Best 7mm Hunting Cartridges: A Virtual Shootout
Showdown at the Big Seven Corral
7mm cartridges are popular around the world, and have been since the 7x57 Mauser appeared in 1893. Hunters love the flat trajectories, accuracy, and deep penetration into large game animals 7mm bullets provide. The “Sevens’ are divided in power between non-magnums and magnums. In the last few decades, new 7mm cartridges have been introduced to challenge the established favorites.
The author analyzed the 7x57 Mauser, 7mm-08 Remington, .280 Remington, 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Weatherby Magnum, and 28 Nosler for trajectory, effective range, and recoil with modern ballistic software available free online from shooterscalculator.com. Calculations were corrected to standard temperature (59F/15C) and pressure (29.92 inHg/1013 mbar) at sea level. The 7mm short magnums and 7mm Remington Ultra-Mag were not included because they duplicate at least one, or more, tested cartridge’s performance.
Trajectory in this test is defined as Maximum Point Blank Range (MPBR): the distance over which a bullet rises three inches above sight line and then drops three inches below to hit within a six-inch kill box. Imagine a bullet arcing through a six-inch diameter pipe for a certain distance and you have the idea.
Effective range in this test is the minimum impact energy recommended for a humane kill on medium game (1200 ft-lbs.) and large game (1500 ft-lbs), and the minimum velocity most hunting bullets require for reliable expansion (1800 fps). If the minimum energy range exceeds the minimum expansion range, the minimum expansion range becomes the maximum effective range since unexpanded bullets are much less effective regardless how much energy they possess.
Recoil calculations for the standard cartridges were based on a modern 8.0 pound synthetic-stocked rifle with scope. A more traditional wooden-stocked 9.0 pound rifle served as the platform for the magnums. As a general rule, more than 15 ft-lbsf is considered enough recoil to affect most shooters’ accuracy. The less recoil, the more accurate the shooter, and hence, the more effective the cartridge.
All calculations were based on either the most suitable Nosler AccuBond™ bullet or the 175 grain Nosler Partition™. The AccuBond is a good all-round hunting bullet with high ballistic coefficients (BCs) and terminal performance similar to the time tested Nosler Partition. Both BC and sectional density (SD) are noted for each bullet tested. BC quantifies a bullet’s aerodynamic efficiency, and SD predicts relative ability to penetrate into a game animal; the larger each number, the better. Most experts agree BCs around .450, or larger, make bullets fly flatter and drift less in cross-winds. SDs greater than .230 are preferred for big game bullets.
In the 7mm’s case, the 175 grain Partition is unique among Nosler’s bullets. It has a BC close to the heaviest 7mm AccuBond (160 grains) and a much higher SD. This gives this controlled expansion bullet a distinct terminal performance advantage for big game hunting over the lighter AccuBond. All the cartridges which could accept the 175 gr. Partition without compromising powder capacity were tested with this bullet to give them the best possible chance, unless there were no factory 175 grain loads available.
Specialized long range bullets were not used for this test as they are unnecessary for most hunting situations. Muzzle velocities are the nominal industry standard for the tested bullet weight in each caliber for factory loaded ammunition. Hand loaders can achieve much better performance in many instances.
Points were awarded as follows:
- One point for every 10 yards MPBR beyond 200 yards and one point deducted for every 10 yards less than 200.
- One point for every 25 yards beyond 200 yards for maximum effective range on medium and large game, respectively, and one point deducted for every 25 yards less than 200 yards.
- One point for every 25 yards beyond 200 yards for minimum expansion velocity, one point deducted for every 25 yards less.
- One point for each foot-pound recoil less than 15, and one point deducted for every ft-lbsf greater than 15.
Here’s how each cartridge ranked. Detailed performance figures are summarized in the table at the article’s end.
