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Boddington's Top 10 Hunting Cartridges

The best hunting ammunition isn't defined simply by velocity, bullet diameter, or case capacity. Boddington applies his decades of experience to detail which 10 game-getting cartridges got it right, and why.

Boddington's Top 10 Hunting Cartridges
The .45-70 saw the last of the 19th Century bison hunting, and remains a sound choice for bison today. The monster bull was taken with a Wesson & Harrington single-shot .45-70 using hard-cast bullets and heavy blackpowder loads. (Author Photo)

Wow, this one is going to fuel some campfire arguments! We all have strong feelings about our favorite cartridges. An all-time “Top 10 Hunting Cartridges” is a tough list. Some of my personal favorites didn’t make my final list, and several on this list aren’t among my favorites. Criteria I thought about included popularity, longevity, and impact on hunting practices. Some cartridges that made my final list are stand-alone entries while some others made the list because of the “families” of cartridges they begat. Still others were included because of performance characteristics that have been emulated. Note that this is my list. If you’re into this stuff like I am, I urge you to make your own list. We can agree to disagree, and I’m sure I’ll hear from you. Here goes.

.45-70 Government (1873)

45-70-2
Carlos Martinez used a Marlin 1895 .45-70 with strong modern loads to take this Cape buffalo. No drama, plenty of power. (Author Photo)

Introduced in the trapdoor Springfield and named for its 70-grain blackpowder charge, the .45-70 was America’s military cartridge for 19 years. It saw us through the wars with the Plains tribes, the settlement of the West, and the demise of the bison. It persisted into the 20th Century, but almost died away. From the 1930s, no new .45-70 rifles were made until Bill Ruger made it an early chambering for his No. 1 single-shot in 1967. Marlin soon followed with their “new” M1895 lever-action .45-70. Since then, the .45-70 has been a standard chambering in modern single-shots and several lever-actions. Powerful and hard-hitting, it’s awesome for black bear and wild hogs, and useful for elk and moose in thick cover. In strong modern actions, it can be loaded up to be fully adequate for the biggest bears and Cape buffalo.

45-70-1
Left to right: Standard .45-70 load, 405-grain bullet at 1300 fps; Hornady 325-grain FTX at 2000 fps; Garrett super-hard-cast 440-grain at 1800 fps. Thanks to the .45-70 being chambered in strong modern actions, ammo is available in widely varying power ranges. (Author Photo)

7x57 Mauser (1892) / 7mm-08 Remington 

7x57-1
Mild in recoil yet versatile and effective, the 7x57 is an amazing hunting cartridge. A single 139-grain InterBond accounted for this excellent greater kudu. Exactly the same can be said about the 7mm-08, simply a modernized version of the 7x57. (Author Photo)

The 7x57 is just one of several military cartridges designed by Peter Paul Mauser on the same basic case. One could say that the 8x57 was a more successful military cartridge, while the 7x57 has been a more successful sporting round. In 1898, American troops faced the 7x57 in the Spanish-American War. A year later, the British faced it in South Africa in the Second Boer War. Both Brits and Yanks came away with respect for the 7x57. It quickly became a popular hunting cartridge, made famous by WDM “Karamoja” Bell’s exploits in Africa, and Jim Corbett’s use of it hunting man-eating leopards and tigers in India. In England, it was renamed (and is interchangeable with) .275 Rigby.

7x57-2
In about 1900, Rigby renamed the 7x57 cartridge “.275 Rigby” for the British gun trade. They are identical, with both headstamps available today. (Author Photo)

It isn’t fair to mention the 7x57 without including the 7mm-08 Remington. Using a shorter case with modern propellants — and loaded to higher pressure — the 7mm-08 duplicates 7x57 ballistics (plus a bit). Either way, with a 140-grain bullet at about 2800 feet-per-second (fps), the 7x57/7mm-08 is an awesome recipe for deer-sized game: Light in recoil, long on performance. The 7mm-08 isn’t as popular as the 6.5 Creedmoor, but here’s my spin: The 6.5 Creedmoor is a better target cartridge, while the 7mm-08 (and/or 7x57) is a better hunting cartridge.

