May 17, 2011
By Craig Boddington
Three non-magnum 7mms that get the job done with no muss, no fuss.
By Craig Boddington
While it's not the author's favorite cartridge, Steve Hornady
(r.) loves the .280 Remington and has used it to kill mountain game across the world such as this Dagestan tur.
The 7mm Remington Magnum has been the most popular belted magnum in the world. It seems to be slipping a bit right now, perhaps somewhat due to both confusion and competition from short magnums (7mm WSM and 7mm Short Action Ultra Mag) and longer, faster magnums (7mm STW and 7mm Ultra Mag). You can add in the 7mm Weatherby Magnum, the new 7mm Blaser Magnum and also proprietary rounds such as the 7mm Dakota Magnum and Lazzeroni's 7.21 (.284) Fireball. In short, there's a very extensive list of "magnum" 7mm cartridges.
In actual fact, none of the fast 7mms are burning up the world in popularity right now. All have their fans, and well they should. They are indeed fast and effective, with the benefits of the 7mm's traditionally long-for-caliber bullets with high sectional densities and high ballistic coefficients. I have used most of the fast 7mms and have never found them wanting, but if I want that level of performance I tend to lean toward the .30 calibers. I do concede that you have to put up with about 20 percent more recoil to get similar trajectory performance from a .30 caliber. But, hey, I'm a heavy bullet guy, and I believe in frontal area, so if I want what we think of as "magnum performance" I choose the fast .30s over the fast 7mms.
However, most of the time we don't need maximum velocity and downrange energy. There is much to be said for simple efficiency: adequate velocity, flat enough trajectory, good bullet performance, adequate energy and moderate recoil. For cartridges that work on a wide range of game under a wide range of conditions--without beating you to death--it's pretty hard to beat what I like to call the "light" 7mms.
There are actually quite a few of these, but I'm going to narrow it down to the three that I think make sense. I discount the 7-30 Waters because it lacks the velocity and power, and I rule out the .284 Winchester because it's no longer chambered in any new rifles. Similarly, the 7x64 Brenneke also doesn't make sense because it's nearly identical in performance to the .280 Remington but with much more limited ammunition availability.
That leaves us with three light 7mms that are worthy of consideration: 7x57 Mauser, 7mm-08 Remington and .280 Remington. All three are superb hunting cartridges; all offer versatile performance over a wide range of conditions; and all offer the genuine benefits of the 7mm (.284) bullet diameter.
One criticism Boddington has regarding the 7x57 is a general lack of accuracy. It's adequate for what most people use it for, but tack drivers in this cartridge are, in his experience, rare.
None of them deliver heavy recoil, especially in relation to the performance they offer. As we will see, there are considerable overlaps in velocity and performance, so I think it is best to discuss them in the chronological order in which they were introduced.
Developed by Mauser in 1892, the 7x57 (a.k.a. 7mm Mauser) is one of the oldest smokeless cartridges still in production, and it is definitely the oldest that still has a significant following among hunters here and elsewhere.
It was adopted by Spain in 1893, so Americans were introduced to it during the Spanish-American War in 1898. We won most of the battles, although at considerable cost as we found the 7x57 superior to our .30-40 Krag.
The British were introduced to it at about the same time, during the Second Boer War. They didn't win all the battles either, and although the firepower of their 10-shot .303s beat the Boers' Mausers, they also learned grim lessons about the long-range accuracy of the 7x57.
The 7x57 has always had, and still retains, a modest but loyal following in the United States. After 1925 it gave a lot of ground to the .270 Winchester, and in recent years it has been largely supplanted by the shorter-cased 7mm-08 Remington.
Karamoja Bell used the original 173-grain solid in the 7x57 to take hundreds of elephant in the early years of the 20th century, so it's not like the cartridge is underpowered.
It actually has two problems. First, most modern factory loads are extremely conservative due to concerns over use in pre-1898 Mauser actions. "Standard" today is a 140-grain bullet at an unimpressive 2,660 fps.
