The Magical Mysterious .270 Winchester Cartridge

By Randy Wakeman

The .45-70 Government was replaced by the .38-40 Krag in 1892 as the standard U.S. military long gun. The Springfield Model 1892 (Krag-Jorgensen) was the result of the 1892 competition of some forty-five different designs seeking to replace the Springfield Trapdoor. The .30-40 Krag was the first smokeless cartridge rifle adopted by the U.S and the first bolt action. It survived as the U.S. Army's primary rifle from 1892-1903.


From 1894 to September 1899 it used a 220 grain bullet at about 2000 fps. Considered inferior to the Mauser 1892 (and subsequent Mauser actions), it proved to be a deadly embarrassment in the Spanish-American War, compared to the 7x57mm Spanish Mauser rifles.


The result was the .30-03 and the Mauser pattern Springfield 1903 rifle in which to shoot it. The .30-03 was essentially based on an enlarged 7mm Mauser case and used the same .373" rim diameter. It fired a 220 grain, .30 caliber (.308") round nose bullet at 2300 fps. The .30-03 was used for only three years by the U.S. military. The advent of the flat shooting 8x57JS military cartridge in Germany (150 grain spitzer bullet at 2800 fps) caused the U.S. Army to slightly shorten the neck of the .30-03 case in 1906 and change the load to a 150 grain spitzer bullet at approximately 2700 fps, thus creating the .30-06. The slightly shorter neck required only that the barrel of the new Springfield rifles be set back one turn to compensate for the change in headspace. It was from the .30-06 cartridge from which the .270 Winchester was designed.


Released in 1925 along with the Winchester Model 54 rifle, the .270 Winchester has a .270" bore and shoots .277" diameter bullets. For comparison, the 7mm Remington Magnum of 1962 uses a .284" diameter bullet, just like the 7x57mm (1892), and the 7mm-08 Remington of 1980. Perhaps we should all wonder why 0.007" of bullet diameter is supposed to matter a huge amount. Of course, it does not.


Barrel length matters, but for the longest time home chronographs weren't common and the average fellow relied on what the box or the catalog said. That's never a good idea. Ed Matunas lamented in Metallic Cartridge Reloading (2nd ed., 1988) that the .270 "is not well served by factory ammunition. Velocities often vary widely and frequently are well below advertised levels." I've found that to be true in a wide variety of cartridges, certainly not limited to the .270 Winchester. Ammunition is only part of the issue, for lab data derived from 24" test barrels is invariably higher than the common 22" or shorter barrels and we aren't always shooting at laboratory temperatures, either.


The .270 Winchester is often considered a moderate recoil load, but a cartridge alone is only part of the recoil story, as it isn't used by itself. Rifle weight has everything to do with recoil and, for starters, we may well have 7-1/2 pound hunting rifles without a scope, sling or ammo. Add those accessories and we can quickly have a 10 pound rifle.


Is the .270 Underrated?


Despite the celebration of the .270 by Jack O'Connor, the answer to that question is both yes and no. The Nosler Partition bullet, for example, wasn't released until 1948. The use of bullets able to withstand high impact velocities wasn't widespread until the 1960's. It wasn't until 1974 that Federal Cartridge offered commercially loaded Nosler Partitions. The Nosler AccuBond wasn't introduced until 2003.


For the first 35 or so years of its existence, as reported by Jack O'Connor, .270 Winchester ammo was generally factory loaded to full velocity and with considerable care, which resulted in very good accuracy. Later, the original claim of 3140 fps muzzle velocity (MV) for a 130 grain bullet was often not achieved, due to lower pressure factory ammunition and shorter than laboratory standard 24 inch barrels.


Today, you have loads like the Hornady Superformance line that offers 3200 fps muzzle velocities, along with a static G1 ballistic coefficient (BC) of .460. The recommended operating range of hunting bullets often begins at 2000 fps. Now, there are factory 130 grain loads that stay above 2200 fps past 500 yards. This is quite a jump from the still available 150 grain soft point, round nose ammo with a BC of .242 that drops to 1871 fps at 300 yards and 1606 fps at 400 yards. (Of course, that load is specifically intended for woods hunting at moderate ranges. -Editor)


While underrated isn't the precise word, not fully exploited is a bit more accurate. Higher muzzle velocity, by itself, isn't important. However, combined with a controlled expansion bullet and a higher BC, it yields the important number: impact velocity. Although ballistic coefficient alone has never dropped much of anything, it has great value in reducing the variable of wind drift. Some bullets can blow over a foot off course at 300 yards in just a 10 mph crosswind.


