All-Around Rifle Cartridges
By Chuck Hawks
7mm Rem. Mag. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.
What is meant by an "all-around" rifle cartridge and what are the criteria for choosing one? These are the questions that must first be addressed. No doubt different authors will have different answers, but here is the way I look at these questions.
By "all-around" rifle cartridge, I mean a hunting cartridge that can reasonably be used in a single rifle, with appropriate loads, for a wide variety of CXP2 and CXP3 class game. Game from the size of a small animal like a chamois up to large (at least 600 pound average live weight) thin-skinned game such as elk, waterbuck, wildebeest, or kudu. Clearly, a cartridge perfect for the smallest species will not be perfect for the largest, so the final choice will almost certainly be overkill for chamois and too light to be ideal for elk or Scandinavian moose, but a hunter capable of good bullet placement should not be entirely out of place hunting either with a true all-around rifle.
Further, the all-around cartridge should have an adequately flat trajectory to allow hunting in a variety of conditions, from deep woods to open plains or high mountains. This means it has to be at least a 250 yard big game cartridge (MPBR +/- 3") and handle spitzer bullets.
A bullet diameter between a minimum of .264" (6.5mm) and a maximum of .323" (8mm) is required. A bullet sectional density (SD) of .220 is sufficient for harvesting deer size game and a SD of about .260 or greater should give adequate penetration even on large thin-skinned game with appropriately constructed bullets.
The master list of possible all-around cartridges
Looking at today's factory loading list, what cartridges qualify for hunting such a wide variety of game under such varying conditions? Staying with at least moderately popular and well known cartridges, I would say the following might be considered: 6.5x55 SE, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Remington Magnum, 6.5x68, .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, .270 WSM, .270 Weatherby Magnum, 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57 Mauser, 7x64 Brenneke, 7x65R, .280 Remington, 7mm WSM, 7mm Rem. SAUM, 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Weatherby Magnum, 7mm STW, .300 Savage, .308 Marlin, .308 Winchester, 7.62x54R, .30-06 Springfield, .300 WSM, .300 Rem. SAUM, .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 Weatherby Magnum, .303 British, 8x57JS and 8x68S.
All of these are loaded by at least one of the major U.S. or European ammunition companies. These are all cartridges that are at least moderately well known, which qualify ballistically and for which rifles are available. This list will be refined as we go along.
Criteria for choosing an all-around cartridge
The top all-around cartridges must not kick more, in a normal weight rifle, than most shooters can stand. About 20 ft. lbs. of free recoil is the upper limit, based on reports I have read about studies on recoil tolerance, and less recoil is desirable. The cartridges on our list that fall within that limit include: 6.5x55, .260 Rem., 6.5mm Rem. Mag., 6.5x68, .264 Win. Mag., .270 Win., .270 WSM, 7mm-08, 7x57, 7x64, 7x65R, .280 Rem., 7mm Rem. SAUM, 7mm Rem. Mag., .300 Savage, .308 Marlin, .308 Win., 7.62x54R, .30-06, .303 British, and 8x57JS. The .308 Marlin and .300 Savage would be good choices for anyone sensitive to recoil and the 7mm-08, 7x57, 6.5x55 and .260 Rem. are the standouts here. Choose one of these cartridges if you are fed-up with hard kicking rifles.
A selection of bullet weights should be available in factory loads. Equally important, an adequate range of reloading components must be available to allow the shooter to tailor loads for his or her particular rifle and requirements. Cartridges which fulfill both of these requirements include: 6.5x55, .260 Rem., 6.5x68, .270 Win, .270 WSM, .270 Wby. Mag., 7mm-08, 7x57, 7x64, .280 Rem., 7mm Rem. SAUM, 7mm WSM, 7mm Rem. Mag., 7mm Wby. Mag., 7mm STW, .300 Savage, .308 Win., .30-06, .300 Rem. SAUM, .300 Win. Mag., .300 Wby. Mag., .303 British, 8x57JS and 8x68S.
The best all-around cartridges must be available in a variety of rifles and it is even better if they are available in a variety of types of rifles: bolt action, lever action, single shot, double, autoloading, or pump. The more choice, the better. Cartridges chambered in a reasonable variety of rifles include: 6.5x55, .270 Win, .270 WSM, 7mm-08, 7x57, 7mm WSM, 7mm Rem. Mag., .308 Win., .30-06, .300 WSM and .300 Win. Mag.