7x57-3
The 7mm-08 Remington with its ballistic twin, the 7x57 Mauser. The two are identical in performance on game. The more modern 7mm-08 fits into short actions, while the old Mauser cartridge does not. (Author Photo)

6.5x55 Swedish Mauser (1894) / 6.5 Creedmoor

6.5x55-2
Gunwriter Joseph von Benedikt used a Ruger in 6.5x55 to take this awesome sable antelope. Though not nearly as popular as the 6.5 Creedmoor, the 6.5x55 retains a small, loyal following in the U.S., and is more popular in Europe. (Author Photo)

Necked to different calibers and with slightly varying case lengths, the 6.5x55 was just one of numerous Mauser military cartridges. Adopted by Sweden and Norway, it remained in service for a full century. Just one of several early 6.5mm cartridges, the 6.5x55 is the most lasting. In America, its following is small but loyal. Throughout Europe — especially in Scandinavia — it remains a standard hunting cartridge, also popular for long-range target shooting.

6.5x55-1
Left to right: 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser, 6.5 Creedmoor, .260 Remington. Although the 6.5 Creedmoor is far the most popular — at least in America — these three cartridges are ballistically identical. (Author Photo)

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the 6.5x55 is flattered by the 6.5 Creedmoor. Easily the most successful new cartridge in the last 50 years, the 6.5 Creedmoor echoes the 6.5x55’s 1894 ballistics and performance: 140-grain bullet at about 2700 fps. The Creedmoor does this in a shorter, more efficient case. The 6.5 Creedmoor will probably become one of all-time greats. For me, it’s just too new, and doesn’t do anything the 6.5x55 already did 125 years ago.

.30-30 Winchester (1895)

30-30-2
A brand-new Ruger-Marlin 336 with Boddington’s 2023 Kansas whitetail. At short to medium range the great old .30-30 is still a fine deer cartridge. (Author Photo)

The .30-30 was the first smokeless powder sporting cartridge, introduced in the Winchester M1894. The ’94 would become the most prolific sporting rifle extant — 7.5 million made, so far — followed by the Marlin 336 at 6 million. The .30-30 cartridge was the most common chambering in both rifles, meaning north of 10 million .30-30s were made in just those two models, and millions remain in use. Named for its original charge of 30 grains of smokeless powder, the .30-30 is neither fast nor flashy. At close to moderate range, it has been effective on deer-sized game for 129 years. I particularly like it for feral hogs because hogs are usually taken within the .30-30’s range envelope. Tastes have long since run to faster, flatter-shooting cartridges, and the .30-30 languished. However, the recent resurgence of the lever-action rifle is bringing it back, so yet another generation can discover America’s great deer cartridge, the .30-30.

30-30-3
After nearly 125 years the .30-30 case is still used as a parent cartridge for rimmed cases. The .30-30, left, with its latest progeny, Remington’s .360 Buckhammer. (Author Photo)

.404 Jeffery (1905)

404 Jeff-1
Although not as popular today, in years gone by the .404 Jeffery was the most popular of the “large medium bores.” This Mozambique buffalo was taken with a McMillan rifle in .404 Jeffery. (Author Photo)

In the early days of smokeless powder only double rifles and single shots housed cartridges adequate for the largest game. Introduced by W.J. Jeffery, the .404 was the first large-caliber smokeless cartridge designed for bolt-actions. Using a .423-inch diameter bullet, its original load propelled a 400-grain bullet at 2125 fps, replicating in a repeater the proven ballistics of the rimmed .450/.400-3” (.400 Jeffery) in double rifles.

I could argue that 1911’s .416 Rigby is a “better” cartridge. However, the .404 makes my list — and the .416 Rigby does not — for several reasons. First, the .404 Jeffery was adopted as standard issue by several African game departments, and, thus, is far more popular. Second, the .404’s .545-inch base diameter can be fitted into a wide variety of standard bolt-actions. The .416 Rigby’s fatter case requires an extra-large magnum action.

404 Jeff-2
The .404 Jeffery case has been used for a wide range of modern cartridges, including all the RUMs and the Nosler family. Left to right: .404 Jeffery, .300 RUM, .338 RUM, 7mm RSAUM, .300 RSAUM, 26 Nosler. (Author Photo)

Finally, the .404 Jeffery case is the parent for a wide array of cartridges, from wildcats to proprietaries to production. Guns & Ammo founder Robert E. Petersen’s famous .460 G&A wildcat was based on the .404 Jeffery case. Likewise, most of the Dakota Magnums. Remington’s RUMs and RSAUMs are based on the .404 case, as are the Nosler cartridges from 26 to 33 Nosler.

Today the .404 is not as popular as the several .416s, but it has seen a resurgence. Today’s .404 Jeffery ammo is loaded faster, fully adequate for the largest thick-skinned game.

