Twenty years apart, I did two surveys of African professional hunters enquiring about the rifles they use and the rifles they recommend for their clients. Both surveys received more than a hundred responses, in some ways consistent…and in others different. Under the heading of the ideal “two rifle battery,” the .375 was consistently the favorite for the heavier of the two. However, recommendations for the lighter rifle, the “plains game rifle,” differed. In the late 1980s, the .30-06 and 7mm Remington Magnum received the most mentions, but the .300 H&H retained a strong showing. Add 20 years. The .300 H&H vanished, and the 7mm magnums also nearly disappeared. The .30-06 remained strong, but the .300 Winchester Magnum received the most mentions by far.
Okay, that’s African plains game. Author Bob Anderson, whose books chronicle the mountain hunting culture, did a survey of the international sheep hunters he writes about. Although some use fast 7mms, most use fast .30s. I was surprised at how many use the excellent and fast .300 Remington Ultra Mag…but the .300 Weatherby Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, and wildcat .300 Jarrett were in the mix.
We could extrapolate the sheep hunting elite to include a whole lot of deer hunting, since animal size is the same and, under at least some conditions, ranges can be similar. So it would seem there’s a strong argument out there for fast, powerful cartridges. I freely admit that I have bought into this for most of my career: I’m a “fast .30” guy! There are many magnum .30 caliber cartridges. The .300 Weatherby Magnum has been my personal favorite, but I’ve used most of the magnum .30s. They all work, and I have confidence in them. But let’s take a step back: Is this level of power (and recoil, and muzzle blast) always necessary?
Jack O’Connor shot more wild sheep than most of us will ever see. Despite the legend of “.270 Jack” he hunted mountain game with a variety of cartridges…but his final analysis was that his pet .270 was plenty of gun. His wife, Eleanor, did almost as much hunting as her husband. Not being a gunwriter or a rifle freak, she used the 7×57 almost exclusively. Actually, Eleanor’s use of the 7×57 was more exclusive than Jack’s use of the .270!
Dropping back another generation, Walter Dalrymple Maitland “Karamoja” Bell shot pretty much everything in Africa with a .275 Rigby (a.k.a. 7×57). Some of his peers used even milder 6.5mm cartridges such as the 6.5x53R and 6.5×54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer. And, because of its availability, the .303 British was used throughout the Empire…on just about everything.
Now let’s fast-forward to a new generation…and to some people I have learned from. My elder daughter, Brittany, shot her first animal with a .260 Remington. We quickly moved her to a 7mm-08 Remington (because of accuracy and ammo availability)…and she has stayed there. I have no idea how much game she has taken with her 7mm-08, but I do know her tally goes up to eland in size. She is not recoil-sensitive and effectively uses larger cartridges…but her confidence level lies with the 7mm-08 because it has worked so well for so long.
My wife, Donna, is recoil sensitive above a certain level. (Actually, we all are, but too many of us refuse to admit it.) She is okay with a .30-06 and uses larger cartridges when necessary. For most hunting, however, she has settled on the .270 Winchester (Professor O’Connor would be proud.) Deer, sheep, elk, goat, African plains game…the .270 has worked for her. Younger daughter Caroline has followed the path. She is right-handed and Donna and I are left-handed, so she started with a borrowed right-handed .260 Remington. No problem with that cartridge, but for ammo availability her own rifle is a 7mm-08. I’ve seen what her sister has accomplished with this little cartridge, and I’m sold on it. So is Caroline. Like most kids, she shoots well because nobody ever told her it was difficult. Of many, her best shot so far was a gemsbok at a bit over 300 yards, flattened with that little cartridge.
TIMES AND PLACES
Hey, I’m a magnum .30 guy, so I’m not telling you to downsize. But I’m not as much of a magnum guy as I once was. I’m also a “gun guy” as much as I’m a hunter. If you’re not a “gun guy” then you’re probably better off to find one versatile rifle that you really trust and stick with it. In unfamiliar situations, where you don’t know exactly what kind of shot you might be faced with, then you’re wise to prepare for the worst-case situation. This is why a lot of globe-trotting mountain hunters gravitate to the fastest .30-caliber cartridges.
However, according to various surveys, a lot of our SCI brethren are gun guys, people who own a number of rifles and, naturally, want reasons to employ them. Here’s the good news: Within broad parameters, there are always a lot of cartridges that will do the job, and the animal taken will rarely know the difference. Even though I’m an admitted fast .30 guy, I’ve hunted various sheep and goats with 6.5s, .270s, and 7mms. On other game, from pigs to deer to African plains game, I have my favorites, but as both a gun guy and a gunwriter, I’ve used an eclectic array of rifles and cartridges on a wide variety of game.
Confidence in your rifle and cartridge are important, and I have to admit that, as a gunwriter, now and then I’ve gone forth on assignment with some misgivings. Hey, that’s the job, and most of the time the job gets done. Where the bullet is placed and how it’s constructed are always more important than caliber, case dimensions, or the launching platform it came from. Your confidence level in a given cartridge may be different than mine, but here’s my spin on the effectiveness—and limitations—of some really great cartridges and calibers that won’t kick you into next week.
