Recommended Centerfire Rifle Cartridges in Every Caliber
By Chuck Hawks
This article was originally penned in 2002. I was amused, therefore, to find in the May/June 2008 edition of Peterson's Rifle Shooter magazine a quite similar article, also listing favorite cartridges by caliber, by another well known gun writer. Some, but by no means all, of our "favorites" turn 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!
.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, the best varmint cartridge to come down the pike in a long time.
.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; second, we have cartridges with MV's in the high 3000's to low 4000 fps range.
The .223 Remington is the obvious choice in the first category, 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 3200 fps) are perfect for about 90% of varmint shooting, as are its relatively mild report and minimal recoil.
My second choice among the .22 centerfire varmint cartridges is the legendary .220 Swift. The first factory loaded cartridge to offer a MV in excess of 4000 fps and for decades the highest velocity cartridge available, the Swift can outperform the .22-250, is just as accurate and the two are indistinguishable in terms of blast and recoil. No less an expert than Jack O'Connor, the Dean of Gun Writers, considered the Swift the ultimate varmint cartridge. Fact is, it still is.
.24 (6mm) caliber cartridges
The .24's are the most popular combination varmint/antelope/deer cartridges. The three leading .24 caliber hunting cartridges in North America are the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington and .240 Weatherby Magnum. Europeans have their fine 6mm Freres, along with the 6x70R. These are all fine cartridges. Then, there is the misbegotten .243 WSSM, a ballistic duplicate of the 6mm Rem. that sacrifices that cartridges reliability and flexibility for 1/2" of action length. A bad trade-off that is not worth further consideration.
Among the domestic American sixes, The .243 Winchester offers good performance on both varmints and deer size game. 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 the 6th best selling of all centerfire rifle cartridges makes it the odds-on favorite among the 6mm cartridges.
The standout in performance is the .240 Weatherby Magnum. It is based on a unique (essentially .30-06 size) case 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 CXP2 game cartridge. It is the best of the breed.
.25 caliber cartridges
The .25's were traditionally seen as combination varmint/antelope/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 CXP2 game cartridges. In this role, the .257 Roberts is the optimum .25, ideal for beginners and experts alike. It is based on the 7x57 Mauser case 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 CXP2 game.
However, 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.
The recoil and muzzle blast of the .257 Weatherby takes it out of the varmint cartridge class. It is an ultra-long range CXP2 class game cartridge, more on the order of the 6.5x68 or .264 Winchester Magnum in performance and recoil than the .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
The 6.5x55 SE and .260 Remington are the most capable 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 was designed for 140 grain bullets and is based on the ubiquitous .308 Winchester case. Today, 140 grain bullets are the most popular weights in both calibers, although bullets from 100 to 160 grains are commonly available. Both cartridges are capable of cleanly harvesting all CXP2 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. This is a "pick 'em" situation, as both are outstanding hunting cartridges.
.27 caliber cartridges
When any discussion turns to .27 caliber cartridges, the .270 Winchester immediately comes to mind. It is simply one of the best big game cartridges ever devised and the standard of comparison among long range cartridges. It is one of the four cartridges on the "short list" of all-around, world-wide big game cartridges. It is also the second or third best selling of all big game cartridges (behind only the .30-06 and possibly the .30-30). Winchester's original remains the best and most versatile of the .27's.
For many years the .270 Winchester was the only .27 caliber cartridge, but now there are other .27 caliber cartridges that deserve consideration. These include the 6.8mm SPC, designed for the AR platform, the .270 Weatherby Magnum and the .270 WSM. Both of the magnums shoot slightly 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 7x57 Mauser, 7x57R, 7-30 Waters, 7mm-08 Remington, 7x64, 7x65R, .280 Remington 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 7's is the 7x57mm Mauser, 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 those of the 7mm-08 and its longer neck and longer action make it a better choice with heavy bullets or 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 7x57 is simply one of the world's greatest hunting cartridges.
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 shoots as flat as a .270 and hits big animals as hard as a .30-06. It was designed to feed reliably in standard length actions. Recoil, shooting the popular 150-160 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 Mag. rifle. There are longer and fatter 7mm Magnums that offer similar ballistics and oversize 7mm Magnums that shoot even flatter, but none offer the 7mm Remington Magnum's blend of performance, reliability and availability. Remington simply got it right.
