12 Key Rifle Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

The Question

What if there were only 12 rifle cartridges in the world, all others having become obsolete? Only a dozen cartridges to hunt all species of game, from the tiniest to the largest, everywhere in the world. Which cartridges would you want included on that list?

That was the essence of the e-mail question recently posed to me by Philip Koch, who included his own list (of 10 cartridges) and asked for my comments, plus a couple of additions. After some thought, I composed my list, which corresponded closely to his. I found it to be an interesting intellectual exercise, hence this article. You, gentle reader, might want to select your own dozen cartridges to see how they compare with the list at the end of this article.

The Cartridges

Starting with the smallest and least powerful cartridge, Philip and I agreed that it would be impossible not to include the .22 Long Rifle. This is the most popular rifle cartridge in the world, far out selling all other cartridges. It is not only the top small game hunting and plinking cartridge; it is also the most popular cartridge for formal target shooting. The .22 LR definitely has to be first on the list.

Smaller in bore diameter than the .22 LR, but much greater in capability, is the .17 HMR. This quiet, flat shooting, super accurate and fun rimfire cartridge is an ideal varmint cartridge for use in semi-populated areas. With a MPBR (+/- 1.5") of about 160 yards, a top of the hold head will result in hits to about 200 yards on the smaller varmint species. One of the most successful new cartridge introductions in decades, the .17 HMR became my first contribution to this list.

Next would be a centerfire varmint (CXP1 class game) cartridge. High volume varmint shooters who operate in semi-populated areas would doubtless prefer a quiet, economical cartridge such as the .22 Hornet, but the .17 HMR admirably fills that role. Others would prefer a maximum range cartridge, such as the .22-250 or .220 Swift. However, the most popular and widely distributed of all varmint cartridges, world wide, is the .223 Remington. It is also about in the middle of the centerfire .22 spectrum in terms of performance. (On such a short cartridge list, compromise is unavoidable.) Since there can be only one centerfire .22 varmint cartridge on such a short list, the .223 is the obvious choice.

The next selection is a combination long range varmint and medium game (CXP2 class) cartridge. All over the world the .243 Winchester has become the most popular of such cartridges. Long range varmint shooters already know that the .243 is excellent in that role. In addition, the .243 is an excellent, low recoil, long range cartridge for the smaller species of antlered game, popular with both beginning and advanced shooters. The .243 Winchester became our fourth selection.

Moving up from the .243, Philip and I diverged slightly. He picked the .260 Remington and I chose the 6.5x55 SE. The two fulfill the same purpose with nearly identical ballistic capabilities. Both are very accurate, low recoil, big game and mountain rifle cartridges. The .260's advantage is that it is a short action cartridge loaded to somewhat higher pressure. It uses the same basic case as the .243 and .308 and has the same standard .473" rim diameter. The 6.5x55 is an intermediate length cartridge, comparable to the 7x57mm. Its advantage is that it is better established around the world and its longer case, neck and action allow it to better handle the long 156-160 grain bullets so widely used in Scandinavia for moose hunting. Either is a fine choice for all CXP2 game and, with careful shot placement and proper bullets, has the penetration to take CXP3 game.

The next selection was obvious to both of us, the .270 Winchester. The .270 is the standard of comparison among long range big game cartridges and one of the great all-around hunting cartridges. The .270 shoots almost as flat and hits almost as hard as most of the magnums and it is far more popular as well as easier to shoot accurately.

The other great long range big game cartridge is the 7mm Remington Magnum, the most popular of all the world's magnum rifle cartridges. It is said, with considerable basis in fact, that the 7mm Rem. Mag. shoots as flat as a .270 and hits as hard as a .30-06. It is widely recommended for CXP2 and CXP3 class game. Given the general popularity of 7mm cartridges around the world and the all-around greatness of Remington's big 7, it became the second cartridge I chose to add to the list.

Not every hunter needs a long range cartridge. The two most popular rifles in the world, the Winchester Model 94 and the Marlin Model 336, are fast handling lever actions deemed nearly perfect for woods and brush country hunting. Both are chambered for the relatively mild, but very effective, .30-30 Winchester cartridge. The .30-30 is also popular in Europe for use in break-open double rifles and drillings. Out to about 225 yards a .30-30 is all that is needed to bag most of the world's antlered game. The .30-30 is a living legend, one of the most effective big game cartridges ever designed and it simply had to be included on our list.

Following the .30-30 is the ubiquitous .30-06 Springfield, perhaps the most versatile single hunting cartridge of the last Century. Neither Phil nor I would dare to leave this classic off of our list. From Africa to Alaska, the .30-06 is a workhorse for hunting both CXP2 and CXP3 class game.

The .308 Winchester is one of the most successful and widely used military and big game cartridges in the world. It is also the queen of the short action cartridges, rivaling the .30-06 in versatility. Even though it largely duplicates the ballistic performance of the .30-06, its popularity and the popularity of short action rifles in general demanded that the .308 Winchester be included.

As tempting as it would be to include one of the excellent European 8mm cartridges, such as the 8x68 S, both Philip and I concluded that a powerful medium bore cartridge would better serve the needs of hunters pursuing heavy CXP3 class game, or any of the world's large, dangerous predators (the bears and big cats). The most famous medium bore cartridge of them all is the .375 H&H Magnum, chosen by both of us. A good case can also be made for the .338 Win. Mag., but across most of Africa the .375 (or perhaps the 9.3mm) is the legal minimum for hunting the Big Five and only one medium bore can be included in a list as limited as this one.

Which left the .458 Winchester Magnum to round out our dozen cartridges. One of the original "short magnums" (meaning shorter than the .375 H&H), the .458 is excellent for dangerous CXP4 game and it fits in standard length actions. Reloaders can load it down to .45-70 power levels without muss or fuss if they want to take their big boomer deer hunting, which cannot be said for the larger cased big bores. We needed an "African" cartridge and the .458 is simply too good to overlook.

The List

The final list of a dozen cartridges looks like this:

    1. .22 Long Rifle
    2. .17 HMR
    3. .223 Remington
    4. .243 Winchester
    5. .260 Rem. or 6.5x55 SE
    6. .270 Winchester
    7. 7mm Remington Magnum
    8. .30-30 Winchester
    9. .308 Winchester
    10. .30-06 Springfield
    11. .375 H&H Magnum
    12. .458 Winchester Magnum


We did not include an "ultra-long range" cartridge (i.e. .257 Weatherby or .300 Ultra Mag, etc.) because their advantage over more ordinary long range cartridges is slight and the price paid in recoil and expense for a few extra yards of maximum point blank range was deemed excessive. As mentioned above, we both considered the popular .22-250, but could not justify another varmint cartridge since the .223 and .243 had the performance spectrum covered. We both realized that these would seem like significant omissions to some shooters.

Every cartridge that did make the list is at least reasonably common on every continent where game is hunted. In addition, they fall into neat groups. The .223, .243 and .308 (plus possibly the .260) for short action rifles; the rimmed .30-30 for lever actions, doubles and drillings; the .270, 7mm Mag., .30-06 and .458 Mag. (plus the 6.5x55 if chosen over the .260) for standard length actions. Only the .375 H&H would require a long "magnum" length action. Something for just about everyone and at least one cartridge suitable for every one of the world's game animals. No mean achievement with only a dozen rifle cartridges!

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.

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Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.