Recommended Centerfire Rifle Cartridges in Every Caliber
By Chuck Hawks
This article was originally penned in 2002. I was therefore interested to find in the May/June 2008 edition of Peterson's Rifle Shooter magazine a similar article, also listing favorite cartridges by caliber, by another well known gun writer, Craig Boddington. Some, but by no means all, of our favorites turned out to be the same.
There are many useful centerfire rifle cartridges and considerable overlap among them. Whenever anyone picks "favorites" it is obviously a subjective decision and one with which there can be legitimate disagreement. At least I can claim to have made my choices known first!
One advantage an online author has over a print author is the ability to update articles, and I make an effort to take advantage of this capability. This article, for example, was most recently updated in January, 2017.
.17 Caliber Cartridges
There have been a number of .17 caliber wildcats and a few .17 caliber centerfires have even achieved factory loaded status. However, even after the introduction of the fabulously successful .17 HMR rimfire, the sales of .17 centerfires has languished.
Hornady has made a bid to change that with the introduction of the .17 Hornet. This .17 is based on a blown out, sharp shouldered, necked-down .22 Hornet case. The result is a very small CF cartridge with big time performance. The .17 Hornet launches a 20 grain V-Max bullet at a MV of 3650 fps, about the same velocity achieved by the .22-250 with a 55 grain bullet, only at a fraction of the muzzle blast, recoil and expense. Ideal for use in semi-populated areas, the .17 Hornet also creates less barrel fouling than the larger .17 centerfires. It is the right cartridge at the right time.
.20 Caliber Cartridges
Most of the .20 caliber (5mm) varmint and small game cartridges are wildcats and none has ever become popular. However, there is one .20 caliber cartridge that has achieved factory loaded status and become popular: the .204 Ruger.
The .204 Ruger was a joint development of Hornady and Ruger, and the goal was a balanced cartridge that could honestly claim a factory loaded MV of over 4000 fps. By "balanced" I mean that the .204 Ruger was designed to deliver superb accuracy, ultra-high velocity and reasonable barrel life with bullets of adequate sectional density and ballistic coefficient. In addition, the .204 was designed to work in rifles with .223 length actions. Hornady and Ruger achieved their design goals with the .204 Ruger.
.22 Caliber Cartridges
With few exceptions, the .22 centerfire varmint cartridges can be divided into two basic velocity ranges. First, we have cartridges with MV's in the high 2000's to low 3000 fps range ("high velocity"); second, we have cartridges with MV's in the high 3000's to low 4000 fps range ("ultra high velocity"), depending on bullet weight.
There are a lot of .22 cartridges in this category, from the .22 Hornet to the .222 Rem. Mag. However, the .223 Remington is the obvious choice in this group, because of its great popularity and the cheap factory loaded ammunition available in the caliber. Unfortunately, that inexpensive ammo usually is not loaded with varmint hunting bullets, nor does it deliver acceptable accuracy in most varmint rifles.
The serious shooter with a .223 varmint rifle usually ends up shooting premium factory loads or reloading to achieve the desired level of performance and accuracy. Once the right load is found, however, the cartridge can be brilliantly accurate and its basic ballistics (55 grains at 3240 fps) are perfect for about 90% of varmint shooting, as are its relatively mild report and minimal recoil.
ULTRA HIGH VELOCITY
This group of ultra high velocity cartridges includes such numbers as the .22-250 Remington, .224 Weatherby, .225 Winchester, .223 WSSM, 5.6x50mm Magnum, 5.6x57mm RWS and .220 Swift. My choice among the hyper velocity .22 centerfire varmint cartridges is the legendary .220 Swift.
The Swift was first factory loaded cartridge to offer a MV in excess of 4000 fps and for decades it remained the highest velocity cartridge available. Pushed to the max, the Swift can outperform the .22-250, is just as accurate and the two are indistinguishable in terms of blast and recoil.
Rather than a 48-50 grain bullet at over 4000 fps, shoot a 55 grain bullet at around 3700 fps (+/-100 fps). This will extend barrel life, is just as effective on ground hogs and probably better suited to small predators, such as coyotes. No less an expert than Jack O'Connor, the Dean of Gun Writers, considered the Swift the ultimate varmint cartridge. The fact is, it still is.
.24 (6mm) Caliber Cartridges
The .24's are the most popular combination cartridges, useful for long range varminting in windy conditions and hunting medium game (deer and pronghorn, for example). All of the popular .24 caliber hunting cartridges combine relatively high velocity, a flat trajectory and low recoil. We can divide them into standard (high intensity) and magnum categories.
