December 18, 2020
Please forgive me, but I love fast, powerful magnums, at least for some applications. On the other hand, I also like accuracy and efficiency, and I don’t enjoy getting kicked into next week unless there’s a valid reason. There are many great non-magnum cartridges in most bore/bullet diameters that do almost anything most of us need done. But before we try to sort through the best of them, maybe we should define “magnum.”
It comes from a French word for an extra-large bottle of champagne and, since the 1880s, has been frequently used to denote cartridges that are fast, powerful or have extra-large cases.
The British gun trade first used “magnum” as a cartridge suffix. Their strict interpretation was: A cartridge that was larger, faster and/or more powerful than a cartridge of like bullet diameter already offered by that manufacturer. So the .375 H&H Mag. was a magnum in all ways because it was Holland & Holland’s second .375 cartridge, and its .375 H&H Mag. was bigger and better. The .416 Rigby was not dubbed “magnum” because it was the first—and for many years the only—.416 caliber cartridge.
For the purposes of this article, I will not consider any cartridges dubbed “magnum” or even incorrectly lumped as such. I will try to be fair and thus will pass by many of my favorite cartridges. I will give some value to popularity and will consider only cartridges offered in factory form by multiple manufacturers.
Accuracy also gets a nod, but I’m concentrating mostly on efficiency of design, suitability for existing rifle platforms and overall usefulness. I’m bypassing the .17s, .20s and .22s and going straight to 6mm.
The .24 caliber started with the 6mm Lee Navy back in 1895, but the 6mm field was fairly quiet until 1955, when both the .243 Win. and .244 (now 6mm) Rem. were introduced. In popularity the .243 Win. is unassailable. It’s awesome, typically very accurate, great for varmints and amazingly effective on deer-size game.
It can be argued that the 6mm Rem. is better, and the uncommon 6mm Bench Rest Rem. is probably more accurate. However, I think the fairly new 6mm Creedmoor is the best of the non-magnum 6mms.
Ballistically, it’s identical to the .243, but because of its shorter case, it does better with the longer, heavier bullets with super-high ballistic coefficients that are so popular today. This makes it a better long-range target cartridge. I cannot say it is more accurate than a .243, but so far I’ve found it shockingly accurate.
Editor Scott Rupp would immediately say, “.25s rule.” I don’t agree, and I’ve never been a huge quarter-bore fan. However, I’ve used most of them from .25-20 on up to .257 Wby. Mag. The fast .25s are probably the largest cartridges commonly employed as crossover for both varmints and big game. Most popular today is the flat-shooting and effective .25-06.
That said, I believe the old .257 Roberts is the best non-magnum .25, a wonderfully versatile little cartridge. Introduced in 1934, it was wildcatted by gunwriter Ned Roberts by necking down the 7x57 case. It is not as fast as the .25-06, but it’s fast enough, flat enough and powerful enough for anything one should do with a .25.
Because it is normally housed in .30-06-length actions, it has no issues with longer, heavier bullets, and it is significantly more efficient than the .25-06. The .25-06 runs about five percent faster than the Roberts, but it burns at least 15 percent more propellant to get there.
I am a recent convert to the .257 Roberts, and I’m learning to love it. My Dakota .257 was okay with available factory loads, but it wasn’t great. I wanted a fast, California-legal “unleaded” hunting load, so I picked a recipe out of a manual, mating good old IMR 4350 with the 90-grain Hornady GMX. Short on brass, I full-length-sized 7x57 brass and trimmed to length. The first group with this load was five shots touching at 0.473 inch, changing the way I feel about this rifle and its cartridge.
It is no secret that I don’t buy into all the wild claims made about the 6.5 Creedmoor. It is ballistically identical to the .260 Rem. and, with handloads, the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser. It is not as fast or as powerful as the awesome 6.5-284 Norma nor as fast or as powerful as the magnum 6.5mms.
However, I must give the devil his due. I reluctantly concede the 6.5mm Creedmoor is the best of the non-magnum 6.5mms. Due to its shorter case it does better with longer, heavier bullets.
When Special Operations Command was testing for a sniper rifle, it found the .260 Rem. and 6.5 Creedmoor essentially equal in everything they could evaluate, except for two things. The Creedmoor won because it was better adapted to long-for-caliber bullets, and SOCOM thought it should offer better barrel life.
So far I’ve found the Creedmoor very accurate, and its incredible popularity is a plus because load offerings continue to expand. It is not a long-range hunting rifle and only marginal as an elk cartridge, but it’s certainly as effective for the deer/sheep/goat class of game as any of its kin.
This one’s easy. There are only two non-magnums in the .277 bullet diameter: the 6.8 SPC and .270 Win. The SPC is sized for the AR-15 platform and in that action cannot handle the heavier bullets that the .270 made its bones with.
So, almost by default, the .270 Win. is the best non-magnum .270. That sounds like faint praise, but my spin is the .270 Win. is so good and so popular that there hasn’t been room—or need—for a spate of .277 cartridges. The .270 Win. is good for game up to elk, and its only real limitation is bullet development. Never considered a target cartridge, it lacks a good selection of the longer, heavier-for-caliber bullets that grace both the 6.5mm/.264 and 7mm/.284 bullet diameters. However, as a hunting cartridge the .270 Win. remains hard to beat.
There are plenty of non-magnum 7mm cartridges. The group includes a couple of my all-time favorites: the 7mm-08 Rem. and the 7x57 Mauser. The .280 Rem. is not one of my favorites, but it’s a great cartridge. Even better is the .280 Ackley Improved version, blown out to remove body taper and increase powder capacity and with a sharper shoulder.
