Groups of Rifle Cartridges
Over the years I have written a great many articles about rifle cartridges, both individually and collectively. This time I am going to group hunting rifle cartridges based on their purpose and performance. The point being that you can choose any of the cartridges from one of these groups and it will do about as well as any other for their (collective) intended purposes.
I cannot list every rifle cartridge and some fall in-between the larger groups of cartridges. Therefore, I will only include reasonably common choices.
The point here is to help those who write to me asking if they should buy a rifle in, say, 7mm-08 or 7x57mm. In reality, there is little to choose between the two cartridges and my advice is to buy the rifle they like best, as either cartridge will probably do equally well. Rather than explain in greater detail, let's get started and I think that it will all become clear.
1. Short to medium range small game and varmint cartridges (Class 1 animals)
These are suitable for shooting small game (squirrels and rabbits) and pests like gophers, prairie dogs, sand rats, groundhogs and small predators at moderate distances. They have a maximum point blank range (MPBR) between 100-200 yards (+/- 1.5").
The rimfire .17 HMR and .17 WSM are the standouts here. They are very accurate, mild, reasonably priced and flat shooting. The .17 HMR has a MPBR (+/- 1.5") of about 165 yards with a 17 grain varmint bullet, while the .17 WSM has a MPBR of about 200 yards with a 20 grain varmint bullet.
2. Medium to long range varmint cartridges (Class 1 animals)
These are the most popular centerfire choices for exterminating the pests mentioned above. They are also very effective on small predators, such as foxes and coyotes. They have a maximum point blank range between 214-242 yards (+/- 1.5").
The popular .222 Remington was the first of these cartridges, but the best selling of all centerfire varmint cartridges is the .223 Remington. .223 rifles are available from practically all manufacturers in bewildering variety.
The .17 Hornet appears set to challenge the .223's dominance as a varmint cartridge. It combines the least recoil and report with the flattest trajectory and longest MPBR (242 yards) in class, a hard combination to beat.
3. Ultra-Long range varmint cartridges (Class 1 animals)
These are the varmint and small predator cartridges that can really reach out. The .22 and larger calibers are quite a bit noisier than the medium range varmint cartridges and are not as pleasant to shoot, while most of the .17 and .20 calibers are similar to the .223 Rem. in blast and recoil. Barrel wear due to very high velocity becomes a problem with these cartridges. They have a maximum point blank range of 260+ yards with optimum loads (+/- 1.5").
Unless they are shooting where high winds are the norm, most shooters prefer the ultra-long range .17-.22 calibers to the dual purpose (Class 1 and Class 2) .243 Win., .243 WSSM and 6mm Rem. Most shooters find the latters' muzzle blast and recoil tiring in high volume shooting.
The most sensible dual purpose cartridges are the .243 Winchester and 6mm Remington. The .243 Win. and 6mm Rem. were actually developed by wildcatters as long range varmint cartridges, a purpose for which they are very effective with 58-85 grain bullets, especially in windy conditions. I consider them the best varmint cartridges over .22 caliber.
4. Short range deer cartridges
This group is a collection of old time rifle cartridges and revolver cartridges adapted to rifles (mostly lever action carbines). Trajectory and/or killing power considerations limit their effective range to about 100 yards. If you need more range, see group #8
Except for the .44 Magnum revolver cartridge fired in lightweight carbines, these are very light recoil cartridges. Get close and get your first shot into the kill zone.
5. Deer cartridges for AR-15, Mini-14 and AK-47 type rifles
These semi-automatic rifles have very short actions and are incapable of using established and more powerful deer cartridges, such as the .243 and .30-30. Therefore, short rimless cartridges have been developed to allow AR and AK owners to hunt the smaller Class 2 animals (mostly whitetail deer) at short to moderate range. Be sure to use expanding hunting bullets, not military ball or varmint bullets.
Remember that these cartridges are less capable than the cartridges listed in categories #6 through #14 below. They use light for caliber bullets of relatively inferior sectional density, so penetration is inherently limited. Be careful to use these cartridges within their killing power and trajectory limitations.
6. Flat shooting .24 and .25 caliber Class 2 game cartridges
Although they are considered "dual purpose" (Class 1 and Class 2) cartridges, most shooters today see all of these .24 and .25 caliber cartridges as deer and antelope cartridges. Their recoil and muzzle blast moves most of them beyond the high volume shooting varmint cartridge category for the majority of shooters, although all are available with varmint weight bullets.
The standard .24's and .25's are widely used as entry level deer and pronghorn cartridges, but they are also favored by some very experienced hunters. Their moderate muzzle blast and flat trajectory makes them easy to shoot accurately. The typical bullet weight for hunting Class 2 game is around 100 grains and the MPBR (+/- 3") ranges from about 275-300 yards However, the .243 Win., .243 WSSM, 6mm Rem. and .250 Savage run out of killing power after about 200 yards.
The most popular of these cartridges is the .243 Winchester and I have found .243 rifles to be very accurate. Additional .243 advantages are the world-wide distribution of .243 Winchester ammunition and the excellent bullet selection available to reloaders.
