So, You Want a Magnum?

By Chuck Hawks

.375 H&H Mag.
The seminal .375 H&H Magnum. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

Shooter interest in magnum rifle cartridges seems to be cyclic. I have now personally experienced two of these "magnum cycles," one that peaked in intensity between about 1955-1965 and the other in the first decade of the 21st Century. Judging by cartridge introductions and the gun writers of the period, there was an earlier magnum cycle that apparently peaked around 1915-1925. In between these cyclic peaks, magnums fall out of favor with most shooters.

As we are now in the midst of one of these magnum cycles, and because of the unprecedented amount of hype (most of it undeserved) devoted to the current crop of short-short, short and extra large magnums. Oddly, most of the latest short magnums are designed merely to duplicate the performance of the previous generation of magnums and offer absolutely nothing new in ballistics. Indeed, the rebated rims and overall cartridge geometry of all the new crop of super-short and short magnums compromise operational (feeding) reliability and most of the extra large magnums also have rebated rims, definitely a negative design feature. Any cartridge that increases the chances of a stoppage is clearly no bargain and should be avoided!

An article that touched on the most useful magnum cartridges, cartridges that actually work as intended in ordinary hunting rifles in calibers from .24 to .45, seemed in order. The cartridges listed below tend to shoot flatter and hit harder than their standard counterparts. They are based on belted cases that headspace on the belt and have full diameter rims for positive feeding and extraction. They are the "go to" magnum cartridges in their respective calibers.

Short Magnums (.308 action length)

  • 6.5mm Remington Magnum - Based on a necked-down .350 Mag. case, this was the second short magnum cartridge to be introduced. The 6.5mm Magnum is a true long range cartridge (MPBR of around 300 yards, depending on the specific load) that shoots bullets with exceptional sectional density and works in short action rifles. This cartridge and its .350 caliber cousin are all the short magnum cartridges you will ever need.
  • .350 Remington Magnum - The first true short magnum cartridge, the .350 offers medium bore magnum power for short actions without a rebated rim. Ballistically, this would be unimportant, since standard (.30-06) length actions can be chambered for medium bores that equal or exceed the power of the .350, except that some useful rifle action designs will not accept standard length cartridges. If you want serious CXP3 big game killing power in a short action rifle, the .350 Remington is for you.

Standard Length Magnums (.30-06 action length)

  • .240 Weatherby Magnum - The .240 Weatherby is a real, extra long range, 6mm magnum. It is based on a normally proportioned case that works first time, every time in Weatherby or other rifles chambered for it and delivers a real ballistic advantage over the standard 6mm Remington.
  • .257 Weatherby Magnum - One of the flattest shooting cartridges in the world, the .257 Weatherby easily outperforms standard .25 caliber cartridges and the (rather pitiful) .25 WSSM. As an ultra-long range cartridge for hunting all CXP2 game it has no peer and its recoil in a standard weight Weatherby rifle is no more annoying than that of larger caliber standard cartridges, such as the .270 Winchester.
  • .270 Weatherby Magnum - The other great Weatherby standard length, ultra-long range magnum, the .270 shares its case with the .257 and the 7mm. Naturally, it kicks harder than the .257, because it shoots heavier bullets. However, it also elevates the power level to the CXP2/CXP3 "all-around" category.
  • 7mm Remington Magnum - This is the best selling of all magnum cartridges and perhaps the best balanced from the perspective of the big game hunter. A truly useful all-around hunting cartridge, the 7mm Rem. Mag. is said to "shoot as flat as a .270 and hit as hard as a .30-06." That is a useful summary of its capabilities.
  • .338 Winchester Magnum - The .338 Win. Mag. has become the only truly popular medium bore cartridge in modern times. It is favored by Alaskan grizzly and brown bear guides because it flat gets the job done. No more powerful cartridge is needed for any North American game animal, period. Winchester's "Alaskan" has also become a popular African medium bore cartridge.
  • .458 Winchester Magnum - Big bore "elephant" cartridges are surprisingly popular, considering that very few hunters have any actual use the for big boomers. The .458 will indeed drop the largest of all game animals decisively, but its biggest advantage is its standard length case, which allows it to be chambered in a variety of commonly available rifles. This also makes it perhaps the easiest of the elephant cartridges to load down to tolerable recoil levels (emulating the ballistics of the old .45-70) for practice shooting and hunting North American game.

Long Magnums (.375 H&H action length)

  • .300 Weatherby Magnum - The famous .300 Weatherby is based on a blown-out .300 H&H case and it represents the most powerful .30 caliber cartridge for which there is any justification. It is probably the most useful of the .300's for those who can tolerate its outsized recoil and still deliver precise, dependable bullet placement. If you can't do it with a .300 Weatherby, you need a bullet larger than .30 caliber!
  • .375 H&H Magnum - Long regarded as the "Queen of the Medium Bores," the famous .375 H&H sparked the first magnum craze and is still going strong. That is because it is a remarkably balanced design that is capable of killing any animal on earth, while still shooting flat enough to be useful at extended ranges. There are more powerful and flatter shooting medium bore magnums, but they kick so hard that very few hunters can shoot them reliably.
  • .416 Remington Magnum - The late Jack O'Connor, the Dean of American Gun Writers, almost single handedly sparked the interest of North American shooters in .416 caliber cartridges. O'Connor experimented with the giant .416 Rigby in a rifle with an oversize Mauser Magnum action and wrote extensively about his experiences in the pages of Outdoor Life magazine. The only problem was that there are very few Magnum Mauser actions available and not many modern bolt actions will accept a cartridge as big as the .416 Rigby. (Bill Ruger Sr. later built his M77 Magnum action around the .416.) Remington's answer was their .416 Magnum, based on a blown-out and necked-up .375 H&H case, which will work in any action that can handle a full-length magnum cartridge. Remington's .416 offers ballistics identical to the .416 Rigby in a smaller package, which is made possible by operating at higher maximum average pressure. This high pressure has been known to cause problems in the extra hot African sun, but it is no big deal to load the cartridge down a little for use in the tropics. Your Cape buffalo will never know the difference.

Note: All of these magnums are covered in individual full length articles and cartridge comparisons that can be found on the Rifle Cartridges page.

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Copyright 2009, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.