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Unsung Heroes: Ten Rifle Cartridges You Shouldn’t Pass Up

LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.

The best underrated rifle cartridges.

The best underrated rifle cartridges.

Rifle Cartridges

These days, ammunition is often scarce and expensive. Many gun owners limit their armouries to weapons chambered for popular cartridges such as .308 Winchester, .30-06, and .300 Winchester Magnum. All good rounds, but this Darwinian process has pushed many others to the periphery where they languish as orphans, unloved except by those who know them. What’s a person to do if they find an older but still serviceable rifle at a fair price chambered for such an orphan?

All too often, high-quality used guns languish on store racks just because they are chambered in less common, difficult-to-find calibers. With a little perseverance, and perhaps basic hand loading skills, these obscure or obsolete calibers can reward firearms enthusiasts with excellent performance and a certain cache’ one doesn’t get from the latest stripped-down, budget-priced rifle in the same “me too” calibers.

Here are ten great cartridges which the author thinks every shooter shouldn’t pass up.

1. .257 Roberts

Once the premier .25 caliber rifle cartridge, the .257 Roberts still excels. Introduced by Remington as a production cartridge in 1934, based on wildcatter Ned Roberts’ design, the .257 Roberts is based on a necked down, 7x57mm Mauser’s case. Noted for mild recoil, the .257 Roberts hits game animals with authority and shoots flat.

A typical load fires a 100 grain bullet at just over 3000 feet per second. With proper placement at reasonable ranges, the .257 Roberts is a match for any North American game except moose and bear.

Many gun makers have offered rifles in .257 Roberts over the years so the most important factor is the overall condition for any used example.

.257 Roberts

.257 Roberts

2. .280 Remington

The .280 Remington has lived in the legendary .270 Winchester’s shadow since its inception in 1957, and many American shooters have overlooked this well-balanced cartridge. The .280 uses a necked down .30-06 case.

This cartridge falls between the .270 and .30-06 in performance. Its ability to use the heaviest 7mm (.284 inch) bullets gives it a significant advantage over the .270. Although it does not generate the .30-06’s energy, the .280’s higher sectional density bullets penetrate deeper and easier than .30 caliber projectiles, which proves just as lethal against game animals. The .280 has less recoil than its big brother, the 7mm Remington Magnum, but hits almost as hard, and is very accurate.

Nominal performance: 150 grain bullet at 2900 fps. The .280 is suitable for all non-dangerous game around the world.

Most .280s are found in older Remington Model 700s, although other manufacturers have offered it on occasion. Always have any used Model 700’s trigger and safety checked by a qualified gun smith prior to firing the weapon.

.280 Remington

.280 Remington

3. .30-40 Krag

The U.S. Army’s service round from 1892 to 1903, the .30-40 Krag, is often overlooked and underestimated. Hunters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries liked the Krag’s accuracy, reasonable recoil, and terminal performance.

The traditional .30-40 load is a 200 grain bullet at 2000 fps. This is the load which made its reputation as a deer and elk cartridge, although it will handle lighter bullets with equal effectiveness.

The .30-40’s original home is in the smooth, well-made Krag-Jorgensen rifle. Numerous other gun makers have offered rifles chambered for it over the years.

.30-40 Krag

.30-40 Krag

4. .300 Savage

The .300 Savage is a true classic. Introduced in 1920 by Savage for the Model 99 lever-action rifle, the .300 approached the .30-06’s performance but with a more compact, efficient case design.

The .300 Savage has been used to hunt every North American game animal, and it is still considered a good elk cartridge if used at reasonable ranges. It also served as the start point for the .308 Winchester. Nominal performance is a 150 grain bullet at 2600 fps or a 180 grain at 2350 fps.

The Savage Model 99 is the best gun ever chambered for the .300 Savage, although other companies have offered bolt-action rifles for it.

.308 Winchester (L), .300 Savage (R)

.308 Winchester (L), .300 Savage (R)

5. .303 British

The cartridge of Empire. The .303 served Britain’s armed forces for almost a century. It has taken every game animal on every continent. Ballistics are similar to the .308 Winchester, and when paired with its traditional 174 grain bullet fired at 2450 fps, it is suitable for most thin-skinned animals.

While surplus SMLE Enfield rifles are still around at good prices, keep an eye open for a sporterized Enfield in good nick.

