April 11, 2016
The American hunting public is sometimes hard to figure out. We glom onto rifle cartridges which aren't that great while ignoring those rifle cartridges that have something very real to offer. We have our sacred cows (leave it alone if it ends in '06) and our icons (the .375 H&H is popular for hunting in Alaska and Africa, although a goodly number of rifles sold in that chambering will never reach either destination). And while the .30-06, the .375 H&H, the 7mm Rem. Mag. and other cartridges work very well, there are plenty of equally effective rifle cartridges that never got the attention they deserve.
So what makes rifle cartridges successful? Timing has a lot to with it, and so does availability. A widely recognized name is helpful, and market trends such as the short-magnum craze of the last decade can help cement particular rifle cartridges in our memory. Gun writers certainly have something to do with it, and we tend to have our darlings.
There are no major power gaps left to fill in the current lineup of available sporting arms, but there are some cartridges that really make sense. A select few of these become our favorites while other equally adept cartridges are largely ignored.
Here's a case study of sorts, a look at five rifle cartridges that have the goods to be our go-to loads but that, for one reason or another, have not elicited a huge reaction with American shooters.
Little Big Gun: .240 Wby. Mag.
Roy Weatherby's recipe for success was pretty simple: Design rifle cartridges that were very fast and hit very hard. Most of his deer-caliber designs were based on the .300 H&H cartridge case and sported the double-radiused shoulder that has become a hallmark of the brand.
But the .240 Wby. Mag. is its own creation. The .240 Wby. shoots flat enough to reach out at long range and still carries enough energy to be effective on even the largest deer.
There's an old adage that it takes 1,000 ft.-lbs. of energy to kill a deer cleanly, and the .240 Wby. with 100-grain Nosler Partition factory loads carries that level of energy out beyond 500 yards. (The tried-and-true .243 Win. drops below 1,000 ft.-lbs. at just over 300 yards with the same bullet.)
In addition, the Weatherby is also an incredibly flat-shooting rifle cartridge. Sighted in 2.8 inches high at 100 yards, that factory load is 3.5 inches high at 200 yards, dead on at 300 and only 8.4 inches low at 400 yards. The .240 Wby. has a longer point blank range than the .25-06, and if you're a handloader, there are plenty of quality .243-inch bullets from which to choose.
Once upon a time, buying a .240 Wby. rifle meant purchasing a Mark V rifle, but Weatherby is now chambering its affordable Vanguard rifles for this caliber, and they come with a sub-inch accuracy guarantee and cost less than $700. With the .240's capabilities at that price, this is might just be one of the best dual-purpose rifles on the market.
Mountain Climber: .280 Ackley
With the exception of perhaps the dangerous game rifle segment, mountain guns are the most specialized group of sporting rifles. There is always a balance between designing rifle cartridges that shoots flat enough and hits hard enough to kill sheep, goats and elk at long range, is light enough to carry at high altitudes all day and yet produces a manageable level of recoil.
The .280 Ackley Improved was the brainchild of P.O. Ackley, who set out to better the performance of standard rifle cartridges by pushing the shoulder forward and steepening shoulder angle while maintaining the headspacing dimensions from the original cartridge, allowing the shooter to safely fire the parent cartridge in the improved chamber. By moving the shoulder forward and steepening it, the .280 Ackley gains about 10 percent more case capacity than the original .280 Rem., which translates to a serious boost in horsepower.
But the .280 Rem. is not the .280 Ackley's main competitor. That would probably be the 7mm Rem. Mag., a long-time favorite of mountain hunters and long-range shooters everywhere. The 7mm Rem. Mag. may have won the popular vote, but it's hard to argue that the .280 Ackley Improved isn't a better cartridge.
In the Hodgdon reloading manual, the 7mm Rem. Mag. requires 63 grains of H4831 powder to drive a 160-grain Nosler AccuBond bullet out of the muzzle at a velocity of 3,008 fps. The Ackley Improved requires just 57.5 grains of the same powder to reach a muzzle velocity of 2,812 fps with the same bullet, which equates to a 6.5 percent reduction in velocity from the 7mm Rem. Mag. but a very important 9 percent reduction in powder usage. In addition, the Ackley Improved has 10 percent less recoil in similar-weight rifles, less muzzle blast and a higher magazine capacity.
Nosler now offers .280 Ackley ammunition in its Trophy Grade lineup, which I tested in a Kimber Montana. With that load, the five-pound, 10-ounce Kimber rifle produced sub-m.o.a. groups. Here, my friends, is your mountain rifle cartridge.
