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Something Old, Something New

Modern cartridges are all the rage, but don't discount the classics.

Something Old, Something New

I came into this business when the previous generation of scribes—Askins, Keith, O’Connor, Page—was still active. It seemed that older gunwriters were required to be irascible and opinionated. The calendar doesn’t lie, and I now have to consider myself an older gunwriter. Therefore, I’m required to be an irascible and opinionated curmudgeon that’s resistant to anything new.

As proof of this, my personal favorite hunting cartridges include .270 Winchester, 7x57 Mauser, .30-06, .375 H&H, and .416 Rigby. Collectively, they exhibit more than 550 years of fine performance. However, I accept that cartridge development didn’t stop before World War II, nor just after, when Roy Weatherby burst upon the scene.

Loosen The Belt

In Roy's day, fast cartridges were belted. Besides the exceptions he created, almost all cartridges we called (and considered) magnums were based on the belted .375 H&H case, necked this way and that, and often shortened. Funny thing: The belt was never essential, and Mauser’s rimless case worked just fine. Only in the 1990s did we accept that an unbelted case could be fast and powerful and, if also short and fat, amazingly efficient.

There were earlier unbelted wildcats and proprietaries—including those from Dakota, Imperial, and Lazzeroni—but 1998’s .300 Remington Ultra Magnum (RUM) was the first unbelted magnum from a major manufacturer. It got Winchester’s competitive juices going and started a flood of short, medium, and long unbelted cartridges, with development continuing to this day from multiple sources. Man, do we have choices!

Thanks to the widespread use of chronographs, manufacturers must be honest. All the brave new cartridges do pretty much everything they’re supposed to do. I’m prepared to say that most are, in some ways, better than older cartridges they seek to replace.

Boddington
At the bench with a Springfield Waypoint in 6.5 PRC. The PRC propels a 140-grain bullet at about 3,000 fps, performance that Boddington believes is ideal for 6.5mm projectiles.

I’ll go through the caliber progression as appropriate, but I want to issue one caution. Performance is critical above all, but it’s wise to take a look at another “P” factor: popularity. None of us can predict how long current ammo shortages will go on. Not being a conspiracy theorist, I believe manufacturers are trying, but before adding another cartridge to your battery, whether old or new, it’s wise to consider just how you’re gonna feed the beast.

Cases, Actions, Bullets, Barrels

I’ve already mentioned unbelted cases, but much of modern case design relies on the more efficient burning of shorter and relatively wider cases. Shoulder angles, long ago explored by Parker Ackley, also increase burning efficiency. The end result, at least with a number of our newer cartridges, is more energy produced per grain of powder burned. This was (and is) part of the charm of the RUMs and WSMs 20 years ago and today offered by newer cartridges such as the Nosler family (now numbering six members) and Hornady’s 6.5 and .300 PRC. They cannot increase velocity, per se; burning nitrocellulose expands at about 5,000 fps, establishing a theoretical limit, which cannot be practically reached because of friction, resistance, and barrel wear.

So there have been no significant velocity gains since Roy Weatherby. Often there are reasons to keep speed down: reducing recoil and barrel wear and maximizing efficiency, as in the Creedmoors. Also, much of modern case design is based on rifle platform limitations. This is not new. Peter Paul Mauser created a large family of cartridges for his bolt-action rifle, and over decades, Winchester created numerous cartridges sized to their 1894 lever action.

Today, much cartridge development is based on maximizing performance in the AR-15 action. It’s a great and immensely popular action, but it’s sharply limited in cartridge space. Newer cartridge developments that maximize, enhance, and add to the AR-15’s performance include the .224 Valkyrie, 6mm ARC, 6.5mm Grendel, .350 Legend, and .450 Bushmaster. If you’re looking for a great AR cartridge—perhaps for a specific purpose—these new cartridges are amazing. However, any cartridge designed for a specific action—whether 1898 Mauser, 1894 Winchester, or AR-15—inherits the size and strength limitations of that action.




Target
Boddington has recently shifted to this Jarrett in .300 Win. Mag. as his “go-to” mountain rifle. Modern .300s with unbelted cases are said to be more accurate, but not all rifles agree.