.30-06 Springfield

30-06-1
This bull elk dropped in its tracks to a single 180-grain Barnes X from a .30-06. Although effective, the powerful .30-06 is a better elk cartridge than for use on deer-sized game. (Author Photo)

Officially named Cartridge, Ball, Caliber .30, Model of 1906, one of America’s most prolific loadings was soon shortened to, simply, “.30-06.” It is the most powerful cartridge ever adopted by a major military and remained America’s service cartridge for 50 years. Needlessly powerful for deer-sized game, it was probably America’s dominant hunting cartridge from the 1940s through the 1960s. Fast, powerful, and versatile, it remains a worldwide standard.

Recommended


30-06-2
The .30-06 case has spawned a century’s worth of fine hunting cartridges. Factory derivatives include: .30-06, .270 Win, .280 Rem, .25-06, .35 Whelen, .370 Sako Mag, .280 Ackley Improved. (Author Photo)

The .30-06 can stand on its own just fine, but its case served as the parent for an array of useful and hunting cartridges, including: .25-06 Rem., .270 Win., .280 Rem., .35 Whelen. In 1952, with improved propellants, the .30-06 case was shortened to create the .308 Win. (7.62x51mm NATO) cartridge. The .308 is about 93 percent as powerful as the .30-06, with more compact ammo that is capable of fitting into shorter, lighter actions. Today the .308 is more popular than the .30-06, and has itself sired a fine family: .243 Win., .260 Rem., 7mm-08 Rem., .338 Federal, .358 Win. In 2007 the .30-06/.308 case was shortened still more to create the 6.5 Creedmoor, currently one of our most popular centerfires.

30-06-3
The .308 Win, left, is nothing more — nor less — than shortened 30-06 case, taking advantage of case efficiency and propellants that didn’t exist in 1906. (Author Photo)

.375 H&H (1912)

375-HH-1
Although incredibly versatile, there are few animals for which the .375 H&H is truly perfect. One of them is the biggest bears. This huge Alaskan brownie was taken with a Sako Safari in .375 H&H. (Author Photo)

In 1905, Holland & Holland introduced the .400/.375. Mild and unpopular, it was the world’s first belted cartridge. Seven years later, the company tried again with the .375 H&H Magnum, same bullet diameter, retaining the belt, but with a much longer case enabling higher velocity. This time they got it right.

375-HH-2
The .375 H&H is the parent case for almost all belted cartridge from all manufacturers, necked this way and that, length altered as needed. Of dozens, left to right: .375 H&H, 7mm Rem Mag, .300 Win Mag, 6.5mm Rem Mag, .350 Rem Mag. (Author Photo)

More than a century later the .375 H&H remains the world’s most popular medium-bore. It is the jack-of-all-trades of the cartridge world: Trajectory flat enough for almost all conditions, power and penetration adequate for the world’s largest game. It is an article of faith that the .375 H&H is the “legal minimum” for Africa’s dangerous game. In fact, more countries stipulate 9.3mm (.366) as the legal minimum. Those that stipulate .375 don’t say which .375 cartridge. Never mind, this is part of the .375 H&H’s legend. It remains a wonderfully versatile cartridge, standard medicine for the biggest bears, and is a fine choice for a one-rifle safari battery.

Like the .30-06, the .375 H&H stands on its own merit. However, it must also be credited as the parent case for almost all belted magnums. The only exceptions are Weatherby’s .224 and .240 Wby. Mag.; and Weatherby’s family of cartridges based on their big .378 Wby. Mag. All other Weatherby Magnums, and all belted cartridges from Norma, Remington, Winchester, et al., are based on the .375 H&H case.

.44 Remington Magnum (1956)

44 Mag-1
The .44 Rem. Mag. is a handful. However, to effectively hunt big game with a handgun this level of power is needed. Takes practice, but most shooters can learn to shoot a .44 accurately. (Author Photo)

Dirty Harry Callahan told us it was “the world’s most powerful handgun.” Although since eclipsed, it was the most powerful when Clint Eastwood delivered that famous line. More important than its sheer (and significant) power, it was the first factory handgun cartridge powerful enough to be viable for hunting game larger than deer. It’s appropriate to credit the .44 Mag for enabling handgun hunting as we know it today.

44 Mag-2
Although the .44 Rem. Mag. has been used for big bears and buffaloes, Boddington believes it’s at its best for deer-sized game. This may be his ugliest feral hog, dropped cleanly with a S&W M29. (Author Photo)

For years gunwriter Elmer Keith had been messing with heavy handloads in the .44 Special. The .44 Mag is based on a lengthened .44 Special case, using the same .429-inch. At Keith’s urging, Remington developed the cartridge, while Smith & Wesson developed a beefed-up revolver, introducing the double-action M29 in .44 Mag. Ruger soon followed with a single-action .44. In addition to handguns, the .44 has been widely chambered in rifles and carbines, gaining significant velocity and energy in longer barrels.

