So why do some cartridges fail and others succeed? The one-word answer is demand. If there are rifles (the more the better), there will be ammo. If the customers don't buy them, the rifles will be cut off, and in time the ammunition will be discontinued. How quickly this last happens depends on how many rifles are out there and who made them.
Some cartridges simply vanish. A century ago Charles Newton's fast, unbelted .256, .30 and .35 Newton cartridges were ahead of their time. Western (later Winchester-Western) made the ammo for a while, but Newton's rifle company failed multiple times, and today few shooters have even heard of his cartridges. More recent examples are the Winchester Super Short Magnums and Remington's 6.5 and .350 magnums. These are largely ghosts today despite the support of companies vastly bigger than Mr. Newton's.
And then there are cartridges that refuse to die, existing in many cases to occasional runs from major manufacturers and to small ammo makers that cater to a cartridge's die-hard fans. Most have merit, so they're unlikely to vanish, but they're not winning popularity races. Here's my list.
Introduced in 1935, the .220 Swift is a landmark cartridge. It was the first high-velocity varmint cartridge and the first (and still among the few) to break 4,000 fps, but it's an odd duck. Tooling for totally new case dimensions is costly, so most cartridges are based on an existing case. The Swift is the only factory cartridge spawned by the long-forgotten 6mm Lee Navy—a semi-rimmed case, a feature not necessary in a cartridge intended for bolt actions.
Even though the .220 Swift had a 30-year head start on the .22-250, which Remington standardized, the Swift was never extremely popular. It was fast, and it was accurate, but it had a reputation for burning barrels. Duh. All cartridges approaching 4,000 fps are barrel burners, and it was likely even more so with 1935 barrels.
However, the Swift refuses to die. It's still chambered to factory rifles, and there's plenty of ammo. With modern powders one could argue that the much more popular and available .22-250 is so close in velocity there's no point for the Swift's existence to continue. Except the Swift is truly faster. It will never approach the .22-250's popularity, but I don't predict its demise.
The year was 1955. Remington introduced the .244 Rem., and Winchester introduced the .243 Win. Folks at both companies must have said, "Aw, shucks." Winchester saw its cartridge as a combination varmint/deer round, introducing 80- and 100-grain loads with a 1:10 compromise twist in its rifles that would stabilize both. Remington envisioned a long-range varmint cartridge and used a slow 1:12 twist in its guns that wouldn't stabilize bullets over 90 grains. The .243 took off like a rocket while the .244 languished.
Eight years later, Remington conceded, changing the twist to 1:9, offering a 100-grain load and renaming it the 6mm Rem.—with no other changes. Since then, the 6mm Rem. has remained an also-ran to the .243. It is the second-most popular 6mm cartridge, but that's not saying much because there ain't very many.
I think the 6mm Rem. is actually a slightly better cartridge than the .243. Loaded correctly, it beats the .243 by about 100 fps. And with the heavier long-range 6mm bullets now on the market, this gap will increase. Still, the 6mm Rem. just sort of stumbles along, while the .243 is a world-standard cartridge.
Okay, the Remington had a bad start, and renaming only causes confusion. But there may be more to it. Winchester chose the .308 case for its .243 while Remington went with the longer 7x57 Mauser case for the 6mm. Over time the .308 family has come to define "short action while the 6mm Rem. won't fit into short actions. A .30-06-length action is the next common choice, and with 6mm bullets the extra action length is not necessary. Although untidy, the wasted space isn't a problem — except that you have more action weight and a longer bolt throw, and shorter actions are more rigid and thus conducive to accuracy.
So there are arguments in favor of the .243, and most of the shooters and hunters spoke long ago. But the 6mm Rem. is faster, and it's accurate. It's never going to catch up, but it continues to have its fans.