The 6x62mm Freres, .240 Weatherby and .25-06 are all based on cases with approximately the same powder capacity as the .30-06 and the .257 Weatherby is based on an even larger capacity belted magnum case. (The same case used for the .270 and 7mm Weatherby Magnums.) They are very competent long range Class 2 game cartridges.
7. General purpose Class 2 and short range Class 3 game cartridges
This is one of the most useful and (in the hands of average hunters) deadly group of cartridges. Their recoil is moderate and their killing power is noticeably superior to the .24 and .25 caliber cartridges listed above. In fact, they give away little to the popular .270-.30 caliber "all-around" cartridges, but kick less. All of these can be stretched to take Class 3 game at moderate range with good bullet placement, although cartridges in the .270 and .30-06 class are better Class 3 cartridges.
139-140 grains seems to be the most popular and useful bullet weight in all of the medium capacity 6.5mm and 7mm cartridges. The 6.5mm numbers can handle bullets weighing up to 160 grains for use on large animals like North American elk and Scandinavian moose, while the 7mm-08 and 7x57mm can accommodate bullets up to 175 grains.
The 6.5's offer superior bullet sectional density for greater penetration with the same weight bullet, while the 7's offer greater bullet frontal area. Take your pick, for on game it tends to even out.
8. Lever action Class 2 (medium range) and Class 3 (short range) cartridges
These are mostly medium range cartridges with a MPBR (+/- 3") in excess of 200 yards and killing power to match for Class 2 animals. With proper loads and bullets they are entirely capable of killing Class 3 game at moderate ranges (about 100 yards), but are best known in North America as quintessential deer and black bear cartridges.
The .30-30, .32 Winchester Special and .35 Remington are the most typical deer and black bear cartridges. The advent of Hornady's Flex-Tip spitzer bullets for the .30-30, .32 Spec. and .35 Rem. has added considerably to their MPBR and down range hitting power. With Hornady LeverEvolution factory loads the .30-30, for example, is a 235 yard deer cartridge.
The .307 Winchester, .308 Marlin Express and .300 Savage tread closely on the heels of the .308 Winchester in power and capability. They could have been included with the all-around cartridges below, but because they are most commonly encountered in traditional lever action rifles they remain here.
9. All-around Class 2 and Class 3 game cartridges
These cartridges are, perhaps, more powerful than actually required for Class 2 game and are not quite as effective on Class 3 game as most of the medium bore cartridges. However, they remain popular for all of the above and for one rifle hunts anywhere in the world they are natural choices.
The .308 Winchester, .30-06 and .270 Winchester are the most popular of all big game cartridges. However, the .303 British remains popular in many countries that were once part of the British Empire and/or Commonwealth, including Canada and Australia. The 8x57mm is still popular in Europe, especially in Germany and central Europe. The .30R Blaser is a modern rimmed cartridges designed for modern single shot rifles and drillings.
The most common bullet weights for Class 2 game hunting are 130-140 grains for the .270 and 139-140 grains for the 7mm cartridges. 150 grain bullets in .270 and 150-175 grain bullets in the 7mm calibers are generally recommended for Class 3 game.
The .270-7mm cartridges shoot flatter with bullets of similar SD than the .30, .303 and 8mm all-around cartridges. With the lighter 130-140 grain bullets most commonly used in these cartridges, they are capable of a MPBR (+/- 3") close to 300 yards.
In the .30 to 8mm caliber cartridges, bullets around 150 grains are preferred for Class 2 game and heavier bullets in the 174-200 grain range are recommended for most Class 3 game. The 215-220 grain bullets are for the largest and/or potentially dangerous animals (Alaskan brown bear, for example.)
The recoil of these cartridges in medium weight sporting rifles is about as much as most reasonably experienced shooters can handle without developing an accuracy destroying flinch. If it bothers you, try one of the cartridges in group #7.
10. 6.5mm-7mm Magnum cartridges
These Class 2 and Class 3 all-around cartridges shoot somewhat flatter than their standard cousins of the same bore diameter. They basically do the same thing, but they can do it at longer range.
The long range champion in this group is the 6.5mm Weatherby Magnum. The .270 Weatherby Magnum, 7mm Remington and 7mm Weatherby Magnum are probably the best balanced cartridges in this group. It has been said of the 7mm Rem. Mag. that it shoots as flat as a .270 and hits as hard as a .30-06, which is pretty close to the truth. No wonder it is the best selling magnum cartridge in the world.
11. .300 and 8mm Magnum Cartridges
Like the .270 Weatherby compared to the .270 Winchester or the 7mm Rem. Mag. compared to the .280 Remington, these magnum Class 2 and Class 3 all-around cartridges shoot flatter than their .30-.32 caliber standard counterparts. They basically do the same thing, but they can do it at longer range.
