January 04, 2011
Folks, it's time to cull the herd
Yeah, I know, we live in the age of diversity. We're supposed to have free choice in all things. That is well and good, but I think the manufacturers are offering us far too much choice in rifle cartridges. The more variety they offer the more costly the manufacturing and distribution, and guess who that cost is passed along to?
Okay, so you don't care about saving a few cents on a box of ammo, just so long as you have a bewildering array of cartridges to choose from. But the way things are now how big a choice do you really have? That depends a lot on where you shop, and who does the ordering for that outlet. To my thinking, the problem with the tremendous array of factory cartridges currently on the market is that it's a retailer's nightmare. Very few stores nationwide are big enough to keep even a small stock of all the available options--and right now we have so many different cartridges that very few even try.
So I think it's time to cull the cartridge herd, and I'm going to give you a shopping list of cartridges that I think the major manufacturers should drop like bad habits.
SETTING THE RULES
The first rule is: Don't write me about this story. Write the editor instead, because it was his idea. Seriously, although my friend Jerry Lee asked me to do this piece, I've been thinking about it for a long time, because I honestly believe we have way too many factory cartridges. With new ones coming along all the time, something has to give.
I don't expect everyone to like this story. We all have our favorite cartridges, and if I happen to attack one of your pets you're going to be mad at me. That's okay. It's not really a subject where total objectivity is possible, on either your side or mine.
My primary rule in selecting the cartridges to be discontinued was total ruthlessness. I think I've been fair, because I've included a whole bunch of my own favorite cartridges!
The reasons why I have chosen these cartridges vary tremendously. A cartridge doesn't have to be bad to be unpopular! Some are truly obsolete, some are great cartridges that just didn't make the marketing grade, a couple should never had existed at all, and some are only viable in handloaded form--so why bother with factory loads at all?
By the way, just because a cartridge is popular doesn't mean that its great, either--but I've avoided truly popular cartridges because they aren't going to be culled. I didn't attempt to take into account why a cartridge was popular. For instance, you won't see any of the old-timers revitalized by Cowboy Action Shooting on my list.
In setting my rules, I've also stayed away from proprietaries. If a gun company wants to foot the horrendous R&D costs to have their own unique cartridges, that's fine with me. Likewise, if the consumer wants to buy them and deal with single-source availability. So the only candidates I considered are cartridges loaded by a major U.S. manufacturer.
Finally, please keep in mind that this is just my opinion. I seriously doubt any of the manufacturers will pay any attention. Sales come first, but our ammo makers also have a strong sense of responsibility to the shooting public. Once they've started to supply ammo their tradition is to continue until sales are so dismal that they have absolutely no choice.
Regardless of what you personally choose to shoot, it's a simple fact that the world of varmint cartridges is dominated by the .223 Remington, .22-250, and .22 Hornet. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the several other varmint cartridges loaded commercially--but I think most of them need to go away.
The exception, perhaps, is the .17 Remington. It is not and never will be popular, but it occupies a unique little niche. Only Remington loads it, and just one loading at that, so I expect it will die of its accord one of these days. But I have no desire to speed its departure. As for the rest, well, it's time.
The .218 Bee is unquestionably a "better" cartridge than the .22 Hornet, still able to fit into very small actions, yet offering a good deal more powder capacity and thus higher velocity than the Hornet. Handloaded in a rigid lever action or single shot it can be extremely accurate. It's also a very useful cartridge; like the Hornet, it neatly bridges the huge gap between the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire and the centerfires.
None of this matters. The Hornet has made a significant comeback in recent years, and is now offered in a number of modern commercial rifles. In the last several decades the .218 Bee has only been chambered in a few custom or semi-custom rifles, and in order to see any advantage over the Hornet it must be handloaded. It's time for it to go.
The .222 Remington Magnum is a very accurate cartridge, but long ago it lost both the military trials and its civilian market to the .223. It has recently been discontinued by Remington, and this was an appropriate move.