The leading standard .24 caliber hunting cartridges include the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, 6mm-284 and a couple of obsolescent European cartridges. These are all fine combination varmint/deer cartridges.
Then, there are the 6mm magnum cartridges, which offer higher velocity and energy downrange at the price of increased recoil and muzzle blast. These are primarily intended for hunting Class 2 game. In the magnum category we have the .240 Weatherby Magnum and the misbegotten .243 WSSM in North America and the fine 6x62mm Freres in Europe.
Among the standard 6mm hunting cartridges, the .243 Winchester offers good performance on both varmints and deer size game. You can argue that the 6mm Remington is a technically superior design that better handles 100+ grain bullets, but rifles and ammunition in .243 are much more widely distributed than for any other 6mm cartridge and it has become a world standard. The .243's position as one of the 10 best selling centerfire rifle cartridges makes it the odds-on favorite among the 6mm cartridges.
The standout in magnum performance is the .240 Weatherby Magnum. It is based on a unique case (essentially a blown-out, belted, .30-06 with a double radius shoulder) designed for the purpose by Roy Weatherby. The .240 offers the highest velocity in the caliber while delivering the least recoil of any of the ultra-long range hunting cartridges.
Admittedly, it has too much muzzle blast for most varmint hunters and factory loaded ammunition is expensive. For these reasons it is not an ideal combination cartridge, but it cannot be denied that the .240 Weatherby Magnum stands above the other .24's as a Class 2 game cartridge. It is the best of the breed.
.25 Caliber Cartridges
The .25's were traditionally seen as combination varmint/deer cartridges and they can still fulfill that role. However, the .24's are generally better dual purpose cartridges. I am convinced that, today, the .25's are viewed by most shooters as low recoil deer and general Class 2 game cartridges.
There are standard (non-magnum) .25s and magnum .25s. Among the former that are suitable for hunting medium game we have the .25-35, .250 Savage, .257 Roberts and .25-06. In the magnum category we find the .25 WSSM, a couple of obscure proprietary cartridges and the .257 Weatherby Magnum.
The .257 Roberts +P is the optimum .25, ideal for beginners and experts alike. It is based on the 7x57mm Mauser case necked-down and it is probably the best balanced of all the .25 caliber cartridges. It shoots flat, doesn't kick much and handles bullet weights from 87 to 120 grains with aplomb, making it suitable for all Class 2 game.
In terms of pure performance, no other .25 can beat the .257 Weatherby Magnum, Roy Weatherby's favorite cartridge. The .257 Wby. Mag. may well be the best long range deer, antelope, sheep and goat cartridge on the planet. It is equal to the 7mm Ultra Mag and .30-378 Weatherby in range and trajectory with only a fraction of the recoil. It is also in the unusual position, for a magnum cartridge, of out selling the top standard velocity .25 caliber cartridge, now that .257 Weatherby ammunition is offered by several major and minor ammunition manufacturers.
The recoil and muzzle blast of the .257 Weatherby takes it out of the varmint cartridge class. It is an ultra-long range Class 2 class game cartridge, more on the order of the 6.5x68mm or .264 Winchester Magnum in performance than the standard .24 and .25 caliber dual-purpose cartridges. However, as an ultra-long range cartridge it is unexcelled; the expression "four feet in the air" must have been coined for the .257 Weatherby.
.26 (6.5mm) Caliber Cartridges
Popular since the end of the 19th Century in Europe, 6.5mm cartridges have finally caught-on in North America. We now have a selection of both standard and magnum 6.5s from which to choose.
Notable standard hunting cartridges include the 6.5mm Grendel, 6.5x54 M-S, 6.5x55 SE, 6.5mm Creedmoor, .260 Remington, 6.5x57mm and 6.5mm-284. Representing the magnum category are the 6.5mm Remington Magnum, .264 Winchester Magnum, .26 Nosler and 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum in the US, plus the 6.5x65mm RWS and 6.5x68mm Schuler/RWS in Europe.
The 6.5x55 SE, .260 Remington and 6.5mm Creedmoor are the most practical of the standard 6.5's and their ballistic capabilities are just about identical. The 6.5x55 was originally designed for 160 grain bullets and its case is therefore a bit longer, while the .260 and Creedmoor are true short action cartridges designed for 140 grain and lighter bullets. Today, 140 grain bullets are the most popular weight in all three calibers, although bullets from 100 to 160 grains are commonly available.
