The 20th Century's Top Rifle Cartridge
The 20th Century's Top Rifle Cartridge
by Layne Simpson, Field Editor, Shooting Times, article originally published in Shooting Times magazine, February 2000
There can be only one top rifle cartridge of the 20th century, and Field Editor Layne Simpson has a handle on what it is. Here is his selection along with its 11 runners-up.
The greatest centerfire cartridge of the 20th century? Even though the answer to that question should have come to me as easily as falling off a greased log, I found it difficult to single out one among so many great ones. An early example among great cartridges is the .300 Savage, which offered original .30-06 performance in a package small enough to cycle through popular rifles such as the Savage 99 and Remington 81. But is it the greatest of the great? Hardly. Then we have other candidates. Although ignored to death by American hunters, the .307 Winchester is a great cartridge simply because it squeezes .300 Savage performance from America’s favorite deer rifle, the Winchester 94. But that alone does not place it among the list of top candidates for it is now a dying cartridge. And what about the .22-250? It began life as one of the most popular wildcats ever created, was available in Browning rifles before Remington started factory loading it, and is now one of our two most popular varmint cartridges. Great though it is, the .22-250 has yet to earn a big shot at the No. 1 position like other cartridges.
The .17 Remington is a favorite I hated to eliminate from my short list, mainly because it is uniquely American and so much fun to shoot. Then we have others like the .22 Hornet (my first varmint cartridge), the .35 Remington (my first store-bought deer cartridge), and the .225 Winchester (which accounted for my first sub-minute-of-angle group). Sentimental fellow that I am, I could very easily have listed either of those among the greatest of the great. Other favorites I hated to weed out are the .280 Remington (almost as good as the .270), 6mm Remington (actually better than the .243), .257 Roberts (better than the 6mm or .243), .25-06 (I used it a lot when it was a wildcat), 7x57mm Mauser (which will do anything the 7mm-08 will do), 7mm-08 Remington (which will do anything the 7x57mm Mauser will do), and the .416 Weatherby Magnum (my favorite cartridge for the big stuff of Africa). But they too had to go. As for new cartridges on the scene, the 7mm STW and .300 Remington Ultra Mag might eventually earn enough stripes to be included in such a list by another writer at the end of the 21st century, but as I write this neither has proven capable of weathering the test of time.
As it turned out, I simply could not come up with the single greatest cartridge without at least mentioning those that have given it a run for its money in not only popularity but usefulness as well. So I took the easy way out by naming not only the cartridge of the century but, as they say in beauty contests, its 11 runners-up as well. Here, then, in the order of their introduction are all too brief comments on what I consider to be the fantastic dozen of the 20th century, with the 11 runners-up first and the winner last.
.375 Holland & Holland Magnum.
I chose the .375 H&H Magnum as one of the top dozen of the 20th century simply because few other cartridges do so many things so well. It is just powerful enough to handle game too nasty for smaller cartridges, yet it is not ridiculously overpowered for nondangerous North American game such as elk and moose. I also chose it because the level of recoil it generates represents about the upper limit most hunters can tolerate. Even though the .375 H&H Magnum was introduced by Holland & Holland in 1925, most American hunters ignored it due to the high cost of imported rifles chambered for it. But that changed for the better in 1937 when Winchester added the chambering to its list of options for the Model 70 rifle. When loaded with good bullets and fired in an accurate rifle, this old English cartridge is capable of remarkable accuracy. It’s good too; I would not hesitate to hunt any big-game animal presently walking the face of the earth with the .375 H&H Magnum.
What can I say about the .270 Winchester that was not said far more eloquently by Jack O’Connor, the greatest firearms writer of the 20th century? The most famous and by far the most successful full-length offspring of the .30-06 Springfield, the .270 had it all back in 1925 when it was introduced and still has it all today. Need a flat-shooting, mild-recoiling, super-accurate cartridge for shooting deer-size game at long range? The .270 loaded with a good 130-grain bullet fills the bill with room to spare. Heading out west for an elk or moose hunt? Don’t overlook the .270 loaded with a premium-grade bullet weighing 150 grains. Does your shoulder scream out in protest each time you squeeze the trigger on that new .409 Pooper-Scooper Magnum? If so, relief in the form of a .270-caliber rifle is no further away than your friendly gunshop.