First Place: 7mm Weatherby Magnum, 60.0 Points
175 gr. Partition (.519 BC/.310 SD) at 3070 fps. Weatherby has always made powerful hunting cartridges, and the 7mm Weatherby is no exception. Although the 28 Nosler exceeds the Weatherby’s once class leading velocity, the Weatherby scored higher overall because it generates a bit less recoil than Nosler’s newcomer.
Second Place: 28 Nosler, 59.0 Points
175 gr. Partition (.519 BC/.310 SD) at 3125 fps. Nosler developed this cartridge to equal or exceed both the 7mm Weatherby and 7mm Remington Ultra-Mag plus fit into a .30-06-length action. It shoots farther, hits harder, and recoils with more violence than the Weatherby.
Third Place: 7mm Remington Magnum, 51.3 Points
175 gr. Partition (.519 BC/.310 SD) at 2860 fps. Although it came in third, the 7mm Rem. Mag. is still a formidable hunting cartridge. It had the lowest recoil for any magnum in this test.
Fourth Place: .280 Remington, 46.3 Points
160 gr. AccuBond (.531 BC/.283 SD) at 2775 fps. The best non-magnum here, the .280 Remington demonstrated its greatest feature: balance. It performs almost as well as the 7mm Rem. Mag. but with much less recoil and powder. There were no factory 175 grain loads on the market at publication time, otherwise the .280 might have scored higher.
Fifth Place: 7mm-08 Remington, 41.3 Points
140 gr. AccuBond (.485 BC/.248 SD) at 2800 fps. 140 grain bullets are the heaviest offered in factory loaded ammunition for Remington’s powerful and compact 7mm-08. It might have done better in this test with a 160 grain AccuBond.
Sixth Place: 7x57mm Mauser, 25.7 Points
175 gr. Partition (.519 BC/.310 SD) at 2440 fps. Although it is almost a century and a half old, the proven 7x57 is still an effective cartridge, if used at normal hunting ranges.
Cartridge Details, The Magnums:
Weatherby sells speed and power. Those who use Weatherby cartridges like them—no, they revere them. It’s no surprise then, the 7mm Weatherby held the title “World’s Fastest 7mm” until the 28 Nosler appeared. Few, if any, cartridges shoot as flat and hit as hard at distance than the 7mm Weatherby. It does have a dark side, though. The 7mm Weatherby has the same recoil as a .300 Winchester Magnum, and many shooters can’t come to grips with it. If you can manage a solid thump on the shoulder every time you fire it, this premier 7mm will reward you with fantastic accuracy and let you hit large game at extreme ranges. The other issue is ammunition availability. With some exceptions, Weatherby is the only source for ammo. It is expensive and often not stocked by small shops in far-flung places.
The 28 Nosler hit the shooting scene in 2016. It’s too new at this point to judge if it will take hold in the market or fade like so many others. While it fits into standard, .30-06-length actions, so does the 7mm Weatherby. It’s only real advantage is it generates 50 – 60 more fps velocity for any given bullet weight than the Weatherby. In return, you get smacked with the same recoil as a .375 H&H Magnum. In short, you must really believe you need those few extra feet per second to justify the pounding you will take when you fire it. The 28 Nosler is so new, the ammunition companies have not yet caught up with it. Like the Weatherby, you may struggle to find ammo in remote areas. Important if you lose your luggage on a hunting trip to Africa or Alaska.
There’s been much written about the 7mm Rem. Mag. since its introduction in 1962, and with good reason. Its recoil is on the low end for a magnum. It fits into standard-length action sporter rifles. It’s a reliable hammer for large game out to 500 yards and beyond. No wonder it is the best-selling hunting cartridge in the world and ammunition is available everywhere. If you could own just one rifle, a 7mm Rem. Mag. would serve you well no matter where you hunted.
The 7mm Rem. Mag. is a premier big game cartridge.
