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10 Underrated Hunting Cartridges

The latest hunting cartridges are impressive for their in-flight ballistics and terminal performance. But don't overlook these proven classics. Here's our picks for the top 10 classic cartridges that can still get it done.

10 Underrated Hunting Cartridges

(Author Photo)

There’s been a sea change in cartridge development over the last decade, and that’s partly driven by growing interest in long-range hunting and shooting. The 6.5 Creedmoor was certainly the primary catalyst for this renaissance, and since the Creedmoor’s inception we’ve seen several new cartridges do very well including the 28 Nosler, 6.5 PRC, 6.8 Western, the new 7mm PRC, and others.

The science behind these cartridges is sound, particularly a bias toward high-ballistic-coefficient (BC), heavy-for-caliber bullets that buck wind well and maintain energy at extended ranges. When paired with fast-twist barrels, the long, aerodynamic bullets perform exceptionally well way out, so it’s no surprise that the new cadre of long-range shooting enthusiasts would naturally gravitate toward these cartridges.

30-06 Roan
(Author Photo)

What is surprising, though, is the manner in which older cartridges have fallen out of favor with many hunters and shooters. Starting a few years ago, I noticed when I was reviewing new rifle releases that, for the first time in living memory, the latest bolt-action hunting rifles weren’t being offered in traditional chamberings like .30-06 Springfield and .270 Winchester. The exception, perhaps, is the .308 Winchester which has somehow sidestepped the spurn cast on many of its contemporaries, almost certainly a result of the .308’s use as a military round and popularity in short-action bolt guns and ARs.

Ever so slowly, the hot new cartridges are eroding the popularity of older rounds, but that doesn’t change the fact that the classic cartridges that were very much en vogue a few years ago are still viable hunting rounds. If you see a quality rifle chambered in one of these classic cartridges on the used gun rack it might be a great bargain and a proven game getter. Here’s our picks for the top 10 classic cartridges that can still get it done.

.22 Hornet

22 Hornet
(Author Photo)

Colonel Townsend Whelen and Captain G.L. Woytkins played a hand in developing the .22 Hornet during their time at Springfield Armory. Based on the defunct .22 WCF blackpowder cartridge, the .22 Hornet is a rather odd-looking little cartridge with substantial shoulder taper and a long neck. In the days before the .222 and .223 Remingtons arrived, the Hornet was considered a “hot” .22 round, at least until Winchester released the 220 Swift five years later. The .22 Hornet will push a 35-grain bullet over 3,000 feet per second while velocities with 45-grain projectiles hover around 2,600 fps, so this is a mild round which adds to its charm. It produces far less report than the .223 Remington, and its small bullets don’t damage pelts. It’s an ideal round for eastern hunters who want to shoot varmints and predators out to 200 yards without spooking deer or irritating the neighbors. I carried a Savage Model 25 Varminter in .22 Hornet to Mozambique this year to hunt the tiny forest antelope species with Zambeze Delta Safaris and immediately fell in love with this little round. Shots from 20 to 200 yards were no problem, and there was virtually no recoil. Muffle the Hornet’s minimal muzzle blast with a suppressor and this is a quiet cartridge that’s a far more effective killer than the various rimfire .22s and .17s.

22 Hornet Africa
(Author Photo)

.243 Winchester

243 Win
(Author Photo)

There’s growing interest in new 6mm cartridges like the 6mm Creedmoor, 6mm GT, and 6mm ARC, and that hasn’t been beneficial for the .243 Winchester. With so many new 6mm alternatives, the .243 doesn’t get much attention which is shocking for a cartridge that has been popular since its inception in 1955. Based on a necked-down .308 Winchester cartridges, the .243 is offered with bullets ranging from 55 to 100 grains in factory ammunition. It doesn’t match the ballistics of a 6mm Creedmoor, but at distances out to about 500 yards the differences between the two rounds are very close. The most wonderful things about the .243 are its versatility and modest recoil. It shoots flat enough for long-range varmint or pronghorn hunting, and it will dispatch a big whitetail buck at most practical ranges. Hard as it is to believe, the great profession hunter (PH) Harry Selby stated that most of his leopard hunting clients in Botswana killed their cats with .243s, and since Harry was the one who would have to clean up the mess if the cat wasn’t dead under the tree, his affection for the .243 is no faint praise. If you want a deer, antelope, and varmint/predator rifle rolled into one, look no further than the .243.

