Sensible Rifle Cartridges

(Includes the 6mm Rem., .257 Roberts, 6.5x55 Swede, 7x57 Mauser, .300 Savage, .338 Federal and .358 Winchester)

By Chuck Hawks

What I mean by "sensible" rifle cartridges are those that are well balanced. They are usually not the top performing cartridges in their caliber, but to exceed their performance you have to burn a lot more powder and suffer significantly more recoil to achieve a relatively minor increase in killing power.

The cartridges I have included in this article do not include all of the sensible rifle cartridges. The .270 Winchester, perhaps the optimum long range caliber, is not included because it is so well known that little more needs to be said about it. Ditto the .308 Winchester and the .30-06, both eminently sensible cartridges and the .30-30, the best known and perhaps the most sensible deer cartridge of them all.

What follows is a selection of very useful and eminently sensible hunting cartridges. Additional information about all of the cartridges discussed below can be found among my series of articles on rifle cartridges, which delve more deeply into their ballistic performance.

In the course of this article on sensible cartridges we will find, over and over, that the sensible cartridges in each caliber combine very good performance in the field with relatively moderate recoil and good accuracy. They are easy to reload and are suitable for normal size and weight hunting rifles--the kind of rifles that are not a great burden to carry in the field.

6mm Remington

The 6mm Rem. is a perfect example of a sensible cartridge. It is based on a necked down .257 Roberts case with a 26 degree shoulder angle. The 6mm was designed to insure proper functioning in short action rifles, and the mean maximum pressure is 52,000 cup.

This nifty short action, long range cartridge does pretty much everything that can be done in the caliber. The 6mm Remington is also known as an exceptionally accurate cartridge, often favored by experienced varmint shooters. The recoil is light, around 10 ft. lbs. for most loads, and it is pleasant to shoot from the bench.

The 6mm has trailed the .243 Winchester in sales since its introduction, yet the 6mm is technically a slightly superior cartridge. Not that the .243 is not also a fine cartridge, but the fact is that the 6mm delivers a muzzle velocity of 3100 fps with most 100 grain factory loads, compared to 2960 fps for equivalent .243 factory loads. Reloaders appreciate its longer neck, increased case capacity, and somewhat greater loading flexibility.

.257 Roberts +P

The .257 Roberts case is derived from the 7x57 Mauser case, and uses the parent case's 20 degree shoulder angle. Remington introduced it in the Model 30S rifle in 1934. Like the 6mm Remington, the .257 Roberts case has the capacity to allow it to get the most out of a .25 caliber bullet without getting into an overbore situation.

The only drawback to the .257 is that the ammo companies under load it. The SAAMI mean maximum pressure is pegged at 45,000 cup. To help rectify this, Winchester introduced the .257 Roberts +P loading, which uses a case made from thicker brass and has a mean maximum pressure of 50,000 cup.

The .257 Roberts has the advantage of greater case capacity and greater overall length over the fine little .250 Savage. This allows the .257 to efficiently handle bullets heavier than 100 grains. A 120 grain bullet, the heaviest normally used in .25 caliber cartridges, can be handloaded to about 2800 fps in the .257 Roberts +P. The 100 grain bullet can be driven to over 3100 fps, making the .257 +P a fine long range deer and antelope cartridge.

The larger .25-06 can exceed this velocity by about 200 fps, but at the cost of a 1/3 increase in recoil, much more muzzle blast, and surprisingly little gain in real world effectiveness. The .257 Roberts outperforms the .250 Savage, allows the use of the heaviest bullets in the caliber, and gets most of what can be gotten from a .25 caliber with minimum fuss, a sure sign that it is a sensible cartridge.

6.5x55 Swede

Soon after its introduction in 1894 as the military caliber for Sweden and Norway, the 6.5x55 found its way into the hunting fields of Europe, and then the world. Highly accurate, it also became a favorite caliber for target shooting. Its success was not based on any particularly sensational specification, but rather on its solid performance on game and its mild recoil. The latter makes for accurate shooting and good bullet placement, always the most important factor in killing power.

RCBS reports that, while never a best seller, 6.5x55 reloading die sales have consistently been in the top 30. Surplus 6.5x55 military rifles appeared in the American market after the end of WW II and led to the discovery of the cartridge by many American hunters and shooters. Eventually Remington, Ruger, and Winchester felt compelled to chamber their popular bolt action hunting rifles for the caliber.