Parker Ackley wildcatted just about every case you can think of. The .280 Ackley is probably the most popular of his “improvements,” with factory ammo now available. The .280 Ackley is always 100 fps to 150 fps faster than the .280 Rem. and knocks hard on the door of the 7mm Rem. Mag. Ammo for the .280 Rem. can be safely fired in an Ackley chamber, usually with some loss in velocity and sometimes less accuracy, but this feature offers ammo alternatives in a pinch.
I’d been thinking about getting a .280 Ackley for some time. Lee Newton of the Ruger Collectors Association wanted one of my Ruger No. 1s, so we did some negotiating and I wound up with a Ruger No. 1 in .280 Ackley. So far it shoots great with Hornady’s 162-grain Precision Hunter load. I haven’t hunted with it yet, but I’m determined it’s going on my next mountain hunt.
The .30 caliber is America’s darling, and there’s a hatful of options,. Non-magnum choices include .30-30, .30-40 Krag, .30 Rem., .300 Savage, 7.62x54R, 7.62x39, .300 BLK, .308 Win., .30-06 and .30 TC. I’m reminded of a favorite joke with the punchline, “In my heart I knew it was Moses.” In my heart, I know the best non-magnum is the .30-06. However—and this one really hurts me—the .308 Win. is the best non-magnum .30 caliber.
Due to the efficiency of its shorter case, the .308 tends to be a bit more accurate on average than the .30-06. More important, it is suitable to the full range of rifle actions, from short bolt guns to levers, pumps and a much wider range of semiautos. In fact, I took the Kansas buck in the lead photograph for this article with an AR-10 chambered in .308.
The .30-06 is faster and does better with heavier bullets. However, with modern propellants the velocity gap between the two is no worse than 200 fps, and depending on who does the loading, it’s often a bit less. Whatever it is, there’s nothing you can do with a .30-06 that you can’t do with a .308. And whether in competition or hunting, that’s a whole bunch.
Over .30 to .40
Between .300 inch and .400 inch there are many bullet diameters but not always a lot of choices. The only 8mm (.323 inch) non-magnum that has any following in America is the 8x57 Mauser—and it’s not much of a following.
In .33, the .338 Federal is just about the only factory-available non-magnum. It’s a fine short-action cartridge, but it cannot utilize the heavier bullets I like to use when I’m in .33 caliber territory. The .338-06 would be an awesome option, but sadly no major manufacturer has picked it up.
Between .338 and .375 there are two bullet diameters worth considering: .358 and .366. There are several non-magnum .35s, but most have been sharply limited in velocity. So to me the best non-magnum .35 is easily the .35 Whelen, a great use of the .30-06 case. It’s able to propel 250-grain bullets to 2,500 fps and beyond.
Actually, the .35 Whelen could be the best non-magnum between .30 and .40 caliber. It depends on your plans. If you intend to stay in North America, the .35 Whelen is awesome for elk and moose and adequate for the biggest bears. You could argue the .35 Whelen is suitable for buffalo, but it’s not legal in most African jurisdictions.
If Africa is possibly in your plans, then you need to look at bullet diameter .366—the European 9.3mm. The granddaddy and most popular is the 9.3x62 Mauser. I think it is the best and most versatile non-magnum between .30 and .40 caliber. The 9.3mm is commonly the specified minimum for Cape buffalo in Africa, and with a 286-grain bullet at 2,400 fps, the old 9.3x62 is close to .375 H&H Mag. in performance on game.
Speaking of .375, the choice of non-magnums in that diameter is limited. Both the .38-55 and .375 Win. are awesome brush cartridges, but they can’t do the things we often ask a .375 to do. The .376 Steyr is a candidate and approaches .375 H&H Mag. ballistics from a shorter, rimless case. I have one, and in Africa it’s both buffalo-capable and buffalo-legal. However, depending on the action, it may not accept 300-grain bullets—long the standard for dangerous game with a .375.
Although the need for an over-.40 is limited, there has always been exaggerated interest in big cartridges. It depends on what you want, but my experience on the big African stuff has shown that a “.40 plus” with a 400-grain bullet at 2,350 fps to 2,400 fps penetrates better and hits just about as hard—and has much the same energy yield—as .450 or larger with a slower 500-grain bullet.
To me the .416 Rigby is king, but the big Rigby case requires an extra-large action, which is uncommon and expensive. So, to my thinking, the old .404 Jeffery, which is able to be housed in standard-length actions, is the best over-.40 non-magnum for bolt actions. Modern loads have been upgraded, now easily propelling the .423-inch 400-grain bullet at 2,350 fps. If you prefer single-shots or doubles, you can substitute the .450/400 3-inch.
While I’m interested in large African game, not everybody is. Therefore, I can’t overlook our American class of hard-hitting over-.40s, including the .405 Win., .444 Marlin, .450 Bushmaster, .45-70 and .450 Marlin.
All of these meet the straight-wall cartridge requirements for big game in formerly shotgun-only states. The .450 Bushmaster actually exceeds the .45-70 in standard factory loads and, of course, fits in the AR platform. The .450 Marlin was developed from the ground up for strong modern actions and in factory loads is more powerful than the standard .45-70 loads as well.
But without question, the great old .45-70 Gov’t is the world’s most popular over-.40 rifle cartridge. Introduced in 1873, the .45-70 is still going strong and is perhaps more popular now than it was in 1900. It is capable of dropping deer, hogs, elk, moose and black bears in their tracks at close range. In strong modern actions with heavy loads and appropriate bullets, the .45-70 can be uploaded to handle just about anything on earth.