.30 and .303 caliber cartridges
This is an especially confusing category, as there are so many .30-.303 caliber cartridges on the market. It is hard to compare cartridges as diverse as the .30 Carbine, 7.62x39, .30-30 Winchester, .30-40 Krag, .300 Savage, .308 Marlin Express, .303 British, 7.65x53, 7.5x55, .307 Winchester, .30 TC, .308 Winchester, 7.62x54R, .30-06 Springfield, .30R Blaser and the various .300 Magnums.
The recently introduced .308 Marlin Express takes advantage of Hornady's Flex-Tip bullet technology to allow the use of spitzer bullets in lever action rifles with tubular magazines. Ballistically, the .308 Marlin essentially duplicates the .300 Savage and .308 Winchester. For hunters who feel the need for more power and range than the .30-30 offers, the .308 Marlin is the answer. This fine all-around cartridge offers an extra 50 yards of MPBR compared to the .30-30.
However, the .30-30 Winchester remains the best and most popular .30 caliber deer cartridge. It is more popular than all other deer cartridges combined. It is a deadly medium game cartridge out to at least 200 yards and not many riflemen should shoot farther than that. It will also do for considerably larger animals at closer range. The .30-30 kicks less than the .30-40, .303 British, .307 Win., .308 Marlin or .300 Savage, 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 and general CXP2 game cartridge and it is still the best.
The .300 Magnums are fine long range cartridges and can be used in the "all-around" role, but the fact is that all of them (including the WSM, SAUM, Winchester, Norma, Remington Ultra, Weatherby, etc.) kick so hard that most riflemen are simply unable to do their best shooting with them. Cartridges such as the .30 TC and .30R blaser merely duplicate the ballistics of previous, and far more popular, cartridges. In the all-around category, the two serious contenders are the .30-06 Springfield and .308 Winchester and both are included on the short list of all-around calibers.
The .30-06 Springfield is the best selling big game cartridge in the world and .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. With 150 grain spitzer bullets it is a good long range cartridge and with 180 grain bullets it is capable of cleanly harvesting CXP3 game. Because of its standard length case and long neck, the .30-06 can make efficient use of the heaviest (especially 220 grain) bullets, when necessary. The Alaska Game Department, for example, specifically recommends the .30-06/220 as the minimum load for brown bear.
Much the same can be said for the .308 Winchester. It is also a top selling cartridge that can be purchased wherever ammunition is sold. It is chambered in an even greater number of rifle models, as it is a short action cartridge that will cycle through some rifles that will not accept the longer .30-06 cartridge. It, too, is a worldwide cartridge that has proven itself everywhere big game is hunted. Performance is almost as good as the .30-06 with bullets up to and including 150 grains and acceptable with bullets weighing up to 180 grains. (The 7.65mm NATO was designed for 150 grain bullets.)
No hunter considering an all-around .30 caliber rifle can go wrong by choosing either the .30-06 or the .308, so it basically comes down to personal preference. For many years I was a fan of the .308, but I have finally come around to thinking that the extra versatility of the .30-06 with heavy bullets more than justifies its 1/2" longer action.
.32 (8mm) caliber cartridges
On the continent of Europe, 8mm cartridges like the 8x57JS and 8x68S have traditionally been the top 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 .32-20 Winchester (suitable only for small game and varmints) to the 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 and 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 new lease on life.
In the all-around category, the standout 8mm is the 8x57mm JS Mauser. Unfortunately, this excellent cartridge is underloaded by U.S. ammo makers. In Europe, or as handloaded for Model 98 Mauser rifles, the 8x57 JS essentially duplicates the ballistics of the .308 Winchester and .30-06. If you want a high intensity .32, the 8x57 JS is the odds-on choice.
.33 caliber cartridges
.33 caliber is the beginning of the true medium bore cartridges. These are powerful cartridges designed for use on tough and dangerous game. The most common .33's today are the .338 Marlin Express, .338 Federal, .338-06 A-Square, .338 Winchester Magnum and .340 Weatherby Magnum, although there are a number of other .338 calibers on the market, particularly magnums.
Of the standard .338's, the best balanced appears to be the .338 Federal. This is based on a .308 Winchester case necked-up to accept .338" bullets. Federal factory loads generate maximum velocity (and recoil), closely approaching .338-06 performance levels. 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, factory loaded, version of Jack O'Connors ideal woods cartridge.