44 Mag-3
The .44 Rem. Mag. was created by simply lengthening the .44 Special case (left) to increase powder capacity and velocity. (Author Photo)

Although there are now several more powerful handgun cartridges, the big .44 approaches the recoil limit for many of us. It is the gold standard for handgun hunting.

.300 Winchester Magnum (1963)

300 Win Mag-1
There isn’t much hunting that can’t be done with any fast .30. The .300 Win Mag may not be the best but is surely the most popular. This eland was taken with a single 200-grain ELD-X at about 300 yards. (Author Photo)

It was the first magnum craze and Roy Weatherby had the big boys nervous. Every new cartridge wore a belt and carried a magnum suffix. In 1962 Remington introduced their 7mm Rem. Mag., instantly a runaway success. The next year Winchester unveiled the .300 Win. Mag., last of their four .30-06-length belted magnums. All were based on the .375 H&H case, shortened with body taper removed.

At first the .300 Win. Mag. was much criticized. It had a short neck to maximize powder capacity and was intended to replace the long-beloved .300 H&H. Worst of all, it got caught up in Winchester’s hated 1963-to-1964 manufacturing shift. Remington’s Big Seven soon became the world’s most popular magnum, while the .300 Win. Mag. struggled.

300 Win Mag-1
Although criticized for its short neck, the .300 Win Mag is an exceptionally accurate cartridge, wringing a lot of velocity from its 2.6-inch case. This is Boddington’s Jarrett Ridge Walker in .300 Win Mag, sub-half-MOA five-shot group with handloaded 200-grain ELD-X. (Author Photo)

A race isn’t always to the swift. A generation later, the 7mm Rem. Mag. has languished. It’s another great cartridge, so it’s hard to say why it has declined. Maybe too many fast 7mms? Meantime, the .300 Win. Mag. took over as the world’s most popular magnum. Fast, accurate, efficient, able to fit into any .30-06-length action. Short of pachyderms, there is no hunting in the world that can’t be done with a fast .30, and the .300 Win. Mag. is by far the most popular.

.375 Ruger (2007) / Hornady Precision Rifle Cartridge (PRC) 

.375 Ruger-1
A magnificent Lord Derby’s giant eland, taken with a single shot from a .375 Ruger at about 250 yards. This is Boddington’s favorite African animal. (Author Photo)

At the turn of the millennium, the major manufacturers overdid it with too many new cartridges. Still, the message was clear: Unbelted shoulder headspacing was in and the trend was toward fatter, more efficient cases.

.375 Ruger-3
Boddington used a Mossberg Patriot .375 Ruger in laminate stock and stainless steel to take this big polar bear off Nunavut’s Baffin Island. (Author Photo)

The case design of the Hornady-engineered .375 Ruger is brilliant. Lose the belt, keep the .532-inch rim and base diameter of the standard belted .375 H&H case. Presto, an unbelted case with more capacity, maintaining the belted magnum’s bolt face and magazine box. In 2006, hunting and filming with Steve Hornady in Zimbabwe, we used it and were impressed. My producers didn’t understand it was still under wraps. We let the cat out of the bag, and inadvertently started what was probably the most successful large cartridge launch in history. Over .30-caliber, demand drops like a rock because need is limited. The .375 Ruger will never be as popular as the long-established .375 H&H, but I believe it’s a better cartridge. Slightly faster, shorter, more efficient, and able to fit standard-length actions.

.375 Ruger-2
Time will tell, but the .375 Ruger’s most lasting contributions may be other cartridges spawned from its case. Left to right: .375 Ruger, .300 PRC, .300 RCM, 6.5 PRC. (Author Photo)

However, it’s not exactly the .375 Ruger cartridge, alone, that makes this list. Rather, it’s that clever case design. Its first family, the .416 Ruger and stubby .300 and .338 RCMs, have not been popular. A decade later, Hornady used that case, shortened, to create the 6.5 PRC. Then again, full-length, for the .300 PRC, then the 7mm PRC right between. It’s too soon to assume lasting popularity for any of them, but I believe the PRC family will be the ultimate legacy of the .375 Ruger.

Sound Off

Did we miss anything? How does your list compare? Can we ever codify the all-time best hunting cartridges? Let us know your thoughts by emailing gaeditor@outdoorsg.com and use “Sound Off” in the subject line. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

30-30-1
The .30-30 isn’t known for accuracy, but some rifles are surprising. Doesn’t really matter; the .30-30 is plenty accurate for its effective range. (Author Photo)



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