Second, by today's standards the 7x57 has an odd case length of 2.244 inches, which is too long for a short bolt action (.308 length, 2.015 inches) but a very loose fit in a standard (.30-06 length, 2.5 inches) bolt action. So you can't have a 7x57 in a short action, and you're wasting magazine space in a .30-06-length action.
These issues aside, I make no bones about it: The 7x57 is far and away my favorite of the light 7mms. It is a wonderfully nostalgic cartridge. Its British designation of .275 Rigby was a favorite of Walter "Karamoja" Bell. The 7x57 was an early favorite of Jack O'Connor (pre-.270), and it remained Eleanor O'Connor's favorite throughout her own hunting career, which certainly rivaled her husband's.
There are a few pretty good factory loads out there. Hornady's Light Magnum had a 140-grain bullet at 2,830 fps, and while that load is no longer cataloged, there are two Superformance loads: a 139-grain SST at 2,760 and a 139-grain GMX at 2,740. Norma has a 156-grain load that runs at 2,641.
Left to right: 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57 Mauser, .280 Remington. These "light" 7mms offer hunters most everything they need--without everything they don't, such as blast and recoil.
In general, however, the 7x57 should be considered primarily a handloader's cartridge today. In handloads it doe
s have greater case capacity than the 7mm-08, so it can be loaded to equal or exceed any 7mm-08. With its greater case capacity, it also does better than the 7mm-08 with heavier bullets.
However it is loaded, it goes about its business with calm efficiency. On game it seems to perform far beyond its seemingly mild ballistics. In part this is because its modest velocity delivers exceptionally good bullet performance--and, undoubtedly, we Americans generally tend toward more velocity and energy than we really need. With decent loads it is easily a 300-yard cartridge, and I think of it as one of our very best deer cartridges and certainly adequate for game up to elk.
It is, of course, much more versatile than that. I have used it literally around the world, taking game such as greater kudu, red stag, Himalayan tahr and a whole lot more. With its original 173-grain full metal jacket roundnose, Karamoja Bell used it to take a large number of the 1,011 elephants he is credited with. I have no interest in stretching its envelope quite that far, but in 2008 I did use it to brain a huge water buffalo with a 175-grain Barnes solid.
I must admit that I have never found the 7x57 to be dramatically accurate, but it has consistently provided adequate accuracy for its sensible range envelope. The 7x57 I have now is a custom rifle made by Todd Ramirez along the lines of a 1920s vintage "stalking rifle." It is thus a nostalgic cartridge in a traditional platform. I love it and use it as often as I can, most recently to take the inaugural deer on my little farm in Kansas.
The .280 Remington could very possibly be the best of all the factory 7mm cartridges, and it probably is the best factory cartridge based on the .30-06 case. Despite this, it has never been especially popular, probably because both the .270 and the .30-06 were firmly entrenched when it came along, and it pretty much splits the difference between them.
I know that in my own case, when given a choice I generally prefer either the .270 or the .30-06 over the .280, but this preference isn't based on logic or empirical evidence; it's just not possible to love all cartridges.
The fans of the .280 know how good it is, though. The .280 shoots flatter than the .30-06, and thanks to the aerodynamic qualities of 7mm bullets, shoots as flat as the .270 Winchester but is able to deliver a heavier bullet.
One other possible reason the .280 never achieved huge popularity is because when it was introduced in 1957, the original loads were fairly mild compared to the .270 (and even the .30-06) to ensure reliability in Remington's Model 740 semiautomatic--the first rifle in which it was chambered.
Standard loads today include a 140-grain bullet at 3,050 fps, 150-grain bullet at 2,890 fps and 165-grain bullet at 2,820 fps. These are very credible velocities, but due to the cartridge's limited popularity, the selection is fairly limited.
So, like the 7x57, the .280 Remington is at its best as a handloader's cartridge. With good handloads the cartridge comes very close to 7mm Remington Magnum performance--and does it in a shorter barrel while burning a whole lot less powder.