243 Win Target
(Author Photo)

257 Weatherby Magnum

257 Wby Mag
(Author Photo)

In this more genteel time, we achieve great ballistic feats with the science of case design, but in Roy Weatherby’s day the formula was simpler: If you want better ballistics, build a bigger cartridge case. That’s exactly what he did with the .257 Weatherby Magnum in 1944. By repurposing a .300 H&H magnum case, Weatherby could create his own cartridge design that would push a 120-grain bullet around 3,200 feet per second (fps) and a smaller 75-grain bullet close to 3,800 fps, which are indeed eye-popping numbers. The 257 Weatherby Magnum was Roy’s favorite of his own cartridges, and the round has developed a lot of fans over the years who back their bias with decades of field experience. I’ll tell you from personal experience that this round shoots flat and doesn’t recoil with the same energy as a 7mm Remington Magnum or .300 Win. Mag., though muzzle blast is spectacular. The 257 is an exceptional cartridge for deer and antelope, and has been used on elk (and, according to legend, on cape buffalo by Weatherby himself). This round offers a laser-flat trajectory; with a 110-grain ELD-X bullet from Hornady its strikes just 5.5-inches low at 300 yards. And, when zeroed at 300 yards, Weatherby’s website says you can expect the 100-grain TTSX bullet to strike less than 8 inches below the aiming point at 400 yards. That exceptionally flat trajectory can be very beneficial on the wide-open plains, too; if you inadvertently range an object that is 50 yards in front of or behind your actual target, the Weatherby’s flat trajectory will reduce the effects of the error.

257 Wby Mag Deer
(Author Photo)

.270 Winchester

270 Win
(Author Photo)

Even Jack O’Connor’s endorsement hasn’t preserved the .270’s reputation as newer rounds have emerged on the scene. Originally released in 1925 in the Winchester Model 54 rifle, the .270 was met with worldwide acclaim for almost a hundred years. Deer, elk, and sheep haven’t gotten any more durable since the .270s release, but the advent of newer rounds, particularly the 6.5 PRC and 6.8 Western, have overshadowed the .270. Indeed, both those cartridges will thump the .270’s ballistics when fired from rifles with fast twist barrels, but let’s remember that there’s a world of difference between shooting targets at 1,200 yards from a benchrest and dispatching a whitetail at 200 yards. Hornady’s .270 Winchester Precision Hunter load fires a 145-grain ELD-X bullet at 2,970 feet per second, 10 fps faster than the Precision Hunter 6.5 PRC’s 143-grain bullet leaves the muzzle. When both loads are zeroed at 200 yards, the drop for both rounds at 500 yards is within 1.5 inches, and the .270 is still clinging to 1,497 foot-pounds of energy to the PRC’s 1,604 foot-pounds. Beyond that, the PRC begins to shade the .270 considerably, but the hunter who takes most shots under 500 yards — and certainly under 400 yards — will never notice an appreciable difference between these two rounds. What’s more, there are lots more .270 loads available today, and plenty of rifle options.

270 Win Deer
(Author Photo)

7mm-08 Remington

7mm-08
(Author Photo)

What happened to the 7mm-08 Remington? For a while it was the darling of outdoor scribes, but when the 6.5 Creedmoor came along, every bit of praise and love for the seven-oh-eight seemed to dry up and the cartridge was relegated to the dust bin. Based on the .308 Winchester case necked down, the 7mm-08 has primarily been offered with 120- or 140-grain bullets, though some lighter or heavier offerings exist. One of my favorite factory 7mm-08 loads is Federal Premium’s 140-grain Trophy Bonded Tipped which shoots flatter than the 165-grain .308 Winchester TBT load. The 7mm-08 produces less recoil yet it sustains just about 1,500 foot-pounds of energy at 300 yards and over 1,000 foot-pounds at 500 yards. For the majority of North American big game hunting, that will do just fine. 7mm-08s fit in short rifle actions and can be built into light, accurate mountain guns or handy woods rifles, and recoil is mild enough that even the most sensitive shooter should be able to manage. It’s large for dedicated varmint and predator hunting, but for deer-sized game to 500 yards it’s excellent, and its short action makes it a great option for mountain sheep/elk rifles. The cartridge’s light recoil also makes it a great choice for mountain gun builds since these ultralight rifles can be quite abusive when chambered in hot magnums. The 7mm-08 will never return to its favored status, but I would happily snatch a good 7mm-08 from the used rifle rack knowing full well that, for practical hunting applications at moderate ranges, the round will perform as well as its more modern competitors.

