June 08, 2022
By Brad Fitzpatrick
There have been dozens of new centerfire hunting rounds released during the last two decades, and it’s been fascinating to see which cartridges succeeded and which ones did not. Very good cartridges that perform well in the field simply don’t always catch the attention of hunters. Outside influences also impact cartridge popularity. In Ohio, legislation that allows for the use of straight-wall rifle cartridges for deer hunting has created enormous demand for .45-70, .444 Marlin, .450 Bushmaster and .350 Legend rifles. The growing popularity of NRL Hunter and other shooting competitions has generated tremendous interest in dual-purpose hunting/competition cartridges like the new 6.5 PRC.
Several cartridges—as good as they are—run the risk of being forgotten. Some, like the .25s, are positioned between popular bullet diameters. Others, like the .300 RCM and the .338 RCM, were practical hunting rounds that never became as popular as they should have. I’ve omitted cartridges like the 8mm Rem. Mag. that are functional but so largely forgotten that their eulogies have already been written, and while not all of the cartridges listed here are teetering on the abyss, they all face challenges in the future. But there isn’t a cartridge listed here that isn’t functional—and not one that doesn’t make an admirable hunting round. Will they gain a substantial fanbase and outcompete the newer rounds on the market? I don’t think so, but none of these cartridges deserve to be forgotten.
Before I go any further, I used the following “patient conditions” from Johns Hopkins to gauge the cartridges’ health.
- Good—Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent. (For reference only. None of these cartridges fall in this category.)
- Fair—Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious, but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.
- Serious—Vital signs may be unstable and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are questionable.
- Critical—Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.
The .25 Calibers
Current Condition: Fair—for now
The walls are closing in on the .25s. The smaller 6mm Creedmoor and 6mm GT, which are popular with the long-range competition crowd, offer ballistics similar to the .25s with higher ballistic-coefficient bullets that weigh almost as much as 0.257-inch projectiles. Just above the .25s are the 6.5s like the Creedmoor and PRC, which have become darlings of shooters and hunters alike. The 6.5s routinely handle bullets up to 143 grains in hunting loads, which buck wind and hold onto velocity better than the heavy 115- to 120-grain pills of the .25s.
But the .25s aren’t dead. The .257 Roberts is struggling, and it’ll never fully recover from the influx of new competition. The .25-06 Rem. still has a solid foothold in the hunting community. There are currently a couple dozen different .25-06 loads, all of which are designed for hunting, weighing from 90 to 120 grains. Hornady’s ELD-X Precision Hunter .25-06 110-grain load drops just six inches at 300 yards when zeroed at 200 yards, and it carries 1,155 ft.-lbs. of energy at 500 yards with a velocity of 2,175 fps. That makes the .25-06 an ideal gun for deer, antelope and the occasional ’yote.
The .25-06 can handle bigger game, too. I watched Petersen’s Hunting editor David Draper shoot a massive aoudad ram with a .25-06 at 200 yards, and the animal only took a few steps before piling up. The 90-grain GMX bullet he fired from his Mossberg rifle went through the ram’s heart, and that, as they say, was that.
The .257 Wby. Mag. is, in many ways, the antithesis of the modern match cartridge. It uses a big, belted case. Bullet BCs are lower than what you’ll get from most modern 6.5s. The .257 Wby. Mag., though, is just plain fast. With 100-grain bullets, it’ll run 3,500 to 3,600 fps with factory ammo. It’ll push a 110-grain AccuBond at 3,460 fps, which carries a ton of muzzle energy beyond 200 yards and has a maximum point blank range over 300 yards. Its secret to success is raw speed, and the .257 uses that speed to dispatch game effectively. The .25s face a serious challenge from the 6s and 6.5s, and as good as these cartridges are, they’ll need to continue being championed by hunters if they are to last.
Most 20th Century 6.5s
Current Condition: Fair (6.5-284) to Serious (6.5x55 Swede)
The arrival of the 6.5 Creedmoor in 2007 marked a turning point in the American shooting public’s views on 0.264-inch bullets. The Creedmoor wasn’t an instant success, but over time it became a juggernaut. The 6.5 PRC, .26 Nosler and 6.5-300 Wby. Mag. followed, all of which have been relatively popular as well.
We haven’t always been a nation of 6.5 lovers. Two decades ago, most ammunition manufacturers had given up on successfully marketing a 6.5mm cartridge to the American shooting public. The 6.5x55 Swede has been around for more than a century, and despite its popularity in Europe, the Swede was never a bestseller in the States.
The .264 Win. Mag. was released in 1959, but to reach its potential, it required a 26-inch barrel, which early guns did not have. It has languished ever since. The .260 Rem., which was based on a necked-down .308 Win., didn’t gain much traction after its release in 1997, despite the endorsement of notable gun writer Jim Carmichel, and the wildcat 6.5-284 that followed two years later, was popular with some in the long-range shooting community, but that community was much smaller than it is today.