The .222 Remington is another story. Designed by Remington's Mike Walker to produce maximum accuracy, it is a wonderful little varmint cartridge and still a darling of the serious benchrest crowd. Although it has a slightly smaller case, its performance is so close to the .223 Remington as to be indistinguishable in the field. Unfortunately it also lost the popularity contest with the .223 Remington, and today is offered by relatively few manufacturers. It is unquestionably a more inherently accurate cartridge than the .223--but it usually requires good handloads to see any appreciable difference. Whether it's loaded by the factories or not it will remain alive in benchrest circles, where factory loads aren't a player. We need to admit that the .223 Remington has won, and give up on the .222.
The .225 Winchester never had a fighting chance. It was introduced in 1964, the year Winchester changed from the beloved pre-1964 action to the push-feed action. It was a good move, but hardly a popular one. Worse, the rimmed .225 was followed just a year later by the rimless .22-250 Remington, which had long been an extremely popular wildcat. The .225 is quite fast and can be extremely accurate in the right rifle, but it is not as fast and generally not as accurate as the .22-250. The only thing that really surprises me about the .225 is that Winchester still loads it!
Finally, a most controversial choice: I think the .220 Swift has outlived its usefulness. Introduced in 1935, it was the first commercial cartridge to break 4,000 feet per second. And here 67 years later, it is still the fastest commercial cartridge! Thanks to the upswing in varminting it has made a significant comeback in recent years. I think this is primarily because of its impressive speed, and also because some shooters just plain want to shoot something different.
No matter. Modern .22-250 factory loads, and of course handloads, come very close to the Swift's velocity. More important, the .22-250 is generally far less finicky and usually much more accurate. The .220 Swift will certainly live on in handloads, but I think the ammo manufacturers should give up on it and concentrate on the much more versatile and tractable .22-250.
THE .243 WINS
It isn't like we have a vast array of 6mm cartridges. There are several proprietaries and a number of fairly popular wildcats, but the only two viable commercial 6mm's are the .243 Winchester and the 6mm Remington. In terms of velocity, both potential and real, the 6mm Remington is clearly the superior cartridge. Again, this doesn't matter. The .243 Winchester is one of our most popular centerfire cartridges, while the 6mm Remington just barely hangs on. I think it should get the ax.
This is not based entirely on popularity. I believe that the .243, with its short, fat case, is inherently a more accurate cartridge. It can also be housed in a true short bolt action. The 6mm Remington cannot. Anyway, in the 6mm bullet diameter it's a .243 world, and I think that's okay.
NO QUARTER ON QUARTER-BORES
The .25-caliber cartridges from the major manufacturers are: .25-20, .25-35, .250 Savage, .257 Roberts, and .25-06 Remington. I think it's a no-brainer to suggest that the .25-20 WCF and .25-35 WCF should go the way of the dodo. Both were popular in their day, and survive because there are still a lot of rifles out there-which is certainly a viable reason for survival. But I think both have outlived their usefulness.
You could perhaps say the same about the .250 Savage; there are no commercial rifles so chambered today, and it's a rare chambering even in custom rifles. However, I can't bring myself to show it the door. It's an efficient, low-recoiling little cartridge that fits into the tidiest of bolt actions, and with short cartridges now being "in" it just may stage a comeback.
On the other hand, I think we can do without the .257 Roberts. It has made several comebacks over the years, but to my mind it has an inherent problem that has nothing to do with its own merits. Thanks to our adoption of the .30-06 as our military cartridge--which was replaced by the .308 Winchester--we have two primary action lengths. The "standard" bolt action is long enough to house .30-06-length cases; the "short" action will house the .308 Winchester family of cases. Obviously there are also "full-length actions" for the .375 H&H-length cartridges, and "true magnum" actions for the .416 Rigby and larger.
The Roberts case, at 2.233 inches, is too long for a short action, but creates a lot of wasted space in a .30-06-length action. It is a wonderfully efficient and effective cartridge, but it is not as good as the .25-06. And even with the excellent "+P" factory loads currently available it is at its best when handloaded. So I think it should be returned to its original wildcat status.
