We’re all guilty, each and every one of us, myself included. We’ll be at a summer barbecue, or sharing a beer at the local pub, or sitting around the campfire, and the cartridge debate will begin. And, once it begins, you’re bound to hear all sorts of boastful claims, insistent arguing points, hand-me-down tales of perfect, flawless performance in the hands of various uncles and grandsires, and all sorts of reasons why any other cartridge than the metallic hero receiving adoration at that moment is a silly, wasteful, childish design. Sometimes you’ll hear – possibly simultaneously, if the crowd is large enough and the tongues are loose – that old cartridge should be put out to pasture, as their time is over, or that anyone using a new-fangled this or that magnum is a damned fool and should stick to the tried-and-true cartridges, like the late Mr. so-and-so did.
Gun writers – present company included – can be equally guilty. We’re human after all, with opinions like everyone else, but the articles we write can sometimes put a skew on how cartridges are perceived. The companies themselves have a bit of culpability in this mess as well; you’ll see the newest cartridge touted as a miracle cure for all of our shooting woes up to that point. Sometimes it may be a valid point, other times a twist on numbers or lengths or velocities and such. But that’s all irrelevant, as are most of the arguments about cartridges and calibers. In many ways, it’s all been done, and in other ways, we can firmly believe the best is yet to come. But, I do feel that we beat each other up unnecessarily. Healthy discussion is always good – especially when working toward the goal of researching the perfect cartridge for a particular shooter or situation – but it seems that the discussions have turned to arguments, for reasons I can’t quite explain.
Overlap & Redundancy
Let’s face one simple fact: there is a lot of cartridge overlap and redundancy. No, there is a ton of cartridge redundancy, but that’s okay. There’s plenty of room for what we have, but some cartridges come with a caveat: depending on the mood of the market, ammunition may or may not be readily available. And there’s another valid discussion point: does the availability of a cartridge dictate its popularity, or does the popularity of a cartridge ensure its availability? Let’s look at the comparison arguments, and their validity or invalidity first, then address with the popularity/availability issue.
At the end of the 19th century, cartridges were shrinking and shrinking fast. Our American hunting rifles were coming down in size; the huge .45 and .50 caliber blackpowder cartridges were giving way to the .30 and .32 caliber guns, and then again to the .25 caliber cartridges. In England, the Rigby-designed .450 Nitro Express – released in 1898 – truly opened the eyes of the Indian and African hunters who had relied on the .500 and .577 calibers, or the behemoth four and even two-bore muzzleloaders. Mauser’s 7x57mm cartridge led to a whole lot of cartridge development on both sides of the pond, and the resulting field reports were equally enlightening and confusing. The first 25 years of the 20th century brought us some wonderful cartridges – possibly the best era of cartridge development ever – but there were no rules. Writers, hunters and guides soon developed opinions, and things sort of settled out, with some good, firm guidelines as to which cartridges were suitable for a particular situation. The projectiles available for these cartridges played a definite role in the development of a reputation, and as the projectiles went through a development phase, the cartridges limits – real or perceived – changed along with them. By 1925, we had the spectrum pretty well covered. The 7×57 Mauser, the .30-’06 Springfield, the .30-30 Winchester, the .416 Rigby, the 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser, the .375 H&H Belted Magnum, the .450 and .470 Nitro Express, the .250-300 Savage, the .270 Winchester, the .404 Jeffery and the .300 Holland & Holland Magnum; all were available to the hunter/shooter by the 1926 hunting season. I’ll ask anyone to name the big game hunting situation that can’t be covered, and covered well, by one of those cartridges.
The wildcatters were already hard at work, including Townsend Whelen and his .35 caliber namesake, playing with those cases that would go on to become irrefutable classics, and by the late 1940s, the velocity race was in full swing. The ever-increasing speed – brought to the foreground by the .270 Winchester and Holland’s Super .30 – became the focal point, at least to some. The classic battles of Jack O’Connor and Elmer Keith, basically boiling down to Jack’s belief in lighter bullets at higher velocity against Elmer’s faith in heavier bullet weight at moderate speeds, highlighted the opposite ends of the spectrum. The introduction of Roy Weatherby’s cartridge lineup was indicative of the American love of velocity, and the resulting arguments regarding the ‘best’ cartridge design.