The .257 Roberts was wildcatted by gun writer Ned Roberts and adopted by Remington in 1934. At that time the .25-06 had been wildcatted for a decade. However, with the propellants of the day, the .30-06 case was almost certainly overbore capacity for .25 caliber. The .257 Roberts, like the 6mm Rem., is based on the shorter 7x57 case, which then was just perfect. Fast for its day and accurate, the Roberts was extremely popular for many years. Until the introduction of the .243, it served as the preeminent "crossover" cartridge for both varmints and big game.
In the 1980s "+P" loads at higher pressures significantly increased velocities, but by then it was too late. The .25-06 remained a perennially popular wildcat for decades, and in 1969 Remington legitimized it as a factory round. It didn't happen overnight, but the .25-06 replaced the Roberts as the most popular .25 caliber cartridge.
The .25-06 is a perfect fit for a .30-06-length action, and the .257 Roberts is not. But, like all cartridges based on the 7x57 case, it's too long to be housed in a short bolt action. Basically, it has the same rifle-action handicap the 6mm Rem. does.
The .257 Roberts is infrequently chambered in new rifles, but it's seen in custom jobs, and there are still a lot of rifles in service. It is not as fast or as powerful as the .25-06, but it's as accurate and more pleasnt to shoot. It remains much more popular than the .250 Savage that preceded it, as well as Winchester's .25 WSSM, which hardly got out of the starting gate.
Introduced by Remington in 1998, the .260 Rem. was touted by Outdoor Life's Jim Carmichel as "the most accurate cartridge based on the .308 case." A lot of other hype followed, and it took off nicely, but it's been floundering ever since. Today, the .260 seems to be gaining a bit of ground, sort of getting pulled along by the sudden fascination with the 6.5mm caliber as well as interest from AR shooters. It is not nearly as popular as the more recent 6.5 Creedmoor, despite virtually identical ballistics.
So what happened? I don't know. Until now, no 6.5 has achieved lasting popularity in the United States, and my guess is the .260 suffered initially from the 6.5 curse or perhaps it is too similar to the popular 7mm-08.
I dabbled with the .260 when it was new and a couple times since. Maybe it's been bad luck, but while others have seen its promised accuracy, I have not. The .260 Rem. is now one of several mild 6.5mm options, and while it's not going away, it isn't catching up with the so similar 6.5 Creedmoor.
To paraphrase my old friend Carmichel, let me say I think the .280 is the best cartridge on the .30-06 case. Its fans have included Carmichel himself, Steve Hornady and the late Finn Aagaard. I've used it quite a bit as well. Faster than the .30-06 and almost as flat-shooting as the .270, it takes advantage of the rich variety of .284-inch bullets. Most of its fans are pathologically loyal, but there have never been very many of them.
Why the .280 shuffles along instead of being an off-the-charts bestseller is hard to explain. Part is timing. Although the "7mm-06" had been wildcatted for decades, the .280 was brought out in 1957 with mild loads for Remington's M740 semiauto. I don't know what the company's thought process was. At the time, folks like Les Bowman and Warren Page were beating the drum for fast 7mms, and the 7x61 Sharpe & Hart was gaining steam. Just five years later, Remington brought out its 7mm Rem. Mag., a runaway bestseller. But the company already had a perfectly good fast 7mm in the .280; loaded right, it's very close to the Big Seven.
The cartridge transitioned to bolt actions (Remington 721 and 725) and was among the first offerings when the Model 700 came along, as was the 7mm Rem. Mag. Loads were gradually upgraded, but it never caught the public's eye.
In 1979 Remington renamed it "7mm Express Remington" but made no changes to the cartridge itself. This same ploy saved the 6mm Rem. from extinction, but it didn't work well for the .280. It was too confusing, and a few shooters wound up chambering 7mm Express ammo in 7mm Rem. Mag. rifles. (I saw a Colt-Sauer blow up from this error, fortunately with no injuries.)
Just a year later, with less fanfare, the designation returned to .280 Rem. and has remained. Shortly thereafter, it was an initial chambering in the M700 Mountain Rifle with a new, fast 140-grain load.
