Groups of Rifle Cartridges
Over the years I have written a great many articles about rifle cartridges, both individually and collectively. This time I am going to group hunting rifle cartridges based on their purpose and performance. The point being that you can choose any of the cartridges from one of these groups and it will do about as well as any other for their (collective) intended purposes.
I cannot list every rifle cartridge and some fall in between the larger groups of cartridges. Therefore, I will only include the most common choices. The point here is to help those who write to me asking if they should buy a rifle in, say, 7mm-08 or 7x57. In reality, there is little to choose between the two cartridges and my advice is to buy the rifle they like best, as either cartridge will probably do equally well. Rather than explain in greater detail, let's get started and I think that it will all become clear.
Short to medium range varmint cartridges
These are suitable for shooting pests like gophers, prairie dogs, sand rats and groundhogs at moderate distances. They have a maximum point blank range (MPBR) between 123-200 yards (+/- 1.5").
The rimfire .17 HMR is the standout here. It is very accurate, very mild, reasonably priced and has a MPBR (+/- 1.5") of about 165 yards with a 17 grain varmint bullet. The .17 HMR is available in many brands of rifles of all types, so the selection is excellent.
Medium to long range varmint cartridges
These are the most popular choices for exterminating the pests mentioned above. They are also effective on small predators, such as foxes and coyotes. They have a maximum point blank range between 214-245 yards (+/- 1.5").
The popular .222 Remington was the first of these cartridges, but the best selling of all centerfire varmint cartridges is the .223 Remington. .223 rifles are available from practically all manufacturers in bewildering variety, some of which are not even varmint or predator rifles.
The .17 Hornet appears set to challenge the .223's dominance as a varmint cartridge. It combines the least recoil and report with a trajectory comparable to the big case .225 Winchester, a hard combination to beat.
Ultra-Long range varmint cartridges
These are the varmint (and small predator) cartridges that can really reach out. The .22 and larger calibers are quite a bit noisier than the medium range varmint cartridges and are not as pleasant to shoot, while most of the .17 and .20 calibers are similar to the .223 Rem. in blast and recoil. Barrel wear due to very high velocity becomes a problem with these cartridges. They have a maximum point blank range of 260+ yards with optimum loads (+/- 1.5").
Unless they are shooting where high winds are the norm, most shooters prefer the ultra-long range .17-.22 calibers to the dual purpose cartridges listed below. Most shooters find the latter's muzzle blast and recoil tiring in high volume shooting.
Dual purpose (CXP1/CXP2) cartridges
The most sensible dual purpose cartridges are the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington and .257 Roberts. The .243 Win. and 6mm Rem. were actually developed by wildcatters as long range varmint cartridges, a purpose for which they are very effective with 58-85 grain bullets, especially in windy conditions. I consider them the best varmint cartridges of the bunch and they are the only cartridges on this list typically encountered in pure varmint rifles.
Most shooters today see all of these .24 and .25 caliber cartridges as deer and antelope cartridges. The standard .24's and .25's are widely used as entry level deer and pronghorn cartridges, but they are also favored by some very experienced hunters. Their moderate muzzle blast and flat trajectory makes them easy to shoot accurately. The typical bullet weight for hunting CXP2 game is around 100 grains and the MPBR ranges from about 283-300 yards.
The 6x62mm Freres, .240 Weatherby and .25-06 are all based on cases with approximately the same powder capacity as the .30-06 and the .257 Weatherby is based on an even larger (.30-06 length) belted magnum case. Their recoil and muzzle blast moves them beyond the dual purpose category for the great majority of shooters, although all are available with varmint weight bullets. They are very competent long range CXP2 game cartridges.
The most popular of these cartridges is the .243 Winchester and I have found .243 rifles to be very accurate. Additional .243 advantages are the world-wide distribution of .243 Winchester ammunition and the excellent bullet selection available to reloaders.
General purpose CXP2 game cartridges
This is one of the most useful and (in the hands of average hunters) deadly group of cartridges. Their recoil is moderate and their killing power is noticeably superior to the .24 and .25 caliber cartridges listed above. In fact, they give away little to the popular .270-.30 caliber "all-around" cartridges, but kick less. All of these can be stretched to take CXP3 game at moderate range with good bullet placement.