All three cartridges are capable of cleanly harvesting all Class 2 game and they do so with minimum punishment to the shooter. Because of their relatively mild recoil and muzzle blast, they are very good choices for lightweight mountain rifles. They are top choices for the beginning big game hunter, as well as the canny old pro.
However, the nod must go to the most versatile and widely distributed around the world of all .26 caliber cartridges, the 6.5x55mm SE. This is especially true if your 6.5mm must serve as an all-around rifle and you wish to use it on Class 3 animals, where the 6.5x55's longer case and neck make it more suitable than the .260 and 6.5mm Creedmoor for the deep penetrating 156-160 grain bullets. Factory loads from major ammo companies using these heavy for caliber bullets are only available in the 6.5x55. I consider it to be one of my three or four all time favorite hunting cartridges.
In the magnum category, my long time favorite is the 6.5mm Remington Magnum. Ballistically about identical to the big case European 6.5mm cartridges, the 6.5mm Rem. Mag. does it all in a short action length cartridge that does not generate excessive recoil, muzzle blast and barrel erosion.
.27 Caliber Cartridges
For many years the .270 Winchester was the only standard .27 caliber cartridge and the .270 Weatherby was the only magnum, but now the AR platform 6.8mm SPC has joined the .270 Winchester in the standard cartridge category and the .270 WSM has joined the .270 Weatherby Magnum in the magnum category and so deserve consideration.
The .270 Winchester is one of the best big game cartridges ever devised and the standard of comparison among long range cartridges. It is one of four cartridges on the "short list" of all-around, world-wide big game cartridges. It is also among best selling of all big game cartridges. Winchester's original clearly remains the best and most versatile of the .27's.
Both the .270 WSM and the .270 Weatherby Magnum shoot somewhat flatter than the .270 Winchester and fall into the ultra-long range cartridge category, but at the price of increased recoil and muzzle blast. Of the two, the .270 Weatherby Magnum is clearly the superior cartridge. It offers higher performance and better feed geometry for use in magazine rifles. If you want a .270 Magnum, the Weatherby version is the way to go.
.28 (7mm) Caliber Cartridges
The Sevens (.284" bullet diameter) are exceeded in popularity only by the .30's with North American hunters. There are many fine standard 7mm cartridges, including the 7-30 Waters, 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57mm Mauser, 7x57R, 7x64, 7x65R, .280 Remington, .280 Ackley Improved and .284 Winchester. In addition, there are a plethora of 7mm Magnums in short, standard, long and oversize configurations.
The best balanced cartridge of all the standard 7's is the 7x57mm Mauser (often called the .275 Rigby in the UK and Africa), with the newer (short action) 7mm-08 Remington a close second. Despite being introduced in 1892, the 7x57 is a modern cartridge in every respect. It shoots flat enough and hits hard enough to be considered an all-around cartridge and it is pleasant to shoot. Because it doesn't kick too hard, it can be chambered in lightweight rifles.
Loaded to 50,000 cup, its ballistics are equal to the 7mm-08 with bullets weighing up to 150 grains, while its longer neck, slightly larger case and longer action make it a better choice with heavy 160-175 grain bullets and for reloading. The 7x57 is chambered in a reasonable selection of rifles and the ammunition is distributed around the world.
It has taken all manner of game, from jackrabbits to elephants, so its effectiveness cannot be questioned. The 7x57mm is simply one of the world's greatest hunting cartridges and one of my all time favorites.
The most popular of all 7mm cartridges is the 7mm Remington Magnum. Remington's Big 7 is the best selling of all magnum rifle cartridges and the only magnum included on the short list of the best all-around cartridges. For big game hunting the 7mm Rem. Mag. is hard to beat. It can shoot as flat as a .270 with bullets of similar sectional density, or hit big animals as hard as a .30-06 and it feeds just as reliably in standard length actions.
The 7mm Weatherby Magnum offers the same virtues as the Remington version and slightly higher velocity with all bullet weights, but it is far less popular in terms of both rifles and factory loaded ammunition. In addition, Weatherby factory loaded ammunition is more expensive.
The recoil of the 7mm Rem. Mag., shooting 140-160 grain bullets in a typical 8.5 pound magnum rifle, is just under 20 ft. lbs., but becomes punishing in lightweight rifles. Don't get suckered into purchasing any lightweight 7mm Magnum rifle.
There are 7mm Magnums that offer similar ballistics and oversize 7mm Magnums that shoot even flatter, but none can match the 7mm Remington Magnum's blend of performance, reliability, availability and economy. Remington simply got it right.