Largely driven by the current rage for long-range performance, projectile development has advanced considerably, placing emphasis on bullet aerodynamics rather than raw velocity. This leads to longer and heavier-for-caliber bullets that cannot be pushed as fast but do get downrange with more retained velocity and energy. We used to think of .500 as a high Ballistic Coefficient (BC). Today many “low drag” rifle bullets exceed .600, and a few exceed .700. Several newer cartridges are designed around these long, heavy bullets, with shorter (and more efficient) cases so they can be housed in existing bolt actions.

Depending on caliber, this can create barrel challenges. Cartridge standardization specifications include recommended rifling twists to best stabilize existing projectiles. Rifling twists can change—and have changed—over time. The .223 Remington (5.56x45) is a great example. The original spec was a 1:14 twist for a 55-grain bullet, but that quickly shifted to 1:12, okay for bullets up to 60 grains. We now have 0.223-inch bullets up to 90 grains that require faster twists: 1:10, 1:9, 1:8, even 1:7. Downrange performance is awesome, but neither my bolt action nor my semiauto .223s will handle the heaviest bullets. I could rebarrel, but for my purposes (casual target shooting, varmints, occasional deer), I’m fine with lighter bullets, and my rifles shoot fine with the 62-grain TSX, a great little whitetail bullet.

Other historic examples include .250 Savage, introduced with a 1:14 twist for the original fast 87-grain bullet. Eventually, the standard twist changed to 1:10, but my 1920 .250 Savage, which is too nice to rebarrel, can barely shoot 100-grainers. In 1955, Remington made a classic blunder with the .244 Rem., barreling it with a 1:12 twist, which is unable to stabilize bullets heavier than 90 grains. In 1963 they renamed it 6mm Rem. with a 1:9 twist. That was a good fix, but the damage was done; the .243 Win. came out of the starting gate (also in 1955) with a 1:10 twist and was able to stabilize bullets up to 100 grains. The 6mm Rem. is probably a “better” cartridge, but it never caught up. Similarly, some of our favorite rifle cartridges, because of traditional and existing twist rates, cannot handle the new projectiles. Rebarreling is a relatively inexpensive option, but, like my .250 Savage, some rifles shouldn’t be rebarreled.

Recommended


Size Matters

I don’t think the old versus new question applies to all bullet diameters. New .22s like the Valkyrie and 22 Nosler are awesome, but they aren’t going to unseat the .223 as the world’s most popular centerfire, and I think the .22-250 will remain in the saddle as the dominant fast varmint cartridge. Almost no new cartridge development has focused on the .25s. Likewise, 8mm and .35 caliber. The .350 Legend is an obvious exception, but it’s purpose-driven. The Legend takes advantage of the straight-wall cartridge deer hunting opportunity with the added benefit of fitting the AR-15 action.

Bear

Here are some of the popular rifle calibers where I think sound choices must be made between old and new cartridges.

6MM

I’m impressed by the stubby 6mm ARC, but I think the 6mm Creedmoor is the best 6mm cartridge. With a slightly shorter case (and a faster rifling twist of 1:7.7), it is able to handle the new low-drag 6mm projectiles up to 112 grains. Honestly, with its long-standard 1:10 twist, the .243 maxes out at 100-grain bullets, and most .243s are more accurate with lighter bullets. So if you want a maximum-performance .24 caliber, the 6mm Creedmoor is hard to beat. However, the .243 Winchester is almost unassailable. Since 1955, it’s held the title of the classic crossover varmint/deer cartridge and is easily the most common “first hunting rifle” for beginners. For long-range target use, the 6mm Creedmoor wins, but rifles and ammo are limited, so I don’t see it displacing the .243.

6.5MM

You must be tired of my diatribe: “The 6.5mm Creedmoor doesn’t do anything the 6.5x55 Mauser couldn’t do in 1894.” True enough, and the underrated .260 Remington is ballistically identical. However, the 6.5mm Creedmoor offers something no other 6.5mm cartridge has brought to America: wild popularity. This popularity has also brought something American shooters have never had in 6.5mm: a wonderful selection of loads and bullets.