Now, we have factory loads with 5.7" of drop from 200 to 300 yards and 5.43" of 10 mph wind drift at 300 yards, less than half that of some previous loads. While it hardly transforms the .270 into the Belchfire Super Snorter Mark IV, it enables higher strike velocities and makes 300 yard shot placement easier. Rather than designating the .270 as underrated, it is more appropriate to say that it has been significantly improved in recent years by better bullets, more aerodynamic bullets, higher velocities and less wind drift. These benefits are augmented by more accurate factory rifles that can take advantage of them.


The .270 wasn't underrated by Jack O'Connor, of course, who considered it a 375 yard deer rifle with average loads and used it with 130 and 150 grain bullets to take elk, moose and no end of other big game animals. In the case of elk, O'Connor took more of these tough beasts with the .270 than with any other cartridge (The Art of Big Game Hunting in North America, 1967). Whatever the .270 was in 1967, it is a bit better today.


The Inaccurate .270?


Jim Carmichel wrote, in Outdoor Life (“The .270 Mystery” circa 2004): “Mainly we tested the newer, top-of-the-line offerings with popular styles of bullets ranging from 130 to 150 grains. It was fascinating to discover the wide differences in accuracy within a particular brand. For example, while Winchester's Supreme-grade load with the 130-grain Ballistic Silvertip averaged a tidy 1.114", the 140-grain Fail Safe load could do no better than 2.7". Across the spectrum of factory-loaded ammo, groups tended to range in the 2" to-2½" category. It was almost as if the ammo industry had decreed that the accuracy of .270 cartridges should be about 2½", no better and no worse.”


Purported to be the most extensive test of .270 Winchester accuracy ever conducted, the end result was a complaint about factory ammunition, as most handloads (130 to 150 grains) grouped less than an inch at 100 yards. Sierra Varminter and Speer TNT 90 grain bullet handloads, at over 3400 fps, approached ½".


An ammunition-insensitive rifle is hard to find. The more correct statement is that the .270 Winchester has not been championed or embraced by most target shooters, as it lacks the built-in appeal of U.S. Military and NATO chamberings, or designed for the purpose match cartridges. It has been championed for hunting, though, and that's where its primary appeal still resides.


Is the .270 Winchester Good, Better, Perhaps the Best?


To a certain extent, we are all prisoners of our own personal experiences and I'm no more immune from this than anyone else. With a 150 grain CT Partition, I used a .270 to drop a tasty Newfoundland moose at 435 yards. The .270 Winchester is, today, one of the best and most available methods of hunting with a 130 grain bullet at 3100 - 3200 fps. Not only is the ammunition widely available, but so are rifles, as opposed to some chamberings (the various short magnums, for example) that have already vanished from the lines of many popular rifle brands.


While moderate in recoil, with the better 130 grain commercial loads (Hornady Superformance, for example) the drop from 200 to 300 yards is 5.7 inches, the drop from 200 to 400 yards 16.7 inches. That is markedly superior to most 7mm Remington Magnum hunting loads. Even compared to the Hornady Superformance 7mm Rem. Mag. 139 grain SST load, the difference in drop from 200 to 300 yards is a puny two tenths of one inch.


We all have our favorites, there is no doubt about that, but the .270 Winchester is one of the best cartridges available for the vast majority of (non-dangerous) big game hunting. (It is certainly one of the staff favorites here at Guns and Shooting Online. -Editor) Whatever Jack O'Connor found exceptional about the .270 Winchester, it is even more exceptional today. Perhaps there is something magical and mysterious about it, after all.

Note: See also "The Great .270 Winchester" and several .270 Winchester cartridge comparison articles on the Rifle Cartridges index page.

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Copyright 2013 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.