The 6.5x55 is an exceptionally easy cartridge for which to develop reloads. It usually gives good accuracy and performance with practically any suitable bullet and powder. Most owners of modern 6.5x55 rifles do choose to reload their own ammunition. Factory loads for the 6.5x55 are perfectly adequate for hunting, but they are kept fairly mild in consideration of the many old military rifles in the caliber. The SAAMI mean maximum pressure limit for the 6.5x55 is 46,000 cup.

Most shooters who try a 6.5x55 rifle are impressed with its mild recoil and report, fine accuracy, and outstanding killing power. Killing power far in excess of that normally expected for what is, after all, a fairly small caliber.

Many North American shooters recommend nothing smaller than .27 caliber for use as an all-around big game rifle, yet Europeans have known for decades that 6.5mm rifles can kill even very large game reliably with well placed bullets. This has been proven all over the world.

The secret of the 6.5mm's success appears to be the great sectional density of its hunting weight bullets. Good sectional density (in an adequately designed bullet) means good penetration, and the long 6.5mm bullets penetrate to where an animal lives.

120 grains is the lightest 6.5mm bullet normally used for big game hunting. The sectional density (SD) of a .264" bullet weighing 120 grains is .247! That is well in excess of the .205 or so recommended for deer size game, and approximately equivalent to the 165 grain .30 caliber bullet. That is widely considered to be the "all-around" bullet for .30 caliber rifles. In the 6.5x55, 120 grains is considered a lightweight bullet for long range shooting of antelope and deer. Top reloads drive this bullet (in modern rifles) to anywhere from 2800-3000 fps.

The 129 grain 6.5mm bullet has a SD of .264, between that of the 170 grain (.256) and 180 grain (.271) .30 caliber bullets. The 125-129 grain bullets can be driven to 2700-2900 fps for flat trajectory, and make good general purpose bullets in the 6.5x55.

The most popular game bullet among 6.5mm fans is the 140 grain. It has a SD of .287, about the same as the 190 grain match bullets made for long range .30 caliber target rifles or the 160 grain 7mm bullets intended for deep penetration in heavy game. Typical reloads drive the 140 grain bullet at 2600-2800 fps. A good shot with a "puny" 6.5x55 Swede rifle loaded with 140 grain bullets can take most of the big game animals in North America.

If it is a herd of pachyderms that needs to be thinned, use the long 160 grain bullet. 160 grain RN solids (loaded in the somewhat smaller 6.5x54 Mannlicher cartridge) are what the famous British ivory hunter WDM Bell used to kill the many of the 1000 or so elephants he shot in East Africa. A 6.5mm 160 grain bullet has a SD of .328, about the same as the 220 grain .30 bullet (also used successfully on elephants) and greater than the SD of any other commonly encountered bullet except the 500 grain .45 caliber, which was designed specifically for killing elephants. So, you see, when I suggested the 160 grain 6.5mm bullet as the answer to a pachyderm problem I wasn't entirely kidding! Reloads for a modern 6.5x55 rifle can drive the 160 grain bullet at 2450-2500 fps for serious punch at woods ranges.

Recoil energy from an 8 pound 6.5x55 rifle shooting the 140 grain bullet as factory loaded amounts to about 12 ft. lbs. That is pretty moderate for an all-around rifle.

7x57 Mauser

The 7x57 Mauser, like the 6.5x55 Swede, is a military cartridge that dates back to the end of the 19th Century. And like the 6.5x55, it became a popular hunting cartridge world-wide. The 7x57 is another one of those well balanced cartridges that seems to kill game better than its paper specifications suggest that it should. Or maybe it is just that most of us fail to realize that increasing the velocity and power of a .284 inch bullet much beyond 7x57 levels gets us into the realm of rapidly diminishing returns. The longer .280 Remington and other similar capacity cartridges actually add little killing power, but their increased recoil and muzzle blast make it seem as if they do.

The truth is that the 7x57 has proven itself adequate for even the world's biggest game under the right circumstances. The same WDM Bell that I wrote about in the section on the 6.5x55, famous slayer of African elephants for their ivory, used the 7x57 extensively. He appreciated the light recoil, accuracy, and deep penetration of the 175 grain FMJ 7mm bullet, and felt that the combination made a superb cartridge for executing elephants with precisely placed brain shots.