6MM and .25
Thanks to the popularity of the AR frame, the .22 centerfires are now legal for deer-sized game in a lot of states. Especially with the heavier bullets designed for the purpose they work surprisingly well if you’re careful. But for more general hunting purposes I think sensible big game cartridges start at 6mm. The .243 Winchester is the most popular choice, but the 6mm Remington retains a following, and the .243 Winchester Super Short Magnum (WSSM) and .240 Weatherby Magnum are still out there. The latter two are quite a bit faster, but to me that doesn’t matter much. Bullet weight is limited to 105 grains. This means, to me, that the 6mms are ideally limited to deer-sized game at medium ranges, maybe 250 yards.
The .243 Winchester is probably America’s most popular “starter” cartridge for youngsters. Like millions of other kids, the .243 was the first cartridge I hunted with…but, honestly, I don’t see it as perfect for beginners. Today I think of it as more of an expert’s cartridge, and I think beginners are better-served by a light 6.5mm or 7mm, offering more bullet weight and frontal area. But within reasonable range limits the 6mms are extremely effective, and also do wonderful double-duty for varmint shooting.
The .25-calibers take a small step forward, offering a bit more bullet weight. Again, choices are few. The old .250 Savage and .257 Roberts are limited in velocity and really won’t do anything the .243 can’t do, but offer a fine whiff of nostalgia. The most popular .25 is the much faster .25-06, duplicated by the nearly defunct .25 WSSM. Fastest of all is the .257 Weatherby Magnum. Like the 6mms, to my thinking the .25s are best limited to deer-sized game, but every year a lot of elk fall to both bullet diameters. The .25-06 seems to have a regional following. For instance, it’s extremely popular among Texas whitetail hunters. There it seems nearly perfect: Small to medium-sized deer, and those long senderos where distance is so hard to judge.
One could theorize that the faster .25s might also be ideal for small to medium-sized sheep and goats, and at one time I reckoned a fast .25 to be perfect for pronghorns. I’ve changed my tune for this reason: For varmint hunting both the 6mms and .25s hold up much better in the wind than .22 centerfires…but they don’t hold up nearly as well as larger calibers. Just now I was in South Africa with a guy who was using a .243 WSSM. It worked like lightning on medium-sized plains game at shorter ranges, but as range increased, we had trouble with the wind, and also trouble with larger antelopes. I’ve seen the same thing pronghorn hunting with both 6mms and .25s: Plenty of power, but not so good in the wind as range increases.
Historically the 6.5mm has not been popular in this country, but right now it appears to resurging with the charge being led by 1000-yard shooters. Standard bullets in 6.5mm tend to be long for caliber, with high Sectional Density (SD) and high Ballistic Coefficient (BC). This means that they retain velocity and buck wind well, and do not need extremely high initial velocity in order to remain supersonic to 1000 yards. This is highly desirable for accuracy because of the turbulence that occurs when the sound barrier is crossed. Mild 6.5s, including the .260 Remington, 6.5/.284 Norma, and 6.5mm Creedmoor are now popular with long-range shooters. Competition shooters often lead the way, and these cartridges are now crossing over to hunters who are discovering that these light-recoiling little 6.5s are just as effective today as the 6.5x53R and 6.5×54 were in the 1890s. These cartridges are not giant-killers, but they’re effective on the entire deer-sheep-goat class, and with today’s good 140-grain bullets can be used on game up to elk. (Remember, the mild 6.5×55 remains one of Sweden’s most popular moose cartridges!)
There are not many “fast 6.5s,” but because of modest bullet weight you can get a lot of velocity without a lot of recoil. Europeans who use the 6.5×68 have known this for years. Its American equivalent, the .264 Winchester Magnum, has languished for years, but with the increased interest in 6.5s it is making a small comeback. At this writing there are rumors of another fast 6.5mm, but right now the latest and fastest is the .26 Nosler, a real screamer of a cartridge that puts a 140-grain bullet out at nearly 3400 feet per second. As a kid I loved the .264. I’ve used it again recently in both Africa and Asia, and I took a .26 Nosler to Turkey for ibex last year. If you’re looking for something that’s effective without a lot of recoil, don’t overlook the 6.5s!
After fighting it much of my life, I have to admit that Jack O’Connor was right all along: The .270 is fantastic! O’Connor’s pet, the .270 Winchester, remains extremely popular, but there are just four .270-caliber (bullet diameter .277) cartridges in the world. The 6.8mm Remington Special Purpose Cartridge was designed to fit into the AR frame. Although limited in both bullet weight and velocity, it’s a fine deer cartridge at moderate range. The other three .270 cartridges—.270 Winchester, .270 Winchester Short Magnum, and .270 Weatherby Magnum, in ascending order of velocity—are extremely versatile hunting rounds.
I have used all three, and like them all. The original .270 Winchester, now 90 years old, is fast and flat-shooting. It is well-suited to just about any deer hunting, perfect for pronghorn, suitable for most mountain hunting, and adequate for elk and most African antelope except perhaps eland. Both the .270 WSM and .270 Weatherby are faster and shoot a bit flatter…but they also kick a bit harder, and ammunition is much less available. The big difference I have seen is they deliver more energy, enough more that it seems noticeable on larger game. But all three of these .270s are amazingly hard-hitting cartridges, and although I concede O’Connor was right, I’ll add that they are even better today than in his day because we have so much better bullets.–Craig Boddington