.30 and .303 Caliber Cartridges
This is an especially confusing category, as there are so many .30 and .303 caliber cartridges on the market. It is hard to compare cartridges as diverse as the 7.62x39 Soviet, .300 Blackout, .30 Remington AR, .30-30 Winchester, .303 Savage, 7.5x54mm MAS, .30-40 Krag, .307 Winchester, .308 Marlin Express, .300 Savage, .303 British, 7.5x55mm Swiss, .30 TC, .308 Winchester, 7.62x54R, .30-06 Springfield, .30R Blaser and the various .300 Magnums up to and including the giant .30-378 Weatherby. (Even this list is not all-inclusive!)
Some of these are rimmed cartridges, some are rimless and some are belted. There are "high velocity" cartridges on the order of the .30-30, "high intensity" cartridges like the .308 and .30-06, and magnum cartridges. There are short action cartridges, standard length cartridges and long magnum cartridges. To bring a even semblance of order out of this chaos will require four cartridge categories.
CLASS 2 "DEER & BLACK BEAR" WOODS CARTRIDGE
Included in this group are cartridges designed for use in short autoloading actions (AR-15, AK-47, etc.) and traditional lever actions (Winchester, Marlin, Henry, etc.). Over the years there have been a lot of .30s and .303s in this general category, including cartridges as diverse as the .300 Blackout, 7.62x39mm, .30 Remington AR, .303 Savage, .30 Remington, .307 Winchester and .30-30 Winchester. Some of these use rimmed cases and some are rimless, but for North American hunters they fall into the general category of "deer cartridges."
The .30-30 Winchester was the first smokeless powder hunting cartridge and it remains the best and most popular .30 caliber deer and black bear cartridge of them all. It is a deadly medium game cartridge out to at least 200 yards and not many riflemen should shoot farther than that. With proper bullets it is effective on Class 3 animals at moderate range and it has proven time and again to kill much better than its paper ballistics suggest.
The .30-30's moderate recoil makes it suitable for beginning and recoil sensitive shooters. Because it kicks less than high intensity cartridges on the order of the .308 Winchester, it can be used in lighter weight rifles. The .30-30 is especially popular in lever action carbines with 20" barrels, which are just about the trimmest, fastest handling big game rifles in existence and ideal for use in ground blinds or tree stands, as well as for stalking through the woods.
The .30-30 is plentifully available in new or used rifles and .30-30 cartridges are available everywhere ammunition is sold. The .30-30 is the classic medium range deer, black bear and general Class 2 game cartridge. It is another (along with the 6.5x55 and 7x57) of my all time favorite cartridges.
SHORT ACTION CLASS 2 & CLASS 3 GAME CARTRIDGE
These are standard or short magnum cartridges designed for use in short action rifles. The maximum cartridge overall length should not exceed 2.86". Most were intended to essentially duplicate .30-06 or .300 Win. Mag. ballistics with 150 grain bullets. Examples include the .300 Savage, .308 Marlin Express, .308 Winchester, .30 T/C, .300 SAUM, .300 RCM and .300 WSM, among others.
In this group, while the .300 Savage was the first in class and remains an effective and popular cartridge, due to the large number of Savage Model 99 lever action and other rifles built for it, the .308 Winchester has become the best selling .30 or .303 cartridge of them all. It recently surpassed both the .30-06 and .30-30 in ammunition sales. The .308 is chambered in an even greater number of rifle models than the .30-06, as it is a short action cartridge that will cycle through some rifles that will not accept the longer .30-06 cartridge.
The .308 is a worldwide cartridge that has proven itself everywhere big game is hunted. Ammunition can be purchased wherever sporting rifles and ammunition are sold.
The .308 comes within about 100 fps of the .30-06 with standard 150-165 grain factory loads and its performance is acceptable with bullets weighing up to 180 grains. For use as an "all-around" cartridge for mixed bag Class 2 and Class 3 game hunts, bullets weighing 165-168 grains are probably a good compromise.
It kills as well as the short magnums with identical bullet placement and kicks less, so precise bullet placement is easier. In addition, it feeds very reliably, which cannot be said the the SAUM and WSM cartridges.
Keep in mind that while the .308 performs almost as well as the .30-06, it also kicks almost as hard as the .30-06. A .308 hunting rifle should weigh about 8.5 pounds in the field, the same as a .30-06.
STANDARD LENGTH CLASS 2 & CLASS 3 GAME CARTRIDGE
This is the category with the greatest number of contenders. These include such stalwarts as the 7.5x54mm MAS, .30-40 Krag, .303 British, 7.5x55mm Swiss, 7.62x54R Russian, .30-06 Springfield, .30R Blaser, .308 Norma Mag., .30 Nosler and .300 Win. Mag., among others.
