July 07, 2020
By J. Scott Rupp
The popularity of various big game rifle cartridges has been a moving target for years. I know I’m dating myself, but when I was growing up and dinosaurs ruled the Earth, the big argument was .270 versus .30-06. Today you’ve got to talk about nearly half a dozen 6.5s, new .300 magnums, new creations like the .350 Legend and so much more in addition to the old standbys.
For 11 years RifleShooter has been publishing a roundup of new big game rifles, and each year I create a price/chambering chart for it—with the invaluable help of author Brad Fitzpatrick, who has been writing the roundup for the past several years. This is never an exhaustive list of every new factory rifle and every chambering, but it’s a pretty good snapshot on what’s going on from year to year.
While the September/October issue that includes this roundup won’t be out until early to mid-July (you lucky dog digital subscribers will see it as early as 7/7), I thought it would be interesting to look at just the cartridges. This isn’t an in-depth statistical study, mind you—just overall impressions I’ve been seeing in the charts over the years.
Note: In order to keep the roundup manageable, from the get-go I opted to make the .243/6mm the minimum for “big game.” I realize the .22 centerfires are accepted deer, wild boar and pronghorn cartridges in some places, but beyond that the .22s aren’t suitable or legal for larger game like elk, bear, etc.
The .243 Win. continues to be a mainstay choice on the low end of big-game-capable cartridges, and it’s still a quite popular choice for new rifle chamberings. The relatively new 6mm Creedmoor has the potential to breathe new life into this bullet diameter as a hunting cartridge—as well as grab market share for itself—and I half expected this year to see the Creedmoor start to give the great old .243 a serious run for its money. But it didn’t. The 6mm Creedmoor is still young, though, and good things could still be in store.
I have no experience with the .240 Wby., and I’m sure it’s a fine cartridge, but until companies other than Weatherby start offering it as an option, it will languish.
The caliber as a whole is losing ground. The great old .257 Roberts comes and goes (mostly goes), but until recently the .25-06 Rem., my favorite, could be counted on to be well-represented—thanks to its appeal in the West and places like Texas. The excellent .257 Wby. is still with us, but only Weatherby is chambering rifles for it.
It’s pretty apparent the white-hot 6.5mm diameter is sucking all the air out of the room. There is some interest in the .25 in the long-range competition world, but unless that spills over into the hunting realm—with new cartridges and/or new bullets—I’ll just be sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, cradling my pet .25-06 and yelling at people to get off my lawn.
What a difference a decade makes. I traveled to Hornady in 2008 to write an article on the introduction of the 6.5 Creedmoor, which was originally designed as a round for NRA highpower and long-range competitions. It very quickly crossed over to the hunting realm, and the rest is history.
The Creedmoor’s success wasn’t overnight by any means. When I wrote a follow-up piece on the round in 2012, the cartridge constituted a paltry percentage of new rifle chamberings on that year’s chart. Today the 6.5 Creedmoor is the undisputed king of our chart—for the second year running.
There’s a slew of new rivals for the affection of 6.5 fans: 6.5 PRC, 6.5-.300 Wby., 6.5 Wby. RPM and 6.5 Grendel.
Of these, the ballistically excellent 6.5 PRC really seems to be taking off. It made a percentage big jump from 2019 to this year. Perhaps the best evidence of its groundswell of support is that in addition to simply the number of new rifles so-chambered, the offerings range from $600 rifles to guns costing well over $2,000. Pretty impressive for a cartridge that is just a couple years old, and it certainly owes some of its success to the Creedmoor, which opened American’s shooters’ eyes to the 6.5 caliber.
The Weatherby cartridges, 6.5 RPM and 6.5-.300 Wby., are found only in Weatherby guns, but they are both quite new, and in time there might be enough interest for them to branch out. Interestingly, the.264 Win. Mag. is back on the chart and not just in a one-off or specialty rifle but in Winchester’s Model 70.
The 6.5 Grendel and 6.5-.284 Norma didn’t make the cut this year, although they had in past charts. For a while I thought we were going to see a bit of a resurgence for the .260 Rem., but that doesn’t seem to be happening. At least not this year.
Great cartridges like the .270 Win. will likely be with us forever. While it no longer posts the strong numbers it did when I first started the chart, there’s still solid support for it.
The short-magnum .270 WSM hangs in there. However, I have to wonder if the 6.5 PRC might sweep the .270 WSM into some dark corner of the basement. The .277 Fury is too new for any judgments to be made, and currently it’s only offered in SIG’s new and untested Cross.
