What to Expect When Moving Up In Caliber

By Chuck Hawks

The purpose of this article is to give the shooter some idea of what to expect when switching from a lower power to a higher power rifle. For example, a fellow who has grown accustomed to shooting a .243 Winchester rifle wants to buy an all-around big game rifle. His buddies have recommended the .30-06 as a good all-around cartridge, and he is wondering what to expect--how much difference in recoil and muzzle blast will there be between his .243 and a .30-06?

That is what this article intends to explore. But let's make the question a little broader and deal with classes of cartridges, as most popular rifle cartridges can be lumped into general categories. We will go up in power step by step, from one class of cartridges to the next.

The primary factors that affect the shooter when he or she touches off a round are muzzle blast and recoil. Muzzle blast is noise, and unfortunately my SPL meter will not read values high enough to be useful for measuring muzzle blast. I'm forced to use my subjective opinion about the relative volume of the noise made by the different classes of cartridges. The pressure wave of muzzle blast from the more powerful rifle cartridges can be felt as well as heard, particularly if one is standing off to the side of the shooter.

Remember to always use hearing protection when shooting any firearm. I use the "earmuff" type at the range, which give a noise reduction of about 25 dB. My subjective muzzle blast comments assume that the shooter is wearing similar ear protection. It also assumes that the shooter is outside, such as when hunting or shooting at an outdoor rifle range. Shooting indoors or in a confined space increases the noise of gunfire dramatically, making even a .22 rimfire rifle sound loud and a powerful centerfire rifle nearly unbearable.

Recoil can be calculated in terms of foot pounds (ft. lbs.) of kinetic energy. There are tables and formulas for the purpose. For this article I'm going to use the figures from the "Expanded Rifle Recoil Table," which you can find on the Tables, Charts, and Lists Page of Guns and Shooting Online. There are so many factors involved in calculating recoil that the results always seem to vary from source to source, but these numbers will serve admirably for our purposes.

We are going to assume that the shooter in question is using standard factory loaded ammunition unless otherwise noted. The reloader, for example, has the flexibility to load a 100 grain bullet at a MV of 2900 fps in a .308 Winchester that will make the .308 seem like a .243 when fired, but that ignores the true purpose of the .308 cartridge.

We are also going to assume rifles of average weight (including a scope and mount) and barrel length, as are common and appropriate for each class of cartridges. Short barrels increase the effect of muzzle blast, and lightweight rifles dramatically increase the effect of recoil. Subjectively, I would just as soon shoot a heavy, long barreled .338 Win. Mag. rifle as a short, lightweight .30-06 rifle.

I. Rimfire cartridges

The first class would be the rimfire cartridges. These are primarily the .17 Mach 2, .17 HMR, .22 Long Rifle, and .22 WMR. Average rimfire rifles probably weigh between about 5.5 and 7.5 pounds, with specialized varmint models weighing up to 8.5 pounds or more. Barrel length runs from 18" to 24", but 20" and 22" barrels are most common. Because not much powder is burned by the rimfire cartridges, there is not much difference in either performance or muzzle blast from any of the standard length barrels.

The rimfires are the softest shooting of all common rifle cartridges and I have never known anyone who was seriously bothered by their recoil or muzzle blast, providing that hearing protection is worn. I am going to characterize the muzzle blast of the rimfire cartridges as "very low"

These are primarily target, small game, and varmint rounds. All of them generate recoil energy well under 1 ft. lb., which is essentially negligible. According to the "Expanded Rifle Recoil Table" the most powerful of these, the .22 WMR, has a recoil energy of only 0.4 ft. lbs. when fired in a 6.75 pound rife.

These factors make the rimfires the easiest of all rifles to shoot, which is why every aspiring rifle shooter should start with a rimfire rifle. Full attention can be paid to proper technique (trigger squeeze, sight alignment, breathing, stance, etc.) without the distraction of excessive muzzle blast and recoil.