There is little to choose, ballistically, between any of the short action (.308 length) and standard length action (.30-06 length) .300's. However, the standard length magnums feed more reliably and handle the heavier 180-220 grain bullets that are the justification for the existence of all .300 Magnum cartridges better than do the short action .300's. The .300 Win. Mag. is the best selling of all the .30-.32 caliber magnums.
The .300 and 8mm Magnums kick a lot harder than the other all-around cartridges, at least as hard as many of the medium bore cartridges, so all of these magnums fall into the area of diminishing returns. This is why I have never had much use for them. They add about 40 yards to the MPBR of the .30-06 with 180 grain bullets, but any game animal that can legitimately be killed by a .300 Magnum or 8x68mmS can also be killed by a .30-06, albeit at somewhat closer range.
The MPBR with 180 grain bullets is around 300 yards. Trajectories are similar to the standard .270 and 7mm cartridges with 130-140 grain bullets or the 7mm Magnums with 150-154 grain bullets.
The giant .300 RUM and .30-378 Weatherby, based on necked-down, full length elephant rifle cartridges, are well into the area of absurdity. If you need a cartridge that big, you need a bigger caliber bullet to go with it.
12. Medium bore cartridges for Class 3 game
These are the most powerful cartridges that most experienced shooters can handle. They are medium range cartridges that normally shoot heavier bullets than the all-around cartridges in the .30-06 class.
Being of larger diameter, their bullets also punch larger holes, a good thing when hunting big animals like North American elk and moose, Scandinavian moose and large African antelope such as oryx and kudu. These medium bore cartridges kick less than the medium bore magnums that follow and will suffice very nicely for most purposes. Muzzle energies run from about 2750 to 3500 ft. lbs.
200-225 grain bullets are most popular in the .338 and .35 caliber cartridges. However, the .338-06, .348 Win., .358 Win., .35 Whelen and .350 Remington Magnum can handle bullets up to 250 grains to maximize penetration.
The .338 Marlin Express, .348 Winchester, .356 Winchester, .375 Winchester and .38-55 (Heavy load) are rimmed cartridges used in strong lever action rifles. The .38-55 Buffalo Bore Heavy load (a 255 grain bonded core bullet at 1950 fps) has proven to be very effective on moose and grizzly bears at moderate range.
The most effective of these cartridges on very large or dangerous game, especially in Africa, are the 9.3x62mm and 9.3x74R. These European .366" caliber cartridges are ballistic twins. The 9.3x74mm is a rimmed cartridge used in single shot and double-barreled rifles. The 9.3x62mm is a rimless cartridge for use in standard length bolt action rifles.
With 286 grain bullets, these two cartridges have proven to be effective for lion, Cape buffalo and even elephant, yet they kick noticeably less than the medium bore magnums. These excellent cartridges are finally gaining traction in the U.S. and ammunition is available from Hornady, Remington, Nosler and Federal, among others.
13. Medium bore magnums
These are magnum cartridges that kick substantially harder than most shooters can comfortably handle. They are suitable for hunting large and dangerous game, although due to local restrictions in some African countries, cartridges of less than 9.3mm or .375 caliber may not be legal for hunting lion, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros and elephant..
For the heaviest game, these cartridges are normally used with bullets weighing from 250-300 grains, depending on caliber. Muzzle energy is typically 3700 ft. lbs. or more with bullets having a SD in excess of .300.
The .338 Win. Mag. is the most popular medium bore cartridge in North America and ammunition is available wherever big and dangerous animals are hunted. The .358 Norma Magnum, like the .338 Win. Mag., is designed for use in standard length actions. The 9.3x64mm is popular with European hunters.
The long .375 H&H is the queen of African medium bores, legal everywhere for Class 4 game. The .375 Ruger is a new cartridge that duplicates the ballistics of the .375 H&H in a shorter case. The .375 Weatherby is based on a "blown out" .375 H&H case and .375 Wby. rifles can also shoot .375 H&H ammunition, since both cartridges headspace on the belt and are the same length and caliber. The .376 Steyr has failed to catch-on and now appears to be dying.
The .338 RUM, .338 Lapua, .338-378 Weatherby, .375 RUM and .378 Weatherby Magnum are all based on huge, blown-out elephant rifle cases. They require rifles with oversize actions and generate very heavy recoil and enormous muzzle blast in order to achieve a very flat trajectory with heavy bullets when it is not needed. The dangerous game for which they are apparently intended is typically killed at less than 100 yards and the general rule is not to engage such animals beyond 150 yards, due to the risk of wounding. They are over the top for practical purposes and best avoided.
14. Big bore cartridges for lever action and single shot rifles
In terms of overall effectiveness, these cartridges are roughly comparable to the standard medium bore cartridges listed in #12 (above). They are capable Class 3 game cartridges with proper bullets and loads, although their range is more limited and their recoil is similar.
This is the final group of cartridges for which most shooters and hunters have any use and, gentle reader, it brings us to the end of this article.
Note: Detailed information about all of the cartridges mentioned in this article, as well as cartridge comparisons, can be found on the Rifle Cartridges index page.
Copyright 2009, 2017 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.