However, without question the most popular and versatile cartridge is the .30-06 Springfield. .30-06 ammo can be found anywhere ammunition is sold. Almost every hunting rifle with an action long enough to accommodate the cartridge is chambered for the .30-06.
There can be no question about its killing power; it is in use around the world on a great variety of game and its record speaks for itself. Whether you are headed for a Rocky Mountain elk and mule deer hunt or to Africa for plains game, a .30-06 rifle is an appropriate choice and your outfitter will be pleased.
With 150 grain spitzer bullets it is a good long range cartridge for Class 2 game and with 180 grain bullets, the money load for the .30-06, it is capable of cleanly harvesting Class 3 game. Because of its standard length case and long neck, the .30-06 can make efficient use of the heaviest (especially 220 grain) .30 caliber bullets.
In this regard it is superior to to any of the short .300 Magnums and even the .300 Win. Mag. In addition, it kicks less and it easier with which to hit. The Alaska Game Department, for example, specifically recommends the .30-06/220 as the minimum load for brown bear.
No hunter considering an all-around .30 caliber rifle can go wrong by choosing the .30-06. All rifle cartridges represent a compromise of conflicting characteristics, but the .30-06 is the "golden mean" for .30 caliber cartridges.
LONG MAGNUM CARTRIDGE
The big .300 Magnums are fine long range cartridges and can be used in the "all-around" role for mixed bag Class 2 and Class 3 game hunts. However, the fact is that all of them (including the .300 H&H, .300 Remington Ultra Mag, .300 Weatherby, .30-378 Weatherby, etc.) kick so hard that most riflemen are simply unable to do their best shooting with them. Any .300 Magnum rifle should weigh about 9.5 pounds in the field and come with a 26" barrel.
Regular Guns and Shooting Online readers know I am not a fan of .300 Magnum rifles. My opinion is they kick as hard as a medium bore rifle, but kill no better than the .30-06, although they can reach out farther than the .30-06.
The big case capacity of the .300 Magnums suggests that they should be used with bullets weighing 180-220 grains. The .300 Weatherby Magnum (unlike short and most standard length magnums) does well with all bullet weights and it is the most popular of the long .300 Mags. It is a world cartridge and ammunition is widely available from several manufacturers, as are rifles. Fortunately, Weatherby Mark V and Vanguard rifles are designed to handle recoil better than most.
The cartridge is well designed and feeds reliably. A couple of outsized .300 Mag. cartridges are a bit more powerful, but if you can't do it with a .300 Weatherby, you definitely need a larger caliber cartridge, not more powder behind a .30 caliber bullet.
.32 (8mm) Caliber Cartridges
On the continent of Europe, 8mm cartridges like the 8x56mm M-S, 8x57mm JS Mauser and 8x68S have traditionally been the favorite all-around cartridges. Fine cartridges they are, although they have never been very popular in North America. Here we have had .32 cartridges ranging in power from the little .32-20 Winchester (suitable only for small game and varmints) to the big 8mm Remington Magnum (suitable for all North American big game).
However, the .32's have always seemed to be "in-between" cartridges to me. By that I mean that they are in-between the more popular .30's and the true medium bores, which start at .33 caliber. This being the case, I have never had much affinity for any .32 except one: the .32 Winchester Special.
The .32 Special is ballistically very similar to the .30-30 and it has generally been chambered in the same rifles. Using a 170 grain bullet, the .32 Special offers slightly more velocity and energy than the .30-30, but slightly less penetration. It is pretty much a standoff in terms of overall performance.
Like the .30-30, the .32 Special is an excellent deer, black bear and general medium game cartridge within 200 yards and within 100 yards it can take much larger game. Winchester used to describe it as "perfect for black bear." Like the .30-30, the .32 Special offers good killing power and mild recoil in handy lever action hunting rifles. The recent introduction of Hornady LEVERevolution ammunition with Flex-Tip spitzer bullets has given the classic .32 Special a performance upgrade and a new lease on life.
.33 Caliber Cartridges
.33 caliber is the beginning of the true medium bore cartridges. These are powerful cartridges designed for use on tough and sometimes dangerous game. The .33 Winchester, offered in the Model 1886 lever action, was the first .33 of which I am aware. It was followed by the British .333 Jeffery and .33 BSA. For a time, the .333 OKH and .334 OKH Magnum, championed by gun writer Elmer Keith, were reasonably popular wildcats.