II. Small bore varmint cartridges

The next class of cartridges is the .17, .20, and .22 caliber centerfire varmint cartridges. These would include such numbers as the .17 Remington, .204 Ruger, .222 Remington, .223 Remington, .22-250, .220 Swift, and all similar cartridges.

These cartridges are available in standard weight rifles and heavy varmint rifles. The former usually come with 22" barrels and weigh perhaps 8 pounds. The latter usually come with 24"-26" barrels and weigh 8.5 to 12.5 pounds.

These cartridges burn much more powder than the rimfires and therefore have greater muzzle blast. However, I do not find the muzzle blast of the varmint cartridges up to about the .223 irritating. The largest varmint cartridges, such as .22-250 and .220 Swift, produce noticeably more muzzle blast than the smaller cartridges, almost on a par with the .243 Winchester.

I would characterize the muzzle blast of the smaller varmint cartridges as "low." I don't know anyone who considers their muzzle blast distracting. It will not be bothersome to most shooters.

The centerfire varmint cartridges move their bullets at high velocity, which along with the bigger powder charge means more recoil. Recoil will be around 2 to 5 ft. lbs., depending on the specific cartridge, load, and rifle weight. The recoil figure for the most popular of these, the .223 Rem., is about 3 ft. lbs. when shooting a 55 grain bullet in an 8.5 pound rifle. This is not enough recoil to bother the great majority of shooters. It is relatively easy to concentrate on the sight picture, trigger squeeze, and other factors crucial to accurate bullet placement.

III. Combination varmint and medium game cartridges

The next common class of rifle cartridges is the combination varmint and CXP2 class game calibers. These include the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .250 Savage, .257 Roberts, and similar cartridges. From the shooter's perspective, these cartridges are much alike.

Combination cartridges come in standard weight rifles and heavy varmint rifles. The former usually come with 22" barrels and weigh perhaps 7.5 or 8 pounds. The latter usually come with 24"-26" barrels and weigh 8.5 to 12.5 pounds. The heavy varmint rifles, of course, kick less and the longer barrel reduces muzzle blast.

The muzzle blast of the .24 and .25 caliber combination cartridges is considerably greater than that of the .222 class cartridges. It is also somewhat greater than the blast of the big varmint cartridges, such as the .22-250 and .220 Swift. But not a lot more than those, as the .22-250 is based on the .250 Savage case, and the .220 Swift is based on the 6mm Lee Navy case. The .243 Winchester might burn 20% more powder than a .220, and it is probably about that much louder. I would consider its muzzle blast to be on the low side of "medium."

Like the .22 caliber varmint rifles, these .24 and .25 caliber rifles launch their bullets at high velocity. Because these bullets weigh about twice as much and require more powder to propel, recoil is doubled or tripled. A 7.5 to 8 pound hunting rifle chambered for one of these cartridges is probably going to deliver 8 to 10 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. These are the most powerful cartridges that most shooters find truly comfortable to shoot, and the least powerful cartridges generally recommended for deer and antelope hunting. For that reason they are popular with young, small, and recoil sensitive shooters as well as mainstream hunters. Most shooters will be able to concentrate on their sight picture and trigger squeeze, rather than the imminent noise and kick, with these cartridges.

IV. Ultra-long range medium game cartridges

For some shooters the compulsion to pack more powder behind a relatively light bullet is irresistible. (I am not criticizing, as I own both a .240 Wby. Mag. and a .257 Wby. Mag.) From the .25-06 that dates back to about 1920 to the .25 WSSM of 2004, this tendency has found expression in the big case .24 and.25 caliber cartridges. Examples include the 6x62 Freres, .243 WSSM, .240 Weatherby Magnum, .25 WSSM, .25-06 Remington, and .257 Weatherby Magnum. These are very flat shooting medium game cartridges. Their primary purpose isn't so much to kill better than the standard size .24's and .25's, but to reach out farther to do it. Of course, at normal ranges they are exceedingly deadly on light framed game.