Several have tried, but no cartridge in this caliber has even come close to dethroning one of our most popular rounds of all time: the 7mm Rem. Mag. The .28 Nosler would love to give it a run for its money, and this year the Nosler round has made some inroads, including somewhat surprising adoptions by companies like Savage. Still, it has miles to go to catch up to the Remington round.
I’m a .280 Rem. fan, and I’m certain I’ll die without seeing it experience a resurgence. However, the .280 Ackley Improved has surfaced on the charts in the past couple of years. Previously its presence had been restricted to higher-end offerings, but Savage has added the Ackley to one of its models this year.
For many years the 7mm-08 Rem. was a top choice for short-action rifles, but this excellent cartridge is definitely starting to cede ground to the 6.5s. I don’t expect it to go away any time soon—I think it’s too good to die—but its popularity was at an all-time low this year. Could be a one-time blip.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 7mm Wby. suffers from the same problem as other Weatherby cartridges in that only Weatherby chambers it. The 7mm WSM has been on life support for a while, and it didn’t make the list this year.
Quick, what’s the most popular .30 caliber chambering in the United States. It’s the .30-06 Springfield, right? Not so fast. At least in terms of new-rifle chamberings on our lists, the .308 has been able to laud its supremacy over its older, bigger brother for quite some time. I suspect this is due to a combination of two factors: the popularity of short-action rifles and the rise of “long-range” rifles. The .308 benefits from both in that it is always an option in any short-action bolt gun, and it has always been a more popular choice than the .30-06 in long-range shooting.
Like I said, the .308 had ruled the chart for a good while although it definitely started looking over its shoulder a few years back as the 6.5 Creedmoor gathered steam. As I mentioned, the 6.5 Creedmoor surpassed the .308 last year, but the Winchester round remains a mainstay cartridge.
Certainly the .30-06 is still a big seller, and I’ll sit right here and argue all day that it’s our most versatile cartridge. It will be interesting to track the path of both it and the .308 over the next few years.
Many .30 caliber magnums have tried to challenge the supremacy of the .300 Win. Mag.; none has succeeded. Yet. For a while I thought the .300 WSM would give it a run for its money, but it seems to be treading water.
Hornady would love for its newcomer .300 PRC to catch fire, but it’s so new it will be some time before we can get any sense of where it’s headed.
The .300 Rem. Ultra Mag seemed to be on its deathbed a couple years ago, but it is popping up on the list again. The .300 Wby., which should get more love, remains a Weatherby-only proposition, at least in the production-gun realm.
The Over .30 Crowd
Say hello to a Legend. Well, okay, two years do not a legend make, but gun companies are seeing potential in the .350 Legend. The cartridge is aimed at deer hunters in states where only straight-wall centerfire rounds are permitted. Time will tell whether that market is big enough to sustain the Legend and any subsequent new straight-walls companies might come up with, or perhaps deep-woods whitetail hunters will choose it just because it’s new, different and available in both bolt actions and ARs.
I can’t remember a chart where the .338 Win. Mag. was so under-represented. Similarly, the queen of the big calibers, the .375 H&H, is missing. (Although I do have to note here that the Weatherby Mark V Dangerous Game rifle is chambered to the H&H but didn’t make the chart due to space and because it’s “new” only because some of its internals have been improved.) The newer, shorter .375 Ruger, which seemed to making inroads in recent years, is also notable by its absence.
My hunch here is companies are all-in on versatile cartridges—whether they be old standards or cool new kids on the block—and the big boomers never do sell as well as the .30-and-under crowd.
You could argue the .338 Win. Mag. is a versatile cartridge, but unless you’re an Alaskan or a die-hard elk hunter, it would be hard to say it’s as versatile as a .30-06 or a .300 magnum.
As to the .375s, African safaris aren’t as popular as they once were, at least for the average American hunter, and it seems gun companies didn’t see the need this year to introduce new models for the big, dangerous stuff or add safari cartridges to existing models.
The .45-70 always manages to find a way onto the chart, as well it should. And my favorite straight wall, the .444 Marlin, got a little love as well this year. I don’t think you’ll ever see either of them get more popular, but it’s just nice to see they’re still being chambered in new guns.
The .450 Bushmaster is a curious round. In certain circles it’s quite popular, but it still seems like it’s almost a specialty cartridge—albeit a good one. Mossberg chambered the .450 in one of its bolt guns this year, and Ruger did so last year, so there may be wider interest here than meets the eye.