The Most Prolific Rifle Cartridges by the Number of Available Factory Loads, 2019
By Gary Zinn
A ranked list of the most commonly available centerfire rifle cartridges is both interesting and useful. The latest such list posted on Guns and Shooting Online (The 10 Best Selling Centerfire Rifle Cartridges in the USA was compiled in 2016, using 2015 data sources. It is time for an update.
I do not have ready access to the data sources that were used for the earlier G&S Online survey, so my methodology is different. To get an indicative ranking of the currently most available centerfire rifle cartridges in the U.S.A. (and likely beyond), I used available information on commercial ammunition catalogued on two major Internet retail sites, Able Ammo and MidwayUSA.
My methodology was to simply tally and sum the number of loads listed by Able Ammo and MidwayUSA, in each cartridge of interest. The load sums are noted after each cartridge in the list, below. The premise of the method is that ammunition manufacturers focus production and marketing efforts on the loads that are most in demand.
(This is not necessarily indicative of the overall cartridge sales, as some cartridges are available in only two or three factory loads from each manufacturer, but those few loads sell in great volume; an example is the .30-30 Winchester. The .30-30 is habitually one of the top selling centerfire cartridges, in the top five in overall sales in most manufacturer's lists and perhaps the most widely distributed of all our centerfire cartridges. You can buy a box of .30-30 cartridges in giant sporting goods emporiums in big cities, or tiny Mom and Pop backwoods general stores that stock only .22 LR and .30-30 ammo. -Editor)
My tally clearly involves double counting, in that the two vendors list many of the same loads. However, the total number of loads listed by each vendor was never the same for any cartridge, so I felt that using the numbers from both was a practical way to get a reasonably complete picture of the commercial loads available. (Able Ammo generally listed more loads than did MidwayUSA.)
After compiling the data for over two dozen cartridges, I rank ordered the load numbers for each one. The top nine stand well above the others and are pretty much as I anticipated, except for the .300 Blackout cartridge. The cartridges ranked #10 through #20 are, in many cases, closely packed in number of loads available. The .375 H&H Magnum and .300 Remington Ultra Magnum narrowly missed making the list, while no other cartridges were close.
I stress that this ranking is indicative, rather than definitive. A ranking system using different variables, data sources, or methods of compilation would doubtless get different results. However, I believe that the indicative results are strong; the top handful of cartridges in this list would likely rank high in any objective survey and, except for the .338 Win. Mag. (our best selling medium bore cartridge) those near the bottom would likely not make the top ten of any list.
The cartridges on this list mostly fall into loose groupings, as follows. My comments focus mainly on the hunting applications of each cartridge.
.223 Remington (#1), .22-250 Remington (#11): The .223 Remington tops the list, because it is very popular for recreational and competitive shooting in AR-15 type rifles. Evidence of this is that half of the commercial loads offered in .223 Remington feature match or full metal jacket bullets. The .223 Rem. and .22-250 Remington are by far the most popular centerfire varmint cartridges.
.308 Winchester (#2), 30-06 Springfield (#3), 7mm Remington Magnum (#5) .270 Winchester (#6): These four workhorse, all-around cartridges are as much as a hunter needs for taking Class 2 and Class 3 game anywhere in the world. The 7mm Rem. Mag., in a rifle weighing about 1/2 pound more than a .30-06, produces similar recoil. It is our most versatile Magnum big game cartridge.
The .308 Winchester owes its position as the most popular .30 caliber cartridge partly to its use in target match competition, with over one-third of .308 Winchester commercial loads featuring match bullets.
.243 Winchester (#8), 6.5 Creedmoor (#9), 7mm-08 Remington (#15), .25-06 Remington (#17): These are cartridges favored by those who prefer to pursue Class 2 game with something that kicks less than the all-around cartridges mentioned above. The .243 Winchester has been the leading hybrid Class 1 and Class 2 game cartridge for over a half-century. The .25-06 Remington firing 120 grain bullets, 6.5 Creedmoor firing 140 grain bullets and the 7mm-08 firing 140 grain bullets fall only slightly short of typical 130-grain .270 Winchester loads in range and terminal power.
