LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
When the U.S. Military replaced the venerable .30-06 Springfield with the .308 Winchester, aka 7.62mm NATO, in 1952, no one thought it would become the most popular hunting cartridge in America. Like its storied predecessor, many other cartridges were developed from the .308’s case, a case which fit just right into short-action Mauser type bolt-action rifles.
The Short-Action Advantage
Short-action bolt guns are, as the name implies, shorter than either a standard or magnum length action, which allows rifle designers to reduce both a weapon’s length and weight. Short-action rifles are handier and easier to pack into remote locations, and they make a great platform for ultra-light-weight mountain rifles.
The .308, and its descendants, give these shorter, lighter rifles enough power for most big game species without the harsh recoil the newer short magnums dish out, but which is best?
A Modern Testing Approach
In days gone by, the answer required time-consuming tests with numerous rifles and much ammunition. Today, modern ballistic software, such as shooterscalculator.com’s free web-based product, provides reliable results without the hassle.
For this test, the author analyzed the .243 Winchester, .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington, .308 Winchester, and .338 Federal for effective range, trajectory, and recoil. Calculations were corrected to standard temperature (59F) and pressure (29.92 inHg) at sea level.
Effective Range Analysis
Effective range is the minimum impact energy recommended for a humane kill on medium game (1200 ft-lbs.) and large game (1500 ft-lbs), and the 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 have.
Trajectory for 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.
Recoil values were based on an eight pound rifle weight, which is average for a scoped and loaded mountain style rifle. As a general rule, more than 15 ft-lbsf is considered sufficient recoil to affect most shooters’ accuracy.
A Level Playing Field
To level the field, all calculations were based on the heaviest Nosler AccuBond™ bullet available in each caliber, unless otherwise noted. 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.
Specialized long range bullets were not used as they are unnecessary for most hunting situations, and the muzzle velocities are the nominal industry standard for the tested bullet weight in each caliber.
Muzzle velocities are the nominal industry standard for each bullet weight tested. Hand loaders can often obtain much higher velocities.
Points were awarded as follows:
- 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 every ten yards MPBR beyond 200 yards.
- One point for each ft-lbsf recoil less than 15, and one point deducted for every ft-lbsf greater than 15.
Here’s how they scored. Detailed performance figures are summarized in the table at the article’s end.
1st Place: 7mm-08 Remington, 37.7 Points
7mm bullets penetrate almost as well as 6.5mm bullets but make wider wound channels. The 7mm-08 provides 7x57mm Mauser performance but in a short-action cartridge. However, its short case length means it performs best with 140 grain bullets, unlike the older 7x57 which comes into its own with 160 grain or heavier. Even with this relative handicap, the well balanced 7mm-08 still won our test with a 140 grain AccuBond™ (.485 BC/.248 SD) at 2850 fps.
The 7mm-08 shows its stuff.
2nd Place: .260 Remington, 35.5 Points
Introduced in 1997, the .260 Remington duplicates the time-tested 6.5x55mm Swedish in a short action cartridge. Like the 7mm-08, it is commonly loaded with 140 grain bullets, so the old Swede still has an advantage against large game inside 150 yards with its typical 156 or 160 grain projectiles. This, and the fact the .260 doesn’t generate mega-velocities like the 6.5mm magnums, has led to a decline in its popularity in the U. S.
This test used the 140 grain AccuBond™ (.509 BC/.287 SD) at 2700 fps.
3rd Place: .308 Winchester, 34 Points
Developed from the .300 Savage for use in the M-14 service rifle, the .308 has gone on to become the most popular hunting cartridge in the USA. Elsewhere, it is outsold by just the 7mm Remington Magnum and the .30-06. The .308 is versatile, performs close to the .30-06, and is available even in remote places such as Alaska and Africa.
For this test, in which it ran a close third behind the .260, the author selected the 180 grain AccuBond™ (.507 BC/.271 SD) at 2600 fps.
4th Place: .243 Winchester, 26.7 Points
Popular around the world, the .243 is a .308 necked down to .243 (6mm) caliber. Introduced by Winchester in 1955 as a dual purpose varmint and medium game round, the .243’s performance depends on bullet weight: 90 grains, or more, are required for big game hunting. While best suited to deer, antelope, and smaller African plains game, the .243 can take larger animals with precise shots at limited ranges. It’s light recoil makes it perfect for novice shooters.
This test used the 100 gr Nosler Partition (.384 BC/.242 SD) at 2960 fps.
5th Place: .338 Federal, 23.9 Points
A relative new comer, the .338 Federal appeared on the scene in 2006 to give short-action bolt guns and AR platform rifles thin-skinned dangerous game capability, but without the sharp recoil found in short-action magnums like the .325 WSM. In all fairness, the .338 Federal is at a slight disadvantage against its high velocity, flatter shooting brothers in this test, but as the chart shows, it’s still a capable cartridge at average hunting ranges.
This test used a 200 grain AccuBond™ (.414 BC/.250 SD) at 2630 fps.
Going for bear with a short-action rifle? Take a .338 Federal.
The 7mm-08 won this test by a wide margin, thanks to a flat trajectory, high velocity, and reasonable recoil. However, its reduced popularity relative to the .308 and .243 make it less attractive to hunters headed for remote places where ammunition selection is limited.
Despite its flat trajectory, the .243 just doesn’t hit large game hard enough at extended ranges, and many hunting experts advise against it for anything bigger than deer. However, its mild recoil will ensure its popularity for decades to come.
Both the .260 and .338 are outliers. While the .260 performs well, its inability to use the heaviest 6.5mm bullets is a handicap, and as it wanes on the market, ammunition availability will become a definite problem. However, if a hunter wants a cartridge which will compliment an ultra-light-weight mountain rifle with big horn sheep or ibex hunting in mind, there is perhaps no better cartridge than the .260 Remington.
The .338 Federal is a powerful cartridge, but it is overshadowed by the short-action magnums, and has yet to prove it is here to stay. Its heavy recoil hurt its score in this test. The fact it has the same large game range as the less powerful .308 surprised the author and belies the .338 Federal’s reputation as just a brush cartridge.
The .308 would have scored higher, at least enough for second place, but its medium game range exceeded its minimum expansion range by fifty yards which reduced the medium game range by a like amount. When ammunition availability and flexibility are taken into consideration, the .308 has a distinct advantage over the others, despite a somewhat mediocre trajectory and higher than optimal recoil. Any round which will take game from antelope up to moose, and is found on the shelf anywhere in the world, is the best all-round choice in most circumstances.
Family Feud: .308 Based Cartridge Test Results
|Cartridge||Med. Game (Yds)||Lg. Game (Yds)||Exp. (Yds)||MPBR||Recoil|
7mm -08 Rem.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do you think the .338 Federal would have done better if bullet SD was the same?
Answer: The .338 Federal does as well as it does because .338 caliber bullets have such exceptional SDs. The .338 Federal's only draw back is it cannot launch the heavier (250 grains on up) bullets with enough velocity for best performance.
© 2017 LJ Bonham