The 6.5 Creedmoor got several things right and changed the public’s views on 6.5s. Its case design allowed it to accept high-BC .264-inch bullets without robbing case capacity. The case design was efficient and fit neatly in short-action bolt guns, and chamber specs were tight enough that accuracy was generally quite good. The generation of shooters cutting their teeth on the 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, and the Nosler and Weatherby rounds likely won’t look back to see what came before those cartridges. The 6.5 Grendel, introduced in 2003, doesn’t handle heavy bullets like the bigger 6.5s but its mild nature makes it an ideal low-recoil .264 round.
That doesn’t mean the 20th century 6.5s are obsolete. In fact, the 6.5-284 has actually gained a bit of momentum. Carmichel’s .260 had a relatively small but loyal cadre of supporters before the advent of the Creedmoor, and since it’ll push a 129-grain bullet at 2,930 fps from factory loads, it’s still a suitable choice for whitetails and predators—though it can’t beat the Creedmoor.
The .264 Win. Mag. fires a 140-grain bullet around 3,000 fps with factory ammo, but as I mentioned it requires a longer barrel than the PRC and can’t touch .26 Nosler and 6.5-300 Wby. ballistics. The old Swede produces suitable numbers considering its age. Hornady’s 140-grain factory SST load runs 2,735 fps, but it won’t compete with modern 6.5s in terms of ballistics or availability. The older 6.5s work, but they’ve been thoroughly overshadowed by modern counterparts.
Current Condition: Critical
.280 Rem. has never had an easy go of things. It started out as the 7mm Express Rem., but the name was changed when hunters and shooters in the 1970s started loading 7mm Express Rem. ammo into their 7mm Rem. Mag. rifles, which wasn’t prudent. The .280 has been relegated to the shadows almost since then, overshadowed by the 7mm Rem. Mag. and unappreciated by the .270 Win. crowd. To add insult to injury, P.O. Ackley decided to improve the cartridge—giving his .280 Ackley Improved a 40-degree shoulder and less body taper for improved performance.
But the .280 Rem. is a fine cartridge that deserves more attention and praise. It shoots as flat as a .270 Win.—with heavier bullets—and the .280 is a better choice for elk-size game. However, the performance differences are so slight that shot placement and bullet selection outweigh them. It doesn’t shoot as flat as the 7mm Rem. Mag., but it doesn’t kick as hard, blast as loudly, burn as much powder or demand as long a barrel. The .280 Ackley Improved does indeed offer better performance, but the difference is marginal, and the AI’s 40-degree shouldered case doesn’t feed as smoothly as the standard .280. Interestingly, the 7x64mm Brenneke, a German round that is quite similar to the .280 Rem., has been a success in Europe, and I know of a Namibian PH who swears by the round. I guess we’ve never appreciated what we had here.
Norma, Remington and Hornady still load ammo for the .280, but you won’t see factory ammo on stores shelves. Reloaders will have no trouble finding brass for this .30-06-based cartridge, and when carefully loaded, the .280 will push 160-grain bullets upwards of 2,800 fps. Hornady’s .280 Precision Hunter load pushes a 150-grain bullet at 2,925 fps from the muzzle and carries slightly more energy than the company’s .270 Win. Precision Hunter load.
The .280 has had its champions over the years, including RifleShooter editor Scott Rupp. The .280 Rem. isn’t as glamorous as other, newer rounds on the market, but it’s still suitable for any North American big game short of the great bears. In fact, there’s very little game you can’t hunt with the .280 Rem. anywhere in the world. Alas, the .280 Ackley Improved—which can fire .280 Rem. ammo in a pinch—has become one of the “it” cartridges, so the .280 Rem.’s fate seems sealed. That’s a shame. It’s a very good cartridge that shoots flat, kills efficiently, and doesn’t beat the snot out of its owner.
7mm and .325 Winchester Short Magnums
Current Condition: Critical
.300 WSM arrived on the scene in 2001, shortly ahead of the .300 Rem. Short Action Ultra Mag. A year later, it was followed by the .270 WSM and 7mm WSM, and in 2005, the .325 WSM joined Winchester family of short magnums.
The WSMs were indicators of things to come—mainly a transition toward short, efficient, unbelted cases offering magnum-level performance. The .300 WSM has a broad following even today, and the .270 WSM is also quite popular. The 7mm WSM hasn’t fared as well, and in fact, it’s lingering in the looming shadow of going flat-line. That’s a shame, because it’s a great cartridge and one of my favorites.
A few years ago, I picked up a Winchester Model 70 Featherweight 7mm WSM for a low price, and I intended to tinker with it and perhaps even convert it to 6.5 PRC or .338 RCM. But the Winchester shot so well that I kept it and added a Timney trigger, and today it’ll shoot factory Hornady 150-grain GMX bullets under an inch at 100 yards with a muzzle velocity of 3,050 fps. Sighted-in dead-on at 200 yards the bullet drops just 18 inches at 400 yards, where it’s still carrying over 1,800 ft.-lbs. of energy. That’s suitable for anything short of dangerous game, and it’s the rig I used to take the deer shown in the lead photo accompanying this article.