The 6.5 Creedmoor, the new kid in town, has made a large splash in a short time. Introduced in 2007 as a target match cartridge, the Creedmoor quickly gained traction in both recreational/competitive shooting and hunting use. About 35% of 6.5 Creedmoor commercial loads feature match or FMJ bullets, with a variety of hunting bullets available in other load offerings. North American shooters and hunters have finally fully embraced a 6.5mm cartridge with ballistics virtually identical to the 6.5x55 SE of 1906.
.300 Winchester Magnum (#4), .300 WSM (#10), .300 Weatherby Magnum (#18), .270 WSM (#20): Realistically, only a small minority of hunting situations require a small bore magnum rifle. Nevertheless, the .300 Winchester (and .300 WSM) have been very popular virtually since their introduction, while the other three magnums have found enough favor to make this top 20 list. All except the .270 WSM are best suited for hunting Class 3 game, while the .270 WSM is useful for hunting both Class 2 and Class 3 animals.
.300 BLK (#7), .30-30 Winchester (#12), 7.62x39mm Soviet (#13): These three cartridges are often lumped together because they are .30 caliber, medium velocity cartridges that generate similar trajectories with typical loads, leading to the superficial conclusion that if the .30-30 is a great hunting cartridge (which it clearly is), then the .300 BLK and 7.62x39mm must also be good hunters, which they are not.
The typical .300 BLK or 7.62x39 versus .30-30 comparison is with 110 grain .300 BLK or 123 grain 7.62x 39 bullets, versus a 150 grain .30-30 load. The problem with the .300 BLK and 7.62x39 is that the light-for-caliber bullets have low sectional densities and shed energy badly at longer ranges, which leads to undependable killing power (bullet penetration and expansion) on game animals at distances much beyond 100 yards.
The .30-30, by contrast, is field tested and proven as an effective Class 2 game cartridge out to 200 yards, or a bit further, whether with 150, 160, or 170 grain bullets. (Within 100 yards it has also proven to be an effective elk cartridge for over a century with 160-170 grain bullets. -Editor) Anyone who claims that the .300 BLK or 7.62x39 is as effective for hunting as the .30-30 is simply wrong.
As I see it, the rankings of the .300 BLK and 7.62x39mm cartridges are due to a large number of blasting ammo options (brands and bullet weights) for use in AR15, AK-47 and other autoloading rifles. The .300 BLK load numbers are expanded by heavy bullet subsonic loads (generally labeled .300 Whisper).
Meanwhile, the .30-30 ranks just outside the top ten, even though it is commonly available in only three bullet weights of no-nonsense hunting loads. The .30-30 is the second oldest cartridge on this list, but a lot of hunters still use it simply because it gets the job done.
.45-70 Government (#14): At some 150 years of age, the cartridge that refuses to die is still surprisingly popular. The 45-70 is a favorite at buffalo rifle shooting matches, in rifles that replicate those of the late 1800s. The cartridge is also useful to modern hunters, as a potent short to moderate range round in fast cycling lever guns. That the .45-70 is on this popularity list is due to commercial ammo loaded in three power levels and in a variety of bullet types and weights.
.338 Lapua Magnum (#16), .338 Winchester Magnum (#18): These potent .338 medium bore magnums can be loaded to handle all Class 3 and Class 4 game. The .338 Win. Mag. is a heavy game cartridge that is overkill on Class 2 animals. However, it is about the perfect cartridge for North American elk, moose and the great bears and very popular for such hunting in Alaska and the western states
The .338 Lapua Magnum, originally designed for long range sniping, makes the top 20 list by virtue of being the dominant medium bore cartridge for long range target match shooting. This is reflected in over one-half of .338 Lapua Mag. commercial loads being tipped with match bullets.
An article that examines these popular cartridges more closely is in progress. This closer look will note the most prevalent weight bullets for each cartridge and will examine ballistic performance, including maximum point blank range, trajectory, downrange energy, terminal (killing) power and estimated recoil. Cartridges that fall into the same groups will be compared side by side.
Copyright 2019 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.