January 04, 2011
By Craig Boddington
Boddington makes his top picks in every caliber.
By Craig Boddington
The last couple of years there must have been some kind of epidemic because several editors have asked me to write stories about cartridges we could do without or those destined for the trash heap. Whenever I'm assigned to do such a story, I try to be objective and have been forced to trash quite a few cartridges that are my personal favorites. So I wanted to take the opposite tack and write about the cartridges that I like, picking a favorite in each caliber or caliber group. It wasn't an easy task because there are few centerfire cartridges I don't have at least some empathy for.
I'll start with .22 because I've never had much time for the centerfire .17s; they're just too finicky in the windy West. I do admire the .204 Ruger enough that I bought one, but if I had to limit myself to one varmint rifle I'd quickly step up to caliber .224. I am extremely fond of the .22 Hornet, a useful little cartridge. I have a couple of them, also a couple of .223s, another useful and versatile cartridge.
When push comes to shove, though, my favorite .22 centerfire is easily the .22-250. Sure, the Swift and the .223 WSSM are a bit faster. But the .22-250 is plenty fast enough, and it's at least as accurate as any other really fast .22. Accuracy is aided by the fact that it's available in a wide variety of factory loads, with volumes of good load recipes.
This one is easy: .243 Winchester, with no apologies. The 6mm Remington is probably a better cartridge, and the .240 Weatherby Magnum and .243 WSSM are certainly faster. But the mild little .243 is simply too effective to argue with. Its loads have been so intensively developed that, absent extreme effort, it will probably be the most accurate. It is also available in more action types, including cool lever actions such as the long gone (but not forgotten) Savage 99 and Winchester Model 88. I see this cartridge exactly the way Winchester intended it back in 1955: a great little varmint cartridge that does double duty on small to medium big game.
I have owned rifles chambered to .250 Savage, .25-06 and .257 Weatherby Magnum. I have also used the .25-20, .257 Roberts and .25 WSSM. With the right bullets for the right game, all are magnificent. The mild .250 Savage and .257 Roberts are effective far beyond what their paper ballistics show, while the faster .25s are deadly open-country cartridges. However, I'm not going to pick a winner because this caliber isn't my cup of tea. At this moment I own no .25 caliber rifles, not one.
The 6.5mm has never done particularly well in North America, despite some very good cartridges in bullet diameter .264. If you study the charts, the long-for-caliber, aerodynamic 6.5mm bullets have an awful lot going for them, as many long-range competitors have learned.
My use of 6.5mms has been limited. I have always wanted to own a 6.5x55, but with my left-hand affliction I never found one that made sense. I have used the .260 Remington, and it's great, but despite all the hype I was never able to get extreme accuracy out of it. I have used the European 6.5x68 on several occasions, a wonderfully flat-shooting unbelted magnum. But try to find ammo in this country.
Boddington believes the .270 WSM, chambered in a Kimber here, is one of the finest mountain cartridges ever--faster and harder-hitting than the great .270 Winchester but able to be housed in a lighter, handier rifle.
My favorite is the long-neglected .264 Winchester Magnum. I had one when I was a kid and thought it was magic. Never mind that it was a Remington with 24-inch barrel, so it was far short of the velocity I thought I was getting. I also used to have a couple of original Model 70 Westerners in .264. I should have kept them, but they were right-handed rifles. Just a few weeks ago I took delivery of the kind of .264 I've always wanted. Serengeti Rifles built it for me on a rare left-hand Parker Ackley Santa Barbara Mauser action that I sort of came across, and it has a really good 26-inch Obermayer barrel.
I've been a fan of the .270 Winchester for about 35 years, but I've had enough flings with the .270 Weatherby Magnum to recognize that while the increased velocity may or may not flatten trajectory enough to matter, the increased energy is noticeable. But when I took a look at the rifles I currently have, I discovered I own several rifles in .270 WSM, just one lonely .270 Winchester and no .270 Weatherbys.
