CHOOSING THE RIGHT CARTRIDGE… Out of dozens of good ones!
“Which cartridge for me?” is a question I’m often asked. It may come from someone looking for a first centerfire rifle to get a youngster or spouse started, but just as frequently I am asked, “What should I get next?”
These are altogether different questions. In both cases, it’s essential to know the intended purpose; for the second question, obviously, I also have to ask what that person already has. Either way, we have so many great cartridges today that’s it’s a bewildering mess! The good news is that there are few wrong answers—no “bad” cartridges make it to factory production, and there’s all manner of overlap and redundancy in power requirements. There are dozens of good “deer cartridges,” only slightly fewer great “elk cartridges,” and so forth.
However, some cartridges are more popular than others, and popularity isn’t always merit-based. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why one cartridge becomes wildly popular while others just barely hang on. If you want to make a personal statement on the range or in deer camp, you might choose an unpopular or oddball cartridge—especially if you’re a handloader—but standard factory cartridges will cover any use you could imagine for a sporting rifle.
I tend to recommend cartridges that are reasonably popular and thus available from multiple sources for a couple of reasons. First, using a standard cartridge increases your chances of finding ammo when you need it. Second, using standard cartridges may make it easier for you to find a particular brand that works best with your rifle.
No rifle shoots exactly the same with every load. Accuracy always varies—sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot—and one rifle may shoot Brand X better than Brand Y, or vice versa. All centerfire cartridges are a combination of primer, case, propellant charge, and bullet. Handloaders can vary all four components endlessly, while any given factory load is just one combination. So, for those who don’t handload, the more factory loads available to try the better your chances of finding loads a given rifle really likes. With all of this in mind, let’s try to give short answers to our questions.
The First Centerfire
Back to the first question, “Which cartridge should I get for my first centerfire?”
What uses are planned for the rifle? If it’s just shooting targets or maybe some varmint hunting, the answer is pretty simple: A .22 centerfire is hard to beat. We’re going to assume that most shooters start with a .22 rimfire: Cheap ammo, no recoil, and little noise. It’s a quantum leap to the muzzle blast of any centerfire cartridge, but at least a .22 centerfire gets there with almost no recoil. When I take new shooters to the range I start them with a .22 rimfire, then we work up to a .22 centerfire, and then, carefully, I’ll let them shoot a more powerful centerfire just a few times. For this caliber, there are several choices, but the .223 Remington is by far the most popular, most prevalent, and features the cheapest centerfire ammo.
Now, if a first centerfire for hunting is the goal, the situation is different. Yes, .22 centerfires are now legal for deer in most states. With today’s heavy-bullet loads they are more effective than ever before, but I view them as experts’ tools, requiring not only precise shot placement but also near-ideal shot presentation. I think beginning hunters are better served with considerably more powerful cartridges, though recoil still needs to be kept within modest limits.
Like millions of other kids, I started hunting with a .243 Winchester. Accurate, mild in recoil, and effective, it is a very fine choice, and it remains the go-to for a first hunting rifle. To some degree, however, the “perfect” first rifle still depends on what you intend to hunt and under what conditions.
Both of my daughters started with feral hogs. We’ve long had them in abundance here on the Central Coast, and they’re now available and accessible across much of the country. The problem with pigs is they vary. Sort of like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you don’t know if you’re going to run across a perfect eatin’ size 100-pound porker or a 300-pound boar, an altogether different creature. The .243 is perfect for the former, but very marginal for the latter.
Both of my girls—ten years apart, 2003 for Brittany, 2013 for Caroline—started hunting with a .260 Remington. Propelling a 140-grain bullet at about 2750 feet per second (fps), the .260 is much more capable than the .243, but without much more recoil. It was a good choice, as are the other “mild 6.5mm” cartridges, such as the classic 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser and the newly-popular 6.5mm Creedmoor.
That said, I quickly shifted both Brittany and Caroline to the 7mm-08 Remington and neither has looked back. The 7mm-08 is more popular, which means there are more load choices available. The standard load is 140-grain bullet at 2860 fps, surprising flat-shooting, perfectly adequate for game up to elk, but still mild in recoil.
Today, I think the 7mm-08 is the perfect choice for beginning hunters! Perhaps the most powerful cartridge that should be considered is the .270 Winchester, which is my wife Donna’s favorite cartridge. Although not necessarily “more powerful,” it is faster and shoots flatter than the 7mm-08. The .270 requires a .30-06-length action while the 7mm-08 fits into a short bolt action, handier for shooters of smaller stature. Recoil is about the same, but keep in mind that, with cartridges so similar in power, gun weight is a major factor in recoil. If the rifle is too light, it’s gonna kick!
The Next Centerfire
Obviously this is a different question, dependent on what you already have and why you think you need more or different capability. Here in America, we crave velocity and demand accuracy, but if you’re a deer hunter in much of the U.S. you may not need more capability than what your Grand-dad’s .30-30 offers. That doesn’t matter, though—wants and needs don’t have to coincide!
If you want a really versatile rifle that you can use for almost anything, I’d take a hard look at a fast .30-caliber. For decades, many hunters and shooters “stepped up” to a fast 7mm, with the 7mm Remington being the most popular. Even the fastest 7mms kick less than the fast .30s, but in my experience Jack O’Connor was dead-right 50 years ago when he wrote that the magnum 7mms didn’t do much more than his beloved .270 would do. There is only .007-inch difference between the .270 (.277-inch bullet) and 7mm (.284-inch bullet).
The .30-caliber delivers much more in both bullet weight and frontal area, and a fast .30-caliber delivers a lot of energy ‘way out there. Keep in mind that magnum .30s also produce a lot of recoil. There are ways to mitigate it, such as gun weight, good recoil pads, and muzzle brakes, but not everyone will be comfortable with this level of recoil, and not everyone needs that level of performance. But if you want it, the fast .30-calibers deliver.
As with any caliber, there are many options for .30-caliber cartridges. I’m personally a .300 Weatherby Magnum fan, although I concede that the .300 Remington Ultra Mag is a slightly better cartridge. The extra-short .300 Winchester Short Magnum also has appeal. But the most popular cartridge in the group, and in fact the most popular “magnum” cartridge in the world, is the .300 Winchester Magnum. There are dozens of good loads, and with newer propellants, the velocity gap between the .300 Winchester Magnum and the faster .30-caliber magnums has narrowed. Accuracy is usually very good, and while we can theorize that any .30-caliber is marginal for our biggest bears, there’s nothing in North America that can’t be done with a .300 Winchester Magnum.
Like millions of Americans, do you already own a .30-06? Then I’m not sure I’d recommend abandoning it in favor of a faster .30-caliber. There also isn’t much in North America that you can’t do with a .30-06, and some of our newer loads (like Hornady’s Superformance) upgrade velocity into .300 magnum territory. Instead, consider dropping down the scale a bit. Consider the efficient, mid-recoiling cartridges we talked about for beginners, or maybe something extra-fast and flat-shooting, like a fast .25-caliber or 6.5mm?
Or perhaps you have a hunt for larger game in mind and you want something of larger caliber, with heavier bullets and more power? That’s best left as a question for another time.
Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world.
For autographed copies of Craig’s books please visit www.craigboddington.com.