March 03, 2022
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This past season, Sam Vona dropped a Kansas buck with his 6.5x55. Now understanding the modest ranges on my place, he swore he’d come back and bring his father’s .32 Winchester Special. I hope he does. We haven't seen that old cartridge in our deer woods.
Hey, it’s fun to hunt with the latest, greatest new whiz-bangs, and maybe they will give you extra confidence. On the other hand, there’s special satisfaction in using classic old-timer ammo. Especially if, like me, you place value on history and tradition.
Now, I don’t want to go overboard. These days, we have to think about feeding the beast. I hand-load, but I wouldn’t want to try to find proper .323 bullets for Sam’s .32.
I’ve been having an affair with the .303 British, but ammo and bullets are almost unavailable now.
In developing my short list of classic cartridges worth trying, I thought about utility, availability and history. I love the 6.5x55 Swede, which is ballistically much the same as the 6.5 Creedmoor, but 6.5x55 ammo is currently scarce.
I’m looking for another .358 Winchester. I have cases, dies and bullets, but I wouldn’t want to try to find factory ammo right now.
So, with multiple sources of ammo, awesome track records, and usefulness, I boiled a longer list down to six:
6 Great Classic Hunting Cartridges
Introduced by Remington in 1934, gunwriter Ned Roberts necked the 7x57 case down to take a .257-inch bullet, the same diameter as the .25-35 and .250 Savage, both popular at the time. The .257 Roberts took off quickly, and became the dominant .25-caliber cartridge until Remington introduced the .25-06 in 1969.
The old Roberts is not as fast as the .25-06. However, the .25-06 is slightly over-bore-capacity, so the Roberts is easier to load for and often more accurate. It is not slow — 100-grain bullets to over 3100 fps; 117-grain bullets to 2900. Recoil is negligible, and performance on deer-sized game is amazing.
Die-hard Roberts fans sometimes use it for black bear and elk. I think this is pushing it, but it is dramatically effective on deer and pronghorns, and fully adequate for the biggest hogs. All ammo is hard to come by right now, but everybody still loads the .257 Roberts, and cases can readily be made by full-length sizing 7x57 brass. With lighter bullets, it readily crosses over as a fine varmint rifle, with less recoil and longer barrel life than the .25-06.
The .270 Winchester was developed in 1925 by necking down the .30-06 case to take a .277-inch bullet. The result was a faster cartridge that shot flatter and developed less recoil. Gunwriter Jack O’Connor became the .270’s champion. Some of its popularity is based on his writing, but much is pure merit.
With 130-grain bullets at 3100 fps, the .270 shoots flat enough for mountain hunting, and is powerful enough for the largest bucks that walk. With 150-grain bullets at 2900 fps, it is plenty powerful enough for elk.
Today it is popular to claim that the .270 "isn’t very accurate." It was conceived as a hunting cartridge, and rarely considered a "target cartridge." Until recently, few match-grade or the new "low drag" bullets were offered in .277-inch.
That conceded, I have personally never encountered a .270 Winchester rifle that wouldn’t deliver all the hunting accuracy anyone needs, and some have been tack-drivers.
My wife Donna and I have both taken elk, sheep, and numerous deer with .270s, and we have both used it on other continents for a wide variety of game.
Not as flashy as some of the bright new stars, the .270 Winchester remains popular and available, and still does the job.
Dating back to 1892, the 7x57 Mauser (aka 7mm Mauser and .275 Rigby) is the oldest smokeless-powder cartridge still in common use. Armed with .30-40 Krags, American troops faced it in Cuba in 1898. Half a world away, the Brits with their .303s faced it in the Second Boer War. Veterans of both nations came away with respect for the 7x57, and it quickly developed a sporting following.
The 7x57 has never been widely popular in the United States, but it retains a loyal following. With a 140-grain bullet at about 2700 fps, the 7x57 isn’t fast, but it’s one of those cartridges whose performance seems exceed paper ballistics. Its performance is duplicated by the 7mm-08 Remington (1980).
The contest isn’t fair, because the 7mm-08 is loaded to higher pressure standards than the 7x57. With greater case capacity, the 7x57 should be faster but, as loaded, it is not. Because its longer case requires a standard-length action, it does better with heavy bullets (which is what made its bones around the world).
Anything said about the 7x57 can be said about the 7mm-08, and vice versa. If you value tradition, you’ll prefer the 7x57. I haven’t been without a 7x57 for 40 years. I have three right now, and have used them all over the world. But, if you prefer a 7mm-08, I can’t argue. Either way, you’ll have a light-recoiling, hard-hitting medium-range cartridge effective up to elk.