As much as I like the relatively moderate .338 Federal, I have to admit that the best of the modern .33'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 will 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 CXP2 and CXP3 game within its MPBR. It 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 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. 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. It makes serious medium bore stopping power available in today's hottest class of rifles. 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 believer in the 9.3mm caliber and Guns and Shooting Online probably includes more information about 9.3mm cartridges than any other web site. 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. They are, in general, fine medium bore cartridges similar in capability to the North American .35 caliber cartridges and the British .375 cartridges. Like all powerful medium bore cartridges they kick pretty hard, which limits their popularity. The best known of the currently available 9.3mmm cartridges are the 9.3x57, 9.3x62, 9.3x64 and 9.3x74R.
The 9.3's can be divided into rimmed cartridges designed for use in single shot and double rifles, and rimless cartridges intended for use in magazine fed repeating rifles. In the former 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 (Swedish) 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. Hornady now offers a similar Dangerous Game load using their 286 grain SP-RP InterLock bullet. These loads are suitable for all North American, European and African heavy game. I own a Ruger No. 1S single shot rifle in 9.3x74R and I can attest that it is a great caliber.
Of the rimless cartridges designed for use in bolt action repeating rifles, the most popular is the 9.3x62mm. This standard length cartridge has a .470" rim diameter and it can be chambered in practically any rifle that can handle the .30-06. 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). Most European ammo manufacturers load 9.3x62 ammo, as does Hornady in the U.S. CZ, Sako and others offer 9.3x62 rifles to North American hunters. The 9.3x62mm is perhaps the best balanced of all medium more cartridges. If I could choose only one of my medium bore rifles for hunting around the world, it would be my CZ Safari Grade 9.3x62.
.37 caliber cartridges
There are many .375 Magnums, but very few standard .375 cartridges. The only two in the latter category that are factory loaded in the U.S. are the old .38-55, which actually uses .375" bullets, and the more recent .375 Winchester. Actually, the .375 Win. is based on a thick wall .38-55 size case loaded to higher pressure. It is a considerable improvement over the .38-55, falling between the .35 Remington and the .358 Winchester in power. 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). Unfortunately, as far as I know, no .375 Win. rifles are currently offered, although at one time Winchester and Marlin lever actions were advertised in the caliber.
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 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) .378 Weatherby.
Big bore (.40+ caliber) cartridges
Big bore rifles, those with bores over .40" diameter, are surprisingly numerous. 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).
Among the elephant cartridges, the .458 Winchester Magnum is the most popular and the odds-on choice for the North American hunter. One big advantage of this cartridge is that it fits in standard (.30-06) length actions. Any elephant rifle is a big investment considering the very limited use to which it will be put on safari. Fortunately, for the reloader, a .458 Magnum rifle is not only for large, dangerous CXP4 game. The handloader with a .458 Magnum can create reduced power loads suitable for moderate range hunting of CXP2 or CXP3 class game, significently expanding the heavy rifle's usefulness. Handloads can duplicate the performance of the .45-70 (400 grain bullet at 1330 fps) and .450 Marlin (350 grain bullet at 2100 fps) in the .458 Mag. case and this gives Winchester's .458 an insurmountable advantage over the larger-cased elephant rounds. A secondary consideration is the fact that many bolt action .458 rifles are startlingly accurate.
The other class of well known big bore cartridges were used for hunting the heavy game of North America and especially the American bison, back when the plains of North America supported great numbers of these huge beasts. The .45-70 Government is the best known of these cartridges and the similar .450 Marlin is a modern belted version of the .45-70. The .444 Marlin is a modern elk cartridge reminiscent of the old, straight cased, buffalo cartridges. The recently re-introduced .405 Winchester is another powerful American big bore, popularized by Teddy Roosevelt on his famous African safari. Even the long obsolete .45-90 is making a modest comeback from the grave.
Of the North American big bore cartridges, the most popular is the .45-70. 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. Shooting modern factory loads or equivalent reloads, which use a 300 grain JHP bullet at around 1800 fps, it makes a fine woods cartridge for deer and black bear hunting.
In strong firearms, such as the Marlin lever action and Ruger, Dakota and Browning/Winchester single shot rifles, the .45-70 can become a whole 'nother cartridge. Using hot handloads 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 within 100 yards. For that matter, it has been used to take all of the African "big five." The old .45-70 is certainly the most versatile and practical of the American big bores.
Note: All of the rifle cartridges mentioned in this article are covered in detail in articles that can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Page.
Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.