6.5'S AND 7MM'S
The 6.5mm, bullet diameter .264, has never done well in this country. Remington's 6.5mm Remington Magnum is long gone and unlikely to come back. The .264 Winchester Magnum had a brief but brilliant blaze of glory in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Along came the 7mm Remington Magnum, and the poor .264 has been eating dust ever since. I used the .264 quite a lot in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I have a real soft spot for the cartridge--but it has been wallowing for years, and it's time to put it out of its misery. Now comes a tough call. Although it's too early to tell, the little .260 Remington seems to have taken off like gangbusters. It will be interesting to see if it can survive the 6.5 stigma! In any case, it's a wonderfully accurate cartridge that essentially duplicates the performance of the great old 6.5x55--except that it's probably more accurate on average, and can be housed in a short action, while the 6.5x55 cannot. With the .260's arrival I think American manufacturers should give up on the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser. It is much more popular in Europe, and will (and certainly should) continue in European loadings. American loadings have long been anemic anyway, due to concern over potential use in aging rifles; to obtain anything close to the cartridge's potential it has always been necessary to either handload or buy European ammo. And that's the way it should be.
I can already hear the howls from the 6.5x55 fans--but you ain't seen nothin' yet. One of my personal favorite cartridges is the great old 7x57 Mauser, but I give it thumbs down as an American commercial cartridge. My reasoning is much the same. The 7mm-08 duplicates its performance, but is generally more accurate and can be housed in a true short action. The factories load the 7mm-08 to its full potential, while American 7x57 loads have always been extremely mild, again because of the concern about hundred-year-old rifles. I won't give up my own 7x57--but I sure as heck don't shoot American factory loads through it!
I never saw any utility whatsoever for the 7-30 Waters, at least as a rifle cartridge. It's a pretty good chambering for the single-shot pistols, so I guess in that context it should stay. The .284 Winchester should also go. It hasn't been chambered in a production rifle for many years, and anything it
was capable of doing has now been superceded by Remington's new 7mm Short Action Ultra Mag. Its primary value has been as an interesting case for wildcatting but Norma has fixed that with brass for cartridges such as the 6.5/.284.
Remington should drop the 7mm STW in favor of their 7mm Remington Ultra Mag. The STW was a groundbreaking cartridge, but it's extremely finicky to load for and only in rare rifles can it actually produce the velocities its huge case ought to be capable of. The 7mm Ultra Mag is also badly overbore capacity and is limited in the powders it will safely accept-but its wider powder column gives it a huge advantage. Give the STW back to the handloaders, where it belongs.
TRIMMING THE .30'S
The .30-calibers are America's prime beef, so this is an especially difficult herd to trim. Most of them are simply too popular to die, regardless of merit or obvious duplication. The herd continues to grow, too, with the .300 Remington Ultra Mag, .300 Winchester Short Magnum, and .300 Remington Short Action Ultra Mag in the last couple of years alone. So with this many new .30's, there must be a few we can do without.
Indeed there are. The .300 Savage has had its day. It's a great little cartridge, of course--but there are almost no actions that will house the .300 Savage that won't also house the more powerful and much more popular .308 Winchester.
I'm tempted to give the axe to the .307 Winchester, but I can't. It was and is a great idea, simply a rimmed version of the .308 intended for tubular-magazine rifles. Properly understood, it gives new life to the traditional lever action. I doubt it will survive, but I won't kill it!
On the other hand, the .30-40 Krag is part of history. It was a great cartridge in its day, but that day is done.
As much as I hate to say it, I feel the same about the .300 H&H Magnum. This is another cartridge that I personally revere. But no modern rifles are currently chambered to the great old .300 H&H, and it needs good handloads to reach its potential. Properly loaded, it's a better cartridge than the .300 Winchester Magnum and almost the equal of the .300 Weatherby--but modern factory loads are little better than the best .30-06 loads, and are just as well forgotten.
MY PET 8MM
The 8mm, caliber .323, has always been a rare bird in America. We could easily discard the 8x57, but I've already done away with most of the cartridges that use it as the parent case--6mm Remington, .257 Roberts, 7x57. Better keep the old 8mm Mauser so we'll have some brass!
I trashed the .25-20, but better keep the .32-20. It's a pretty good revolver cartridge, a great small game round, and has some application in cowboy action shooting.
But we can do without the .32 Winchester Special, actually a carryover from the transition from blackpowder to smokeless. It offers absolutely no advantage over the .30-30 Winchester, and no rifles have been chambered to it for a full generation.
