5 Most Underrated Hunting Cartridges
June 24, 2013
I bet I'm not going to shock anyone reading this when I tell you that the .270 Winchester, .30-06 and the .300 Win. Mag. are all versatile, dependable cartridges that will work on a wide variety of game. Everyone knows that because just about everyone who's ever hunted big game with a rifle has, at some point, been carrying one of these rifles. Every rifle company builds guns chambered for these popular rounds, as well as other stalwarts such as the .243 Win., the 7mm Remington Magnum and the .308 Win.
Sometimes, however, you just want to step away from the guns of the masses for a moment, to explore new territory in the world of sporting rifles. Maybe you want to walk into the local hardware store and see that there aren't 15 boxes of ammo for your particular rifle. Perhaps you want to draw a crowd at the range, the same crowd that's used to you dutifully dialing in your trusted '06 every fall as you prepare to head to the deer woods. Maybe it's the rifle shooter's equivalent of a midlife crisis, the ballistic counterpart to the yellow Porsche convertible.
The good news is that there are several rounds as versatile, powerful and accurate as the popular .270, .30-06 and 7mm Rem. Mag. Are they better than these tried-and-true game getters? No, but these underrated hunting cartridges are worthy alternatives.
This cartridge was introduced as the .244 Rem. in 1955, the same year as Winchester's .243 debuted. Both rifles were conceived as dual-purpose varmint and deer guns, the ultimate all-rounder for the hunter who didn't pursue anything larger than mule deer and who wanted a single rifle to do everything. The .243 Win. won out because it had a slower rifling twist (1:10) that would allow it to stabilize heavier deer bullets better than the .244 Rem., which had a 1:12 twist, and the Remington cartridge gained a reputation for being inaccurate. The .244 Rem. seemed bound for the scrap heap.
Instead, Remington renamed it the 6mm Rem. and gave it a 1:9 twist rate to stabilize those heavy deer hunting bullets. This time the 6mm Rem. caught on, though it didn't exactly catch fire. Fans of the .243 already had their dual-purpose rifle, and they weren't planning to trade it in on Remington's revamped model. The 6mm Rem. did have advantages over the .243 — namely a larger case, longer neck for reloaders, and it shot extremely well with heavy bullets. Today it still offers a viable alternative to the .243.
The Rifle: Keep your eyes open for used Remington Model 742s in 6mm Rem., one of the greatest rifle/cartridge combos for whitetails and varmints.
6.5x55 Swedish Mauser
If you've never heard of the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser (or 6.5 Swede for short) you have been missing the boat for the last 118 years. This Scandinavian cartridge was originally designed to be the military cartridge for the Swedish and Norwegian military forces. As with other military cartridges such as our .308 and .30-06, the 6.5x55 became a top choice for hunters in Scandinavia. The game of choice was often moose, which certainly tested the limits of the 6.5 bullet. However, the 6.5 Swedish Mauser proved capable of killing the big deer, and the cartridge has certainly accounted for more moose in Finland, Sweden and Norway than any other single cartridge.
Military surplus rifles began landing on American shores, and hunters began taking notice of the 6.5 Swede's mild recoil, accuracy and game-killing prowess. It drives a 120-grain bullet at about 2,800 fps, while the average 140-grain load travels somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,650 fps.
There are probably better varmint cartridges than the Swede, though it works just fine for that application. Where the 6.5x55 really shines is in the deer woods. It produces mild recoil and has a relatively flat trajectory, making it a superb choice for a whitetail hunt. Howa, CZ and Sako are all currently importing rifles chambered in 6.5x55, and ammo is being loaded by Federal, Hornady, Nosler, Norma, Winchester and several other companies.
The Rifle: CZ's 550 FS with its Bavarian — style Mannlicher stock chambered in 6.5x55 is beautiful, functional and unconventional. Shoot it once and you'll probably be thinking about that cartridge/rifle combo every time you head to the woods.
.308 Marlin Express
The .308 Marlin
Express came on the scene in 2007, a novel idea wherein the .307 Winchester could be used as a platform to create a cartridge that would allow a lever gun cartridge to approach .308 Winchester trajectory and energy levels. The addition of Hornady's Flex Tip bullets meant that pointed rifle ammunition could be loaded into tubular magazines.