The .325 WSM is suitable for dangerous game since it pushes a 0.323-inch 200-grain bullet from the muzzle at 2,950 fps with a muzzle energy of 2,950 ft-lbs. The load shoots almost as flat as my 7mm WSM and carries more than a ton of muzzle energy out past a quarter-mile. This from a short-action cartridge with stiff but not unmanageable recoil. But neither it nor, as I said, the 7mm WSM are doing well. Winchester offers three loads for the .325 but doesn’t currently list any factory loads for the 7mm WSM. Hornady offers two varieties of 7mm WSM: the 150-grain GMX I mentioned and a 162-grain ELD-X with a muzzle velocity of 3,000 fps. Winchester offers two Model 70s chambered in .325 WSM—the Sporter and Featherweight—and none in 7mm WSM. The writing is on the wall here.
.300 RCM and .338 RCM
Current Condition: Critical
.300 RCM is a joint venture between Hornady and Ruger. Based on a shortened .375 Ruger case, the .300 RCM offers .30 magnum ballistics in a short-action rifle with a short 20-inch barrel. It was released in 2007. The following year, the .338 RCM was announced.
The .300 and .338 RCMs are, in part, victims of timing. The first of Winchester’s WSMs appeared in 2001, and Remington’s RSAUM came shortly thereafter. Many in the hunting and shooting public thought Ruger and Hornady were trying to get in on the action by offering up cartridges that were essentially the same.
In truth, the RCMs offers some distinct and noteworthy advantages. First, they function well in short barrels. Ballistics for the .300 WSM and .300 RCM are similar in 24-inch barrels, but the RCM wins hands-down from a 20-inch pipe. In addition, the RCM case is slightly narrower than the WSM, and in many cases, you can fit an extra RCM round in the magazine. Hornady’s 178-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter .300 RCM factory load is capable of 2,900 fps.
The .338 RCM is, to my mind, even more appealing than the .300 RCM. That’s because the .338 utilizes popular .338 bullets, which is more convenient than the .325 WSM’s 0.323-inch offerings, and the bigger RCM can muster ballistics similar to a .338 Win. Mag. from a short-action rifle with a 20-inch barrel. It’s the ideal backup rifle for bear country and the perfect heavy rifle to complement anyone who has a 6.5, .270 or 7mm and feels the need for a heavier rifle. However, the only factory .338 RCM offering is Hornady’s 225-grain SST, not exactly the bullet you’d want for our biggest bears.
But there’s no shortage of appropriate .338 bullets for handloaders, and with the increasing number of grizzly attacks in the Lower 48, having a .338 elk rifle is not unreasonable. If my firearm is the only way to keep myself out of the hospital or on the obituary pages, I’d feel more confident with the .338 RCM’s almost 3,800 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy than I would with a sub-.30 caliber rifle. I don’t think the RCMs have a bright future, but I like both cartridges very much and wish they’d make a comeback. Neither received the attention they deserved.
Current Condition: Serious
It’s Federal’s 100th year in business, and that might draw attention to the company’s only namesake centerfire rifle cartridge: the .338 Federal. Goodness knows the .338 Federal could use the help. Released in a 2005 in partnership with Sako, which initially supplied rifles, the .338 Federal is based on a necked-up .308 Win. case and offers some pretty impressive ballistics.
It’ll push a 200-grain Trophy Bonded Tipped bullet at 2,630 fps from the muzzle and generates almost 3,100 ft.-lbs. of energy. It hits harder than the .308 Win. and many .30-06 loads while carrying more energy. And the .338 Federal does so without magnum recoil and muzzle blast. It’ll fit in a short-action rifle and functions fine in an AR-10. But here’s the hard truth: There aren’t a lot of people shooting .338 rifles. The .338 Win. Mag., .340 Wby. Mag. and .33 Nosler all have their fans, but the .338 market is much smaller than the 7mm and .30 caliber markets. And it seems that those who want to step up to the .33s want something fast and hard-hitting.
Although it’s no magnum, the .338 Federal hits plenty hard for most game, and it fits in a short action. I know of one hunter who had his .308 rebarreled to .338 Federal, and he seems happy with the results. I suspect most hunters would be happy with the .338 Federal if they’d give it a chance.
One of the Federal round’s problems is that it isn’t flashy. It doesn’t have a reputation for flattening game. There are better long-range elk cartridges, but for deer, bear, elk, moose and pretty much anything else at moderate ranges, the .338 Federal is excellent. It’s ideally suited for short rifles, and that makes it perfect for blinds and tree stands. Light .338 Federal rifles produce substantial recoil, but not the jarring you get from a light .338 Win Mag. There are more reasons to like the .338 Federal, but they’re of no consequence if America’s hunters don’t buy in.