For the North American deer hunter, or the hunter of similar size game world-wide, the 139-145 grain bullets factory loaded to about 2700 fps make a good choice. These give the 7x57 a reasonably flat trajectory and hit plenty hard enough for most North American big game. Hornady offers a Light Magnum load that gives their 139 grain SP bullet a MV of 2950 fps. This makes the 7x57 an effective long range cartridge.

The 7x57, like many of the sensible cartridges, is under loaded by the major ammo companies in deference to the old military rifles that are still out there in the hands of the public. The official industry pressure for the 7x57 is 46,000 cup. 7x57 cartridges for modern rifles can be safely loaded to 50,000 cup, and this allows reloaders to drive the popular 139-140 grain bullets at about 2800 fps.

For large game like elk and moose, the 150-160 grain bullets are probably preferable, and these can be driven to velocities in the 2600-2700 fps range. The Norma factory load drives a 150 grain bullet at a MV of 2690.

The very heavy 175 grain bullets (SD .310) offer more penetration than is probably required for any North American game, but can be driven to about 2500 fps. The factory loads take this weight bullet to 2440 fps.

Moderate recoil makes for accurate shooting, and this has always been the 7x57's forte. According to my Rifle Recoil Table, the 140 grain bullet at 2700 fps in an 8 pound rifle generates about 12.5 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. At 2800 fps the 140 grain bullet fired in the same rifle kicks with about 14 ft. lbs. of energy, still under the 15 ft. lb. level that allows most riflemen to do their best shooting.

Considering its all-around performance (including trajectory, killing power, and recoil) the 7x57 is nearly an ideal 7mm cartridge. Which is why it is included here.

.300 Savage

This .30 cartridge was designed to provide the ballistics of the original .30-06 military round (150 grain bullet at a MV of 2700 fps) in a short cartridge that would work through the popular Savage Model 99 lever action rifle. This goal was realized with the introduction of the .300 Savage in 1920.

The formula adopted in the design of the .300 Savage was a fat, relatively straight case body with a sharp 30 degree shoulder angle and a short neck. This basic approach made the .300 Savage the prototype for today's short action cartridges. In fact, decades later when the US Army went looking for a short action cartridge to replace the .30-06, it was the .300 Savage with which they chose to start experimenting, and the result of those experiments was the .308 Winchester.

The .300 Savage has fallen on hard times, largely replaced in the short action firearms it helped popularize by its offspring, the .308 Win. In the past it was offered not only in the M99 Savage lever action, but also in pump and bolt action rifles from Remington, Savage and Winchester. Because the Model 99 used a spool type magazine spitzer bullets were not a problem and the .300 has always been loaded with pointed bullets, unlike most cartridges designed for tubular magazine fed rifles from Marlin and Winchester. .300 Savage cartridge sales remain reasonably strong, as there are many rifles so chambered still in use. Factory loaded ammunition is available from all of the "Big Three" ammo companies. In 2003 Remington chambered their Model 700 Classic for the .300 Savage and in 2006 Hornady introduced the .308 Marlin, a rimmed cartridge designed for Marlin and other traditional lever action rifles that duplicates .300 Savage ballistics using Flex-Tip spitzer bullets that are safe in tubular magazines.

The case capacity of the .300 Savage is similar to that of the .308 Win., but the .300 is loaded to lower pressure, about 46,000 cup. The .300 has adequate killing power to make it a candidate for an all-around North American rifle. Like the 6.5mm Swede and the 7x57 discussed above, the .300 Savage has what it takes to bag big game animals efficiently and with a minimum of fuss.

For animals in the antelope and deer category, the 150 grain spitzer bullet at its currently somewhat reduced MV of 2630 fps is still an excellent choice. Its killing power cannot be questioned after eight decades of successful use in the field. This load, according to my Rifle Recoil Table, generates 14.8 ft. lbs. of recoil in a light 7.5 pound rifle. This is slightly below the roughly 15 ft. lbs. guideline for best practical accuracy and a fine general purpose load in the caliber.

For elk and other tough game, the 180 grain spitzer bullet is factory loaded to a MV of 2350 fps. This one kicks harder than the 150 grain load, about 15.6 ft. lbs. in a 7.5 pound rifle, but it gives the penetration required to anchor larger animals.

Like the 6.5x55 and 7x57, the .300 Savage offers good killing power, adequate trajectory, and relatively mild recoil. At ordinary hunting ranges it is adequate for almost all game for which a .30 rifle should be used. It is a sensible rifle cartridge.

