January 30, 2018
Folks, this isn't "oldies but goodies" time, so don't expect to read about greats like the .44-40, .45-70 and .30-30. Nope, I'm thinking about five versatile hunting cartridges that are still with us today and remain viable. All are worthy of consideration if you need a rifle that falls within their broad capabilities. Collectively, these cartridges represent 503 years of history and development.
7x57 Mauser (1892)
The 7x57, a.k.a. 7mm Mauser and .275 Rigby, was among a spate of military cartridges developed in the 1890s. Smokeless powder velocity was new, and it dramatically reduced necessary bullet diameters. Calibers ranged from our 6mm Lee Navy to 8mm. Most prolific were the 6.5mms, adopted by numerous countries. Of them, only the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser remains viable in the U.S. market, and while I admire that cartridge, it doesn't make my list. And although the 8x57 was probably the most successful military cartridge of the bunch and is still popular in Europe, no 8mm cartridge has achieved popularity in the U.S.
The 7x57 is another story. Initially adopted by Spain in the 1893 Mauser, Transvaal's President Paul Kruger purchased 37,000 of the latest 1895 Mauser rifles—and some 40 million 7x57 cartridges—to use against the British in the Boer Wars. The British with their .303s eventually defeated the stubborn Boers, but at great cost. And, of course, we faced the Cubans' 7x57s in 1898 and concluded that our .30-40 Krags were no match for the Mausers.
In time the 7x57 became a popular sporting cartridge in the U.S. and Britain, and the original roundnose 173-grain bullet at 2,200 fps was used on game up to elephant thanks to its exceptional penetration. In 1909, under its then-exclusive arrangement with Mauser, Rigby renamed the cartridge ".275 Rigby," offering a 140-grain spitzer advertised at 2,800 fps. That velocity seems high for the day, but was possible in then-common 26-inch barrels and remains possible today with carefully crafted handloads.
In this country, the 7x57 became a standard factory chambering in post-World War I bolt actions and remained so for 30-odd years. Although Jack O'Connor is best-known as the champion of the .270, he was also a staunch fan of the 7x57, as was his wife, Eleanor. Most of Jack's desert rams were taken with a 7x57, and Eleanor rarely hunted with anything else.
Though still popular in Europe, the 7x57 is uncommon in American factory rifles, and while there's still a healthy selection of factory loads available, most are downloaded out of concerns over weaker '93 and '95 Mausers still in use. This means that today the 7x57 is primarily a handloader's cartridge, but there are exceptional factory loads that approach the cartridge's real capability. Hornady offers a 140-grain Superformance load at 2,760 fps, and Norma has a 156-grain load with its tough Oryx bullet at 2,641 fps.
My first 7x57 was an early Mark Bansner rifle on a Remington M700 action. I've had 7x57s on hand ever since, and today two of my best rifles are so chambered: a left-hand Mauser action in "stalking rifle" style by Todd Ramirez and a Dakota Model 10 single-shot roll-marked ".275 Rigby." The latter is new, but the Ramirez rifle has seen all the continents and taken a lot of game. The 7mm-08 Rem., loaded hotter in a shorter case, slightly exceeds its performance, but to me it will never have the class of the 7x57.
The Springfield rifle and its .30 caliber cartridges were, to some degree, developed as a result of the horrific casualties inflicted by Mausers at San Juan Hill. The original 1903 cartridge was loaded with a 220-grain roundnose bullet, but three years later the case neck was shortened 0.007 inch and the bullet was changed to a 150-grain spitzer at 2,700 fps.
This new cartridge was named "Ball Cartridge, caliber .30, Model of 1906," nicknamed .30-06. The .30-06 has a longer case with a greater capacity than the European military cartridges of the day, and it came to define what we think of as a "standard length action."
It is the most powerful cartridge ever adopted by a major military power, and generations of recruits knew this as they griped about recoil. Eleanor O'Connor, the 7x57 fan, considered the .30-06 heavy artillery. That's what she used for her largest game, including her only elephant, which she brained with a 220-grain solid. My friend and hero George Parker also admitted that he hated recoil and reserved his .30-06 for the world's largest game.