The most common standard .33's today are the .338 Marlin Express, .338 Federal and .338-06 A-Square. In the magnum category we have the .338 RCM, .338 Winchester Magnum, .340 Weatherby Magnum, .338 RUM, .338 Lapua and .338-378 Weatherby Magnum.
Of the standard .338's, the most appealing to me is the .338 Federal. This is based on a .308 Winchester case necked-up to accept .338" bullets. Federal factory loads generate velocity (and recoil) closely approaching .338-06 performance levels. For example, the Federal Fusion factory load launches a 200 grain bullet at a MV of 2700 fps from a 24" barrel.
However, for most purposes, the .338 Federal can be handloaded down to between 2400-2450 fps with a 200 grain bullet. This considerably reduces recoil for deer, black bear and elk hunting at ranges out to 200 yards. The .338 Federal is the modern, standardized version of Jack O'Connor's ideal woods cartridge.
As much as I appreciate the .338 Federal, I have to admit that the best of the modern .338's for large, as well as dangerous, game is the .338 Winchester Magnum. This is America's favorite elk, moose and brown bear cartridge.
Winchester's standard length .338 Magnum is the only really popular medium bore cartridge in North America. It is the one medium bore for which there is a large number and variety of new rifles and for which ammunition is readily available almost everywhere. The .338 Magnum's popularity and usefulness is not limited to North America; it can be found all over the world where big and dangerous animals are hunted.
The .338 Winchester Magnum shoots flat enough to be considered a long range rifle, as flat or flatter than the .300 Winchester Magnum with a 200 grain bullet. With the heavy 250 grain bullets it hits hard enough to kill any animal on earth.
Recoil is right up there, but less than for most cartridges with similar power. If I had to do all of my shooting in Alaska with just one rifle, it would be a .338 Winchester Magnum.
.35 Caliber Cartridges
There have been a surprising number of commercial .35 caliber cartridges. Obsolescent cartridges include the old .35 Winchester and the .348 Winchester. Currently available standard calibers include the .357 Magnum revolver cartridge (as adapted to rifles), .35 Remington, .356 Winchester, .358 Winchester and .35 Whelen. Magnums include the short .350 Remington Magnum, the standard length .358 Norma Magnum and the long .358 STA.
As plentiful as the .35's are, in terms of popularity none of them have exactly set the world on fire. In general, they simply kick too hard for the average rifleman. Among standard .35's, the .358 Winchester is probably the best choice. It is available in the excellent Browning BLR rifle and will handle all Class 2 and Class 3 game within its MPBR.
The Winchester Super-X factory load launches a 200 grain bullet at 2490 fps from a 24" barrel. Reloaders can load a 220 grain Speer Hot-Cor bullet at around 2450 fps from a 22" barrel and the result is a very effective woods cartridge for deer, black bear and elk. The .358 Winchester is all the medium bore cartridge most hunters will ever want or need.
Among the magnum .35's, I am convinced that the .350 Remington Magnum, the first true short magnum cartridge, is the most useful. It was introduced almost 40 years before the WSM and Rem. SAUM short magnums and its case design is fundamentally superior in terms of feeding reliability from magazine rifles.
The .350 Magnum is a true big and dangerous game cartridge and it is the only such cartridge that can be chambered in a short action rifle. The Nosler factory load drives a 225 grain Partition bullet at a MV of 2550 fps and is recommended for deer, elk and moose. The .350 kills almost as well as the .338 Mag. and its recoil is usefully less than most of the other medium bore magnums.
.36 (9.3mm) Caliber Cartridges
I have come to be a fan of the 9.3mm caliber and Guns and Shooting Online probably includes more information about 9.3mm cartridges than any other web site or publication. 9.3mm rifles have historically been rare in North America, although that is finally beginning to change, but they are popular in Europe and Africa.
The 9.3s are, generally speaking, Continental European medium bore cartridges similar in capability to the various North American .35 caliber cartridges and the British .375 cartridges. Like all powerful medium bore cartridges they kick pretty hard, which limits their popularity.
Probably the best known 9.3mmm cartridges are the 9.3x57mm, 9.3x62mm, .370 Sako, 9.3x64mm Brenneke, .400/.360 Westley Richards, 9.3x70R Mauser and 9.3x74R, although there are several others. The 9.3's can be divided into rimmed cartridges designed for use in single shot rifles, double rifles and drillings, and rimless cartridges intended for use in magazine fed repeating rifles.
