When All Else Fails, Invent a Caliber!
A perusal of glossy ad-copy reveals an annual, endless stream of "new" cartridges touted to fill some type of niche. Often, the niche does not exist, much less the need, but that little fact escapes notice, as Jack O'Connor--the dean of American gun writers--pointed out about 50 years ago. Variety is good, choices are good, but a closer look often reveals variety for its own sake rather than anything new, with some notable exceptions.
The reason to avoid the trendy is cost of feeding a rifle, rifle choice, ammunition choice, and bullet choices. As pointed up by the more learned hunters of today and yesterday, many caliber and cartridge options do exactly the same thing. A look at Chuck Hawks' "The Great All-Around Rifle Cartridge Comparison" on this site makes it clear, if not obvious. Few big game animals are impressed, let alone affected, by calibers or published ballistics tables, and few animals read any ads.
A look at readily available loads for the .30-06 reveals a 180 grain factory "High Energy" load moving at 2880 fps MV. That is identical to the .300 H & H Magnum, and a scant 80 fps away from many .300 Win. Mag. loads.
For most big game hunting, the line from 7mm-08, 7x57, .308 Winchester, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .30-06, .270 Wby. Mag, 7mm Rem. Mag and .300 Win. Mag. is meaningless. Familiarity with an individual rifle and load and resultant field shot placement effectively erases any theoretical field advantage. Certainly additional calibers in this class (WSM, SAUM, or whatever) are completely superfluous.
The short magnums (not to mention the outsize "Ultra Magnums") are in large measure trivia. Not that they are "bad" or ineffective, not "fun," or anything of the kind. It is simply that for whatever theoretical field advantages touted, they have an equal number of disadvantages. Reduced ammo options, reduced ammo availability, reduced magazine capacity, feeding issues, and increased ammo cost are a few of the negative possibilities. Theoretically, the ability to use short magnums in stiffer, lighter short actions is an appeal. A close look reveals that long actions are not necessarily problematic at all, the weight savings may be small to nil, and in a lighter gun the recoil takes the fun out of the theoretical performance increase you thought you wanted. Recoil all too often means a field performance decrease, not an improvement. Keep that in mind if you are tempted to buy a lightweight short magnum or a long action Ultra Mag rifle.
The same can be said even more readily for the "super-short" magnums (WSSM) and other new chamberings such as the .204 Ruger. Though the military use of the .223 Remington has long been the subject of debate, its use on comparatively tiny varmints has not been. Those looking for more pop have a very long way to go to equal the hoary old (1935) .220 Swift and the popular .22-250. And the .204 isn't even close. That doesn't mean it isn't fun or accurate; it only suggests that it has no capability of doing anything better than what has been achieved for over 70 years with existing factory ammunition. Ditto the .223 WSSM.
There are a few advancements that show real promise, though. One is the Hornady LEVERevolution ammo in .30-30, with the other chamberings apparently not in the same league. The .30-30 round does increase the capabilities of that classic cartridge, particularly from rifles with 24" or longer barrels.
The other is the Barnes Triple-Shock X-Bullet. For years Barnes X-Bullets have had a love / hate type of clientele. The 100% weight retention and superior penetration has been the proven appeal, while the copper fouling, limited expansion, and inferior accuracy in some rifles has been a drawback. By adding wide grooves to the X-Bullet that give the copper a place to flow, pressures are reduced and accuracy is increased, while the superior weight retention and penetrating ability have been retained. It essentially throws classic section density and bullet weight guidelines out the window, creating a new class of bullet where less can actually mean more. Barnes TSX bullets are offered in Cor-Bon DPX Hunter and select Stars and Stripes, Weatherby, and Federal Premium factory loads, among others.
The romance of the "new" caliber will likely continue, but the field reality has not changed a great deal. Improvements in powder, bullets, and the proliferation of rangefinders have meant far more than anything new in caliber or cartridge. It seems Jack O'Connor was right all along.
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 2006 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.