A rifle for one of the big case .24 or .25 caliber cartridges should weigh 8 to 9.25 pounds (depending on the specific caliber) and come with a 24" or 26" barrel. I own a .240 Weatherby Magnum rifle that weight 9.25 pounds and has a 26" barrel. It is a reasonably pleasant rifle to shoot, seeming to kick only a little harder than my lightweight 7.25 pound .243 Winchester rifle. I also own a 9.25 pound .257 Wby. Mag. rifle, and shooting 120 grain Weatherby factory loads it probably kicks only a little less than a standard .270 Winchester rifle, which is a lot more than the .240.

These cartridges generate too much muzzle blast and recoil to be good varmint cartridges. Even in proportionally heavier rifles, recoil and muzzle blast are elevated to approximately the same level as the following class of cartridges. Compared to the .243 Winchester class of cartridges, the .24 and .25 Magnums make it more difficult to concentrate on squeezing off the perfect shot, but by no means impossible.

V. General purpose medium game cartridges

This category takes in a wide variety of cartridges. It includes such North American deer and black bear cartridges as the 7-30 Waters, .30-30 Winchester, .300 Savage, .32 Winchester Special, .35 Remington, and .44 Remington Magnum.

It also includes a number of higher velocity, smaller caliber cartridges popular around the world. Examples of general purpose CXP2 class game cartridges include the .260 Remington, 6.5x55 SE, 6.5x57 RWS, 7mm-08 Remington, and 7x57 Mauser. In killing power, these encroach on the lower reaches of the following class, the all-around big game cartridges. They are the most powerful hunting cartridges that most shooters will ever need, although few seem to realize it. All of them kill extremely well within their maximum point blank range (MPBR). They are recommended for hunting deer, antelope, sheep, goats, red stag, caribou, black bear and most African plains game. In the hands of careful marksmen they have accounted for large numbers of heavy game, including North American elk, Scandinavian moose (alg), Arctic polar bear, and sundry large African beasts all the way up to elephant.

Rifles for many of these cartridges vary widely in weight, from 9.5 pound military models to 5 pound ultra lightweights. Barrel length varies from 18" to 29", but 20" is a practical minimum for the deer and black bear cartridges, and 22" is ideal for the general purpose cartridges. To keep recoil moderate, rifles for these cartridges should weight 7.5 to 8 pounds.

These cartridges let you know when you touch one off, although the muzzle blast is not as intense as that of the all-around and magnum big game cartridges that follow. I would rate the muzzle blast as "medium." Much more noise and many shooters will flinch (close their eyes, twitch, jerk the trigger, or all of the above) in anticipation of the blast that follows. This is a psychological factor, not a matter of size or physical strength.

What all of these diverse cartridges have in common is recoil. They all develop between 10 and 15 ft. lbs. of recoil energy in rifles of appropriate weight. Cut the rifle weight by a pound from those recommended above and recoil increases noticeably. This is about all the recoil average shooter can tolerate and still do his or her best shooting. More recoil than about 15 ft. lbs. and most shooters' concentration, and consequently accuracy, suffers. You can see the truth of this demonstrated at any rifle range. People shoot better groups with rifles that kick less.

VI. High intensity, all-around big game cartridges

"High intensity, all-around big game cartridges" is kind of a mouthful. What I am talking about here are the combination CXP2 and CXP3 class game cartridges. These are elk, kudu and Scandinavian moose cartridges as well as deer and antelope cartridges. This category includes the 6.5x68S, .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, .270 WSM, .280 Remington, 7x64 Brenneke, 7mm Remington SAUM, 7mm Remington Magnum, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .303 British, 8x57JS and all similar cartridges. The experience of shooting any of these cartridges is similar in rifles of suitable weight.

A rifle of suitable weight means about 8 to 8.5 pounds for the standard calibers and 8.5 to 9.5 pounds for the magnum calibers. Standard calibers should be supplied with 22" or 24" barrels; magnum calibers need 24" or 26" barrels. Stock fit is very important to comfort when shooting these cartridges, so made sure your rifle fits you.