139-140 grains seems to be the most popular and useful bullet weight in all of the medium capacity 6.5mm and 7mm cartridges and all can efficiently handle bullets weighing up to 160 grains for use on large animals like North American elk and Scandinavian moose. The 7x57 has the case capacity and neck length to accommodate bullets up to 175 grains, although these are seldom used in the caliber today.
The 6.5's offer superior bullet sectional density for greater penetration with the same weight bullet, while the 7's offer greater bullet frontal area. Take your pick, for on game it tends to even out. I own and use all of these and I could not say which is the most effective.
Lever action deer and black bear cartridges (they work on other game, too!)
These are medium range, .30-.35 caliber cartridges with a MPBR (+/- 3") in excess of 200 yards. They are entirely capable of killing CXP3 game at moderate ranges, but are best known in North America as quintessential deer cartridges.
The .30-30, .32 Winchester Special and .35 Remington are the most typical deer and black bear cartridges, while the .308 Marlin Express and .300 Savage tread closely on the heels of the .308 Win. They could have been included with the all-around cartridges below, but because they are most commonly encountered in traditional lever action rifles they remain here. The advent of Hornady's Flex-Tip spitzer bullets for the .30-30, .308 Marlin, .32 Spec. and .35 Rem. has added considerably to their MPBR and down range hitting power. With Hornady LeverEvolution factory loads the .30-30, for example, is a 250 yard deer cartridge.
All-around CXP2/CXP3 game cartridges
This group includes military cartridges used variously in World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and both Gulf Wars. In civilian guise, they have proven to be outstanding big game cartridges. They are, perhaps, a bit more powerful than actually required for CXP2 game and not quite as effective on CXP3 game as some of the medium bore cartridges. However, they remain popular for all of the above and for one rifle hunts anywhere in the world they are natural choices.
World wide, the short action .308 Winchester and standard length .30-06 are the most popular all-around cartridges. However, the .303 British remains popular in many countries that were once part of the British Empire and/or Commonwealth, including Canada and Australia. The 8x57 is still popular in Europe, especially in Germany and central Europe. All except the .308 were designed for use in bolt action rifles; the .308 was actually designed for use in autoloading rifles, but was immediately adapted to short bolt actions, pumps and lever action rifles. Likewise, the .30-06 has been adapted to bolt, lever, autoloading and pump action sporting rifles. To the best of my knowledge, as sporting cartridges, the .303 and 8x57 are almost exclusively found in bolt action rifles and the occasional single shot, drilling, or double-barreled rifle.
These cartridges are at their best with bullets weighing between 150 and 200 grains. The .30-06 has the greatest case capacity and is thus, ultimately, the most powerful cartridge if all are loaded to the same maximum average pressure. However, for 90% of all hunting there is little practical difference between the capabilities of these four great cartridges.
Long range, all-around CXP2/CXP3 game cartridges
This group of somewhat smaller caliber cartridges shoots a little flatter with bullets of similar SD than the all-around cartridges listed above. They represent the only real challenge in terms of popularity to the previously mentioned all-around cartridges. Unlike the ex-military cartridges, these cartridges were developed specifically for big game hunting.
Commonly encountered bullet weights for big game hunting are 130-150 grains for the .270 and 139-175 grains for the .28 caliber/7mm cartridges, although these days bullets over 150 grains are seldom used in the .284 or over 160 grains in the .280. With the lighter 130-140 grain bullets most commonly used in these cartridges, all are capable of a MPBR close to 300 yards. For CXP3 game, 150-156 grain bullets are a good choice in all of these calibers.
.270-7mm Magnum CXP2/CXP3 game cartridges
These shoot somewhat flatter than their standard cousins of the same bore diameter, but generally not by much. More usefully, their approximate 300 yard MPBR with 150 grain bullets is similar to the standard .270 Win. or .280 Rem. with 140 grain bullets. Consequently, they hit harder. Shooting bullets of similar SD, recoil is similar to a .30-06 in rifles that weigh one-half to one pound more.
The WSM and SAUM magnums can cause feeding problems in repeating rifles due to their rebated rims, sharp shoulders and short, fat cases. Since they offer no ballistic advantage over the longer magnums, are less efficient with long bullets and their ammunition is more expensive and not as widely distributed, their popularity seems to have plateaued.