If you are looking for a mild-kicking, accurate, and effective cartridge for long-range target shooting and moderate-range deer hunting, get a 6.5mm Creedmoor. I did. However, don’t buy into the hype and consider it a long-range hunting cartridge. It’s marginal for elk, and modest initial velocity makes its trajectory curve steep past 300 yards.

MuleDeer
This big Wyoming mule deer was taken with a .264 Winchester Magnum. Especially with the new 6.5mm bullets, the nearly obsolete .264 is still a fine hunting cartridge, but newer cartridges like the 6.5mm PRC make more sense.

Fortunately, thanks largely to the Creedmoor’s popularity, it isn’t our only 6.5mm choice. It never was; I have an accurate .264 Win. Mag., which, with a 140-grain bullet at 3,000 fps (against the Creedmoor’s 2,700 fps), will do pretty much everything the Creedmoor shouldn’t be asked to do. However, the belted .264 Win. Mag. has been on life support for decades, with limited loads and few new-rifle options. Also, depending on the manufacturer, barrel twists were variously 1:8, 1:9, and 1:10. The first two barrel twists are fine for most new 6.5mm bullets, but a 1:10 barrel twist is unlikely to stabilize the new “low drag” bullets. The 6.5mm Creedmoor and most of our new “fast” 6.5mms are barreled with a 1:8 twist and will stabilize the longest 6.5mm bullets currently available.

For me, the 6.5mm “sweet spot” is a 140-grain bullet moving about 3,000 fps. Choices include the old .264, 6.5-284 Norma, 6.5 PRC, and Weatherby’s 6.5 RPM (Rebated Precision Magnum). At least in factory cartridges, extra-fast 6.5mms include the 26 Nosler and 6.5-300 Wby. Mag. Performance of both is fantastic, but both are overbore capacity. Propellant selection is limited, and barrel life is reduced.

The 6.5mm RPM is sound, but so far it hasn’t gone beyond Weatherby for rifles and ammo. The 6.5 PRC seems to be winning the popularity race. With apologies to my old .264, I just bought a Springfield Waypoint in 6.5 PRC.

.270

The .270 story is truly a twist of fate. For decades, we have had just three primary choices in 0.277-inch bullet diameter: .270 Winchester (1925), .270 Weatherby Magnum (1945), and .270 WSM (2001). All have traditionally been barreled with a 1:10 twist. This is because although all three are fast and versatile hunting cartridges none has been considered a target cartridge.

Primary bullet weight ranges from 130 to 150 grains, and no heavy, low-drag bullets have been developed. Until now. Enter Winchester’s new 6.8 Western. The rifles are barreled with a 1:8 twist, and the initial loads bring heavy-for-caliber aerodynamic bullets from 162 to 175 grains, weights which have never before existed in 0.277-inch diameter. The short-action cartridge is based on the .270 WSM case. Because of greater bullet weight, the 6.8 Western is not as fast as the .270 WSM or Weatherby Magnum, but bullet weight and aerodynamics give it wonderful downrange performance. The 27 Nosler is faster, but requires a standard-length action.

The catch: Not a single existing factory .270 rifle barrel will stabilize these new bullets. So you can rebarrel or start over. Not being an extreme-range shooter, I’m unlikely to abandon the .270 Winchester. It’s still an awesome hunting cartridge, and both the .270 WSM and .270 Wby. Mag. shoot flatter over normal ranges and deliver more energy.

Ibex
Boddington used the then-new 26 Nosler to take this big Bezoar ibex. Although fast and effective, the 26 Nosler has not been as popular as its first offspring: the 28 (7mm) Nosler.

Even so, I’m fascinated by the 6.8 Western concept: more bullet weight and frontal area than the 6.5mms can deliver and less recoil than the 7mms and .30s. And I’ve seen 6.8 Western at dealers. I may have to explore this one.

