Muzzle Velocities of Rifle Reloads - An Annotated List
By Gary Zinn
There are more than 150 commercial centerfire rifle cartridges, but I would guess the vast bulk of production rifles and commercial ammunition loads made are for no more than perhaps two dozen cartridges. The remainder occupy a special purpose or niche market frequented by only a few shooters, or are obsolescent.
The reloading of rifle ammunition likely is concentrated on these same popular cartridges. This supposition must be tempered, though, with recognition that there are some capable and useful cartridges that have fallen out of favor, to the point that commercial loads for them are scarce, with a limited choice of bullet weights and performance levels. Those who shoot such cartridges must load their own ammo to get the best from them. Further, shooters of wildcat or proprietary cartridges are compelled or highly motivated to load their own ammunition for their pet rifles.
It occurred to me there is not a quick reference list of the muzzle velocities (MVs) that the reloader may reasonably expect to achieve when reloading the more popular and useful cartridges. This is a modest attempt to make such a list.
My starting point for selecting cartridges to include was the 10 Best Selling Centerfire Rifle Cartridges list, which provides 13 cartridges, including three honorable mentions. I added cartridges in various caliber slots, finally settling on 35 cartridges total, ranging from the .204 Ruger to the .458 Winchester Magnum. A few fringe commercial cartridges are included, because I felt they made sense in their caliber slots. No wildcat or proprietary cartridges are included.
I used the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading (10th edition, 2016) to get reasonable values for reload muzzle velocities for the various cartridges and bullet weights selected. The Hornady Handbook is especially useful, because each cartridge/bullet weight table lists the charges of various powders that will drive the particular weight bullet at 100 fps (50 fps for a few cartridges) MV increments up to the maximum loads. I did not necessarily list all bullet weights for each cartridge, but chose those usually used for hunting.
I did not always use the maximum MV data for each cartridge and load, but chose the highest MV that could be attained by a minimum of three powders. Put another way, some of the bullets listed can be driven 50 or 100 fps faster than listed, but only with one or two powders.
The Hornady data may show attainable MVs that differ from those shown in load tables from other reputable sources (for the same powder and bullet weight), as reloading manual data varies, depending on the brand and design of bullet used and the ambient test conditions. Therefore, the data I extracted from the Hornady Manual are indicative, rather than definitive. I used the Hornady data, because it is organized conveniently and comes from a consistent testing protocol, applied across the spectrum of cartridges and bullet weights listed.
The data presentation is as follows. For each cartridge, the bullet weights are in grains (gr.) and the muzzle velocity attainable with a bullet is in feet per second (fps). The number in parentheses after each MV is the number of powder loads that attain that MV, according to Hornady. A star (*) symbol before a cartridge means that it is one of those cited in the 10 Best Selling Rifle Cartridges article.
Varmint cartridges and loads
I am sure that the vast bulk of centerfire cartridge varmint hunting is done with rifles chambered for the highly popular .223 Rem. and .22-250 Rem. cartridges. The relatively new .204 Ruger may catch on, for it drives light weight bullets very fast, but it cannot handle the bullet weights that are popular in the .22 caliber cartridges. Meanwhile, the .24 and .25 bore cartridges listed are about equally capable with heavier varmint bullets.
Medium and big game hunting cartridges and loads
The beauty of these three cartridges is that they can serve to hunt both varmints and Class 2 game As a game cartridge, the .25-06 is the strongest, with the .257 Roberts bridging the gap between the .243 Win. and the .25-06. I feel that the .257 Roberts is, overall, the most useful of the three as a heavy varmint / light game cartridge.
I included all three of these cartridges, because the jury is still out on which may become the dominant 6.5mm hunting cartridge in North America. There is a valid argument that the venerable 6.5x55, by far the most popular 6.5mm cartridge in the rest of the world, is all the cartridge that one needs in the bore size. (Loaded to the same pressure, the 6.5x55 is the most versatile and powerful of the three, particularly with 140-160 grain bullets. -Editor) The .260 Rem. has been around long enough to prove its merits as a hunting cartridge, while the 6.5 Creedmoor is being briskly promoted as an improvement on the .260 Rem. (The ballistics data shows that this is not so.) My advise is to pick whichever of these cartridges flicks your BiC and shoot it.
Cartridge designers have strained mightily to create or adapt cartridges that will work in AR-15 platforms, while generating enough downrange performance to be reasonably adequate for hunting Class 2 game animals. To date, these two are the ones that have adequate ballistic performance and are reasonably popular in AR-15 type hunting rifles.
The .270 Win. is the Queen of non-magnum, sub-.30 bore hunting cartridges, while the .270 WSM (when fired in a 24" barrel) exceeds the performance of the .270 Win. by a modest amount. Both are used for hunting Class 2 and Class 3 game.
These three cartridges fill the 7mm caliber slot very well. All three are ballistically very similar to earlier cartridges. The mild mannered yet deadly 7mm-08 is ballistically equivalent to the venerable 7x57mm Mauser, the .280 Rem. is nearly identical to the earlier .270 Winchester, while the 7mm Remington Magnum, ballistically similar to the earlier 7mm Weatherby Magnum, is as powerful a sub-.30 caliber cartridge as any reasonable shooter needs.