The fans of the .280 Remington are not legion, but they tend to be loyal and steadfast. Among their numbers are Jim Carmichel, longtime and recently retired shooting editor of Outdoor Life; the same magazine's editor, Todd Smith; and Steve Hornady.
As I admitted, I am not huge fan, but I have used the .280 here and there. Most recently I had an Ultra Light Arms rifle in .280 Remington, and it shot like a house afire.
I took it on a deer hunt in western Oklahoma, and the only chance I had was on a buck that stepped out of the mist on an adjacent ridge. It was too foggy for the rangefinder to work, so I guesstimated it the old-fashioned way, something over 300 yards but probably not farther than 350, and I gave the buck a backline hold. The Ballistic Silvertip thumped home perfectly, and the buck rolled down the ridge.
With higher velocity and at least equal accuracy, the .280 is better-suited to open country than either of the other two cartridges we are discussing. With its ability to use heavier bullets at higher velocities, it is also better for larger game such as elk. The only real negative I can give it is that it generates more recoil than the other two 7mm cartridges.
The 7mm-08 Remington was introduced in 1980, so it's a relatively new cartridge. Unlike the other two, its factory loads have been loaded to the gills from the starting gate. Based on a .308 Winchester case necked down, it's a perfect fit in a short bolt action, yet there are no flies on its performance, especially with 140-grain bullets. The standard 140-grain load runs at 2,800 fps, with some loads a little faster.
Because of limited case capacity it does start to lose velocity with heavier bullets; the 150-grain factory load is standard at 2,650 fps, which is quite a bit of velocity loss for a gain of just 10 grains in bullet weight.
However, our modern hunting bullets are so good that there are relatively few sensible things that you can't do with a good 140-grain 7mm bullet.
The first time I ever saw a 7mm-08 used on game was when I hunted with Chub Eastman, then of Nosler Bullets, in 1980 or '81. I guess I was in the latter phase of my magnum mania, so I thought his 7mm-08 seemed awfully small for a big boar.
He took a broadside shot on a big hog at about 100 yards, and the bullet whistled through both shoulders and exited. I was impressed, and my respect for the little 7mm-08 has never diminished.
Now, in real terms, the 7mm-08 and the 7x57 are indistinguishable in their effects on game. If you shoot factory loads, the 7mm-08 has a clear edge over the Mauser, and certainly it has the ability to fit into a short action, with the benefits of a shorter, lighter, and handier rifle. With good handloads the 7x57 is superior, but as I mentioned, it cannot be housed in a short-action rifle.
I'm not altogether sure I have ever taken a single game animal with a 7mm-08. However, I've shot plenty enough game with the 7x57 to know what a 140-grain 7mm bullet at plus or minus 2,800 fps will do; what a 150-grain 7mm bullet between 2,600 and 2,700 fps will do; what a 160- to 165-grain 7mm bullet at 2,500 to 2,600 fps will do; and what a 175-grain 7mm bullet at 2,300 to 2,400 fps will do.
Unless you have a strong desire to emulate Walter Bell, the 7mm-08--with its greater selection of factory loads and ability to be housed in a shorter, lighter rifle--makes far more sense than a 7x57.
Recoil is delightfully mild, and at the modest velocity, good bullet performance is almost assured. It is not a long-range cartridge, but it also not a short-range cartridge. The 7mm-08 will reach handily to at least 300 yards and in my experience tends to be more accurate on average than the 7x57.
It's a great cartridge for the seasoned hunter who likes to do his work with maximum efficiency and minimum fuss, and to my thinking it is the best choice of all for a beginning hunter.
It is far more capable--but produces only slightly more recoil--than the .243 Winchester most of us start our kids with, and for that reason when my daughter Britanny turned 17 and wanted to take up hunting, there was no doubt in my mind what centerfire cartridge she should start with: the 7mm-08.