The .270 WSM is far and away my favorite of all the new short magnums, and I like the added velocity over a .270 Winchester. I also like the shorter action and find the increase in recoil to be not enough to worry about. It can be made into a wonderfully light package, yet it packs a whole lot of punch. I have used the .270 WSM on elk with no qualms (and great performance), and I even took it to Tajikistan on my second hunt for Marco Polo, a big-bodied sheep that lives in very open country where ranges are often quite long.
I find it difficult to warm up to the 7mm, caliber .284, even though some of the finest and most accurate rifles I have ever owned were chambered to 7mm Remington Magnum. I have used just about every commercial 7mm cartridge there is--including ultra-fast numbers such as the 7mm STW, 7mm Ultra Mag and John Lazzeroni's 7.21 (.284) Firebird--and they have accounted for some of my very best trophies. But they are not my cup of tea.
However, I have a soft spot for milder, soft-spoken 7mms. I think the 7mm-08 Remington is one of our best hunting cartridges, mild in report and recoil and amazingly effective. My favorite 7mm, though, is the 7x57. Part of the reason is pure nostalgia. It generally isn't as accurate as the 7mm-08, and it needs handloading since most current factory loads are anemic junk. But what I like about the 7x57, aside from its legacy, is that it is mild-mannered and wonderfully effective. Dallas gunsmith Todd Ramirez made me one sort of in the fashion of a 1920s "stalking rifle"--very retro, and I love it.
I have used many .30 calibers, and I don't think I've met a single one I didn't like. I was tempted to start with the .30-30, but even though I have a couple of .30-30 lever actions, I don't use them very often. My first instinct was the .30-06 Springfield, one of the world's most versatile cartridges. It may not be a long-range cartridge nor as accurate as the .308 Winchester, but it's accurate enough and a bit faster. Due its longevity and popularity, it is the most developed sporting cartrid
ge in the world, with a limitless wealth of loads and loading data.
To the author, the .22-250 (left) is the ideal varmint cartridge, while the versatile .243 does double duty for varmints and deer-size big game.
While I love the .30-06, I don't find it in the same class, nor suited for the exact same purposes, as the fast .30s. I have used all those, from the short magnums up to the big-cased monsters, and my preference runs to those that can push a 180-grain bullet up to around 3,200 fps. With certain handloads this is possible with the great old .300 H&H and is pretty much what Lazzeroni's short 7.82 (.308) Patriot, the .300 Dakota and the .300 Weatherby Magnum produce. The .300 Remington Ultra Mag is faster, and .30-378 Weatherby Magnum and 7.82 (.308) Warbird are a lot faster.
There is some limit to how much recoil I'm willing to withstand without going to a muzzle brake, and because of hearing loss I try to steer clear of brakes. So I pretty much max out at .300 Remington Ultra Mag, but I love the little Patriot cartridge, and I revere both the .300 Weatherby Magnum and its parent cartridge, the .300 H&H. But, all said and done, it's pretty hard to beat the .300 Weatherby Magnum--one of the world's most versatile hunting cartridges.
Very few Americans love the 8mm, bullet diameter .323. I have some experience with the new .325 WSM, and I admire it, but the unloved 8mm Remington Magnum will always be one of my favorite cartridges for hunting large, tough game in open country. In my experience it hits harder than any .30 caliber and for long-range use has less recoil than the fastest .33s. My current 8mm, built by Rigby's Geoff Miller, has a 28-inch match-grade barrel, and with handloads I can get a 220-grain bullet over 3,000 fps. I do not have any illusions that I can save this cartridge from its steady slide toward obsolescence, but it's a great round.
