achieved and a plan made. Frantic preparations began. I had no cases or loads for the 577, the 458 barrelled action was without stock or sights.

I fitted the 458 to a Keith Tyack semi inletted walnut blank, a Williams front sight ramp and sight, plus a Lyman aperture receiver rear sight. I had by this time achieved a reasonable level of proficiency at making loading dies, so I made a 3 die set for the 458, the FLS die to match the rifle chamber. 458 brass was not common in those days, so I cut down and expanded 375 H&H brass.

Available projectiles at that time were Hornady 500gr SN and 500gr steel jacketed FMJ, plus a variety of 45/70 projectiles. The first few shots from the 458 on the bench were quite a shock. Hadn’t experienced recoil like that before. More was to come.

Buck chose to take a 300 Win Mag on a Mauser 98, and Alan a 30/06 Mauser 98, both loaded with Sierra 220gr RN SN. We had decided that in the event of the 30 calibres being unsatisfactory I would back them up with the 458.

Fortunately at that time, John Saunders from Century Arms (the shooters friend) had just received a shipment of new “obsolete” brass from Jim Bell of Brass Extrusion Laboratories, USA. Among these were 577 basic cases, so I decided to take the 577 along also. I made up a mould estimated to be about 600gr, the bullets came out at 615gr, this worked out OK.

After considerable experimenting, I worked up a good working load of 52 grains IMR4759, producing about 1620 fps. In July 1979, the adventurous trio flew to Darwin. We were met at the airport by Dave Lindner. From that day, a long term relationship developed, without which Woodleigh Bullets would not have evolved.

During the course of my first buffalo safari, I discovered just how tough and resilient water buffalo actually are. The 458 performed quite well and I still have high regard for this cartridge if loaded correctly. The 30 calibre shooters had quite a challenge, but did kill a few with a measure of good luck and multiple shots.

Dave Lindner has a strong interest in fine rifles and doubles. In those days his favourite piece for buffalo was an original 505 Gibbs.

The 1970’s saw a decline in the production of big game rifles and particularly ammunition. Kynoch had ceased production in the UK. Winchester and Remington were the only major companies manufacturing 458 Win and 375 H&H ammunition, and that was about it.

Users of vintage big game rifles were using up existing stocks of original ammunition and components. Double rifles became quite cheap as a result. Those who were still hand loading for their doubles were hoarding original Kynoch bullets and they became scarce.

Barnes original bullets came on stream at around that era in Australia, and played a considerable part in the continuity and resurgence of the use of double and single big game rifles. The main boost in interest came from Jim Bell making cases.

Around the campfire on my first safari in 1979, long and fascinating discussions were held with Dave regarding dangerous game and bullet performance.

John Taylor’s “African Rifles and Cartridges” was and still is frequently referred to. Dave and his associate Vic Pederson had had good success with Kynoch bullets and Barnes originals.

The brain started to chew on these discussions and I was keen to have a go at virtually anything. My rapidly advancing addiction to buffalo hunting was a driving motivation. At some point I remember saying to Dave that I should be able to make bullets as good as or better than what was available.

Three years elapsed before I was ready to return to the Territory to try out my new creations. First I felt the need to design the “ultimate” dangerous game cartridge and rifle for it. It had to be based on the Mauser 98 action, with claw extractor and controlled feed. The cartridge had to be based on available modern brass. The 460 Weatherby was the obvious case choice. The Weatherby round was considered to have too much velocity and too light a bullet for the “ultimate”.

I had read about Fred Wells and the 510 Wells cartridge, a very good one. But still, since bigger is better, I decided to neck the 460 case up to .530”, which still left some body taper, and a very small shoulder. It could have gone to .540 or even .550” but I decided to try .530”. Custom barrels seemed out of the question in those days, so I decided to make one. I chose to use the multi tooth broaching system, which seemed a good idea at the time, but is probably the most difficult to get the tooling right.

I made several failed attempts at drilling out, reaming and rifling worn out sporter barrels. At about the 4th. Attempt, I produced a reasonable looking bore using a 1 ¼” x 24” x 270 blank, drilled out and reamed to .520”. I had to use 2 broaches to cut the grooves due to limitations of the stroke of my homemade rifling machine.

The first having 5 cutting heads, followed by the second, with 4 heads. The grooves were reasonably smooth, but I lapped it anyway. Achieving a workable barrel was a great leap forward. I had already modified a Steyr 1912 vintage model 1898 action by lengthening the bolt stroke by relocating the bolt stop rearward by 1/8”, opening up the rails and building a new magazine box. Initial load development was done with 750gr cast bullets.

The barrelled action was inletted and epoxy bedded in to a Tyack semi inletted blank, and was fitted with a large recoil block silver soldered below the chamber.

Bullets then became the next priority to bring the project to fruition. I had no knowledge of drawing jackets, but did have a copy of Dave Corbin’s book “Discover Swaging”. This was a useful guide, but by no means a manual. I built up a four column press using rack and pinion plus reduction gears for power.

It was hopelessly underpowered. I added a 3 ½” hydraulic ram coupled to a pump with a 3HP electric motor. This gave me about 9 tons which was plenty. I was able to buy off the shelf 90/10 gilding metal in the form of 4’ x 6’ sheets, which were cut into 6” strips, which would slide through the press frame.

Prototype tooling was made, and eventually I produced a handful of jackets. I have skipped over much trial and error, the reader should bear in mind that I did all this work in my spare time as I was full time farming in those days (1980/3). I passed up on a considerable amount of hunting time in order to make progress.

