The Westerner: .264 Winchester Magnum

By Chuck Hawks

The smallest caliber in Winchester's series of standard length belted magnums, which includes the .264, .300, .338, and .458 Winchester Magnums, the .264 Winchester Magnum (a 6.5mm to Europeans) was designed to be the ultimate ultra-long range big game cartridge. Winchester called it "The Westerner" in their early catalogs. All of these standard length magnums were created by shortening the long .300 Holland & Holland Magnum case so that it would work through standard length actions. In addition, the body taper was reduced to increase capacity, and the shoulder angle was increased.

Current factory ballistics for the .264 Mag. list a 140 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 3,030 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 2,854 ft. lbs. The 300 yard figures are 2,326 fps and 1,682 ft. lbs. of energy. These figures are considerably reduced from the original factory ballistics. Winchester and Remington used to load the 140 grain bullet to a MV of 3200 fps and ME of 3180 ft. lbs. from a 26" barrel. Those loads gave a mid-range trajectory of approximately 4.9" over 300 yards. A 26" barrel is preferred to get full performance from the .264 Mag.

The 26th edition of the Hodgdon Data Manual shows that a 120 grain bullet can be driven at a MV of 3023 fps with 60.0 grains of H4831 powder, or 3369 fps with 65.0 grains of H4831. The trajectory of a 120 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 3300 should look about like this: +2.4" at 100 yards, +3" at 160 yards, +2.6" at 200 yards, and -3" at 321 yards. That bullet has a BC of .433 and at that MV it makes a deadly ultra-long range bullet for deer and antelope hunting.

The Hornady Handbook, Third Edition shows a load with their excellent 129 grain Interlock Spire Point bullet at a MV of 3200 fps using 66.3 grains of H450 powder. The ME of that load is 2934 ft. lbs. The Hornady trajectory figures for that load look like this: +3.3" at 100 yards, +4.1" at 200 yards, 0 at 300 yards, and -9.6" at 400 yards. Holding the horizontal crosshair level with the top of a mule deer's back should put the bullet into the heart/lung area at 400 yards. This is a fine ultra-long range load for all medium size big game animals.

With the Hornady 140 grain Interlock SP bullet a MV of 3100 fps can be achieved over 64.4 grains of H450 powder. The ME is 2988 ft. lbs. The trajectory of a 140 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 3100 fps looks about like this: +2.5" at 100 yards, +2.3" at 200 yards, and -3" at 306 yards. This is nearly identical to the trajectory of the popular 130 grain .270 Winchester bullet. 140 grains is probably the best all-around bullet weight for the .264 Magnum.

Hornady data shows that the long 160 grain RN bullet can be driven to a MV of 2800 fps with 61.8 grains of H450 powder. The ME is 2786 ft. lbs. Hornady ballistics tables show that if zeroed at 200 yards the 160 grain RN will hit +2.3" at 100 yards and -10.2" at 300 yards. This is not a long range bullet, but it has a SD of .328 and offers extreme penetration for use on heavy or dangerous game.

As one of the top long range calibers, the .264 Mag. probably deserves more popularity than it has gotten. The recoil energy, shooting a 140 grain bullet at 3200 fps in an 8.5 pound rifle, is 19.2 ft. lbs. This is virtually identical to a 7mm Rem. Mag. rifle shooting a 150 grain bullet at 3100 fps. Naturally, the muzzle blast from a full house .264 Mag. is pretty severe. Another complaint is relatively short barrel life. However, the .264 Mag. is no worse in this regard than any other cartridge operating at similar pressure and velocity.

For these reasons, as well as the popularity of the earlier and better established .257 Weatherby Magnum, .270 Winchester, and .270 Weatherby Magnum (not to mention the competition from the later 7mm Remington Magnum), the .264 never caught on in a big way. As I write this only Remington and Winchester load the ammunition. Winchester still offers a couple of their Model 70 variations in .264. Otherwise only small, essentially custom, makers chamber their extremely expensive rifles for the .264 Win. Mag.

Whether the .264 Mag. is really any more practical than the .270 Win. is a moot point. You can make a pretty good argument that it is not. Winchester admits that its advantage lies primarily at ranges in excess of 400 yards. Needless to say, only a tiny percentage of hunters can shoot well enough, even from a rest, to justify 400 yard shots at medium size big game animals. And among those who can, even fewer are willing to lug around standard length bolt action rifles with 26" barrels. In the popular 22" barrel length, the .264 Mag. has minimal ballistic advantage over a .270, but the muzzle flash from the Magnum is sensational. Still, for those few who have the willingness and the skill, the .264 Win. Mag. may be the answer.

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Copyright 2001, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.