In the rimmed category, the standard is the 9.3x74R. This is a long cartridge nearly identical in performance to the .375 H&H Flanged Magnum. The 9.3x74R can be used to take any game animal in the world and it has long been regarded as an all-around African cartridge.
Norma 9.3x74R factory loads can be taken as typical. They drive a 286 grain bullet at a MV of 2362 fps and ME of 3544 ft. lbs. Federal, Hornady and Nosler now offer similar loads. Such loads are suitable for all North American, European and African heavy game.
Of the rimless cartridges designed for use in bolt action repeating rifles, the most popular is the 9.3x62mm Mauser. This standard length cartridge has a .470" rim diameter and it can be chambered in practically any rifle that can handle the .30-06.
Most European ammo manufacturers, including Norma, Sako, RWS and S&B load 9.3x62 ammo, as do Federal, Nosler and Hornady in the U.S. Blaser, CZ, Mauser, Merkel, Nosler, Sako, Steyr-Mannlicher and others offer 9.3x62mm rifles to North American hunters.
The 9.3x62 duplicates the ballistics of the larger 9.3x74R and kicks about like a .35 Whelen, which is to say considerably less than a .375 H&H. Its 286 grain bullet is identical in sectional density to a 300 grain .375 bullet (SD = .305) and superior to a 250 grain .35 caliber bullet (SD = .279).
The 9.3x62mm is perhaps the best balanced of all medium bore cartridges. If I could choose only one medium bore rifle for hunting around the world, it would be a 9.3x62mm.
.37 Caliber Cartridges
The cartridge that really put .37 caliber rifles on the map in North America was the .38-55, which actually uses .377" diameter bullets. Originally a match cartridge, it was adopted in the Winchester Model 1886 rifle and became a successful Class 2 and Class 3 North American hunting cartridge.
More recently, in 1978, the .375 Winchester was introduced. It is based on a strengthened and slightly shortened .38-55 case loaded to much higher pressure. (The .375 Win. has been well covered in a series of four "Hunting with the .375 WCF" articles by Dave Thornbloom; see the Hunting Stories index page.)
Meanwhile, in the UK the .375 2-1/2" Flanged Nitro Express was introduced in 1899, followed by the .400/.375 Belted NE in 1905 and the .375 2-1/4" Rimless NE in 1910. (The latter is the British name for the 9.5x56mm M-S, one of the few Continental .375s.) "Nitro Express" (NE) is the British term for smokeless powder cartridges. These were all standard velocity (not magnum) cartridges that were mostly intended for big game hunting in India and the British African colonies.
This changed in 1912 with the introduction of the .375 Holland & Holland Belted Magnum for magazine rifles and the companion .375 Flanged Magnum for single shot and double rifles. From this point on, the emphasis would be on .375 Magnum cartridges. Today, in addition to the original .375 H&H Magnum, we have the .376 Steyer, .375 Ruger, .375 Weatherby, .375 Remington Ultra Mag and .378 Weatherby Magnum. (All of these use .375" diameter bullets.)
My favorite .37 caliber cartridge is the .38-55 Winchester. A number of companies today offer smokeless powder equivalents of the old .38-55 black powder load. The Winchester Super-X factory load drives a 255 grain Power-Point bullet (SD .256) at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1320 fps for a muzzle energy (ME) of 987 ft. lbs. and is entirely adequate for deer and black bear out to 100 yards. The recoil energy is extremely mild, only 7.8 ft. lbs. in a 7.5 pound rifle.
Hunters with modern .38-55 Winchester rifles, such as the post-1964 commemorative Winchester Model 94s and the current Miroku produced rifles, can exceed the killing power of the .375 Winchester with heavy .38-55 +P loads, such as the Buffalo Bore Heavy .38-55 load. This is a 38,000 CUP load, the same MAP as the .30-30, that launches a .377" diameter, 255 grain bullet (SD .256) at a MV of 1950 fps and ME of 2153 ft. lbs. The bonded core construction and higher sectional density of this jacketed flat nose (JFN) bullet makes it a good choice for hunting large animals. This load has been proven on the largest Alaskan game, including moose and grizzly bear.
The recoil energy of this potent load amounts to 15.3 ft. lbs. in a modern 8.5 pound .38-55 rifle, making It one of the mildest medium bore loads suitable for all Class 3 big game. Incidentally, Buffalo Bore states these Heavy .38-55 cartridges can also safely be fired in ALL .375 Winchester rifles.
Although there are now many .375 Magnum cartridges, the .375 H&H Magnum remains the world leader. This is the cartridge that no less an authority than Jack O'Connor called "the Queen of the medium bores" and one of the world's greatest all-around Class 3 and Class 4 game cartridges.