Muzzle blast is loud, and bystanders can sometimes feel the shock wave. I would call it "medium high." It is really more than most new or infrequent shooters feel comfortable with, but experienced shooters who can maintain their concentration in spite of the blast and recoil can do some good shooting with these calibers. I heard on a documentary somewhere that it took around 100,000 rounds of .30-06 ammunition to create one enemy casualty in WW II, so even when the U.S. was "a nation of riflemen" there was a lot of missing going on. Which tends to make my point that despite their popularity, these rounds are probably too much cartridge for average hunters.

If the rifle weight guidelines are adhered to, recoil should be between 15 and 20 ft. lbs. with these cartridges. 20 ft. lbs. is often quoted as the maximum to which the average rifleman can adjust. Accurate shooting, once you know how, is mostly a matter of concentration. So if you can maintain a high level of concentration in the face of 20 ft. lbs. of recoil, these cartridges will serve you well. If not, admit it to yourself and drop down to the previous class of cartridges, which kill almost as well.

VII. .300 and 8mm Magnums

These are also all-around cartridges for CXP2 and CXP3 class game. But they kick and bellow significantly more than the .30-06 class cartridges. .300 and 8mm Magnums include the .300 Rem. SAUM, .300 WSM, .300 H&H Magnum, .308 Norma Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 Dakota, .300 Weatherby Magnum, .300 Ultra Mag., .325 WSM, 8x68S, and 8mm Remington Magnum among others.

These are essentially long range cartridges. They won't take larger game than a .30-06, but they will kill the same animal humanely at longer range.

Lightweight rifles should never be chambered for any .300 Magnum or 8mm Magnum caliber, although some are. Firing a .300 Magnum cartridge in a 7 pound rifle would make a wooden Indian flinch. .300 and 8mm Magnum rifles typically weigh around 8.5 pounds, although 9 to 9.5 pounds is better. The "Super Magnums," such as the .300 Ultra Mag., .300 Weatherby Magnum, and 8mm Remington Magnum, should weigh 9.5 pounds.

Many .300 and 8mm Magnum rifles today come with 24" tubes, and a few are even shorter. Weatherby rifles in .300 Win. Mag. come with 24" barrels, while .300 Weatherby Mag. rifles come with 26" barrels, and .30-378 Weatherby rifles come with 28" barrels. This is as it should be; Weatherby knows magnum rifles. Stick with the longer barrels, as performance is seriously degraded and muzzle blast elevated even for the short and standard length magnums in barrels shorter than 24".

The muzzle blast from these calibers is wicked. It is not fun to be at the shooting bench next to someone shooting a .300 Mag. I can tell no difference between a .300 Mag., an 8mm Mag., and a .338 Mag. in terms of muzzle blast. I would rate the muzzle blast as "heavy."

Recoil is probably the biggest concern with any .300 or 8mm Magnum, and particularly with the Super Magnums, which are very unpleasant to shoot. Perfect stock fit is paramount. It is not easy to hit a medium size animal precisely at long range (in excess of 300 yards, let's say), and it becomes a lot more difficult with a rifle that kicks hard. As big game guides have learned, most shooters simply cannot shoot their big case .30's accurately; they simply cannot concentrate on the fundamentals of trigger release and sight picture with that much recoil looming over them.

180 grain bullets are the most popular weight in the .300's, and 200 grain bullets seen popular in the 8mm's. Recoil for the short and standard length magnums runs around 25 to 27 ft. lbs. in rifles of normal weight. The .300 Ultra Mag, .300 Weatherby and the 8mm Magnums all belt the shooter with 29 to 39 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. The biggest of the .300 Magnums, the .30-378 Weatherby, comes in with around 55 ft. lbs. of recoil.