Exceeding 4000 feet per second with a rifle bullet seemed about as far out of reach as man’s first step on the moon back in the 1930s, but Winchester accomplished the impossible in 1935 by introducing the great .220 Swift. Loaded with a 48-grain bullet at the previously unheard of velocity of 4110 fps, the Swift made plenty of noise, shot flatter than a moonbeam, and electrocuted a varmint in its tracks. And if that alone wasn’t enough, the new cartridge was extremely accurate in the Winchester Model 70 rifle. During its heyday the Swift took its licks from critics who were obviously jealous of its success, but those of us who use it today recognize it for what it is—the greatest varmint cartridge of all time. True, the .22-250 is more popular, but it simply follows the trail blazed over half a century ago by the .220 Swift.
.300 Weatherby Magnum
Roy Weatherby didn’t invent the .30-caliber magnum cartridge; among Americans that honor goes to a fellow by the name of Charles Newton. Weatherby did, however, cause more hunters to want to own .30 magnum rifles than anyone before or since his time. More important to the success of his company, those hunters wanted Weatherby rifles in .300 Magnum. I saw my first Weatherby rifle while still in high school and swore then and there that I would someday own one, and sure enough I eventually did. I’m sure many other youngsters my age shared the same dream. Roy’s .300 Magnum with its distinctive double-radius shoulder has long been and probably always will be the belted magnum by which all others of its caliber are measured. You can say what you want about its recoil and muzzle blast, but no one who has used the .300 Weatherby Magnum on big game will deny that the hunt almost always ends quickly just after the first trigger squeeze.
A brainchild of Remington’s Mike Walker, the .222 was made possible by the introduction of the Remington Model 722 bolt-action rifle. That combination, the .222 and the 722, ruled the accuracy roost among varmint shooters during the 1950s, and the little cartridge even went on to absolutely dominate registered benchrest competition until the 6mm PPC came along in 1975. In addition, the .222 eventually spawned the .17 Remington, .221 Fireball, .222 Remington Magnum, .223 Remington, and the European 5.6x50mm Magnum, making it one of the more prolific cartridges introduced during the 20th century. Today, the .223 is more popular, but when all is said and done it really won’t do a lot that can’t be done about as well with the .222 Remington. If ever I decide to build the six most accurate rifles in the world, one of them will be chambered for the .222 Remington.
The .308 Winchester, or 7.62x51mm NATO as it is also called, was not the first high-intensity centerfire cartridge designed for short-action rifles; that distinction goes to the .300 Savage. The .308 was, however, the first cartridge of its kind to enjoy worldwide popularity. On several occasions I have hunted moose in Sweden and am always surprised to see how many of the local hunters are armed with rifles in .308 Winchester. Among calibers larger than 6mm, the .308 is by far the most popular short-action big-game cartridge among hunters worldwide. The .308 has also fathered a rather large clan of offspring with names like .243 Winchester, .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington, and .358 Winchester. Probably the best thing to be said of the .308 is it is capable of phenomenal accuracy; it is possibly the single most inherently accurate cartridge of a caliber larger than 6mm ever designed.
The .243 Winchester was not the first cartridge of its caliber, but it was the first cartridge to really put the caliber on the map among varmint shooters and deer hunters. The .243 plays its dual role as a combination varmint/big-game cartridge like few other cartridges are capable of, and it possesses incredible accuracy potential. Mild manners combined with energy delivery quite adequate for game up to the size of whitetail deer and pronghorn antelope make the .243 as close to ideal as we are likely to ever get for those who are sensitive to recoil. The 6mm Remington (alias .244 Remington) might be just a tad better and the .240 Weatherby most definitely is, but neither has enjoyed anywhere near the popularity of the .243 Winchester.
.458 Winchester Magnum
The .458 Winchester was America’s first factory-loaded elephant cartridge. Prior to its introduction in 1956, American hunters who ventured to Africa either used American-built rifles in .375 H&H (which some considered a bit small for elephant and such), a custom-built rifle chambered for a wildcat such as the .450 Watts, or they bought an expensive English-built rifle chambered for a cartridge of English design. Then along came the Model 70 in .458 Magnum, which not only duplicated the performance of the ever-popular .470 Nitro Express, it cost but a fraction of the price of a British double in that caliber. The .458 Winchester went on to become the most popular backup cartridge among African professional hunters, and to this day it is the dangerous game cartridge by which all others are judged.