.338 Federal

The .338 Federal was introduced by Federal Cartridge in 2006 and is the first cartridge to bear the Federal name. It is based on the .308 Winchester case necked-up to accept .338" bullets.

Federal's new .338 is designed specifically for hunting North American game from deer and black bear through moose, although it would undoubtedly work just as well on game of similar size worldwide. It drives a 210 grain Nosler Partition bullet at a MV of 2630 fps and ME of 3225 ft. lbs. for outstanding game stopping power with recoil below that of most medium bore cartridges. For a flatter trajectory on CXP2 game, Federal offers a 180 grain Nosler AccuBond bullet at a MV of 2830 fps. The .338 Federal is a true medium bore cartridge, but unlike most such cartridges it does its job efficiently, with no more fuss than necessary.

That job is to provide medium bore killing power in a non-magnum cartridge suitable for all short (.308 length) action rifles. The .338 Federal does not kick as hard as the .338-06, yet it provides a very high level of performance. It will flat get the job done, and from a shorter rifle with less recoil.

The .338 Federal has some inherent advantages over the .35 caliber medium bore cartridges, such as the .358 Winchester and .35 Whelen. It has a larger shoulder that provides adequate area for accurate head spacing and to resist the blow of the firing pin. Its 200 grain bullet has a SD of .250, compared to a SD of .223 for a 200 grain .35 caliber bullet. The .210 grain .338 bullet has a SD of .263. These are better figures than those for the .35 caliber bullets of the same weight and allow superior penetration (other factors being equal). Reloaders can reasonably use bullets as heavy as 225 grains (SD .281) in the .338 Federal case. The .338 Federal is perhaps the most sensible of all currently produced medium bore cartridges and it is adaptable to nearly all modern centerfire rifles.

.358 Winchester

The .358 Winchester was introduced in 1955. It is based on the .308 Winchester case necked-up to accept .358" bullets. Like the .338 Federal mentioned above, the .358 is suitable for almost all North American big game animals provided you stay within its MPBR and it is adaptable to nearly all modern centerfire rifles. It is a short action cartridge whose performance on big game gives away little to the larger (.30-06 based) .35 Whelen and it kicks a little less.

As I write these words, only the Browning BLR lever action and Ruger M77 bolt action--among popularly priced rifles--are chambered for the .358 Win. In the past it has been offered in the Winchester Model 70 bolt action and Model 88 lever action and also by Savage in the Model 99 lever action. Several specialty and custom rifle makers continue to turn out rifles in .358, so the hunter who yearns to own a .358 does have options.

Perhaps worth special mention is the take-down version of the Browning BLR. In .358 Winchester this is perhaps the best medium bore travel rifle anywhere near its price class, as it can be packed into a valise-size hard case. The hunter who seeks big game out of state and must travel by commercial carrier should give this rifle serious consideration.

The sole surviving Winchester .358 factory load drives a 200 grain Power Point bullet at a MV of 2490 fps and ME of 2753 ft. lbs., which is entirely adequate for most purposes. (The original Winchester 250 grain factory load has been discontinued.) However, reloaders with .358 rifles have far more options. The various reloading manuals show that 180 grain bullets (SD .201) can be driven to MV's of about 2700 fps and 220-225 grain bullets (SD .245-.251) can be driven to MV's as high as 2500 fps. 250 grain bullets (SD .279) intrude into the case capacity, but can still be driven to around 2300 fps. Reduce the velocity of a 180-200 grain spitzer bullet to about 2400 fps and you have a moderate recoil medium bore cartridge that remains effective on both deer and elk out to at least 200 yards.

The .358 Winchester is directly comparable to the .338 Federal. (Indeed, there is just such a cartridge comparison article on the Rifle Cartridge Page.) Each cartridge has advantages when compared to the other. In the case of the .358, it is more efficient than the .338 Federal with any given bullet weight and can achieve higher velocity and energy if loaded to the same MAP. Naturally, on impact with a game animal (other factors being equal), the .358" bullet produces a wider permanent crush cavity than a .338" bullet. The .358 can also use considerably heavier bullets (250 grains against 225 grains). The .358 Winchester certainly qualifies as a sensible hunting rifle cartridge.

Note: Detailed articles about all of these cartridges can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Page.

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Copyright 2002, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.