"Good, better, best" apply to the .30-30, .308 Win. and .30-06, respectively, as all-around hunting cartridges. Anyone looking for a better small bore cartridge for hunting most of the common game animals will have to draw some very fine distinctions to convincingly argue that there are other all-around cartridges better than one or another of these three. As the MV increases from one cartridge to another, so does the accuracy degrading recoil.
The .300 Win. Mag. is the strongest performing of the popular small bore cartridges. (The .300 Win. Mag. ranks 8th among the 10 Best Selling Centerfire Rifle Cartridges list, while the 7mm Rem. Mag. ranks 7th.) Performance of the .300 WSM (honorable mention on the list) is virtually identical to that of the .300 Win. Mag. when fired from barrels of the same length. The only notable difference between these two .30 caliber magnums is that the .300 Win. Mag. feeds more reliably, but requires a standard (.30-06 length) action, while the .300 WSM works in short (.308 length) actions.
The only reason I include this cartridge is because it has moved onto the 10 Best Selling Cartridges list (ranking 9th). Although proven effective as a military cartridge, like the .30 US Carbine, it has very limited merit as a hunting cartridge. Its ballistic performance is marginal at best, hampered by poor ballistic coefficient and sectional density numbers for the bullet weights the cartridge is capable of handling. (Simply stated, if you intend to hunt deer size game, buy a .30-30, not an AK. -Editor)
The 8x57mm Mauser, popular in Europe, has hung on in the US, due to war surplus Mauser rifles. The .325 WSM has ballistics that could make it a viable cartridge, but it is a very poor seller and already obsolescent. Meanwhile, the venerable .32 Win. Spec., a long time best seller apparently forgotten by most young hunters, shows signs of making a modest comeback.
The .338 Win. Mag. is the only medium bore cartridge that appears on some of the 10 best selling cartridges lists. This suggests that few hunters view a medium bore cartridge as necessary for hunting most game animals. Those who do judge the .338 Win. Mag. to be more than sufficient for large, tough and potentially dangerous North American game. It is, for example, very popular in Alaska.
I list the .338 Federal, because I feel that it is the most capable and versatile of the commercial, non-magnum, medium bore cartridges. The .338 Federal is young (introduced in 2006) and has not achieved much market penetration so far. I envision its market development story as being similar to the 7mm-08 Remington. That cartridge was largely ignored or scorned for some two decades after its introduction, but then the merits of the 7mm-08 began to be recognized and it gained popularity. I hope the .338 Federal will do the same, because the cartridge has merits that should recommend it to discerning hunters.
Note: There are gaps in the Hornady load data tables, for they include data for only those bullet weights that Hornady manufactures, in any given caliber. Since Hornady does not make 220 or 225 grain .358 bullets, their load tables do not cover those bullet weights. Approximate load velocities for 220-225 grain bullet weights (shown in italics) were gleaned from other reliable reloading data sources. There are also bullet weight gaps in the Hornady tables for the .416 Rem. Magnum, .45-70 and .458 Win. Magnum (below), which I filled in the same manner.
The .35 Rem. and .358 Win. cartridges are favored by a small subset of hunters who do their thing in thick woods and brush, where most shot opportunities are at short to medium range. The .35 Rem. is essentially a medium bore equivalent of the .30-30 or .32 Win. Special without any great ballistic advantage, while the .358 Win. may be viewed as a .35 Remington on steroids (more power and range). Neither is very popular in the current market for new rifles, but the .358, in particular, is very effective in the hunting environment to which it is suited.
I listed the .35 Whelen to note that there is a viable, standard (.30-06) length, .35 bore cartridge slightly more powerful than the short action .358 Winchester. The .35 Whelen is nearly as strong as the seldom seen .350 Rem. Magnum, but it and the .35 caliber magnums are overshadowed by the popularity of the .338 Win. Mag. (See Compared: .35 Whelen and .350 Rem. Mag. for additional information.)
There are only a few cartridges in the upper part of the medium bore size class. Jack O'Connor called the .375 H&H Magnum "the Queen of the medium bore cartridges" and it is an excellent choice for very heavy game. The 9.3x62mm Mauser is not well known to American hunters, even though it has a well-earned reputation for effectiveness on large game in Africa and Europe. However, it appears to finally be catching on in North America for hunting Class 3 and Class 4 animals. The relevance of these cartridges is emphasized by the fact that one or the other of them is the legal minimum for hunting the Big Five across most of Africa.
This "cartridge that will not die" was introduced in 1873 and it remains the most popular big bore cartridge in North America. Modern lever action rifles chambered in .45-70 (mainly offered by Henry and Marlin) are favored by some hunters for close work against large and/or dangerous North American game. The velocities listed above are those attainable within the 40,000 c.u.p. pressure limit of Model 1895 type lever action rifles.
I am far from being an expert on cartridges suitable for hunting the African Big Five, or any other very large or dangerous game, but what I do know about the subject leads me to list the .416 Rem. Mag. and .458 Win. Mag. as standards for such work. According to the Hornady load tables, the .416 Rem. Mag. gets the same top end velocity as the .416 Rigby with 400 grain bullets, while the .458 Win. Mag. is only 50 fps slower than the .458 Lott with 500 grain bullets.
Note: All of the rifle cartridges mentioned in this article are covered in detail in articles that can be found on the Rifle Cartridges index page.
Copyright 2018 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.