The .30-30 Winchester and its companion .25-35 were America’s first smokeless-powder sporting cartridges, introduced in 1895 in the 1894 Winchester. At least 20 million .30-30 rifles have been produced (by Winchester, Marlin, Savage, Mossberg, Henry, and others). Many are still in use, but millions of .30-30s are gathering dust in corners of gun safes.
Maybe it’s time to take another new look at this American classic, and have some fun! Standard are 150-grain bullets at 2390 fps, and 170-grain bullets at 2200 fps. By today’s standards, these numbers are neither fast nor powerful. Range is limited, and limited further by the necessity to use blunt-nosed bullets (except Hornady’s FTX and MonoFlex bullets). Iron sights on older top-eject Winchester lever-actions also reduces range, although virtually all current .30-30s can be scoped.
Regardless of sights, the .30-30 is not a long-range cartridge. With iron sights, it’s a 100-yard gun. With optical sights and modern loads, maybe you could double that. For a lot of deer and hog hunting, how much reach do you need? At these ranges, the .30-30 is decisively effective on deer-sized game.
I used the .30-30 when I was young, and in recent years I’ve come back to it for whitetails and hogs. Not as a novelty, but because it works, with little recoil and certain effect. Maybe you should circle back and rediscover America’s all-time champion deer rifle.
My daughter Brittany does outdoor skills camps for women. One of the classes I teach is "Bullet Basics," arcane and inexplicable cartridge nomenclature. We’ve all heard of the great .30-06, but do we all remember that it’s short for: "ball cartridge, caliber .30, model of 1906?"
On their epic 1909-1910 safari, Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt were among the first to use the .30-06 as a sporting cartridge. It gained in popularity after WWI, and became America’s standard and most popular sporting cartridge. It remains popular, but after multiple magnum phases and today’s shorter, fatter cases, it’s no longer the darling it once was.
Remember this: The .30-06 is the most powerful cartridge ever adopted by a major military. With a 150-grain bullet over 3000 fps, 165-grain bullet over 2900, and 180-grain bullet at 2700, it is not slow, and it is still very powerful.
Truth is, although always effective, it is needlessly powerful for deer-sized game, and has more recoil than many are comfortable with. It is a better elk cartridge than deer cartridge. And, it can use extra-heavy bullets at meaningful velocity. With 220-grain bullets, it has been used effectively for the largest game, although we can probably agree there are better tools for big bears and pachyderms.
The great strength of the .30-06 is its versatility. I remain convinced it is one of the best choices for the full run of African plains game. Even Jack O’Connor, the .270 man, conceded the .30-06 was "more versatile." In the early 1950s, Grancel Fitz became the first person to take all varieties of North American big game. He did it all with his .30-06, including all the sheep and big bears.
Like most of my generation, my first centerfire rifle was a surplus 1903 Springfield, but I didn’t hunt with the cartridge until 1977. For some years I used the .30-06 for most of my hunting. I drifted away, but I have a trusty .30-06. Time to hunt with it again.
It’s amazing that the cartridge the Seventh Cavalry carried at Little Bighorn is not only still with us, but retains significant popularity. Introduced in 1873, the (originally) blackpowder .45-70 was among the first cartridges to use central-fire ("centerfire") priming. In the parlance of the day, its original nomenclature was ".45-70-405," with 70 denoting the blackpowder charge and 405 the weight of the original bullet. As America’s military cartridge, it was our dominant cartridge until the advent of smokeless powder.
Chambered to big lever-actions and sporting single-shots), it quickly made the transition to smokeless powder but, to this day, standard factory loads are held to low pressures safe for use in trapdoor Springfields. In the mid-20th Century, the .45-70 almost faded away. Current popularity is largely due to the popularity of the lever-action "guide gun."
Modern factory loads with lighter bullets are much faster, and shoot flatter, than original heavy-bullet loads. But, in strong modern actions (Marlin, Henry, new 1886) you can have it all—heavy bullets and higher velocity—with handloads and specialty loads.
Combining modern actions and loads, the .45-70 is plenty of gun for the largest bears, and is used for Cape buffalo. With standard loads, it’s awesome for hogs and black bear, and dramatic for anchoring deer "DRT" (Down Right There). No matter how loaded, it is not fast and does not shoot flat, but at moderate range effect is dramatic. And it’s a piece of history with every shot.