It hasn't been fashionable for a long time to hunt large game with a cartridge such as the .30-06. Today, of course, we have tons of heavy-hitting magnums, but it's important to remember the .30-06 is a very powerful cartridge. Current standard loads are much faster than the original loading, with the most popular bullet weights featuring a 150-grain bullet at 2,910 fps, a 165-grain bullet at 2,800 fps and a 180-grain bullet at 2,700 fps. Despite the magnum velocities we get bombarded with, standard loads for the .30-06 are not slow, and handloads and "extra-fast" factory loads eke out at least another 100 fps per bullet weight.
Although the .30-06 is our most popular deer cartridge, it's more powerful than necessary for deer. It's an awesome elk cartridge, powerful without magnum recoil, and I consider it one of the best choices for the full run of African plains game. It's ideal for game like caribou, as the lead photograph of a caribou I took with a Savage 116 in .30-06 attests.
My first centerfire was a surplus Springfield, but I didn't actually hunt with an '06 until my first African hunt in 1977. A child of the first magnum craze, I was stunned by its awesome performance, and I've loved it ever since. Mind you, for elk and bear I like cartridges of larger caliber, and for mountain hunting I prefer a flatter trajectory, but there isn't much you can't do with a properly loaded .30-06.
.270 Win. (1925)
Introduced in the Model 54 Winchester (forerunner to the Model 70), there was no messing around with .270 ballistics. It was loaded to the gills from the start, so although .270 loads have evolved, there has been no quantum leap. With standard velocities pushing a 130-grain bullet at 3,060 fps, 140-grain bullet at about 2,950 and 150-grain bullet at 2,850 fps, the .270 Win. is fast. These velocities can be beaten, but not by a whole lot.
Winchester's obvious intent was to create a flatter-shooting cartridge; the .270 is a simple necking down of the .30-06 case. The .25-06 had already been wildcatted, but it wouldn't be a factory cartridge until 1969. Wildcat 6.5-06s and 7mm-06s were probably out there as well.
Exactly why Winchester chose the .277 or 6.8mm is mysterious. The .270 is about halfway between 6mm and .30 caliber. There was also an experimental 6.8x57 Mauser cartridge, so maybe Winchester's engineers knew of it. However it happened, the .270 Win. came to pass 92 years ago, and although three other cartridges using the .277-inch bullet have shown up on the scene — .270 Wby. Mag., .270 WSM and 6.8 Remington SPC — none has thus far come close to the .270 Win. in popularity.
No other gun writer has achieved the reach of Jack O'Connor, so the fact the .270 was so often featured in his writing certainly didn't hurt it. O'Connor had a .270 in 1925, but it really wasn't until after World War II that it became a clear favorite. By then the .270 was well established, and it remains popular 40 years after O'Connor's death. So, to my thinking, he gets much credit for the .270's popularity — but some must come from the cartridge's own merits.
With the better bullets we have now, it is more capable today than in its early years. It is certainly adequate for elk and thus elk-size game, but I tend to think there are better elk cartridges, and for sure there are better bear cartridges. However, for the deer/sheep/goat/pronghorn class of game, the .270 is hard to beat. It's powerful enough for any game in this class, shoots flat and produces modest recoil.
I had a .270 back in the 1970s and used it for my first whitetails and my first black bear, but as a young writer in O'Connor's shadow, I stayed away from it for many years. Today I have to concede that Professor O'Connor was pretty much right: The .270 Win. is an awesome cartridge for the mountain hunting he loved—and for a whole lot more.
.300 H&H (1925)
"Holland's Super .30," as it was called, was based on the .375 H&H, but it was not the first fast .30. That honor goes to the .30 Newton in 1913. Certainly it was not the last. By the 1930s wildcatters were "improving" the Holland & Holland's tapered case. Roy Weatherby's version came along in 1944. The shorter-cased .300 Win. Mag. was introduced in 1963, and more recently we have both the unbelted .300 Rem. Ultra Mag and the massive .30-378 Wby. Mag. Not to mention our three "super shorts": .300 WSM, .300 RSAUM and .30 RCM.
Obviously, the world needs a fast .30, and since we have our choice of .30 caliber magnums that are faster, fatter, longer and/or shorter, the world seems to have forgotten the .300 H&H. This is regrettable because the old .300 H&H has some strong attributes.