The .308 Versus The .30-’06
The U.S. Army’s development and adoption of the 7.62mm NATO, and the subsequent 1952 Winchester release of the civilian version – the .308 Winchester – sparked one of the largest in-caliber arguments; one that rages on to this very day. Is the .308 on par with the .30-’06? Why would anyone shoot this new cartridge, which can’t handle the heavy 220-grain slugs? Why would anyone still be shooting the .30-’06, when the .308 produces enough velocity, and from a shorter, handier rifle? And so it goes on, and on and on.
The .30-’06 Springfield may well be one of the most useful cartridges ever developed, and though it is over a century old, the design is still perfectly sound, not unlike the round rubber tire. It worked in 1906, it worked in 1956, it worked in 2006, and will continue to work for as long as copper/lead bullets are propelled by smokeless powder. The .308 Winchester is indeed a shorter, lighter, and possibly more efficient cartridge design. The fact that the early rifles wouldn’t handle the heavy 220-grain bullets had all to do with the twist rate of the initial barrels, and nothing to do with the case. It does run a bit slower than the ’06, but so what? It still produces energy and velocity figures that will cleanly and effectively kill game out to sane hunting ranges, and makes one helluva target cartridge. Should we still be arguing over this? Seems a bit silly to me. I have used a .308 Winchester for a quarter-century, and have killed all kinds of game with it, yet wouldn’t hesitate to use a .30-’06 in its place. Same goes for the .300 Winchester Magnum, I’ve used it for years, but it’s no magic design; like the ’06, it works. In the .308’s case, the modern, premium bullets have made it even better, but the same can be said for the ’06 and the .300 Winchester Magnum.
Speaking of .300 Magnums, perhaps we should take a look at those as well. When you said “I shoot a .300 Magnum”, prior to 1963, you were more than likely referring to the .300 Holland & Holland (the .300 Weatherby was in existence, but rare in comparison). The 1950s trio of Winchester Magnum cartridges – the .458, .338 and .264 – was based on the .375 H&H case, cut down to 2.500” and necked to handle their respective bullet diameters. Norma beat Winchester to the punch, regarding a .30 caliber version, introducing the 2.560”-cased .308 Norma Magnum. It gave a significant velocity increase over the .30-’06 (just as the .300 H&H did) and works just fine on any game animal you’d use a .30 caliber bullet for. However, the 1963 release of the .300 Winchester Magnum (with a case length of 2.62” and a short neck, for more powder capacity) and the rifles and ammunition available for it ensured that the Winchester variety pushed the Norma, and subsequently the H&H, version off of the stage. Does that make the .300 Winchester the greatest incarnation of .300 Magnum available? Well, it’s certainly the most popular, and it’s served me very well all over the world, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use the Weatherby, Norma or Holland version at all. All are good cartridges, and in the opinion of this author, arguing over a few tenths of an inch of cartridge or bolt pull is a silly prospect. If you can shoot any one of them from field positions, and put a decent bullet from any of them in the vitals of your game animal, it is a moot point.
Is the 6.5 Creedmoor all fluff?
Sometimes a cartridge comes to the forefront, being touted as the best thing since sliced bread; the 6.5 Creedmoor coming quickly to mind. All sorts of beneficial facts are quickly spouted by those who are proponents of the cartridge, while the non-believers bring the negative points to bear with equal speed. Using the Creedmoor – which has been both praised and damned equally – let’s take a good hard look at what it is and what it isn’t. It is 6.5mm, meaning that it will have the full gamut of sleek, lean, long bullets with excellent Ballistic Coefficient and Sectional Density figures. It is a smaller cartridge, meaning that it will not punish the shoulder, and longer shooting sessions will result in less shooter fatigue. With all this in mind, it is a cartridge that will make a good choice for the shooter who enjoys long range shooting, without breaking the bank, or the shoulder. What it isn’t, is a radical design; if you were to compare the Creedmoor to the .260 Remington or the venerable 6.5×55 Swede. I am a huge fan of the 6.5-284 Norma, for both its accuracy and its velocity, but ironically enough the most accurate handload I’ve found runs at the same exact velocity as the Creedmoor. If you had a well-tuned rifle in any one of the four cartridges I’ve mentioned, you’d be very well suited. Does that mean the Creedmoor is a fraud, or a bad choice for the shooter? Not at all. I’ve used it at long ranges (read 1,200-1,500 yards) and it works just fine. So does my 6.5-284 and the others I’ve mentioned.