This one is easy. I've tried the really fast .33s, and their performance is magnificent, but the fastest .33s--the .338 Remington Ultra Mag, .340 Weatherby, Lazzeroni's 8.59 (.338) Titan and the .338 Lapua Magnum--have more recoil than I'm comfortable with on a sustained basis. My favorite .33 is the .338 Winchester Magnum. I think it is well-accepted as the archetypical elk cartridge, and equally good for bear, moose and Africa's largest plains game. Its ballistics are neither fast nor flashy, but it offers a rich selection of bullets, and it hits with authority. My old friend Jack Atcheson Jr. uses nothing but a battered .338 for almost all of his hunting, and as he puts it, "The .338 numbs them." Amen.
Few .35 caliber cartridges have ever achieved lasting popularity in North America. There have been some great "fast .35s," wildcats such as the .358 Shooting Times Alaskan and .358 Norma Magnum, but I think the .35's niche is as a hard-hitting, medium-velocity cartridge for black bear and wild hogs--perhaps elk and moose in thick cover. In this vein, I like the .35 Whelen and the .350 Remington Magnum, and I'll always own at least one Winchester Model 71 in .348. But my favorite .35 is the almost forgotten .358 Winchester, which I have in an equally almost forgotten Win-chester Model 88. I shoot 250-grain bullets at about 2,300 fps, yielding no recoil, mild report and not much ranging ability. But, boy, does it hit hard.
The author's Rifles Inc. .300 Weatherby went on an Azerbaijan tur hunt because he thought long shots might be in the cards. And that's the beauty of the caliber: You can't go wrong with it in unfamiliar country.
I've written a fair bit about this caliber over the past couple of years, so my pick should come as no surprise. Today there are several .375 cartridges, all very good. The fastest .375s (.375 Remington Ultra Mag, .375 Weatherby Magnum, .378 Weatherby Magnum) shoot flat and hit extremely hard, but recoil goes up sharply as velocity increases. The new .375 Ruger is great. It's a wee bit faster than a .375 H&H but housed in a short action. However, in picking my favorite .375, I must bow to 95 years of tradition and my own 40 years of satisfaction: It has to be the .375 H&H.
In the last 20 years, the cartridges that John "Pondoro" Taylor identified as "large mediums" have made a tremendous comeback. The various .416s and their ilk are not as versatile as the .375 but are a bit better for buffalo and definitely better for elephant. Here I must pick two favorites: one for magazine rifles and another for doubles and single-shots.
I have used most of the .416s (factory and wildcat), and I like them all, but as my large-medium cartridge is primarily for buffalo and rarely elephant, my favorite in a bolt action is the .404 Jeffery. Recoil is mild, performance is much more than adequate, and the case can be crammed into most .375-length actions. My friends at Gun Creations in Lubbock, Texas, are just completing an aperture-sighted .404 for me.
In doubles and single-shots, you really want a rimmed case for absolutely reliable extraction and/or ejection. Choices below .470 have been limited, so Hornady's reintroduction of the .450/.400-3-inch (a.k.a. .400 Jeffery) answers the mail. Whether in Ruger's heavy-barreled No. 1 Tropical or a sweet-handling 10-pound double, the .450/ .400 3-inch is a pussycat to shoot but is amazingly effective on buffalo and adequate for elephant.
The true big bores are the most specialized of tools, ideally suited only for the largest game on Earth. Again, I must pick two favorites, one for bolt actions and another for double rifles and single-shots.
In magazine rifles my favorite big bore is the .458 Lott. It has enough velocity to ensure penetration on elephant from any sane angle. Its recoil is very stout, but its simple, straight case allows the use of milder .458 Winchester Magnum ammo (for practice or in a pinch).
In double rifles, my favorite is the .450-31„4-inch Nitro Express designed by John Rigby in 1898. Its readily available .458-inch bullets at 2,150 fps are plenty adequate for everything. Its advantages are that its straight case offers better load density with modern powders than the bottlenecked .470 case.
I'm sure I will continue to use many other cartridges because, at least in part, that's my job. But for anyone who cares, the cartridges named are my favorites. Some are sensible, some quirky--but it's my list. If I see you at a show or around a campfire, you can tell me your favorites. Maybe you can change my mind. But I doubt it.