One, despite that archaic tapered case and gentle shoulder, the .300 H&H, loaded right, is capable of meaningful velocity. Factory loads have dwindled over the years, and velocity has declined. All that remains is a 180-grain bullet at 2,890 fps, dismal velocity that some "extra-fast" .30-06 loads exceed. It is thus now a handloader's cartridge. My .300 H&Hs have 26-inch barrels. I won't tell you what velocities I get with 150-, 180- and 200-grain bullets, but I promise you they exceed the .300 Win. Mag.
It also tends to be extremely accurate, perhaps because of the gentle burning curve from that tapered case. In 1935 Ben Comfort won the 1,000-yard Wimbledon match with a .300 H&H, which really launched the cartridge's climb to popularity. Winchester chambered its new Model 70 to the Holland & Holland in 1937; everyone else followed, and it reigned as the leading fast .30 until Winchester replaced it with the shorter-cased .300 Win. Mag. in 1963.
My Ruger No. 1 in .300 H&H is the most accurate No. 1 I have ever owned. It's a medium sporter with slender barrel, and it beats the several heavy-barreled No. 1s I've owned. Maybe that's luck, but a Model 700 rebarreled to .300 H&H (with a good Pac-Nor barrel) was the tightest-grouping fast .30 I've ever owned.
Last but not least, the H&H engineers knew what they were doing. That tapered case is old-fashioned, but it feeds so well. Just throw it in the general direction of the chamber and it slides right in.
Unfortunately, the .300 H&H has fallen on hard times. I don't believe there are currently any manufacturers offering it, and as I mentioned, most of the factory loads out there are anemic. But if you have one, or want to get one built, there isn't much you can't do with it.
Although my choice in fast .30s has usually been the versatile 180-grain bullet, in the .300 H&H I've pretty much bypassed that weight. A very fast 150-grain bullet is great for smaller game in open country and worked wonderfully on my first desert bighorn. For larger game, and for African plains game, I've usually stepped up to a 200-grain bullet. I concede that the .300 H&H is almost dead, but it deserves a last look.
.257 Roberts (1934)
The .25 caliber is uniquely American: .25-20, .25-35, .25 Rem., .250 Savage and then .257 Roberts. This cartridge was wildcatted by gun writer Ned Roberts, A.O. Niedner and Griffin & Howe as early as 1909. Created by necking down the 7x57 Mauser case, it was taken "production" by Remington in its Model 30.
Although it loses the velocity race to the .257 Wby. Mag., .25-06 Rem. and the defunct .25 WSSM, it persists as an efficient and effective deer/pronghorn cartridge, and it's one of the larger cartridges that bridges the gap from varmints to big game. The .243 Win. is probably better in the latter role, but the efficient and mild-mannered Roberts, with bullets up to 120 grains, is unquestionably better for big game.
We writers are not without our prejudices. Frank C. Barnes, in his Cartridges of the World, writes that "The .257 Roberts has often been referred to as 'the most useful rifle cartridge ever developed'" I would not go that far. However, its fans, including my old friend and mentor Bob Milek, have strong feelings about it. Milek loved it for mule deer, and with heavier bullets of stout construction, he had no reservations about using it for elk.
Rarely chambered in production rifles today, I note with pleasure it is one of the initial offerings in the Kimber Hunter. Although new .257 Roberts rifles are scarce, everybody still loads for it, and unlike some of the cartridges we've discussed, current loads are as modern as tomorrow. The fashion evolved to call "upgraded" .257 Roberts loads "+P." These loads feature a 117- or 120-grain bullet at about 2,780 fps.
Careful handloads and newer loads can go farther. Hornady's 117-grain Superformance load quotes a 117-grain bullet at 2,945 fps, edging into .25-06 territory.
One of my bucket-list items has been a .257 Roberts, which took some doing due to a lack of left-handed rifles so chambered. However, last year I traded for a gorgeous, slightly used left-hand Dakota M76 in .257 Roberts. I don't expect to take it sheep hunting, as O'Connor did, but it remains ideal for deer and pronghorns at medium range—as it has been since long before it became a factory cartridge.
That bucket-list box is checked for me now. If you've got your own bucket list going, and it involves classic cartridges that will serve you well even in light of all the calibers we have available today, you can't go wrong with these five.