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Why Hunting Cartridge Velocity Matters

long_range1Humans are always looking for bigger and better. When early man picked up a rock and threw it, his neighbor figured out a way to throw it faster. The same thing happened with spears, arrows and, eventually, firearms.

You can be sure that as soon as the first musket ball was fired for the rudimentary bores of the day, tinkerers starting adding power to see if they could make the ball fly faster.

That trend continues with new cartridges boasting incredible velocity figures but what does velocity really give us in a hunting cartridge and how important is it?


In my mind, the most practical advantage that velocity provides a hunter is the ability to send bullets in a useful arc toward the target — the higher the velocity, the flatter the arc.

Size can be deceiving. Despite their differences in length, these three cartridges (from left, the 300 WSM, 300 Winchester Magnum, and 300 H&H Magnum) produce similar velocities- all are fine cartridges that strike a good balance between speed and recoil.

One of the reasons that the .30-30 WCF isn't a useful 400-yard cartridge is because of the excessive holdover required to hit an animal at that range; a bullet of equal mass fired from a .300 Winchester Magnum can make that shot with minimal correction.

That said, trajectory is not the end-all when it comes to hitting your target and, at a certain point, we reach diminishing returns. A 180gr. Nosler Partition fired from a .300 H&H drops less than 4 inches more at 400 yards than the same bullet does when fired from a .300 Ultra Mag, but the latter generates 35% more recoil.

Hunters have some useful tools at their disposal these days to compensate for bullet drop including bullet drop compensating scope reticles and target dials. Better to hunt with a gun that you can shoot with precision than rifle that beats you to death in search of a few inches of trajectory.

Bullet Performance

"Killing power" is an often-touted byproduct of velocity, and a bullet's speed does correlate to a game animal's demise, but maybe not in the way that you think. Bullet engineers develop bullets to expand at a certain range of impact velocities, which is the speed at which the bullet is traveling when it strikes the animal.

Since bullets are developed to work in a range of cartridges (a .30 caliber bullet has to work in everything from a .300 Savage to a .30-378 Weatherby Magnum), engineers try to create a product that will work well at as many velocities as possible. At maximum velocity, a bullet may come apart and fail to penetrate; more important to this discussion is the speed at which a bullet will expand reliably.


As an example, Nosler's big game bullets are designed to work at as little as 1,900 feet per second. If you expect good bullet performance, you'll need to limit your shots to those that will maintain that impact velocity.

There is certainly such a thing as not enough velocity. The author shot this cow elk with a .404 bullet that was moving too slow to expand properly — it made for a long morning.

A higher velocity cartridge allows you to extend the range at which a given bullet will perform — this is one area where magnum cartridges provide a real edge, especially with heavy bullets.

A 180gr. Partition fired from a .308 Winchester hits the 1,900 fps threshold right at 300 yards, which is fine for most hunting, but a .300 Ultra Mag doesn't fall below that mark until 500 yards.

I don't necessarily believe that increased velocity allows you to reliably kill bigger animals with the same bullet, but it certainly allows you to do it at longer distances.

I'm not claiming that higher velocity doesn't have an effect on terminal performance — my experience tells me that it does. All things being equal, a faster moving bullet usually means that the animal's death will be faster and more dramatic, usually due to bullet fragmentation.

This past fall, I shot a whitetail buck with a 162 gr. Hornady Interlock that was still moving at well over 3000 fps when it hit him. At the shot, the buck acted like he'd been hit by lightning and somersaulted onto his back; the bullet caused so much trauma due to its speed that death was literally instantaneous.

At the end of the day, though, that bullet would have killed the buck just as dead at 2500 fps as it did at 3000 — he just might have run 100 yards before his oxygen supply ran out.

The one category of bullet that really seems to favor the high-velocity cartridges is the monolithic designs such as the Barnes TSX.

Because those bullets don't expand very violently in the first place, they seem to do best when they are pushed fast. For this reason, I usually choose a lighter bullet when using a monolithic than I traditionally would when using more conventional expanding bullets.

The good news is that the risk of pushing a TSX or E-Tip too fast is almost unheard of — there's very little risk of bullet blowup if a shot happens at close range.

Wind Drift

How much a bullet is pushed by wind depends on many factors but, all things being equal, a projectile's flight time is the key. The faster a bullet reaches its target, the less time wind has to influence its path.

Velocity diminishes the effects of wind drift as it increases. But how much? Let's look at the 160gr. Accubond fired from the .280 Remington versus the new 28 Nosler.

At a certain point, adding more power to a cartridge becomes an exercise in diminishing returns. The powder charge on the left is for the 280 Remington: the charge on the right is for the mighty 7mm STW. While the difference in muzzle blast and recoil are clearly noticeable, the practical advantages are not always apparent at common hunting distances.

The 28 Nosler pushes that bullet 500 fps faster than the .280 does but the difference in wind drift is less than four inches at 500 yards with a 10 mph full-value wind.

Velocity gives the hunter numerous advantages as it increases but, at a certain point, the juice isn't worth the squeeze for many of us.

Unless you're doing lots of really long-range shooting at game that justifies the trade-offs, the really fast cartridges create lots of recoil and blast without much practical advantage. That said, there's no harm in having more velocity at your disposal so long as you can handle the recoil and your bullet is up to the task.

No amount of velocity will make up for a lack of practice, however. I'd trade you an extra few hundred feet per second of velocity for 500 practice rounds any day of the week.