VIII. Medium bore magnum cartridges

These are the .33 to .38 calibers. Reasonably well known examples include the .338 Winchester Magnum, .338 Ultra Mag, .338 Lapua, .338-378 Weatherby Magnum, .340 Weatherby Magnum, .350 Remington Magnum, .358 Norma Magnum, 9.3x62, 9.3x74R, .375 H&H Magnum, .375 Weatherby Magnum, .375 Ultra Mag, and the fearsome .378 Weatherby Magnum.

These cartridges are intended for large, heavy game (CXP3). In a pinch they can be used on dangerous CXP4 game, and have been many times over. The .375 H&H Magnum is undoubtedly the world's most popular buffalo cartridge. In Alaska and Northern Canada the .338 Win. Mag. is the favorite caliber of guides who must protect their clients from angry grizzly, polar, and brown bears--the largest predators on earth. Rifles for these cartridges should be as heavy as the hunter can stand to carry. I would consider 9.5 pounds the minimum practical weight, although the smaller cartridges normally come in lighter rifles, some down around 8 pounds. Barrels generally run 22" to 28" depending on caliber; the higher velocity numbers need the longer barrels.

These cartridges generate really significant muzzle blast, much like the .300 Magnums based on the same size cases. They are not fun to shoot, although it is better to be behind the rifle than beside it.

Recoil is pretty bad. In rifles of typical weight it ranges from about 26 ft. lbs. for the .350 Rem. Mag. with 250 grain bullets to around 33 ft. lbs. for the popular .338 Win. Mag. with 250 grain bullets, up to 42 ft. lbs. for the .375 H&H shooting a 300 grain bullet, and topping out at a scary 71 ft. lbs. for the .378 Weatherby with a 300 grain bullet.

Needless to say, it takes terrific concentration and a lot of experience to shoot such calibers well. Note, however, that the medium bore calibers generally have more killing power on heavy game than .300 Magnum rifles with similar recoil.

IX. North American big bore cartridges

There has been a resurgence of interest in large caliber North American cartridges such as the .405 Winchester, .444 Marlin, .45-70, and .450 Marlin. Unlike the big bore British African cartridges, these are not intended for use on elephant and rhino. The North American big bores resemble the black powder buffalo cartridges of the American West, but in terms of modern hunting are more analogous to short range medium bore cartridges. They are at their best within about 100 yards, where they will take all North American large game with the right loads. Compared to the medium bore magnums, the big bullets start slower and lose velocity faster, so they can't reach out to 200 yards and beyond like a .338 Win. Mag. or .375 H&H Mag.

The best rifles for these rimmed cartridges remain single shots and lever actions. The good falling block single shot rifles are immensely strong and let the reloader draw the full potential from these cartridges. The lever actions are limited to lower pressure loads, but provide repeat shot capability. Barrel lengths vary from 18" to 28". I think that for most purposes a 22" to 24" barrel is a good compromise. In either case, for general hunting purposes rifles should weigh 8.5 to 9.5 pounds, just as with the medium bores.

Recoil is right up there with high pressure loads. The .405 and .444 use lighter 240-300 grain bullets, and that keeps recoil in the 22 to 23 ft. lb. range in 8 to 8.5 pound rifles. The .45-70 is about the same with standard 300 grain factory loads.

However, the character of the .45-70, and its newer cousin the .450 Marlin, changes completely with maximum pressure loads and bullets weighing 350-400 grains. Recoil jumps into the 30 to 35 ft. lb. range and the muzzle blast sounds like a cannon shot. Load 500 grain bullets to maximum pressure in a modern falling block rifle and you can enjoy 40 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. As you can see, recoil is quite similar to the .300 and medium bore magnums, and so is the concentration and experience required to shoot these big bore calibers effectively.

X. African big bore cartridges

These cartridges were mostly designed in the UK or the U.S., but they were designed primarily for use on dangerous CXP4 African game. The most popular of the "elephant" cartridges is the .458 Winchester Magnum. Other examples currently being loaded and reasonably popular include the .416 Rigby, .416 Remington Magnum, .416 Weatherby Magnum, .458 Lott, .460 Weatherby Magnum, and .470 Nitro Express. Bullets for the .416's typically weigh 400 grains, and for the others 500 grains.