(L-R): .303 British, 6.5x50 Arisaka, .30-06

(L-R): .303 British, 6.5x50 Arisaka, .30-06

6. .300 H&H Magnum

British gun maker, Holland & Holland, already had a hit on their hands with the .375 H&H, and in 1925 wanted to offer a cartridge for longer range shots at the game in the African plains. They took the .375’s case, necked it down to .308 caliber, and produced the long range cartridge all others are judged by, the .300 H&H. Since then, the .300 has made an enviable reputation and wasn’t displaced from its throne until the 1960s. Gifted with the lightest recoil among the belted magnums, the .300 is still an outstanding performer. A typical load is a 180 grain bullet fired at 2850 fps.

The best bet for .300 H&H guns is the pre-64 Winchester Model 70 (watch the price, they are collectible these days) and used custom guns.

7. 7.92x57mm Mauser

Also known as the 8x57mm, or 8mm Mauser, the 7.92x57 served not only the German military but many other countries in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In its original form, it used .318 caliber bullets, but just prior to World War One, the Imperial German Army changed to .323 caliber and added the suffix “IS” to the cartridge’s nomenclature to differentiate it from the smaller version.

As time passed, the “IS” became mistranscribed as “JS.” Modern shooters should always ensure they use only “JS” spec ammo in guns with .323 bores. As a general rule, any surplus Mauser rifle made during or after WW1 uses “JS” ammunition.

This bore diameter difference is what lead to the 7.92x57’s poor reputation with American shooters. To shield themselves from potential liability claims, American ammunition makers reduced the cartridge’s pressure just in case an unknowledgeable shooter tried to use modern “JS” ammunition in an older Mauser with a .318 bore.

European ammo makers have more confidence in their customers, and many still load the 7.92x57 to its original specs: a 196 grain bullet at 2550 – 2600 fps. This load is superior to the .30-06 out to 250 yards and is suitable for all thin-skinned game.

Since the Mauser bolt-action rifle is the most produced firearm in history, good quality used guns abound, particularly surplus weapons from Turkey and the former Soviet bloc.

Two 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridges: the JRS (top) for bolt-action rifles and IRS (rimmed) for break-action double rifles.

Two 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridges: the JRS (top) for bolt-action rifles and IRS (rimmed) for break-action double rifles.

8. 8mm Remington Magnum

The 8mm Rem Mag is based on the .375 H&H’s case, necked down for .323 caliber bullets. It, like so many other metric calibers, never caught on in America, but it is a true giant slayer. This full-sized bruiser launches 200 grain bullets at 2900 feet per second (300+ fps faster than the 8mm Mauser). It just makes a bigger hole in things than the .30 caliber magnums, and loaded with sleek bullets, it has a similar trajectory.

Remington offered their model 700 in the caliber (make sure a qualified gun smith double-checks the trigger and safety). Also, numerous custom rifles were, and still are, made in this great caliber.

(L-R): .308 Winchester, 8mm Rem Mag, .375 H&H Mag

(L-R): .308 Winchester, 8mm Rem Mag, .375 H&H Mag

9. .358 Winchester

The unsung “thirty-five.” The .358 Winchester is the least powerful .358 when compared to the .35 Whelen and .358 Norma, but that’s not the whole story.

Based on a necked up .308 Winchester case, the .358 Winchester is still powerful enough for interior Alaskan bears and is perhaps the best brush and thick timber cartridge ever developed. Hunters in the northern Rockies, Canada, and Alaska still rely on this workhorse for dispatching elk and moose up close. The fact it recoils less than its bigger brothers just makes it all the more attractive. Typical performance: a 200 grain bullet at 2475 fps.

Used .358 Winchesters are plentiful. Look for Savage 99's: the ultimate brush gun and cartridge combination.

(L-R): .308 Winchester, .338 Federal, .358 Winchester

(L-R): .308 Winchester, .338 Federal, .358 Winchester

10. .358 Norma Magnum

Swedish arms maker, Norma, jumped onto the magnum bandwagon during the late 1950s. Their chief designer had hunted in North America and thought he knew what American hunters needed for elk, moose, and the big bears. The .358 Norma Magnum is his brainchild. Unfortunately, American shooters didn’t agree. They didn’t understand what they were missing.

The .358 Norma will shoot almost as flat as a .338 Win Mag but it hits more like a .375 H&H, and is excellent for bears. One particular load from Norma fires a 250 grain bullet at 2756 fps.

A rifle in this great caliber is a somewhat rare find, but gun connoisseurs should snap up any reasonable specimen.

The .358 Norma Magnum

The .358 Norma Magnum

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.

© 2017 LJ Bonham


3oh3 on June 22, 2018:

Yep! I shoot five of the ten you've listed. I like'm just fine too.

The game I'm after-not so much :)

Cubefarmer on January 22, 2018:

25-06 - flat shooting