7mm Remington Magnum

7mm Mag
(Author Photo)

The 7mm Remington Magnum made its debut in 1962, the same year as Remington’s Model 700 rifle, defying the widely-held belief that metric cartridges couldn’t make it in America. The 7mm Remington Magnum produces about 20 foot-pounds of recoil, which is in the neighborhood of the .30-06, but it shoots much flatter than the ’06. Remington’s new Core-Lokt Tipped 150-grain 7mm Remington magnum load drops just 5.8 inches at 300 yards when zeroed at 200, and carries more than 1,700 foot-pounds of energy at 500 yards. It’s a flat-shooting, hard-hitting round with moderate recoil that is suitable for everything but the biggest, meanest bears and dangerous game like cape buffalo. The late, great John Wootters had extensive experience with the 7mm Rem. Mag. all over the world and called it a “laser.” African PH Patrick Cairns keeps a 7mm Rem. Mag. as a camp rifle for visiting hunters because he says it will take all the non-dangerous game, including eland, and the recoil isn’t as off-putting as the .30-caliber magnums. My own 7mm Rem. Mag. is a Ruger M77 topped with a Leupold 4.5-14 scope, and with that rig I’d feel comfortable hunting pronghorn on the prairies, elk in the mountains, or a full bag of African plains game. The 7mm PRC will certainly put a dent in 7mm Rem. Mag. sales, but that doesn’t make this cartridge any less effective on game.

7mm Mag Target
(Author Photo)

.30-30 Winchester

30-30
(Author Photo)

The .30-30 arrived on the scene in 1895 and became the first popular centerfire cartridge to use smokeless powder. It was originally chambered in the 1894 Winchester rifle, which had theretofore only been offered with black-powder cartridges, and the .30-30 (or .30 WCF, as it was originally known) proved to be a versatile hunting cartridge capable of taking a full range of non-dangerous North American game at moderate ranges. The .30-30’s ballistic numbers would put a dedicated long-range shooter to sleep, firing a 170-grain bullet around 2,200 fps or a 150-grain bullet at about 2,400 fps. But for close-range work in dense forests, a fast-handling .30-30 lever gun is well-suited for deer, black bear and even elk, so long as shots are relatively close, and if you’re trying to thin out a sounder of hogs a quick-handling .30-30 is good medicine. Despite its age and relatively anemic ballistics, the .30-30 remains one of the top-selling cartridges in the country, and rather surprisingly .30-30 ammunition disappeared almost as quickly as 9mm and 5.56 ammunition during the COVID buying spree. With its rimmed cartridge case it has never been a popular bolt-action rifle cartridge (although a few rifle makers, including Winchester, have offered bolt guns chambered for the cartridge). It’s also been hampered by the requirement for flat-nose bullets because most .30-30 rifles use tubular magazines, but Hornady changed that with the introduction of their polymer-tipped LeveRevolution load. Among the .30-30’s many attributes, its low recoil stands out. With about 10 foot-pounds of recoil energy it kicks on par with the .243 Winchester, making it suitable for recoil-sensitive shooters.

30-30 Load
(Author Photo)

.30-06 Springfield

30-06
(Author Photo)