The debates among big game rifle cartridges can be the most heated. Truly big game, like the African elephant, Cape buffalo and hippopotamus, require a big stick and a serious confidence level. With that, usually, comes ego. Additionally, safari requires the employment of a Professional Hunter, the man responsible to not only handle all the affairs of a journey into the wild, but save your bacon while dealing with the biggest beasts on earth. He will be carrying a big rifle, and underneath it all we all want to be him to some degree. When it comes to African cartridges, there is also the pedigree of your choice thrown into the mix; there are those who would only use a cartridge of British descent, and those who swear by the American developments. Truth is, how you shoot your chosen cartridge/rifle combination will be much more important to your Professional Hunter than the diameter of the hole in the barrel. Obviously, it must be legal – and the .375 H&H/.375 Ruger is usually the legal minimum for dangerous game – but your PH would prefer you with a smaller rifle that you can handle effectively than with a small cannon that causes you to flinch. This is one of those situations where you, as the shooter, must be totally honest with yourself regarding your acceptable recoil limit. Personally, I can handle the .375, .404 and .416s, and the .470 Nitro Express, but some of the faster safari cartridges get a bit snotty for me. I have a .378 Weatherby, and it is not a rifle I shoot much, as the recoil is substantial. Even the .458 Lott can be more than I like, depending on the fit of the rifle. I’ve spent some time with the .505 Gibbs Magnum, and while it’s great fun to shoot, it’s more gun than I am comfortable with. Can I say that the cartridges that recoil too hard for my liking are bad? Absolutely not. My pal Mike McNulty handles both the .458 Lott and .505 Gibbs just fine, and Lord knows they both kill game very well.
Getting back to the popularity vs. availability issue, I believe it is a double-edged sword. It seems undeniable that the military cartridges always seem to be available – the .308, .30-’06, 7×57, .223 and .45-70 either are or were military cartridges – but the commercial developments have ebbed and flowed over the years. There was a time, during the 60s, 70s and 80s, when ammunition for the Nitro Express double rifles was simply unavailable. Today, the sheer demand for them has seen Federal, Hornady and Norma producing what may be the best ammunition ever for double rifles. Winchester developed and released not only their family of Winchester Short Magnums, but a series of Winchester Super Short Magnums. I know many shooters who bought and enjoy shooting the rifles chambered for the .25 WSSM, but simply cannot find ammunition for their rifles. Even the handloaders have no access to component brass. Perhaps Winchester will feel that demand soon enough and dedicate some time to fill the void, or perhaps those rifles are doomed. The availability of component brass for a particular cartridge, or the ability to make brass cases from an existing, more popular case, should be a factor in choosing a cartridge.
When discussing cartridges, I do my best to take a good, unbiased look at the performance, and then give an honest assessment. As stated, I think we’ve developed just about all the different .30 caliber cartridges we’ll ever need, but I’m not about to pronounce cartridges like the .300 Ruger Compact Magnum and other obscure choices as bad designs just because I happen to have rifles chambered for another design.
If your cartridge uses a bullet of sensible diameter and weight for the animal you’re hunting, and generates a suitable amount of killing energy, go for it. Do your research, and make sure you can actually find the ammunition for whatever tickles your fancy, but if you’ve chosen an oddball, or even something a little left of center, don’t worry. The following statement is what I believe to be the most important: whichever cartridge you choose, learn its capabilities, and spend your time learning how to shoot it. That, to me, is paramount.
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