Friday, December 17, 2010

Review: Best Rifle Cartridges for 2011

Cost Effective Rifle Cartridges Part 21: Picking The Best Rifle Cartridges for 2011

It is now time for us to issue final recommendations for the best rifles cartridges to pick for 2011, specifically when looking at pricing and availability: which are the most cost effective and available cartridges in each category?

In order to have a good look at how these cartridges compare, we selected cartridges that got picked as best in kind in the ammunition survey and in the chamberings survey, and superposed their pricing and availability for ammunition and their availability as chamberings.

Recommendations by Cartridges Categories
  • Most cost effective overall cartridge: 22LR
The 22LR led the ammunition survey for affordability, at $1.50 per box of 20, and the second most cost effective cartridge, the 22WMR, is almost three times as expensive to shoot. The chambering availability of the 22LR is, if anything, even better than it was, with many new offerings available. The 22LR has no rival as a training and plinking cartridge.

  • Best rimfire varmint cartridge: 17HMR
The 17HMR and the 22WMR both are inherently superior to the 22LR in almost every way except cost (they are close to three times as expensive to shoot), with the 17HMR getting the advantage on range and accuracy. As The 17HMR continues to expand while the 22WMR is stable, we give the preference to the 17HMR, despite a slight 15% advantage to the 22WMR in cost.

  • Most cost-effective centerfire cartridge: 223 Remington (5.56mm NATO)
The 7.62x69 Soviet is actually the most cost effective centerfire cartridge in existence ($7 per box vs. $10 for the 223), but the great difference in chambering availability with the 223, the dramatic drop in new chambering availability for the 7.62x39,  and the inherent superiority of the 223 cartridge in both range and accuracy give the 223 the edge. The 7.62x39 is is a poor range cartridge, and is not a good hunting cartridge.

  • Best varmint cartridge: 223 Remington
The 223 is the #1 cartridge in existence by availability, and the #1 existing chambering on Gunbroker (although not among new chamberings). It is significantly more cost effective than other varmint cartridges, by approximately 100% - at $10 per box, it costs half to shoot. It has an excellent reputation for accuracy. While the 204 Ruger and the excellent 22-250 have an edge on range, it is not enough to take away the crown from the 223.

  • Best 6mm medium game cartridges: 243, 25-06
The 243 and the 25-06, both flat shooting cartridges, are at opposite ends of the 6mm spread. The 25-06 is a necked-down 30-06 cartridge, large, powerful, noisy, with a lot of recoil for a 6mm (but not that much overall). The 243, on the other hand, is comparatively soft shooting, silent, yet still accurate. The 243 is sufficient for deer, but does not range any higher, while the 25-06 may be used for larger game if the circumstances are right: range, position, good bullet placement. The 243, with excellent availability and reasonable pricing at $23, is enjoying rapid expansion, while the 25-06, a bit more expensive at $26, still sees some growth.

  • Best 7mm medium game cartridges below .30: 270 Winchester, 7mm-08, 7mm Remington Magnum
The 7mm cartridges are already the realm of the all around rifle. The 7mm-08 and the 7mm Remington Magnum use the same bullets (.284), while the 270 uses slightly smaller diameter (.277). All three cartridges shoot very flat. They are all derivatives: the 270 is a necked-down 30-06, the 7mm-08 a necked-down 308, and the 7mm Rem Mag a necked down 338 Winchester Magnum. The 270, Jack O'Connor's favorite, with significant although not outrageous recoil,  has killed every kind of game in North America. It is very popular, gaining in popularity, and cost effective to shoot at $18 per box. The 7mm-08, the softest shooting cartridge of the lot, can be used by most shooters without recoil becoming a problem, and has a bit less range than the other two. It can take big North American game if the circumstances are right in placement and range, and is the more costly of the three, at $32 per box. The 7mm Remington Magnum, priced between the other two at $27 per box, is the hardest shooting of the lot, and has the reputation, rightfully so, of shooting as flat as the 270 and as hard as the 30-06. All three cartridges are outstanding choices for different shooter profiles.

  • Best .30 caliber cartridges: 308 Winchester, 30-06 Springfield, 300 Winchester Magnum
The 308 and 30-06 are long time rivals, and end up being very close to each other in performance, and equal in cost at $19 per box. The 308 has slightly softer recoil and can be used in slightly shorter/ lighter rifles, while the 30-06 a touch more range (about 25 yards) and punch at the cost of 20% more recoil, a difference that is not negligible. The 300 Winchester Magnum, another long range cartridge, has more power, a higher price at $25 per box, slightly more range than both (about as much as the 7mm Rem Mag) but a lot more recoil. Where the 308 is within the limits of acceptable recoil, the 30-06 is at the edge of being too punishing for a long session at the range and may induce flinching, and the 300 Winchester Magnum is clearly in significant pain territory. All three can take any North American game, and are excellent cartridges for what they are designed to do. 

