October 12, 2021
There’s been a boom of new centerfire rifle cartridges released in the last several years, and most of these are designed with long-range precision shooting in mind. The 6.5 Creedmoor, built from the ground-up to be a target round capable of outstanding accuracy, is one of them. In the wake of the Creedmoor’s success other rounds like the 28 Nosler, 6.5 PRC, 6.8 Western, and .300 PRC have become extremely popular. If you’re planning to shoot targets or game at extended ranges then all these rounds will work, but that doesn’t mean the rounds that came before them won’t. Despite all our professed affection for our favorite rounds some hunters are all to eager to jump on board with the latest bandwagon cartridge when their old favorite loses its luster.
For years we’ve been reading about the best brand-new cartridges on the market. Here’s a look at some older rounds that can still do great things.
The 6.5 PRC, .280 Ackley Improved, 6.8 Western, and other new big game cartridges offer similar ballistics and performance to the .270 Winchester, and all have been prophesied to replace O’Connor’s favorite cartridge. And while these other rounds do offer better ballistics, they’re not so much greater that the average hunter will notice much of a difference at moderate distances. The .270 Winchester built its reputation by killing all varieties of big game at substantial ranges without producing outrageous recoil. Consider this: the ballyhooed 6.5 PRC pushes a 143-grain bullet at 2,960 fps. The .270 launches a 145-grain bullet at 2,970. Of course, the higher-BC 6.5 start to outshine the .270 at great distances, but at 400 yards the numbers are pretty close: the 6.5 PRC carries about 80 more foot-pounds of energy than the .270 at that distance but drop is within an inch for both rounds with a 200-yard zero. Realistically, if you’re hunting at game under 400 yards and under—which is beyond the maximum effective range for some hunters whether they’ll admit it or not—you won’t notice a dramatic difference between the staid .270 and the 6.5 PRC. Oh, and one more consideration: there are currently more .270 ammo offerings listed than all the cartridges listed at the beginning of this paragraph combined.
The .270 is probably the second most popular big game cartridge to bash, and the .30-06 is number one. How is it that America’s most-loved hunting cartridge has now become a pariah in some circles? Does familiarity truly breed contempt? Granted, the .30-06 isn’t the flattest-shooting cartridges, and there may be better options for long-range sheep hunts or when chasing brown bears, but this cartridge shoots flat enough and hits hard enough to kill most any game from antelope to moose at moderate ranges. It’s also backed by over a century of development and the most robust lineup of factory ammo that exists today. Does it look good on paper? Not really. In fact, the .280 AI, which is traces its lineage back to the .30-06, offers better ballistics and less recoil. However, I’ve seen too many big game animals (I’m guessing about 100) killed with the .30-06 at ranges out to 400+ yards and the performance has been excellent. If you own a .30-06 there’s no need to bow your head or switch your rifle. The ought-six has proven itself on every game field on the planet, and while the 6.5 craze might have made us forget that it doesn’t change what the .30-06 has accomplished.
.338 Winchester Magnum
The .338 Win Mag still has a few fans, and I’m one of them. In truth, I haven’t used the cartridge a whole lot, and it has accounted for just one animal for me (albeit a substantial one, an Arctic grizzly). I’ve seen first-hand what this cartridge can do, and it hits like an anvil. With popular 225-grain bullets the .338 produces over two tons of muzzle energy and retains half that energy payload at 500 yards. It’s also a relatively flat-shooting cartridge: Hornady’s 230-grain ELD-X .338 Win Mag load drops four inches less at 500 yards than the company’s 178-grain .30-06 ELD-X. Of course, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, and the .338 produces substantial recoil. .338 rifles aren’t usually light, though, and an eight-pound .338 is a manageable gun for the experienced shooter. I can’t say I’ve had the same experience with faster .33s, but the .338 offers substantial stopping power (my grizzly left its feet on the first shot, and two days later I witnessed almost the exact same thing happen with Tom Beckstrand’s bear 30 miles upriver) and a relatively flat trajectory without unpleasant pushback. Speaking of bears, there’s been a dramatic uptick in bear-human conflicts in the western wilderness of late. The .338 is not only the ideal cross-canyon elk rifle, but it’s a good gun to have in your possession should you need to stop a bear bent on mayhem.
The .45-70 is a fossil compared to most modern cartridges. Developed in 1873, this cartridge was originally designed to use black powder propellants. The straight-wall case, rim, and broad, flat-nosed bullets are the antithesis of the current trend toward hyper-efficient cartridges conceived with long-range shooting competitions in mind. However, the .45-70 is still an effective hunting round, and while it may not be your first option for long shots on Dall sheep and Coues deer there still hunts for which this cartridge is perfect. I don’t think there’s a better option for black bears over bait because the .45-70 imparts plenty of energy and produces a large wound channel. Should you need to follow the blood trail it’s nice to have the stopping power of a .45-70, too. The .45-70 is also great for elk and moose to moderate ranges, and the round has enjoyed a renaissance in states that only allow straight wall cartridges for deer hunting. The .45-70 is capable of producing more than 3,000 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, but the bullet’s less than aerodynamic shape causes it to lose energy fairly quickly. Still, for big game at moderate ranges the .45-70 is a solid option.
Roy Weatherby released his .300 magnum cartridge in 1945, almost two decades before the .300 Winchester Magnum arrived on the scene. Since then, there has been no shortage of new .30-caliber magnums piling up including the .300 WSM, .300 Ruger Compact Magnum, 30 Nosler, .300 Remington Ultra Mag, .300 PRC and several more. Many of these rounds offer real benefits like fitting in short action rifles and handling heavy-for-caliber bullets, but the .300 Weatherby is still a solid option. The .300 Weatherby will drive a 180-grain Accubond from the muzzle at 3,250 and generate more than 4,200 foot-pounds of energy and that bullet hangs on to over a ton of kinetic energy at 500 yards. This round shoots as flatter than many .270 Winchester loads and packs a punch similar to the .375 H&H Magnum. The .300 Weatherby isn’t for everyone—recoil is stiff and muzzle blast is potent—but if you want a single rifle to everything from antelope to grizzly this is a good (and still relevant) option. Weatherby makes Vanguard and Mark V rifles chambered in .300 Weatherby Magnum and there are lots of ammo makers offering loads.