The Overlooked .25 Caliber Cartridges
By Chuck Hawks
The .25 caliber cartridges have a long, and in some cases gaudy, history. For a caliber generally overlooked by most shooters (no .25 is among the 10 best selling rifle cartridges), there are a number of .25 caliber factory loaded cartridges available in the marketplace, and at least a couple of notable wildcats. In many ways the .257 caliber cartridges have occupied the same niche in North America that the 6.5mm (.264) cartridges occupy in Europe.
What the .25 caliber cartridges bring to the table when compared to the .243/6mm cartridges is greater bullet cross sectional area and greater bullet weight for a given sectional density. These are important advantages given that the popular .24's are most commonly criticized for exactly these deficiencies.
A .25 caliber cartridge of a given capacity can also drive a bullet of a given weight slightly faster than a .24 of the same capacity, other factors being equal. This is because the .25 caliber bullet has a larger diameter base on which the expanding powder gasses can push.
The popular bullet weights available to reloaders in .25 caliber include 60 grain, 75 grain, 85-87 grain, 90 grain, 100 grain, 115-117 grain, and 120 grain. 87 grain (SD .188), 100 grain (SD .216), 117 grain (SD .253), and 120 grain (SD .260) bullets are most commonly encountered in factory loads, and are also probably the most popular weights with reloaders. In general, .25 caliber bullets of 87 grains and less are intended for small game, varmint, and small predator shooting. Bullets from 90 grains to 120 grains are usually medium game bullets.
The .25's being factory loaded at this time include the old .25-20 Winchester rifle/revolver combination cartridge, the useful but obsolescent .25-35 Winchester lever action rifle cartridge, the .250-3000 Savage (now also obsolescent), The .257 Roberts, .25-06 Remington, and spectacular .257 Weatherby Magnum. The most prominent wildcats are the .257 Roberts Improved and the .25 WSM. The former is a blown-out .257 Roberts, and the latter is the new .300 WSM case necked down to accept .25 caliber bullets. The .25 WSM may soon become a factory load, and the .257 Improved should have been standardized years ago. Most of the following .25 cartridges are covered in greater detail in my series of articles on individual rifle cartridges.
The .25-20 Winchester is a short range varmint and small game cartridge on the order of the .30 carbine. It is based on a necked-down .32-20 case and was quite popular around the turn of the 20th Century.
The .25-20 has gotten some play from the cowboy action shooters, and Marlin recently turned out some of their Model 1894 lever action rifles in .25-20. The old high velocity factory load drove a 60 grain flat point bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2250 fps. The current Winchester and Remington factory loads drive an 86 grain flat point bullet at a MV of 1460 fps. The .25-20 will probably continue to be around for a number of years.
The .25-35 Winchester is a light recoiling lever action rifle cartridge suitable for small deer and antelope out to about 200 yards, and medium size deer to about 100 yards. It is an excellent cartridge, particularly for young shooters, and it is very unfortunate that it is no longer being offered by the lever action rifle manufacturers.
The .25-35 is based on the .38-55 case (the same case on which the .30-30 is based) necked down to accept .257 inch bullets. The current Winchester factory load drives a 117 grain flat point bullet at a MV of 2230 fps with muzzle energy (ME) of 1292 ft. lbs. Marlin and Winchester should re-introduce the .25-35 in their popular Model 94 and Model 336 lever action rifles.
The first of the high velocity .25's, the .250 Savage was the first commercial cartridge of any caliber to drive a bullet at a MV of 3000 fps. That was an 87 grain spitzer bullet and it was fine for varmints, but a little light for deer. Better for medium game hunting are the factory loads that drive a 100 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2820 fps with ME of 1765 ft. lbs. Varmint and predator shooters can handload 75 grain bullets at about 3200-3300 fps or 85-87 grain bullets at about 3000 fps.
Controversy crackled around the .250 Savage for many years after its introduction. It became the whipping boy of the moribund low velocity big-bore cartridge fans, and the poster child of the high velocity cartridge fans. The first group thought the .250-3000 worthless for big game hunting, and the second used it on elk. Today you can hear a similar diversity of opinions about the .243 Winchester and 6mm Remington, the cartridges that put the .250 on the skids.
As usual, the truth lay somewhere in the middle. The .250 proved to be a good cartridge for pronghorn antelope and the smaller species of goats and deer out to 300 yards, and adequate for the larger sheep, goat, and deer species out to about 175 yards. It is not a good choice for large game like elk.
.257 Roberts and .257 Roberts +P
For many years the .257 Roberts was the cartridge on which .25 fans hung their hats. No less an authority than Jack O'Connor held that the .257 Roberts was a better, more versatile cartridge than the newer .243 Winchester and 6mm Remington. Actually, the 6mm Remington is based on a necked-down .257 case, and there is little to choose between the two if both are loaded to the same pressure with the same weight bullets. Then the 6mm has the advantage in sectional density, and the .257 has the advantage in cross sectional area.
Like the 6mm cartridges, the .257 Roberts is an excellent long range varmint cartridge using bullets in the 75-87 grain weight range. These allow the harvesting of rodents and small predators as far as they can be hit, with acceptable recoil and muzzle blast.
The .257's advantage over the similar .24 caliber cartridges is its ability to handle heavier bullets, and the .257 Roberts is factory loaded with 117-120 grain bullets. But the rub is that the .243 Winchester and 6mm Remington are loaded to substantially higher pressure than the .257 Roberts, which is held to a rather mild 45,000 cup or 54,000 piezo psi. This allows a 117 grain bullet to be driven at a MV of 2650 fps with ME of 1824 ft. lbs.