By June 1982, I had made prototype soft nose for the 530 Woodleigh Magnum 750gr, Trevor Wilkinsons 470 Manton double, and Dave Lindners 505 Gibbs. I was anxious to do a testing run to the Territory. I contacted Dave and plans were laid. Trevor and I drove up there, 3500 KM in an 8 year old Ford Falcon utility, quite a journey with our wares and over 500 KM of unsealed, rough road.

The 530 proved to be very deadly on buffalo with the 750gr SN at 2100 fps. The 470 x 500gr worked as well as hoped for, the 505 x 525gr, while showing promise, needed some work due to failure to expand properly on low velocity shots. I had also bumped some of the 505 to .510”. Dave had a lovely Evans 500 3” double on a Webley PHV 1 action. The 525gr bullets shot high, but it was a good opportunity to test them. We camped one night at the north end of the WW2 Cannon Hill airstrip. Buffalo were plentiful, keeping us awake noisily feeding and tramping around for most of the night.

Whilst cooking breakfast, a herd of cows and calves walked through the small clearing we were camped in. We decided to give them a dust up. A volley of shots was unleashed, and after the dust had cleared, two buffalo lay dead. Examination revealed one wound each, both bullets were 530’s, I only fired 2 shots. Dave’s 500’s had shot high, nicking the skin on the back ridge of one. Don’t know where Trevors 470’s went.

We shot 15-20 buffalo on that first testing mission and the knowledge gained laid the grounds for many more modifications and experiments.

Dave was always on about solids to reliably stop a charge. The first attempt was to try 1.6mm 70/30 cartridge brass jackets. We tested them on a follow up trip in 1983. The brass jackets were OK most of the time, but would rivet or burst open on really tough shots, when you needed them the most.

The next attempt was with 1.6mm steel, this was an improvement, but still resulted in occasional distortion and even rupture. One of the best tests was to fire through the head and down the spine. This really sorts solids out. At that time, Winchester made some very good steel jacketed solids for their 458 round. They were about 2mm thick at the nose, with a slight taper to the rear, with a reasonable roll over at the base.

One of the main criticisms of original Kynoch solids was that they were quite thin at the sides, and weak at the base. This resulted in fish tailing with loss of direction. One of Dave’s tests was to load solids backwards and fire them into buffalo to check base strength.

As time went by others became interested and by 1984 I had made prototypes for 450/400, 404, 458, 465, 475, 505, 500 Jeffery, 500 Nitro and 577 black powder express, 600gr.

We had some of our wares exhibited at the SHOT Show in 1985 and as a result received a substantial order from Jim Bell. It took quite a while to make these on the hydraulic press. When we finally shipped them, the packaging was inadequate and Jim eventually received most of them, mixed up. Not exactly a good start to an export business.

My wife Shirley and I attended the SHOT Show Jan 1986, our first. Jim Bell loaded our bullets in his big game ammunition from 1986 until he sold to PMC around 1989. During the 1988 SHOT Show I met Mike Bussard, who worked for Federal Cartridge in Anoka, Minnesota. I was invited to visit the Federal factory.

As a result we received an order for samples of 416 x 410gr SN and FMJ, and 470 x 500gr SN and FMJ. We began working on bonded cores for the soft nose in 1988. Tests showed a considerable improvement in performance over conventional swaged core bullets. We built a machine to do this, a lot of problems and modifications. The process involves fluxing the inside of the bullet jacket, then melting the core material. The lead solders to the jacket as with conventional lead/tin solder. Temperature control is critical for a good bond and to not over soften the jacket.

The samples for Federal Cartridge resulted in a commercial order for 416 x 410gr SN & FMJ, and 470 SN & FMJ for the new lines for Federal of 416 Rigby and 470 Nitro ammunition. The real resurgence in big game rifles was well underway.

We continued to supply Federal for many years in 416 and 470 followed by 458 Win Mag, 308, 30/06, 300 Win Mag and 338 Win Mag.

From 1985 until 1995 the Footscray Ammunition Factory (now Thales/ADI) sold off a lot of equipment in preparation for relocation to Benalla, Victoria. This was very fortunate for us, we bought a lot of machines, some of which are now key pieces of our production.

We also bought a Bliss 50/12 press from USA in 1990, this is the grand daddy of bullet assembly presses. Designed for the production of 50 BMG projectiles, it is a very versatile and reliable machine.

We supplied Dynamit Nobel, Germany 404 x 400gr SN and FMJ for their re introduced RWS 404 Jeffery round 1993-1996. Norma of Sweden loaded their 358 Norma Mag for a time in the early 1990’s with our .358 x 250gr RN SN, and also their own brand name of Weatherby cartridges, 340 Weatherby, 250gr RNSN, 378 Weatherby 300gr semi-point SN, 416 Weatherby 410gr RNSN, and 460 Weatherby 500gr RNSN.

Kynamco began production of the Kynoch line of cartridges and we also supply most of the bullets for their production. Along with Wolfgang Romey from Germany producing a large range of premium hunting ammunition, both for the British trade and European market. In 2007 Norma introduced a new premium line of big game ammunition labelled Norma PH (Professional Hunter).

We are indeed fortunate to have secured the production of bullets for this line. It includes both soft nose and FMJ in calibres from 375 H&H, 375 Flanged, 404 Jeffery, 416 Rigby, 416 Remington, 450 Rigby Rimless, 458 Lott, 470 Nitro, 500 Nitro 3”, and 505 Gibbs. We also supply several other custom and commercial loaders.

Countries we export to are USA, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

This all started from a big game perspective, but over time we have broadened our production to medium game as well. Our main domestic market is no longer for buffalo, but for deer. The Australian deer hunters are good supporters. We get good feedback from them and welcome any feedback, good or bad.

Product development continues...