The .280 Rem. is a great deer cartridge, a fantastic sheep/goat cartridge and plenty adequate for elk. Although it continues to roll along as a standard cartridge, it's never become popular, certainly not nearly as popular as it deserves.
Maybe there are too many magnum 7mms (some of which it equals), or maybe there are just too many 7mm cartridges to choose from, but the .280 remains a cartridge that just isn't able to get over the hump in terms of popularity. (Ed. note: At this year's industry trade show, Savage announced rifles in .280 Ackley Improved, joining Kimber and Nosler as manufacturers that have chosen this version of the .280.)
I know it's heresy to cast aspersions on the great .30-30. But, really, it's an 1890s rimmed cartridge—based on the .38-55 blackpowder case and still cursed with 1890s ballistics because it was designed for not-so-strong lever actions. In the main, it is loaded with 1890s round- and flat-nose bullets for tubular magazines.
Even so, it's an extremely effective short-range deer cartridge, and it's still relatively popular, but that's because of the millions of .30-30 rifles sold by Winchester (the famous Model 94) and Marlin (the also famous Model 336).
Today, sales of new .30-30 lever guns are soft, but with all those rifles out there, the .30-30 is unassailable. Interestingly, most attempts to fix the problem and breathe new life into the lever-action platform—the .307 Win., the .308 Marlin Express—have failed.
Hornady's spitzer FTX bullet, safe to use in tubular magazines, does enhance .30-30 performance and sells well, but perhaps the greatest problem is that, cost-wise, few tubular magazine lever actions are at an entry-point price level—the Marlin 336 being the notable exception, with a street price in the $500 to $600 neighborhood. But the rifles are still out there, and the .30-30 will soldier on.
Elmer Keith was a great champion of the .33 caliber. In the 1940s the team of O'Neil-Keith-Hopkins wildcatted the .333-06, using the .333 Jeffery bullet. After Winchester brought out the .338 Win. Mag. in 1958, its .338-inch diameter, with more and better bullet availability, made more sense. The .338-06 became a common wildcat, much like the .25-06 and .22-250 before their factory versions appeared.
Thing is, the .338-06 is not actually a wildcat. In the late 1980s A-Square's Art Alphin submitted several cartridges to the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute for standardization as factory cartridges. This is a complex and costly process and is not done lightly, but it was done, legitimizing the .338-06 A-Square.
A-Square intended to manufacture the .338-06 as a proprietary cartridge, and it produced a few rifles, along with ammunition. However, the up-and-down saga of A-Square, and its seemingly permanent demise in 2011, left the .338-06 as a formally approved factory cartridge without a rifle manufacturing sponsor.
So whether we consider it a wildcat, a proprietary or an obsolete factory round, the .338-06 remains a common non-standard chambering. It's popular among handloaders because it's easy to make, requiring only a simple necking up of .30-06 cases. And it's popular among hunters because it's effective, producing superb velocities up to 2,600 fps with 200- to 210-grain bullets and 2,450 fps with 250-grain bullets.
I've seen it in places as far-flung as Finland and Africa, and it was a favorite of my old friend, the late Chub Eastman, who used it to flatten a record-class grizzly surprised on a kill at point-blank range. Like most obscure or obsolete cartridges, ammunition is available from smaller suppliers. Nosler Custom offers fully six .338-06 A-Square loads, and just last week I got two emails about the .338-06. So it's still out there.
It has merit. It's faster than the .338 Federal and .35 Whelen. And it's not far from the .338 Win. Mag. in performance—with less propellant, less recoil and blast, and more compact ammo. Chambering in production rifles has been long and variously considered, but I doubt it will happen.
It is too close to the .338 Federal and .35 Whelen in performance, and its legal title as .338-06 A-Square renders it politically sensitive for major manufacturers. It's like some lost soul, roaming the land without a home.