.338 Winchester Magnum
I like the .338 Winchester Magnum but not quite as much as the .375 H&H Magnum. It is a good cartridge, but I’m not sure it is a lot better than one of the .300 magnums loaded with a 200-grain bullet. The .338 shoots flat but not quite as flat as one of the 7mm magnums. The .338 hits hard downrange, but it also hits hard back behind the recoil pad. Through the years I have heard all those statements used to describe the .338 Winchester Magnum, but the fact remains that it has enjoyed and continues to enjoy more popularity among big-game hunters than all other medium-bore cartridges combined. The last time I looked at ammunition sales reports from Winchester, Remington, and Federal, the .338 ranked 10th among all big-game cartridges, reason enough to include it among the 12 greatest centerfire rifle cartridges of the 20th century.
7mm Remington Magnum
The 7mm Remington Magnum and I go back to 1962, the year Remington introduced it, so it has long been one of my favorite cartridges. Other cartridges of the same caliber came before Remington’s version, but all combined did not cause as much excitement among American hunters. In fact, prior to its introduction, most Americans ignored 7mm cartridges. Not so for the new one from Remington. For several years after it was introduced, the demand for Model 700 rifles chambered for the “Big Seven” far outpaced Remington’s ability to produce them. Even today, over three decades after its introduction, only the .30-30, .30-06, .270, and .308 are more popular among big-game hunters. Why the 7mm Remington Magnum enjoys such popularity is no big mystery—it shoots flatter and hits harder than the .30-06 but generates only slightly more recoil. It is truly one of the 20th century’s greats.
Chances are the 6mm PPC has never killed a single deer, and it most definitely ranks near the bottom of the heap among varmint hunters. It doesn’t shoot as flat as a banjo string, and it doesn’t deliver gobs of energy downrange, make a lot of noise, or pound one’s shoulder to a pulp. The 6mm PPC is anything but cheap to shoot; last time I looked, cases were selling at 75 cents each, and they still had to be fine-tuned before being used. Even though Americans Lou Palmisano and Ferris Pindell created the little cartridge, it is foreign to most American shooters. On top of all that, while the 6mm PPC has been around for over 20 years not a single American ammo manufacturer has chosen to load it. What the 6mm PPC has done and continues to do is break more world accuracy records in registered benchrest shooting than any other cartridge, and it shows no sign of slowing down. When firearms correspondents of the future write about such things, the 6mm PPC will be mentioned most often as the accuracy cartridge of the 20th century.
And The Winner Is... The .30-06 Springfield
Then we come to the .30-06 Springfield, my pick as the greatest rifle cartridge of the 20th century .Before you disagree, take a look at its track record. For starters, the .30-06 was the primary battle cartridge of American military forces from its introduction in 1903 until it was replaced by the 7.62mm NATO in 1954. That’s over half a century of military duty. During that time the United States and its allies won the two greatest wars in the history of modern mankind, and while they would likely have done so had the .30-06 not been around, the cartridge played a key role nevertheless. Long before the old soldier retired from military duty it was enjoying tremendous popularity among hunters and target shooters. Today, the .30-06 is No. 1 in sales among all big-game cartridges with the major ammunition manufacturers, and it is seldom out of the top five most popular chamberings among builders of bolt-action rifles. The grand old cartridge has long been available in all types of rifles: bolt actions, slide actions, single shots, autoloaders, and even a few lever actions. A great abundance of factory loadings are available not only from U.S. manufacturers but from those in other countries as well. Federal alone, as an example, offers almost two-dozen different loadings of the .30-06 Springfield with bullet weights ranging from 125 to 220 grains. Handloaders who load the cartridge have a great variety of brands, styles, and weights of bullets from which to choose, and dozens are suitable for this grand old cartridge. The popularity of the .30-06 is worldwide; it accounts for a big chunk of sales among many foreign manufacturers of sporting ammunition, and any foreign rifle manufacturer who is anybody (and even some who aren’t) offer the .30-06 chambering. The .30-06 got a head start on its competition by being adopted by the US Military, same as the .45-70 Government, .30-40 Krag, .308 Winchester, and .223 Remington. Today, it is a benchmark by which big-game cartridge performance is compared.
So there you have the greatest cartridge of the 20th century along with its 11 runners-up. I’m sure everyone won’t agree with all of my picks, but that was one of the great things about 20th-century America—we could disagree and still be friends.
Cartridge Year of Introduction
.30-06 Springfield, 1906
.375 H&H Magnum, 1912
.270 Winchester, 1925
.220 Swift, 1935
.300 Weatherby Magnum, 1948
.222 Remington, 1950
.308 Winchester, 1952
.243 Winchester, 1955
.458 Winchester Magnum, 1956
.338 Winchester, Magnum, 1958
7mm Remington Magnum, 1962
6mm PPC, 1975