Frankly, I don't know why the .308 Marlin Express isn't more popular than it is. Die-hard bolt action fans never made the leap to lever guns, and traditionalists don't seem inclined to try a new cartridge, even if it beats the old .30-30 to death ballistically.
However, the .308 Marlin is a very good lever cartridge, accurate and powerful. It is capable of greatly extending the range of traditional lever guns and has the energy to take just about anything in North America. Recoil is manageable, and Hornady's bullets perform well on deer, black bear, hogs and the like. If you've ever considered a lever gun, this is a very good place to start. Plus, the hard-core bolt action guys at your shooting range aren't going to be happy when a lever-action rifle will shoot sub-m.o.a. groups and their turnbolt rifles won't. Simply smile and shrug.
The Rifle: Marlin's 336 XLR comes with a laminated stock, stainless barrel and action and a five-shot tubular magazine. When chambered in the .308 Marlin Express this is the archetype go-anywhere, do-anything lever gun.
.370 Sako/9.3x66 Sako
It would have been just about impossible to lay hands on a .370 Sako
a few years ago. However, the company is finally beginning to offer these rifles through its U.S. dealers, and the .370 Sako will likely start popping up more and more as time goes by.
Also known as the 9.3x66 Sako, the .370 Sako is a powerful medium bore capable of taking large and dangerous game. Nothing new there, right? The .375 H&H will do all that as well, and rifles and ammunition are readily available. But what the grand old H&H won't do is fit in a standard-length action, which the Sako cartridge will. In addition, the recoil generated by the .370 Sako is less than that produced by the .375 H&H.
Am I implying that the .370 Sako will ever unseat the .375 H&H? Of course not. I am saying, though, that the .370 Sako is a viable alternative to the Holland. The Sako cartridge has been used on Cape buffalo and other heavy game effectively, and its lighter weight and reduced recoil make it a sensible alternative to the .375 H&H for hunting large plains game species. It is also a great bear, moose and elk cartridge for the United States.
The .370 Sako will drive a 286-grain bullet at 2,550 fps, generating 4,129 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. Federal loads .370 Sako ammo with Swift A-Frames, Barnes Triple-Shock X Bullet and Barnes Banded Solids — all with 286-grain bullets — in its Cape Shok ammo line.
The Rifle: Sako's Model 85 Classic Deluxe with iron sights. It's not cheap, but it's well-made and gorgeous. That is, if you can find one.
8mm Rem. Mag.
Do take note of how many cartridges on this list are metrics. For the most part American shooters have dug their heels in on metrics, with the notable exception of the 7mm magnums and the current 6.5mm craze. However, the 8mm Rem. Mag. never caught on after its introduction in 1977.
Why? Well, the first problem is the metric nomenclature. Remington certainly thought fans of the 7mm Rem. Mag. would see the 8mm magnum as a natural step up on power. That wasn't quite how it worked out, though. The cartridge necessitates a full-length, .300 H&H-length action and generates hefty recoil, and consumers weren't running out in droves to pick up the new 8mm Magnum.
Despite stiff competition from below (.300 Magnums) and above (.338s), the 8mm Rem. Mag. is a performer. It will drive 180-grain bullets over 3,200 fps, and even with heavy 220-grain loads velocities approach 3,000 fps. Full-power 220-grain loads generate in the neighborhood of 4,300 ft.-lbs. of energy, making it a formidable cartridge for heavy game.
For a shooter who can handle the round\'s hefty recoil, this cartridge is extremely versatile. Lighter loads make it a superb long-range rifle for game such as antelope and sheep, and with well-constructed bullets it will kill deer with very little meat damage. Where the big 8mm shines is on elk, moose and plains game like eland and roan.
Despite its credentials, the 8mm Rem. Mag. is suffering heavily, and the introduction of the .325 WSM didn't help. But those who still stand by the 'œgreat 8' still claim it is the perfect heavy gun in a two-rifle North American battery and without equal on large plains game in Africa. I can't disagree.
The Rifle: 8mm Rem. Mags. are hard to find, but you can pick up a Model 700 Classic or a Custom Shop gun from time to time. I let a 700 Classic with walnut stock and iron sights slip by me at a gun shop a few years back, a move I've regretted ever since.