  • Best Medium Bore cartridge: 338 Win Mag
The American Medium Bores are a troubled category, with very few successful cartridges. In fact, of all of them, only one shows any life along with significant controversy. The 338 Winchester Magnum shows good availability and growing popularity. However, it is a very expensive cartridge ($55 per box), and its performance may not always justify its price. For a heavy price in recoil (20% more than the 300 Win Mag), it has shorter range than the 300 Win Mag, approximately matches the 300 Win Mag's kinetic energy and killing power at 200 yards and beyond, and shows significantly less velocity. It is only at short range that the 338 Win Mag shows itself to be significantly superior to the 300 Win Mag, a property which has led to its use in Alaska as a protection and bear rifle. However, after the first few years of adoption, a significant number of professional guides switched back to the 375 H&H, following some concerns about ultimate killing power. The 338 Win Mag is the best choice among medium bores, but, in the end, its performance may not  be sufficiently superior to the 300 Win Mag to justify the extra cost and recoil. Depending upon your needs, you may be better off sticking to the 300 Win Mag or switching to the 375 H&H.

  • Best Big Bore cartridges: 375 H&H Magnum, 45-70 Government
Compared to the medium bores, the big bores shows a surprising amount of life, probably due to the relative popularity of Alaskan hunts and African safaris. The 45-70 can take North American game of any size within 150 to 200 yards when shot from a modern lever rifle. While the 45-70 remains the leader among all big bores, it remains barely ahead of the 375 H&H (often considered a medium bore) in new chamberings, while enjoying a solid 3-1 lead in the market as a whole. This shows a very significant progress for the 375 H&H, which is clearly the most versatile of the two, enjoying a 100 yard range advantage on the 45-70. The 375 H&H can take any game anywhere, including Africa. Other big bore cartridges, while weak compared to the two leaders, largely maintain their popularity and do not show the total collapse seen in the medium bore market.

Recommendations by purpose

  • Most cost effective training and plinking: 22LR 
  • Most cost effective centerfire training and plinking: 223 Remington
  • Best long range varmint hunting: 204 Ruger, 22-250
The 223 is an excellent, accurate varmint cartridge, but both the 204 Ruger ($19 per box) and the 22-250 ($22 per box), the best wildcat of all times, have a significant edge in trajectory. Both cartridges are very available, and new chamberings and growing fast, an amazing record for the 204 Ruger given how recently it was introduced (2004). The 204 Ruger and the 22-250 shoot equally flat ( a touch flatter/ longer for the 204 Ruger, but not for reloaders). The 204 Ruger does not heat up as much during a long shooting session, while the 22-250 carries a bigger bullet and retains more energy within 500 yards. The 204 Ruger is best on small varmints while the 22-250 excels with larger ones.

  • Best low recoil deer hunting: 243, 25-06, 7mm-08
The 243 has significantly less recoil than other deer sized cartridges, about 11 ft.lbs vs. 13.5 for the 25-06 and the 7mm-08, and 17 for the 270 Winchester. It is also the most cost effective choice, at $26 per box, vs. $29 for the 25-06 and $32 for the 7mm-08. The 7mm-08 ranges highest in potential game size, able to take elk, moose or caribou if the circumstances are favorable (range, position, bullet placement), followed by the 25-06, the 243 being last in that regard.

  • Best all around US hunting: 270, 308, 30-06, 7mm Remington Magnum
The Top Four have been at the top of the world for close to a half century now, and nothing has dethroned them,. The 270 and the 7mm Rem Magnum have the advantage on trajectory and range, while the 30-06 and the 7mm Rem Mag have the advantage in energy and killing power. While none of these cartridges have soft recoil, the 308 has the least recoil, followed by the 270. The 7mm Rem Mag costs 50% more to shoot than the other three.

  • Best large US game hunting: 300 Winchester Magnum
The 300 Win Mag is definitely above the pain threshold, but provides substantively more power than the all around cartridges, while being much less painful than the medium and big bores.

  • Best all around low recoil rifle cartridge: 7mm-08
The Top Four are outstanding cartridges, but they all have substantial recoil. The next most versatile cartridge after the Top Four is the 7mm-08, an outstanding cartridge with power and range along with softer recoil, approximately 20% less than the 308 Winchester. Shooters should use the 7mm-08 with CXP3 game only if the right conditions exist with respect to range and bullet placement.

  • Best long range all around cartridge: 7mm Remington Magnum
The trajectory of the 270 with the punch of the 30-06:-)

  • Best dangerous US game hunting: 45-70 Government
There is nothing in North America that the 45-70 in a new rifle chambering (old ones cannot handle as much pressure) cannot take down at 100 yards.

  • Best dangerous African game hunting: 375 H&H Magnum
The 375 H&H Magnum can take any game anywhere in the world.

Next we review cartridge selection FAQs... So come back soon!

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