My, how the ‘06’s fortunes have changed. When I started as a gun writer it was considered heresy to write anything negative about the .30-06, which was viewed as the most versatile hunting cartridge in America. Yet, today, only a handful of new bolt-action rifles arrive each year chambered for this classic round. An improved version of the .30-03, the .30-06 was best known as a military cartridge, and it owes much of its popularity to service members who carried rifles chambered for this cartridge in the field. Ballpark velocity figures are 2,900 for 150-grain loads, 2,800 for 165-grain projectiles and 2,700 for 180-grain bullets. Sighted in a couple inches high at 100 yards, most 180-grain .30-06 loads are roughly zeroed at 200 yards and around eight-inches low at 300 yards, so while it doesn’t shoot quite as flat as today’s high-BC bullets, the ’06 is more than capable of taking big game at extended ranges. It hangs on to more than 1,500 foot-pounds of energy with most loads at 500 yards, and with 20 or so pounds of recoil in a sporter weight rifle the .30-06 isn’t too much gun for most hunters. I’ve taken close to half of the whitetails I’ve harvested with an ’06 and have used it on big game like roan and sable while in Africa, and it’s a supremely popular elk cartridge. Though it was never designed for stopping big bears, it’s a lot more effective than smaller cartridges at pumping the brakes on charging grizz at close range. Forever the jack of all trades, the .30-06 is still a very versatile and effective big game round, and no new cartridge that comes on the scene will change that fact.

Recommended


30-06 Eland
(Author Photo)

.338 Winchester Magnum

338 Win Mag
(Author Photo)

The .338 Winchester Magnum arrived on the scene in 1958 as a necked-down version of the .458 Winchester, and despite heavy competition from the various .30-caliber offerings and the larger .375 H&H, the .338 has managed to win the hearts of more than a few hunters, myself included. I’ve been in on two grizzly hunts, both of which were shot with .338 Win. Mag. rifles. Both bears dropped at the shot and never moved again, and afterwards I knew that, with proper shot placement and bullet construction, there was very, very little a hunter couldn’t accomplish with a .338. Despite its large bore diameter and heavy bullets (most popular weights range from 200 to 250 grains) the .338 is capable of shooting as flat as a .30-06 with lighter bullets while retaining about twice the kinetic energy at moderate hunting ranges. It’s suitable for elk, moose, and bear, and I’ve known several writers who have taken .338s to Africa. No one has offered anything but high praise for the cartridge’s performance on large plains game like eland, roan, and sable. There’s no magic to the .338’s great performance, and you must still place a properly constructed bullet in the vitals, but if you do your part there’s precious little this round won’t do. Recoil is a bit higher than most .300 magnums, but the .338 was never designed to be chambered in ultra-light mountain rifles. In standard sporting rifles weighing 8 pounds or more, recoil is heavy but not abusive, and I’d wager that if you can shoot a .300 Win. Mag. well, you can do the same with a .338. There’s no question that the number of grizzly bear attacks is on the rise in the Lower 48, and if I was forced to stop a bear bent on mayhem, you’d better believe I’d rather have a .338 in my hands than just about anything else.

338 Win Mag Bear
(Author Photo)

.45-70 Government

45-70
(Author Photo)

The .45-70 was released in 1873, the same year as barbed wire. It’s one of the oldest cartridges still in common use and one of the few that was originally loaded with black powder. Nevertheless, this is a cartridge that, despite its age, can still drop game with authority. Its ballistics are anything but impressive compared to modern whiz-bang cartridges; Federal’s new HammerDown 300-grain load produces just 2,280 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, and when sighted in dead-on at 100 yards it hits a full foot low at 200 yards. However, for hunters who plan to keep shots under a couple hundred yards, this round is perfectly suitable, and that includes eastern whitetail hunters and anyone who hunts black bears over bait or with hounds. Speaking of black bears, the .45-70 has been particularly popular with those who hunt baited bears because those large-diameter bullets shed a lot of energy on target at close ranges, and the large entry hole produces a far better blood trail than smaller diameter bullets. In states like my native Ohio that require straight-wall cartridges for deer, the .45-70 has found new life, and the round has also found favor with elk hunters who pursue bulls in timber. Short-barreled lever guns like the new Marlin 1895 Trapper are sensible bear defense rounds, especially when using powerful loads with hard-cast bullets. Recoil is more of a heavy shove than a stab and isn’t excessive in most lever guns, and the .45-70’s low velocity generally doesn’t destroy as much meat as a faster, smaller-caliber bullet that goes to pieces upon entry. I rattled in a cull buck in Texas and dropped it at 60 yards with a .45-70, and meat damage was very minimal.

Sound Off

45-70 Deer
(Author Photo)

There you have it, 10 classic big-game cartridges that can still get it done. There’s no disputing the improved ballistics of modern introductions, but their success doesn’t make these loads any less lethal. If you like the list or think we missed something, let us know! Email gaeditor@outdoorsg.com and use “Sound Off” in the subject line.




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