7MM

American rifle and ammo manufacturers offer more choices in 7mm, 0.284-inch bullet diameter, than anything else except .30 caliber. For many years, the 7mm Rem. Mag. was the world’s most popular magnum. It’s still a fine and versatile cartridge, but diluted by 7mm WSM, RUM, RSAUM, STW, Wby. Mag., and more. Traditional 7mm bullets run up to 175 grains, which is heavy-for-caliber. Depending on the cartridge and the manufacturer, factory 7mm barrels run from 1:9 to 1:10, which will stabilize bullets up to 175 grains. However, with the current trend toward longer, heavier, low-drag bullets, these twists may not be fast enough. Today, some bullet packaging shows recommended twist rates. Berger’s Extreme Outer Limits 195-grain 7mm box states: Minimum 1:9; Optimal 1:8.3, with a G1 BC of a whopping .754.

You may not need such bullets but, if you do, you may be back to the choice of rebarreling or restarting. There’s nothing wrong with traditional 7mm cartridges, but if I were in the mood for a “new” 7mm, I’d go with the 28 Nosler: RUM case shortened, alleviating overbore capacity, and fitting in a standard-length action.

.30

Boy, oh, boy, do we have lots of good choices. Although I love the .30-06, I’ve done most of my mountain hunting with the .300 Weatherby Magnum, and I’ve used almost all the too-numerous fast .30s. For long-range competition, there is much to be said for purpose-designed unbelted cartridges, such as the .300 PRC, 30 Nosler, and .300 Norma Magnum. Most .30 calibers are barreled with 1:10, a versatile twist that will stabilize bullets up to about 230 grains. Match .30-caliber bullets currently run up to 250 grains. If you intend to use these extra-heavies and want optimum accuracy, you’re probably in for a non-standard barrel with a faster twist.

Blaser
For the past decade, Boddington has done most of his mountain hunting with a .300 Wby. Mag. barrel on the Blaser R8. Modern, unbelted, fast .30s are probably “better,” but familiarity and confidence count. This is a good Punjab urial sheep from Pakistan.

If you’re into maximum velocity, then the long-cased, unbelted .300 RUM is probably for you, if you’re okay with the punishing recoil. Otherwise, in .30-caliber I go with the “P” factor. The most popular fast .30, and currently the world’s most popular “magnum,” is the .300 Winchester Magnum. It has an archaic belted case and has long been criticized for its too-short neck. However, case design is just one factor in rifle accuracy and is not as important as a great barrel and rigid action, assembled and bedded correctly and fed good ammo. I haven’t ended my long affair with the .300 Wby. Mag., and I still have a .300 H&H, but the rifle I’m carrying up the mountains now is a .300 Win. Mag.

The Big Boys

Above .30 caliber, need and practical purpose diminish, as do the number of shooters who can handle the punishment. Still, we have too many choices, both old and new. In .338 it depends on what you want to do. The .338 RCM, .338 Norma Mag, 33 Nosler, and .338 RUM are all excellent. However, for hunting, I’ll stick with the .338 Win. Mag.—hardly the fastest, but a good blend of performance at acceptable recoil. For serious long-range work, go for greatness because that’s what the .338 Lapua was designed for.

In .375, the two obvious choices are 1912’s .375 H&H and the brash new upstart .375 Ruger. In all ways I can think of, the .375 Ruger is the better cartridge: slightly faster, modern case design, able to be housed in a standard-length action. Except for the “P” factor. Just now, on the way to Mozambique, all my ammunition was confiscated in Qatar. In camp near Lake Caborra Bassa, there was, as almost always, plenty of .375 H&H ammo. Need I say more?

I’ll stop with .416. Even in this rarified air we have several choices. The most likely are: oldest, .416 Rigby (1912); .416 Rem. Mag. (1989); and newest, .416 Ruger (2008). As with the .375s, the .416 Ruger is probably the “best” cartridge: a modern case, housed in a standard-length action. However, it has not been as popular as its parent: the .375 Ruger. I love the tradition of the .416 Rigby. But, with identical ballistics, the .416 Remington wins “P” for popularity, and it gets another P+ for practicality: cheaper and more compact ammo, along with the ability to be housed in a lighter and less expensive .375 H&H-length action. My preference will always be the .416 Rigby, but if you feel the need for a .416, get a .416 Rem. Mag. and be done.

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