.300 Winchester Magnum

The hunting and shooting market doesn't need any more .30 caliber cartridges, but it seems like they just keep appearing anyway. The .300 was once considered one of the fastest of these loads, but today it has been eclipsed by several other fast .30s that shoot pancake flat. So why is it included on this list? First, the .300 Win. Mag does shoot very flat, and it produces a level of recoil that is manageable for most shooters, doling out far less punishment than the really hot .30s. The .300 Win. Mag also benefits from a wide selection of premium .308 bullets, with stacks and stacks of available load data. It may not be the fastest cartridge on this list (or even the fastest .30-caliber), but the .300 Win. Mag is no slouch. It'll push a 150-grain bullet around 3,200 fps and 180-grainers about 3,000 fps. Ammo is available in most sporting goods stores, and there are lots and lots of factory loads to choose from if you don't load your own.

7mm Remington Magnum

Last year, the venerable 7mm Remington Magnum turned 50 years old, and in that period of time many other 7mm cartridges have been introduced. Still, the 7mm Remington is far and away the most popular, as it remains one of the best long-range cartridges on the market. The Remington drives 140-grain bullets around 3,200 fps, and the heavier 160 grain bullets still travel at better than 3,000 fps. There's a huge selection of quality .284 bullets available, and the high sectional density of the heavier bullets (.310 for the 175 grain) means deep penetration and excellent retained energy. The 7mm Remington is suitable for everything in North America and has a proven reputation on African plains game. Unlike the 6.5x284 and the .30-378, you can typically pick up ammo for the 7mm Rem Mag at your local hardware store.

7mm Shooting Times Westerner

The 7mm Shooting Times Westerner (STW) was developed in 1979 by outdoor writer Layne Simpson, and although it never reached the popularity of the 7mm Remington Magnum, the STW trumps the Remington cartridge in every other respect. Based on the 8mm Remington Magnum necked down to accept 7mm bullets, the 7mm STW became a darling of western hunters and anyone else who needed a flat-shooting, hard-hitting medium bore cartridge. The 7mm STW propels 160-grains bullets close to 3,200 fps, and this bullet carries more than 2,000 pounds of energy at 400 yards. As an upside, long, heavy-for-caliber bullets don't drift as much in surging crosswinds. The STW may not be as popular as the 7mm Remington Magnum, but it is a long-range cartridge with few equals.

8mm Remington Magnum

The 8mm Remington Magnum has never been en vogue, but it has a list of loyal and devoted fans that include the likes of Craig Boddington. Developed in 1978, the 8mm Rem. Mag boasted excellent ballistics and made an excellent choice for large game in the States and abroad. The only problem was that it required a long action and there weren't a lot of .323 bullets around for reloading. The .338 Winchester Magnum was already a popular cartridge, and even at that time there were plenty of fast .30's from which to choose. As a result, the 8mm Remington Magnum was largely forgotten. However, long-range hunters are still aware of the big 8mm, and there is plenty to like about this cartridge. It fires 180-grain bullets at upwards of 3,300 fps and 200-grain bullets at 3,000 fps, producing better than 2 tons of muzzle energy and shooting flat enough to hunt in open country.

.220 Swift

The .220 Swift is aptly named — it was the first factory cartridge that broke 4,000 fps. The .220 was introduced in 1935 by Winchester, who chambered the cartridge in their model 54 bolt-action rifle. The earliest .220s met with mixed reviews, and many hunters decried it as a barrel burner. However, modern metallurgy makes the .220 Swift a viable varmint cartridge today because barrels are capable of handling the .220's speed. Federal's 40-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip load leaves the barrel at a smoking 4,250 fps, and when this load is sighted in 2 inches high at 100 yards it is still 1 1/2 inches high at 200 yards, and only about two and a half inches low at 300 yards. You won't find many commercially available varmint loads that can match that kind of trajectory.

.30-378 Weatherby

Roy Weatherby's company name shows up several times on this list because he made a living on speed. In the 1950s, Roy experimented on a .30 caliber load made from necking down the company's .378 Magnum, and so the .30-378 Weatherby was born. In 1996 it became commercially available, and the initial figures were pretty staggering. The cartridge would send a 180-grain bullet out of the muzzle with a velocity in excess of 3,400 fps and produced a tremendous 4,676 foot-pounds of energy. That same load, when sighted in 2 1/2 inches high at 100 yards, is just over 3 inches high at 200 yards and dead center at 300. If you are immune to recoil and don't mind spending about $150 on a box of ammo, Weatherby offers several variants of their Mark V lineup chambered for this cartridge.

.270 Winchester Short Magnum

The .270 Winchester Short Magnum (WSM) is based on the unbelted .300 Winchester Short Mag and drives a 130-grain bullet at over 3,200 fps. Thanks to the popularity of the .270 Winchester, there are a bunch of quality .277 bullets on the market. The .270 WSM is inherently accurate and generates enough energy to kill anything in North America except the great bears. In addition, the .270 WSM's short overall length means that it can be chambered in light rifles with small actions, making it an ideal mountain hunting cartridge. It generates about 10 percent more recoil than the .270, yet retains about 20 percent more energy at 300 yards. It can be used on varmints with light 100- and 110-grain bullets, deer-sized game with 130-grain bullets and the heavier 150-grain loads work well on elk and caribou.

.338 Remington Ultra Magnum

Be forewarned that the .338 RUM, while it has all the credentials to be an excellent long-range hunting round, generates a level of recoil that many hunters simply cannot tolerate. However, this cartridge is capable of delivering a 225-grain bullet at 3,200 fps, which generates about 4,500 foot-pounds of energy and shoots flat enough to be considered a true long-range cartridge. The .338's case was developed using a shortened .300 Remington Ultra Magnum beltless rebated case with a modified shoulder and necking it out to accept .338 bullets. For the experienced hunter who can handle the level of kick generated by the RUM, it's a fantastic cartridge for long-distance shots on elk, moose, caribou, and large African plains game like eland, giraffe, and zebra.

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