All-Around Champ: .30 T/C
There are a lot of rifle cartridges that are versatile enough to take just about any big game animal on the continent, and many of them fire .308-inch bullets. This class of rifle cartridges ranges from the .30-30 up through the .308 and into the hot magnums such as the .300 Wby. and the .300 Rem. Ultra Mag, a variance of about 1,500 fps in muzzle velocity.
Needless to say, the .30 caliber rifle cartridge market is crowded. But when Thompson/Center and Hornady introduced the short, rimless .30 T/C cartridge, it seemed, at least on paper, to have beaten the unbeatables: more muzzle velocity and energy than the .308 and the .30-06 with less recoil and less powder usage. The .30 T/C offers a 90 fps advantage in velocity over the .30-06 yet produces less recoil, and it was chambered in both Thompson/Center's Icon bolt rifle and Encore single-shot.
Loaded with 165-grain GMX bullets, the .30 T/C offers a velocity boost of 100 fps over the .308 Win. with 150 ft.-lbs. more energy at 300 yards. It seems the .30 T/C should have been the new class leader since it incorporated new technology that made it theoretically superior to those other two rounds.
But that's not what happened. Instead, the .30 T/C lagged in sales and was available only in a limited number of rifles. Today T/C doesn't chamber it at all. And these rifle cartridges could not be handloaded to factory specifications because Hornady used a proprietary powder that wasn't available to handloaders.
In short, the .30 T/C is ballistically superior to the mighty '06 and the .308, but limited availability of ammo (Hornady is the sole factory source) and rifles made it hard to get the masses to fall in love with everything the .30 T/C had to offer. If you're going to build a better mousetrap, it better be way better.
Best for Big Stuff: .358 STA
Hunters love the old brush-bustin' .35 Rem., and they have an almost wistful fondness for the all-American .35 Whelen. But when you ask them if they own a rifle chambered for either cartridge, they'll drop their heads and admit they don't. We like the .35s — just not enough to switch to them.
That's a shame, because the .358 Shooting Times Alaskan, a rifle cartridge designed by Layne Simpson and introduced in 1992, has a tremendous amount to offer the hunter pursuing large game, such as elk, moose, eland and the like. And if you're in bear country, the .358 STA generates energy levels on par with the mighty .375 H&H in case you need to stop a charge, yet it shoots flatter than the .338 Win. Mag. with heavy bullets.
The .338 pushes a 250-grain Nosler Partition at about 2,600 fps with factory loads, though handloaders can increase that figure some. The .358 STA, which is based on the 8mm Rem. Mag. case, drives that same bullet at nearly 3,000 fps, making it a real contender for the title of the most versatile heavy rifle cartridges for North American game. Better still, the .358 STA generates about 10 percent less recoil than a .375 H&H in similar rifles.
Today, there is a strong crop of .35-inch bullets that are designed to handle that level of velocity. If American shooters truly love the idea of .35s, this may be the ultimate big rifle in a two-gun battery for hunting on this continent. But the .358 STA is a handloader's rifle cartridge and a custom gun proposition. That being said, if you're looking for a cartridge capable of taking all but the very largest game in the world, this is a round worth considering.
Charge-Stopper: .404 Jeffery
There is a dilemma for hunters longing to pursue very large and very dangerous game. What is judged "enough gun" may seem like "far too much gun" to the average shooter's shoulder. Shooting a gun that overmatches your recoil tolerance is a recipe for wounded game, and in the pursuit of dangerous game you may have unnecessarily put yourself and your guide or PH at risk because you brought a gun you were afraid of and didn't shoot well.
Wouldn't it be nice if there were true big bore .40 caliber (or bigger) rifle cartridges that could take down any game on Earth but didn't beat you senseless? Well, there is. It's the .404 Jeffery. It's got a century-long service record as a dangerous game gun, and its recoil is at a level most hunters can manage.
The .404 Jeffery was originally designed to launch a 400-grain .423-inch bullet at 2,125 fps, although handloaders can beat that figure, and Nosler offers .404 solid ammo in its Safari line that leaves the muzzle at 2,350 fps and generates more than 4,900 ft.-lbs. of energy. That's plenty of energy to topple anything, and the .404 Jeffery produces recoil that is closer to .375 H&H levels than .416 Rigby or .416 Rem. Mag. levels.
The .404 Jeffery has a long history on African game, and CZ now offers the rifle in its Safari Classics Magnum Express line with a Mauser-style action, so the .404 may start appearing more on the African game fields where it earned its reputation as a competent, shootable rifle cartridge.