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What Is the ‘Best’ Magnum Cartridge?

by J. Scott Rupp   |  January 13th, 2012 39
Rupp with .375 H&H Ed Brown rifle and Cape buffalo

The author took this old Cape buffalo in Tanzania with an Ed Brown .375 H&H, one of cartridges he considers a gold-standard magnum.

Magnum-itis. Most of us American rifle shooters have it to one degree or another. It’s in our genome. And that explains why so many rifle chamberings with the “magnum” suffix can be found on dealer shelves. What is “best”? That depends on your viewpoint. It could be best in category, best all-around, most powerful, fastest, coolest, whatever.

Following are thumbnail sketches of a number of magnum cartridges. It’s not all-inclusive. Most are commercially available and commercially popular, but some are not—their inclusion based solely on the fact that I think they’re cool. Or I want one. I leave it to you to weigh in on what magnum cartridge you think is “best.”

.22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire

Representative load: 30-grain bullet @ 2,200 fps

Ha, thought I’d start with centerfires, didn’t you? The .22 WMR is a big step up from the .22 Long Rifle and a first-class small game cartridge. Its modern offspring, the .17 HMR, gets all the press these days, but if you like stalking groundhogs and such instead of sniping them, the .22 WMR is a very capable round.

.222 Remington Magnum

Representative load: 40-grain bullet @ 3,640 fps

A lot of my perceptions are based on my rabid study of ballistics tables when I was a kid. My dad wasn’t much of a groundhog hunter, but I was fascinated by it, and I wanted a .222 Rem. Mag. real bad. But of course the rise of the .223 Rem. did in the .222 Rem. Mag., so by the time I was old enough to buy guns on my own, the .222 Mag was a goner.

.257 Weatherby Magnum

Representative load: 115-grain bullet @ 3,250 fps

Years ago when I was editor of Petersen’s Hunting, I opined that if I lived in the West and spent a lot of time hunting pronghorn and mule deer, this would be my choice among the .25s. I’ll go further now and say it would be my number one choice period. Yeah, it burns a lot of powder and is surely over-bore, but having killed a couple of deer and antelope and a bunch of coyotes with one, I can tell you it’s a freakin’ laser beam.

.264 Winchester Magnum

Representative load: 140-grain bullet @ 3,030 fps

I’m almost embarrassed by how many times I’ve written about how I was sure, as a 12-year-old kid, that the .264 Win. Mag. was the ultimate cartridge for North American big game. It’s got those excellent 6.5mm bullet stats, coupled with a flat trajectory. But the 7mm Rem. Mag. pretty much relegated it to cult status, so there you go. I still want one, though.

.270 Winchester Short Magnum

Representative load: 130-grain bullet @ 3,300 fps

I’m not a big .270 guy, so I’m biased, but Craig Boddington is a fan of the .270 WSM, and that’s good enough for me. You can certainly see the logic: fast, flat cartridge in a short action rifle. Certainly a “magnum” improvement on a much-beloved standard  that’s perfect for all but the largest North American game, most of the African antelopes and more.

7mm Remington Magnum

Representative load: 150-grain bullet @ 3,100 fps

One of the three gold-standard magnums. The learned John Wootters once wrote that it may be the best all-around, world-wide big game cartridge of all time. I’m not going to argue with him, plus its ballistics, load variety and availability in loadings and rifles make it very appealing. The knock: Some elk guides I’ve talked to don’t like it, although a lot of that can be traced to early prejudice stemming from bullets that weren’t up to the cartridge’s velocities.

7mm Weatherby, Winchester Short Magnum, Remington Short Action Ultra Mag

Lumped together, these three cartridges aren’t a pimple on the 7mm Rem. Mag.’s butt. The Weatherby has excellent numbers, but it’s strictly proprietary. Unlike it’s .30 caliber brother, the 7mm WSM never caught on, while the 7mm RSAUM was too late to the short-mag party and not well-supported by its creator.