More recently, higher pressure +P factory loads have been introduced to partially rectify the problem, and these drive 117-120 grain spitzer bullets at a MV of 2780 fps. These loads have adequate killing power for 200 pound game out to 290 yards according to the "Optimal Ranges for Big Game" table. Another choice for long range shooting of deer and antelope available only to reloaders is a 100 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of about 3000 fps; the major ammo manufacturers no longer offer such loads.
.25 WSSMThe .25 WSSM is the third cartridge to be introduced by Winchester on the super short WSSM case, and the newest .25 caliber cartridge as of this writing. This is basically a shortened version of the WSM case--a clear example of diminishing returns.
Like the other WSSM cartridges, the .25 WSSM is not a true magnum at all. In performance it is quite similar to the old .257 Roberts Improved wildcat, and slightly inferior to the .25-06 Remington, especially with heavy bullets. It cannot be denied, however, that the petite Winchester Model 70 Classic Featherweight rifle offered in .25 WSSM is a very cute hunting rifle.
Remington adopted this old wildcat in 1969, but the cartridge has been around as a wildcat since at least 1920. .25-06 factory loads drive a 120 grain spitzer bullet to a MV of 2940 fps with ME of 2382 ft. lbs. Other factory loads are offered with 87, 90, 100, and 117 grain bullets.
With 120 grain factory loads the .25-06 is suitable for all species of North American deer, antelope, sheep, and goats to over 400 yards. Actually, the limiting factor is its trajectory. The "Rifle Trajectory Table" shows that this load has a maximum point blank range (MPBR) +/- 3 inches of 291 yards.
To an extent the .25-06 has always lived in the shadow of the similar .270 Winchester as a long range big game cartridge. On the other hand, using 75-87 grain bullets, the .25-06 is a better varmint cartridge than the .270. It is, however, a loud and hard-kicking varmint cartridge.
.257 Weatherby Magnum
The .257 Weatherby Magnum is the Queen of the .25 caliber cartridges. If you are considering the purchase of an ultra-long range rifle, take a very close look at the .257 Weatherby Magnum. This is one of Roy Weatherby's most useful creations, and arguably the best of all the ultra-long range cartridges. It will take medium size game such as deer, sheep, goats, and antelope essentially as far as they can be hit. It has adequate killing power for use on big 400 pound animals to about 280 yards, and heavy 600 pound beasts to beyond 100 yards, making it suitable for mixed bag hunts. It has also been used extensively on African plains game, where it has a good record.
The .257 Weatherby is a standard length magnum based on a shortened and blown out .300 H&H case, as are the .264 Winchester Magnum and .270 Weatherby Magnum. Like other standard length magnum cartridges, it is designed to work in .30-06 length actions.
Weatherby, Norma, and Federal factory loads offer 87, 100, 115, 117, and 120 grain bullets at velocities ranging from 3825 fps to 3150 fps. The Weatherby factory load for the excellent 120 grain Nosler Partition spitzer bullet leaves the barrel at a MV of 3305 fps with ME of 2910 ft. lbs. The "Rifle Trajectory Table" shows that this load has a MPBR of 317 yards. The Weatherby factory load for the Hornady 100 grain spire point bullet has a MV of 3602 fps and ME of 2881 ft. lbs. The MPBR is 337 yards. These are extremely high numbers.
Using bullets of equal sectional density the .257 Weatherby Magnum can more than hold its own as an ultra-long range cartridge when compared to the .270 Weatherby Magnum, and it beats the .270 WSM. Ditto the .264 Winchester Magnum and 6.5x68.
Measured in typical rifles for which each are normally chambered, the .257 Weatherby also kicks noticeably less than all of the other ultra-long range cartridges except the .240 Weatherby Magnum (which cannot compare in killing power). The bottom line is that the .257 Weatherby Magnum is perhaps the ultimate ultra-long range medium game cartridge.
Perhaps the most famous wildcat .25 is the .257 Improved. This most useful cartridge is merely a blown out .257 Roberts case loaded to full pressure. It can drive a 100 grain bullet at 3100-3200 fps and a 120 grain bullet at about 2900 fps. This puts it not far behind the .25-06 Remington, yet it is more economical to reload and kicks less. It was the first wildcat cartridge to which I devoted a full article. It can be found in the "Rifle Cartridges" section of Guns and Shooting Online.
One of the first wildcat cartridges based on the .300 WSM case to surface is the .25 WSM. (Not to be confused with the factory loaded .25 WSSM.) The .25 WSM was created simply by necking down the short but very fat .300 WSM case to accept .257 inch bullets. Since it is not a standardized cartridge, there are no factory ballistics to compare, and no established pressure standards. At the same pressure established as SAAMI standard for the .270 WSM, the .25 WSM should be able to give a 120 grain bullet a MV of about 3200 fps and a 100 grain bullet a MV of about 3400-3500 fps. These velocities are about 200 fps better than the .25-06 and 100 fps less than the .257 Weatherby Magnum.
A hunter looking for a reliable medium size big game cartridge could do a lot worse than to choose one of the .25's. In general, they combine good killing power and flat trajectory with less recoil than larger bore cartridges. And even most of the big bore guys have given up and admitted that the .25's are pretty good deer cartridges after all.
Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.