The Twenty-Somethings (.20, .22, and .24 Caliber Hunting Cartridge Fight)
Bantam Weight Brawlers
The smallest center-fire hunting cartridges don’t, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, get any respect. These are the .22, .24, and now .20 calibers. Most are designed for varmints, not big-game. Predator, invasive species, and pest control is a vital job—ask any rancher or farmer. Too many coyotes, for instance, means too few deer because song-dogs kill new-born fawns, and drive herds away. The southwestern United States is overrun by feral hogs. Ground hogs, marmots, and their kin tear up pastures with their burrow holes which injure livestock.
These cartridges are designed for varmint work, but many hunters insist they are also suitable for bigger game—deer and antelope in particular. A few devotees even try them on elk! Are they enough gun? There’s one way to find out.
I analyzed the .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, .243 Winchester, 6 Creedmoor, and .240 Weatherby Magnum 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.
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 sized game (1200 ft-lbs.) and large game (1500 ft-lbs.), plus 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 were based on a modern, 8.0 pound synthetic-stocked rifle with scope. 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.
I prefer the Nosler AccuBond™ bullet for these virtual tests to provide a level playing field. The AccuBond is a good all-round hunting bullet with high ballistic coefficients (BCs) and terminal performance similar to the time tested Nosler Partition. However, Nosler does not offer a .223 caliber AccuBond, so this test used the best bullet available in a factory load for each cartridge to give each the best possible chance.
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.
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 game and large game, respectively. 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: 6 Creedmoor, 32.7 Points
100 gr. Nosler Partition (.384 BC/.242 SD) at 3050 fps. No company yet offers a 6 Creedmoor load with the 100 grain Nosler Partition. I elected to model all the .24/6mm caliber cartridges in the test with this excellent bullet at the nominal factory velocity for this weight. Nosler does make a 90 grain, .243 caliber AccuBond, but it has a lower BC and SD than the heavier Partition.
6 Creedmoor: Future Hall of Fame Deer Round
Second Place: .240 Weatherby Magnum, 27.0 Points
100 gr. Partition (.384 BC/.242 SD) at 3400 fps. Like all Weatherby cartridges, the .240 generates big numbers. Big velocity, big energy, and big recoil. The recoil kept this over achiever from first place in the test.
Third Place: .243 Winchester, 26.7 Points
100 gr. Partition (.384 BC/.242 SD) at 2960 fps. The premier dual purpose cartridge for decades, the .243 will dispatch varmints or deer with equal grace—and mild recoil.
.243 Winchester: A Classic Deer Round
Fourth Place: .22-250 Remington, 22.8 Points
64 gr. Winchester Power Point (.251 BC/.182 SD) at 3500 fps. The highest scoring .223 caliber round here, the .22-250 gets the job done with tremendous velocity. The Power Point offers the best BC for any 64 grain hunting bullet in this caliber. It might have scored higher with the slippery 75 grain Swift Scirocco, but there are no factory 75 grain loads on the market at this time to use for a velocity benchmark.
.22-250 vs. Whitetail Deer
Fifth Place: .204 Ruger, 19.1 Points
40 gr. Nosler Ballistic Tip (.239 BC/.137 SD) at 3625 fps. Even at the muzzle, Ruger’s popular varmint cartridge does not generate enough energy for medium game, let alone large game. Its outstanding MPBR does make it a great choice for long-range predator control, however. It outscored the .223 due to lower recoil.
Sixth Place: .223 Remington, 16.2 Points
75 gr. Swift Scirocco (.419 BC/.214 SD) at 2790 fps. America’s current service rifle cartridge placed last in this test, even with the outstanding Scirocco bullet. While it provides just enough energy for use on deer inside 50 yards, it is not well suited to bigger game.
The .223, while marginal, works on deer if you get close and shoot well.
Cartridge Details: The .243's
The 6 Creedmoor has been proclaimed the new .24 caliber king by many. Like the .243 Winchester, it can use the heaviest 6mm bullets, but the Creedmoor drives those 100 fps faster, which makes it a viable 300 yard deer and antelope round with negligible recoil. Its 294 yard MPBR means hunters don’t have to compensate for bullet drop out to the round’s maximum medium game range, either. Just point and shoot. Despite the velocity increase, hunters must face the fact 6mm bullets are not the best choice for large, tough animals. They don’t do well in strong cross winds, either. 6 CM ammunition is still difficult to find in some places at the moment.
The .240 Weatherby will amaze even jaded hunters. Its extreme velocity punches far above its weight class. It’s the only cartridge here which, in a skilled shooter's hands, becomes an ethical choice for large animals such as elk or red stag. It has one severe limitation: ammunition is only available from Weatherby. If you fall in love with this diminutive hammer, plan to load your own.
Anyone who thinks the .243 Winchester will die will have to wait a long time. The rifles chambered for it number in the millions, and ammunition is plentiful and cheap. Many a novice hunter has taken their first deer with the mild, accurate .243. It’s also used by experienced hunters who appreciate this dual purpose cartridge’s virtues.
Cartridge Details: The .223's and .204
The .22-250 Remington is regarded as the best varmint round—ever. In this test, it proved the only .223 caliber cartridge well suited to big game hunting. Its high velocity gives it an ultra-flat trajectory which means it arrives on target so fast, cross winds have little time to knock it off course. Keep it inside its range envelope and place it with precision for best results. Note to hand loaders: this is the platform for the 75 grain Scirocco. Barrel wear is also an issue with this rocket.
Since its arrival, the .204 Ruger has given the time-proven .22-250 a serious challenge for best varmint round. It shoots flat and hammers critters which weight less than 80 pounds. It’s just not a proper big game cartridge despite the fact it nudged past the .223 in this test. It doesn’t generate enough energy, and has too low an SD, to make reliable, ethical kills on bigger animals. It is a specialist cartridge with a focused mission.
I had higher expectations for the .223 Remington. With over 5 million AR rifles in circulation, many hunters now use the .223 for deer and hog hunting. It is effective if used correctly. This cartridge didn’t generate the numbers is this test to qualify as a genuine big game round. However, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Loaded with a thin jacketed bullet, such as Nosler’s Ballistic Tip or the Scirocco, the .223 creates devastating wounds on medium game at close range. It will get the job done if a disciplined hunter takes only the best possible shots.
Are the Twenty Somethings viable big game cartridges? Yes—to a point. Hunters must understand these varmint rounds have significant limitations when it comes to deer-sized or larger animals. .204, .223, and .243 caliber bullets have low BCs and SDs. They drift in cross winds and do not penetrate bone or heavy muscle well. Paired with the right bullet for the job, and used with precision by skilled shooters, most in this test can take medium game—just. The .240 Weatherby is in a class all its own and can suffice for some critters bigger than deer.
I prefer bigger cartridges for medium and large game than the ones assembled here. I don’t like cartridges with “just enough” power. When I choose a big game round, I look at the minimum energy needed at the range I intend to shoot and then add 20% for the unforeseen factors which always crop up on actual hunts.
If I had to choose one, I’d take the .243 Winchester. It’s a proven deer round. Ammo is cheap and available around the globe. Then I’d practice, practice, practice until I could knock a fly off a whitetail’s ear at 100 yards. I’d leave it at home if I had an elk tag in my pocket.
© 2018 LJ Bonham