7.82mm (.308) Lazzeroni Patriot

Representative load: 180-grain bullet @ 3,184 fps

John Lazzeroni deserves due credit for developing the short-magnum concept. But despite efforts to move beyond proprietary status (I own a Savage in the Patriot, and there was a Sako TRG chambered in it as well), if you want this cartridge—which essentially matches the .300 Weatherby Magnum but in a short action—you have to be willing to spend the bucks to buy one of Lazz’s well-made but expensive rifles.

.300 H&H Magnum

Representative load: 180-grain bullet @ 2,800

Yes, it has nostalgic appeal, but read that representative load again, and, well, enough said.

.300 Remington Short Action Ultra Mag

Representative load: 180-grain bullet @ 2,960 fps

See 7mm SAUM entry above. I did get a chance to hunt caribou in Labrador with this cartridge, but… Too late, no support. Buh bye.

Rupp with red hartebeest and Kimber .300 WSM

Rupp took this red hartebeest in Namibia with a Kimber in .300 WSM, the most successful short magnum and a great all-around cartridge.

.300 Winchester Short Magnum

Representative load: 180-grain bullet @ 2,980 fps

Talk about a home run. I was fortunate enough to be on the ground floor of this round when it first came out, and I think it really delivered on all its promises: .300 Win. Mag. performance out of a short-action rifle (which tend to be more accurate because they’re stiffer, in addition to being lighter and handier) without a lot of recoil. I killed a lot of big game with it in North America and Africa, but for some reason I never actually bought one.

.300 Ruger Compact Magnum

Representative load: 180-grain bullet @ 3,040 fps (Superformance load)

The new kid on the block is designed with one thing in mind: Get .300 magnum-level ballistics out of very short barrels, the idea springing from veteran mountain hunter Steve Hornady’s desire for a short, light rifle with lots of power and a flat trajectory. The knock: If you’re not a short-barrel aficionado, there are plenty of cartridges that match the ballistics and provide more rifle and load options.

.300 Winchester Magnum

Representative load: 180-grain bullet @ 2,960 fps

The second of gold standard. Some have given it short shrift because of its short neck, but that’s a lot of bah humbug. From military snipers to long-range competition shooters to big game hunters, the .300 Win. Mag. has proven a more than capable warhorse. Factory loads abound, and nearly every rifle maker chambers it. Mine’s a Savage Model 16.

.300 Weatherby Magnum

Representative load: 180-grain bullet @ 3,240

Aside from its Weatherby pedigree and serious ballistics, it’s interesting how other .300 magnums are often compared to how they stack up to the Weatherby. A hunting buddy of mine from Alaska who I really respect used it for everything—deer, sheep, moose, bears—and typified the “one-gun man.” The cartridge is certainly up the to the task.

Rupp with red stag and Remington XHR .300 Ultra Mag

While he at first thought the .300 Ultra Mag was too much gun, a hunt with Remington’s since-discontinued XHR in that caliber for Argentinian red stag changed his mind.

.300 Remington Ultra Mag

Representative load: 180-grain bullet @ 3,230 fps

There was a time I dismissed this cartridge as too much gun, based on what other people I’d hunted with had told me: “Bought one, shot one round, boxed it up and sent it back.” I’m a recoil wuss, but they must’ve been wussier. Based on the .404 Jeffery, this is certainly a powerful cartridge, but it’s also relatively manageable and definitely gives you an edge over other .300s. And as long as Remington keeps up its Power Level ammo effort (loads that approximate .30-06 and .300 WSM performance, plus full-power .300 RUM), I think this may be in fact be the most versatile of the .300s.

.338 Ruger Compact Magnum

Representative load: 225-grain bullet @ 2,750 (Superformance load)

See .300 RCM above. I think this actually one makes more sense, at least for elk hunting where you might find yourself in timber where a short barrel would be a big advantage.

7.82 (.308) Lazzeroni Warbird, .30-378 Weatherby Magnum

I’m including these because, while they’re propriety/not popular, they are screaming fast. Both of them spit out 180-grain bullets from 3,400 to 3,500 fps, so if you can handle the blast and recoil, more power to you. Literally.