There can be no doubt that the .375 H&H has accounted for more head of big and dangerous game than any other .375 and probably more than any other medium bore caliber. The .375 H&H is also available in more rifles than the other .37 caliber cartridge and its ammunition is distributed all over the world, wherever big and dangerous game is hunted.
Outsized recoil is a given, considering that the .375 H&H throws a 300 grain bullet at up to 2700 fps. However, it is no worse than the other .375 Magnum calibers and considerably less than the fearsome (at both ends) .375 RUM and .378 Weatherby.
Big Bore (.40+ Caliber) Cartridges
Big bore rifles, those with bores over .40" diameter, are surprisingly numerous. Cartridges intended for hunting Class 2 and/or Class 3 game animals include the .405 Winchester, .44-40 Winchester, .44 Remington Magnum (as applied to rifles), .444 Marlin, .450 Bushmaster, .45-70 Government and .450 Marlin.
Then there are the big bore rifles intended for hunting Class 4 game, the world's largest and most dangerous animals. A powerful medium bore, like a .375 Magnum, will do all that is needed for hunting any of the world's bovines, including the famed African Cape buffalo, Asian water buffalo and North American bison, but big bore rifle cartridges continue to prosper.
Only the elephant, hippo and rhino really justify the existence of the big bore African cartridges and none of these animals are included in most safaris today. The cartridges in question include the .450/.400, .404 Jeffery, .416 Remington Magnum, .416 Rigby, .416 Weatherby Magnum, .450 Nitro Express, .458 Winchester Magnum, .458 Lott, .460 Weatherby Magnum and .470 Nitro Express (to name some of the best known elephant cartridges--there are many others).
CLASS 2 / CLASS 3 GAME CARTRIDGES
The .45-70 Government is the best known and most popular of the standard rifle cartridges, at least in North America. It is available in the widest selection of rifles, all of the major US ammo companies offer .45-70 factory loads, there is a good selection of .458" bullets for the reloader and it is an exceedingly accurate old cartridge.
In my opinion it is still the best, as well as the most versatile, of the moderate big bores. Typical standard pressure factory loads use a 300 grain JHP bullet at 1810 fps MV or a 405 grain SP bullet at 1330 fps MV (Remington figures).
The 300 grain load makes a fine woods cartridge for deer and black bear hunting and the 405 grain bullet is adequate for Class 3 game at short range. For increased power and effectiveness, Hornady offers a 325 grain FTX bullet at 2000 fps in their LeverEvolution ammo line, which generates 2886 ft. lbs. of ME. Any modern .45-70 rifle in good condition should be able to safely use these standard pressure loads.
In strong firearms, such as the Marlin and Henry lever actions and Ruger, Dakota and Browning/Winchester single shot rifles, the .45-70 can become a different cartridge. Using high pressure handloads or Buffalo Bore Magnum .45-70 factory loads with suitable 350-400 grain bullets at 1900-2100 fps or (in strong single shot rifles) a 500 grain bullet at up to 1800 fps, the .45-70 can take any North American big game animal, including bison and Kodiak bear, within its MPBR.
CLASS 4 GAME CARTRIDGES
Among the elephant cartridges the .458 Winchester Magnum, shooting a 500 grain bullet at a MV of 2000-2150 fps, has been proven all over Africa on the largest animals. One big advantage of this cartridge is it fits in standard length actions and is therefore available in more rifles (sometimes at lower cost) than the longer big bore cartridges. However, any elephant rifle is a big investment, considering the very limited use to which it will be put on safari.
Fortunately, at least for the reloader, a .458 Win. Mag. rifle need not be reserved only for thick-skinned Class 4 game. The reloader with a .458 can create reduced power loads suitable for hunting Class 2 or Class 3 game, significantly expanding the heavy rifle's usefulness.
Handloads can duplicate the performance of the .45-70 (300 grain bullet at 1850 fps) and .450 Marlin (350 grain bullet at 2100 fps) in the .458 Mag. case. A good 400 grain bullet at 2050-2100 fps is suitable for all North American heavy/dangerous animals, including Bison and Kodiak bear. This versatility gives Winchester's .458 a big advantage over the larger-cased elephant rounds. A secondary consideration is that many bolt action .458 rifles are startlingly accurate.
Note: Almost all of the rifle cartridges mentioned in this article are covered in detail in articles that can be found on the Rifle Cartridges page.
Copyright 2002, 2017 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.