Cartridge Details, The Non-Magnums
Among the non-magnums in this test, the .280 Remington scored the highest for the simple fact it does the most work in its class but still generates less recoil than a .30-06. While it is not as popular as its nearest competitor, the .270 Winchester, it still has a loyal (some say cult-like) following. There are few, if any, other hunting cartridges which are as well balanced as the .280 Remington. Its greatest drawback is limited ammunition selection and availability.
The 7mm-08 is based on the venerable .308 Winchester’s case. It is efficient, has moderate recoil, and uses less powder than the .30-06 based .280. It makes a great choice for a short-action, super light-weight mountain rifle since it can reach across valleys and knock down a bighorn sheep or ibex. It does have one drawback common to all short-action cartridges. It can’t provide the best velocities with the heaviest bullets in its caliber, and heavy for caliber bullets are what make 7mm’s so effective.
Don’t feel bad for the 7x57 Mauser just because it came last in this test. This is the cartridge which started the trend toward small-bore, high-velocity rounds. Twelve decades later it is still an outstanding choice for the knowledgeable hunter who appreciates efficiency and low recoil. 7mm bullets don’t need hyper-sonic velocity to work well. Any well-made, 160 or 175 grain bullet will drive deep into even large animals when shot from a 7x57 at normal hunting ranges. If you hunt in Europe or Africa, 7x57 ammo is easy to find; in the U.S. it is rarer these days. There’s a reason 7x57 Mauser shooters go around with smiles on their faces—they know something other hunters don’t.
A few more good words about the .280 Remington
The 7x57: you don't need big velocities, heavy 7mm bullets penetrate deep.
The 7mm's are great hunting cartridges because their bullets are so efficient. In this test, it’s obvious the magnums have the edge in raw power and reach, but it comes at a cost. Higher velocities require more powder, and large powder charges generate more recoil. Heavy recoil degrades most shooters’ accuracy.
A test which pits magnums against standard cartridges might seem lopsided, but the standards hold their own under normal hunting conditions, use less powder, and generate less recoil than the magnums. The 7mm magnums on the other hand, project the same or greater power beyond 400 yards, distances which more and more hunters are now shooting.
Most big game is shot at 200 yards, or less, in most areas. In the Western U.S. and on Africa’s plains, average range might, on occasion, extend to 400 yards. All the non-magnums in this test will take medium game such as deer and pronghorn at, and even well beyond, these distances. The .280 Remington, for instance, is suitable for large animals such as elk to 450 yards. Most hunters will never need more power than what these accurate, affordable, efficient cartridges provide.
The magnums come into their own past the 500 yard mark. These are specialized cartridges for specific missions. Hunters who indeed need them accept the higher recoil forces involved. While this test assumed a nine pound sporter-type rifle, both the Weatherby and Nosler cartridges will perform best in specialized long-range rifles which weigh twelve pounds, or more. Such rifles are not what you’d want to take along on a mountain goat hunt above 10,000 feet or drag around for days on end in Africa’s savannah heat. It’s hard for most shooters to extract these powerful rounds’ full potential in normal hunting rifles.
Today’s hunters have many good 7mm cartridges to choose from, but if I had to have one, I’d pick either the .280 Remington or the 7x57 Mauser. Nothing against the magnums here, but if I must put up with their recoil levels, I’ll go with a .30, .338, or .375 caliber for the wider wound channels they create (uh-oh, here come the 7mm fan boys). Also, I question whether shooting at animals 1000 yards away is a wise thing.
Forced to pick a magnum from this test, I’d stick with the ever popular 7mm Rem. Mag. It has the least recoil, reaches far beyond any range I’d care to shoot, and ammunition is available in any gun shop around the globe.
The much more popular .270 Winchester performs similar to the .280. However, I hunt big critters, and for such a job, I like the heaviest, high-sectional density bullets I can get. The .280 slings 160 or 175 grain slugs with authority, whereas the .270 stops at 150 grains.
As for the 7x57, I just like time-proven cartridges. It is accurate and well-mannered. This oldie has dropped every game animal on the planet at one time or another. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
© 2017 LJ Bonham