.325 Winchester Short Magnum

Representative load: 200-grain bullet @ 2,950 fps

The 8mm diameter has never been big on these shores, but this largest member of the WSM family would seem eminently sensible for bear, moose, elk and more. Deferring again to our friend Craig Boddington, he believes it is a terrific choice for African plains game.

.338 Winchester Magnum

Representative load: 225-grain bullet @ 2,750 fps

The go-to cartridge for elk hunters who want to be ready for anything, from an in-your-face bugling bull to one easing into the timber across a distant alpine meadow. I’ve never shot a .338 Win. Mag., but the rap on it is its stout recoil—a hard, fast pulse that not everyone can get used to, at least not well enough to shoot it accurately.

.338 Remington Ultra Mag, .338 Lapua Magnum

Representative load: 225-grain bullet @ 2,975 fps (RUM)

Representative load:: 225-grain bullet @ 3,100 fps (Lapua)

Every time we run an article on the .338 Lapua Magnum in RifleShooter, we get indignant letters from .338 RUM shooters, demanding to know why they’re getting short shrift. For some reason, the Lapua round has captured the attention of the tactical crowd while the Remington round, which like all RUM cartridges is based on the .404 Jeffery, has not. But in the hunting realm, there are more game-appropriate bullets in this cartridge than for the Lapua. Either way, unless you’re chasing elephant or buffalo, you’ll have enough gun for any situation with either of these.

.375 Holland & Holland

Representative load: 270-grain bullet @ 2,690 fps

The last of the gold standards. Once you move beyond this cartridge, you’re well past anything utilitarian. Having killed two Cape buffalo with a .375 and having spent weeks and weeks working with Hornady’s old Light Magnum loads, I can attest that pretty much anyone can handle the .375, and the .375 can handle pretty much anything. That’s why it’s the No. 1 choice for many African safaris and for brown bear hunters who want to put down their quarry with authority.

.375 Ruger

Representative load: 270-grain bullet @ 2,740 fps (Superformance load)

H&H performance out of a .30-06-length cartridge due to the Ruger round having less taper than the H&H. Once again turning to Craig Boddington’s experience, he believes it’s a viable alternative to the H&H. Having shot it in Ruger’s Alaskan, I give it a thumbs-up from a shootability standpoint and would make it my first choice if I ever went for grizzlies.

Peter Barnhart with .416 Remington Magnum

The author’s PH on his Tanzania buffalo hunt, Peter Barnhart, carried a .416 Remington Magnum as his backup gun, and that convinced Rupp it was a round to consider for his next  Cape buffalo safari.

.416 Remington Magnum

Representative load: 400-grain bullet @ 2,400 fps

Remington’s 8mm Rem. Mag. case necked up to .416, providing ballistics on par with the legendary .416 Rigby. I think the next time I go for Cape buffalo, this is one cartridge I’ll take a hard look at. Why? More diameter than the .375 and, the real reason, my last PH carried one and swore by it for backing up clients on dangerous game hunts.

.416 Ruger

Representative load: 400-grain bullet @ 2,400 fps

See .375 Ruger above. Not much background here as I have no personal experience beyond shooting it at the range, and I haven’t spoken with or read anyone who’s hunted with it. In the Ruger Alaskan I found it marginal as far as shootability, but you’d certainly have to give it a look for certain situations.

.458 Winchester Magnum

Representative load: 500-grain bullet @ 2,240 fps

I mean, c’mon: Clint Eastwood used one in the first “Dirty Harry” movie! What else do you want? Oh, real-world stuff. It’s a widely available cartridge, relatively speaking, capable of taking the world’s largest game. I’ve shot it in a double, and while I wouldn’t want to spend a whole day shooting one, it’s more manageable—at least in that platform—than I expected. It has its detractors, but Finn Aagaard thought well of it, and that’s good enough for me.

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