Ah, and now we have to trash one of my pets. The 8mm Remington Magnum has become one of my favorite hunting cartridges--but I use either handloads or loads from Superior, one of the many smaller manufacturers who will make almost anything to the customer's specifications. As a factory cartridge the 8mm Remington Magnum has never been popular, and Remington's factory loads have never realized the potential of that seductively large case. I love my Big Eight, but it's okay if it's no longer a factory cartridge.
We talk about how unsuccessful the 6.5's and 8mm's have been in America, but, after all, they're European bore diameters. It's much harder to understand why the good old American .35's (which have also been popular in Europe) have fared so poorly. A whole slew of .35's have sprung up and died away, with the only long-term survivor being the .35 Remington. It needs to stay because it's wonderful in specialty pistols.
The .35 Whelen seems to be doing quite well, so it must also stay. Regrettably, the rest of them may as well go away. The .356 Winchester, like its companion .307, has never done well. Might as well give up.
The great old .348 Winchester, which I dearly love, got a new lease on life with the reintroduction of the Model 71. Unfortunately the old factory loads (from a major) that still exists uses a 200-grain bullet, far less effective than the 250-grain loads that made this cartridge's reputation. The .348 will always be a great hunting cartridge, but it's in the province of handloaders and small custom ammo companies.
Exactly the same is true of the .358 Winchester, which was actually officially dropped last year. The .358 is another pet of mine, but its last factory load was a mild 200-grain load, so I don't mourn it. With .308 cases necked down and plenty of good 225 and 250-grain bullets we .358 fans have little to be concerned about.
BORING BIG BORES
There aren't all that many big-bore cartridges, so this herd can't stand much culling. The .375 Winchester never burned up the world, and it could certainly go away. Nostalgic shooting events have saved old-timers like the .38-40, .44-40, and .38-55, and that's certainly fine with me. The .444 Marlin and .45-70 certainly have a place, and while the .450 Marlin won't do anything hot loads for the .45-70 won't do, it does solve the potential safety issue of hot .45-70 loads going into older rifles that won't handle them.
The .416 Remington and .416 Rigby are redundant, but it isn't like we don't have redundancy in our 7mm and .30-caliber families! Even though Winchester boldly dropped the .458 Winchester Magnum, it needs to stay. It is still the least expensive option for a true big bore, and despite the current popularity of .458-bashing, it is absolutely adequate for the world's largest game.
I hope Federal continues to load the .470 Nitro Express, but it's not the end of the world if they drop it because now there are plenty of other sources.
There are, of course, many other old-time big bores, and a wealth of proprietaries and wildcats. This is probably as it should be, because potential sales of large-caliber cartridges are very small. But it's a prestige market, and there may yet be room for one or two factory big-bores that exceed .458 Winchester Magnum performance. Time will tell.
AND WHAT IF . . .
So, by my count, that's an even two dozen rifle cartridges we could do without. That would still leave us with far too many, but it would at least offset the new introductions of the last few years--with a net loss, which would be a good thing. And, before you start sending me death threats, just what would happen in the extremely unlikely event that all of these cartridges were dropped? Actually very, very little. You couldn't go down to the corner hardware store and buy them--but unless you've got an extremely unusual store at your corner, you can't anyway. Thousands of shooters continue to use the many grand old cartridges that have been dropped by the major manufacturers, so it isn't the end of the world. You would just have to work a little harder to keep the ammo locker full. You could load it yourself, but if you prefer not to there are dozens of small ammunition makers and custom loading firms that will load darn near anything, no matter how obscure.
So don't fret. The down side is increased cost of ammo, but the up side is ammunition that is better tailored to your rifle, with the bullet of your choosing.
By the way, whether you like it or not, I do predict that a lot of the cartridges mentioned--and some not mentioned--will be dropped by the majors over the next few years. So if you're shooting a cartridge that you know isn't winning any popularity races you can simplify the future by laying in a supply of ammo and, whether you handload or not, saving your cases. In today's world it's possible to find-or make-cases for darn near anything, but difficulty and cost varies widely. If you have just a couple hundred once-fired cases you can be almost assured of a lifetime's supply of ammo!