Ammunition should be available in major hunting centers worldwide, wherever big game is hunted, from Anchorage to Cape Town, in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. The cartridges on our master list which are most likely to be available in many parts of the world include: 6.5x55, .270 Win., 7x57, 7x64, 7mm Rem. Mag., .308 Win., .30-06, .300 Win. Mag., .300 Wby. Mag., .303 British and 8x57JS.
For the North American hunter, factory cartridges must be stocked just about anywhere centerfire rifle ammunition is sold, whether the general store in a small western town, or the sporting goods department of a big city discount department store. Cartridges on our master list that are among the top sellers in North America include: .270 Win., 7mm Rem. Mag., .308 Win., .30-06, .303 British and .300 Win. Mag.
The short list
So which cartridges are on all of the lists above? These are the finalists that make the short list of all-around rifle cartridges: .270 Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum, .308 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield. Each of these are well covered in my series of articles on centerfire rifle cartridges and I recommend reading those articles for more information about the history, ballistics and capabilities of each of the cartridges on the short list.
I would summarize thusly. If you feel you must have a magnum rifle, the 7mm Remington Magnum is the cartridge for you. If you realistically anticipate a high percentage of long shots at large game and don't mind carrying a relatively long and heavy rifle, the 7mm Rem. Mag. is a good choice. With appropriate loads it can shoot as flat as a .270 or hit large game as hard as a .30-06. A typical scoped 7mm Mag. rifle weighing 8.5 pounds generates just about 20 ft. lbs. of recoil energy with most common loads. A heavier 7mm Rem. Mag. rifle, like some of the Weatherby models with a catalog weight of 8-8.5 pounds and a scoped weight of approximately 9-9.5 pounds, are more comfortable to shoot. Don't accept a barrel shorter than 24" on any 7mm Magnum rifle.
If you are contemplating the purchase of a long action rifle of standard weight and length in a standard caliber, whether single shot, bolt, lever, or pump, then the .270 Win. and .30-06 are probably the best choices. They offer somewhat more case capacity than the .308 Win. and ultimately that translates into slightly superior performance with maximum loads. There is nothing wrong with a standard size rifle in .308 Win. caliber, but there is no particular advantage, either. Accept no rifle with a barrel shorter than 22" in .270 or .30-06 caliber.
The exception to this would be if the rifle you are contemplating is an autoloader. The .308 Winchester was specifically designed to function reliably in autoloading actions and it replaced the .30-06 in military use primarily for that reason. Reliability is the most important aspect of any hunting rifle, so the .308 Win. is the odds-on choice for autoloaders.
The primary advantage of the .270 is that it shoots flatter than the other standard cartridges. In fact, it shoots just as flat as the 7mm Magnum. The .270 is the yardstick by which other long range cartridges are measured and the top choice for that purpose. The .270 is also superior to the .30's with lightweight bullets, so if a lot of jackrabbit shooting or predator hunting is on the agenda, as well as an occasional elk hunt, then a .270 is probably the best bet. The .270 kicks a little less in a standard weight rifle than a .30-06 or 7mm Magnum, or than a lightweight .308 rifle, but none of these high intensity numbers are light recoiling cartridges.
If you are saving for an Alaskan hunt that includes moose and brown bear and simply cannot afford to buy a medium bore rifle to take on your dream hunt, then the 7mm Rem. Mag. or .30-06 would probably be the best choices for your all-around rifle. They are slightly superior to the .270 or the .308 for the really big stuff. Ditto if you live in an area where elk and moose (or similar size animals worldwide) are your staple game, or where an encounter with a large, dangerous predator (like a lion or grizzly bear) is a real possibility.
If you are contemplating purchasing a lightweight rifle with a barrel shorter than 22", you should seriously consider the .308 Winchester. This is the situation in which I found myself many years ago. My all-around rifle at the time was a standard weight Winchester Model 70 in .270 Win. It was an accurate, powerful, flat shooting and handsome rifle.
However, every year it seemed to get heavier. I yearned for a handier rifle. In fact, I frequently found myself carrying my little Marlin 1894C lever action .357 Mag. carbine on deer hunts in the woods, simply because it was so much easier to tote.
I decided it was time for a new rifle (you know how it is). Ultimately, I wound up with a Ruger M77RSI, their Mannlicher stocked carbine, in .308 Win. I have always been a sucker for a trim Mannlicher style stock. The point is, if you want a short, light rifle a short action just makes sense and the .308 Winchester fits the bill.
The all-around cartridges are compared and covered individually in detail on the Rifle Cartridge Page. Here is an all-around cartridge chart based on this article that was contributed by Guns and Shooting Online member Dennis Miller: