October 11, 2023
Straight-wall hunting cartridges are a huge advantage to deer hunters in range-restricted states. Compared to the bipolar vagrancies of plastic-hulled shotshell slugs, or the one-night-stand nature of muzzleloaders, the predictable, consistent, precise performance of straight-wall deer hunting cartridges are a proper blessing to hunters who are limited in their firearms options.
Ironically, to westerners used to shooting bottlenecked, high-power cartridges at deer and elk a quarter-mile away, straight-wall cartridges are a mildly interesting attempt at true rifle-shooting capability. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about.
Any time you list a “Top 4” this or that, you’re gonna ruffle some feathers. But hold your horses! Don’t roll me up in a cyber-rug and beat me with digital bats yet. This is just my personal list of what I consider the most practical straight-wall cartridges. Candidly, it’s not even my favorites; I’m more partial to the .38-55 Winchester and .458 Win. Mag., but those are not exactly practical.
The cartridges on this list have certain characteristics that demand they be included. Two are uber-popular. Another offers best-in-class performance. One wallops with unmatched authority. All absolutely deserve to be on the list. Here, in ascending order of caliber, are my picks for the top four straight-wall cartridges on the market.
Introduced in 2020, this sleek little cartridge has blown up like the proverbial wildfire. In short order, it’s become the minivan of straight-wall cartridges—and I mean that as a compliment. It’s tremendously versatile, being suitable for everything from AR-15s to bolt-actions. It’s accurate—surprisingly so—making it easy to place bullets precisely out to its maximum lethal range. Recoil is low, making the .350 Legend a terrific choice for kids and recoil-sensitive shooters.
And not for nothing, a plethora of rifle makers immediately jumped on the bandwagon and began making rifles chambered for the .350 Legend.
Ballistic performance is very adequate—just like the driving performance of modern minivans. It won’t blow your socks off, but it kills stuff dead without fuss or muss. The .350 Legend pushes Winchester’s .357-diameter, 150-grain Deer Season XP bullets at 2,325 fps (factory numbers), and 180-grain soft-point bullets at 2,100 fps. Energy at the muzzle runs from about 1,700 to 1,880 ft/lbs.
This is the brand-new kid on the block, introduced just last year. It offers a bit more ballistic performance than the .350 Legend. It’s a rimmed cartridge optimized for lever action rifles and single-shots. As such, it’s not as versatile as the .350 Legend, and does not fit or function in AR-15s or most bolt actions. However, for lever-gun fans in straight-wall states, it’s exactly the right medicine for whitetails.
Ballistic performance is impressive without being punishing on the recoil end. At 0.359 inch, bullet diameter is fractionally more than the traditional .357 to .358 of most .38-caliber cartridges. Initial loads push a 180-grain bullet at 2,400 fps, and a 200-grain bullet at 2,200 fps. Muzzle energy ranges from about 2,100 to 2,300 ft/lbs.
Because I grew up working as a cowboy, and have an affinity for lever-action rifles, this cartridge really appeals to me. It has plenty of accuracy for placing shots at straight-wall distances and hits fairly hard. What’s not to love?
Introduced in 1964, this cartridge is the veteran of the group. It’s the most authoritative (and thus arguably the best) of the lot, too. Now, that’s a bold statement, but one I’m happy to back up.
First, though, I just have to point out that the .444 Marlin was born the same year that the Beatles made it big and Ford’s Mustang became truly spectacular. Just sayin’.
Why do I consider the .444 could be the best of the lot? Because it’s got a lot more oomph, and being a mountain boy that likes to hunt big elk and bears, that’s a mighty appealing thing. But it’s not just about swinging a bigger hammer; when loaded with Hornady’s Flex-Tip bullets, the .444 Marlin outclasses all others ballistically, too.
We don’t have room here to build a comprehensive ballistic comparison chart, but I can tell you this: The 265-grain, .429-diameter FTX bullets exit the muzzle at 2,325 fps, packing nearly 3,200 ft/lbs of energy. And while the ballistic coefficient isn’t much compared to modern long-range high-power bullets, it’s good enough to provide lethal authority to 300 yards in the hands of a good rifleman.
It's important to note that this is a lever-action man’s fantasy cartridge, although it plays nice with single-shot rifles, too. Because it has a big stout rim on the cartridge case, it doesn’t play well with bolt-action, pump-action and semiauto designs.
This big, slow-swinging sledgehammer of a cartridge has become a cult favorite. It kicks plenty and ammo is ghastly expensive, but it’s compatible with AR-type rifles and it absolutely snowplows big whitetail bucks and black bears.
Introduced in 2007, the .450 Bushmaster was engineered purely to wallop stuff hard. Currently, firearms are readily available in several types, including of course ARs and some surprisingly cool bolt actions by Ruger and others.
Standard AR-15 magazines are made compatible with the .450 Bushmaster by simply swapping out the follower for a single-stack version. Typical 20-round magazines generally hold 7 rounds of .450 Bushmaster.
Recoil is noticeable, but with practice and discipline, most shooters can master it. Ballistic performance is a bit shy of the .444 Marlin, but still impressive. The cartridge pushes 250-grain, .452-diameter bullets out the muzzle at a bit more than 2,200 fps. Muzzle energy is around 2,700 ft/lbs.
If the bigger-is-better concept appeals to you, or if you regularly hunt big-bodied black bears in addition to whitetails, the .450 Bushmaster just might be your happy place.