The long range champion in this group is the .270 Weatherby Magnum, which achieves a MPBR of 320 yards with a 150 grain bullet. The 7mm Remington and Weatherby Magnums are probably the best balanced cartridges in this group. It has been said of the 7mm Rem. Mag. that it shoots as flat as a .270 and hits as hard as a .30-06, which is pretty close to the truth. No wonder it is the best selling magnum cartridge in the world. The 7mm Weatherby is a little more of the same thing.
.300 Magnum Cartridges
The .300 Magnums kick a lot harder than the other all-around cartridges, at least as much as most of the medium bore cartridges, so all of the .300's fall into the area of diminishing returns. This is why I have never had much use for them. They add about 40 yards to the MPBR of the .30-06 with 180 grain bullets, but any game animal that can legitimately be killed by a .300 can also be killed by a .30-06, albeit at somewhat closer range.
The MPBR with 180 grain bullets is around 300 yards. Trajectories are similar to the standard .270 and 7mm cartridges with 130-140 grain bullets or the 7mm Magnums with 150-154 grain bullets.
There is little to choose, ballistically, between any of the short action and standard length .300's. However, the standard (.30-06) length magnums feed more reliably and handle the heavier 180-220 grain bullets that are the justification for the existence of all .300 Magnum cartridges better than do the short action .300's. The .300 Win. Mag. is the favorite of most .300 Magnum fans.
Medium bore cartridges
These are the most powerful cartridges that most experienced shooters can handle. They are medium range cartridges that normally shoot heavier bullets than the all-around cartridges in the .30-06 class. Being of larger diameter, their bullets also punch larger holes, a good thing when hunting big animals like North American elk, European red stag, Scandinavian moose and large African antelope such as oryx and kudu. These medium bore cartridges kick less than the magnums that follow and will suffice very nicely for most purposes. Muzzle energies run from about 2750 to 3500 ft. lbs.
200-225 grain bullets are most popular in the North American cartridges, although the .338-06, .358 Win., .35 Whelen and .350 Mag. can handle bullets up to 250 grains for maximum killing power. Note that the short action (.308 length) cartridges on this list are not the "fat" type based on the .404 Jeffery case (WSM, SAUM) and do not have rebated rims. Thus, they feed with normal reliability in repeating rifles.
The most effective of these cartridges on very large or dangerous game are the 9.3x62mm and 9.3x74R. These European .366 caliber cartridges are ballistic twins. The 9.3x74mm is a long, rimmed cartridge used in single shot and double-barreled rifles. The 9.3x62mm was developed as a .30-06 length equivalent for use in bolt action rifles. With 286 grain bullets, these two cartridges are regarded as effective for Cape buffalo, elephant and the like, yet they kick noticeably less than the .375 Magnums. These excellent cartridges are finally getting some traction in the U.S. and ammunition is available from Hornady and Federal. among others.
Medium bore magnums
These are magnum cartridges that kick substantially harder than most shooters can comfortably handle. They are suitable for hunting large and dangerous game, although due to local restrictions in some African countries, cartridges of less than .375 diameter may not be legal for hunting lion and CXP4 game.
For the heaviest game, these cartridges are normally used with bullets weighing from 250-300 grains, depending on caliber. Muzzle energy typically runs from about 4000-5000 ft. lbs. with bullets having a SD in excess of .300.
The .338 Win. Mag. is the most popular medium bore cartridge in North America and ammunition is available wherever big and dangerous animals are hunted. The 9.3x64 is popular with European hunters and to an extent in Africa. The long .375 H&H is the queen of African medium bores, legal everywhere for CXP4 game. The .375 Ruger is a new cartridge that duplicates the ballistics of the .375 H&H in a shorter case. The .375 Weatherby is based on a "blown out" .375 H&H case. Rifles so chambered can also shoot .375 H&H ammunition, since both cartridges headspace on the belt and are the same length and caliber. The .376 Steyr and .358 Norma Mag. are good cartridges that failed to catch-on and now appear to be dying.
That is the final group of cartridges for which most shooters and hunters have any use and, gentle reader, it brings us to the end of this article.
Note: Detailed information about all of the cartridges mentioned in this article, as well as cartridge comparisons, can be found on the Rifle Cartridges page.
Copyright 2009, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.