Rifles typically have 22" to 28" heavy barrels; I like a 24" tube. Elephant rifles should weigh around 12 pounds, but most are much lighter. A .460 Weatherby rifle weighs around 10 pounds, the Winchester Model 70 Safari Express weighs only 8.5 pounds, the Ruger M77 Magnum rifle weighs 9.5 to 10 pounds, and the Ruger No. 1 Tropical rifle weighs 9 pounds. Those are bare rifle weights, so add about 1 pound if you mount a scope. My old FN/Browning .458 Mag. weighs only 9 pounds including scope, and I find it wise to reduce the powder charges in my reloads to help control the recoil.

One thing about shooting a .458 Mag. at the range is that it gets everyone's attention when it goes off. It is LOUD. Strangers come over to see what you are shooting. Light loads are manageable, but full power loads are punishing. Here are some recoil figures for rifles of typical weight shooting full power loads: .416 Remington, 53 ft. lbs.; .416 Rigby, 58 ft. lbs.; .416 Weatherby, 83.5 ft. lbs.; .458 Win., 62 ft. lbs.; .458 Lott, 70 ft. lbs.; .460 Weatherby, 93 ft. lbs.; .470 N.E., 69 ft. lbs. These are not numbers that anyone can take lightly.

Be warned: very few hunters can do their best shooing with such rifles. I certainly can't, especially if a long string of shots is required. To shoot these big Berthas well you must be able to concentrate on the fundamentals of shooting under extremely adverse conditions of recoil and muzzle blast. This is practically impossible, even for most experienced shooters.

But, oddly enough, some of the bolt action and single shot elephant rifles are extremely accurate. I have a 3-shot cloverleaf group on the wall in my reloading room that I shot at 100 yards with my .458 Browning and a 400 grain Speer bullet in front of a reduced powder charge.


Most shooters tend to over buy in terms of cartridge power and velocity. Particularly since most are deer and general CXP2 game hunters. Stick with the lowest class of cartridge that a) will get the job done, and b) that you can shoot well. And (b) is the most important point.

You can expect excessive muzzle blast, excessive recoil, and short barrel life from many magnum calibers. The worst examples are those at the ultra high velocity end of the spectrum, such as the Remington Ultra Mag, Lazzeroni, and Weatherby calibers based on the .378 case. (Tip: any small bore cartridge based on necked-down elephant cartridge brass should be viewed with great suspicion.)

Since conventional magnum (and some non-magnum) calibers already out-range the available fire control system (the hunter's ability to guarantee proper bullet placement in the field), I am not sure what advantage there is to even higher velocity and longer MPBR. Particularly when the extra blast and recoil further degrades the fire control system.

I'll bet that 99 out of 100 hunters could put a bullet into the vital area of a mule deer at greater range, thus producing a quick and humane kill, using the 6mm Rem. cartridge than with a .300 Super Magnum. As practically any experienced guide will tell you, as a rule the worst shots--those who wound and waste the most game--are guys using powerful magnum rifles. And that is because everyone shoots better with a rifle that kicks and bellows less.

As an experiment, try this yourself: Borrow a rifle chambered for one of the calibers listed in classes VII and VIII above from a friend or gun shop. Ditto a rifle in any of the cartridges mentioned in classes III or IV above. Make sure that both rifles have good scopes that are similar in terms of magnification and optical quality. Zero both rifles for 300 yards. Now drive out into the field somewhere and tack up two cheap 9" paper plates a full 300 yards distant. Shoot at the plates from whatever field position you prefer (usually sitting or prone will give the best accuracy), using both rifles in an identical manner and with both scopes set at the same magnification. Fire 10 shots with each rifle, starting with the lighter caliber. (That's because after shooting the Super Magnum most shooters will be too jumpy to shoot well with anything.) Check the results. Buy the rifle you shot the best.

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