OK, let’s get this straight: You won’t see me making a guest appearance on Best of the West. While I’m fascinated by long-range shooting, I have little patience with shooting at game animals at extreme ranges. There is some distance at which the variables become too great and the risk of wounding an animal is too high. Exactly where this lies is impossible to determine because it’s a moving target, depending on conditions, equipment and skill. However, before you get to “extreme range,” there is often a place for shooting at “long and longer” ranges.
I still think of 300 yards as a fair poke, with its feasibility depending on the conditions and the steadiness of the shooting position. However, when I was kid we considered 400 yards to be a very long shot. With the great rifles, ammunition and optics we have today—and laser rangefinders—shooting from 300 yards to somewhere beyond a quarter-mile is practical when conditions allow. For this kind of shooting, some cartridges are better than others.
For big game you want plenty of accuracy, but with a good barrel and ammo, most modern cartridges are capable. You want a trajectory that’s flat enough to remove at least some of the guesswork, but here’s something else: You want a cartridge with enough velocity and bullet weight so you have plenty of energy remaining when the bullet arrives. Most of us would probably agree that, depending on size of the game, the magnum 7mms and .30-calibers make excellent choices in this arena. But there are some other choices worth considering!
1) .264 Winchester Magnum
Because of their traditionally long, heavy-for-caliber bullets, the 6.5mm carries extremely well. Accurate, mild-recoiling 6.5s like the 6.5/.284 and 6.5mm Creedmoor work wonders in 1,000-yard competition, but for my tastes they just don’t carry enough energy for big game at longer ranges. The much faster .264 Winchester Magnum does. Introduced in 1958, it caught on quickly—and then was nearly blown off the market by the more powerful and versatile 7mm Remington Magnum. It is unlikely that it will ever again be popular, but it offers surprisingly light recoil and good velocity with the inherent staying power of the aerodynamic 6.5mm bullet. It is overbore capacity and needs a 26-inch barrel to strut its stuff. It is also admittedly not as inherently accurate as milder 6.5s like the Creedmoor and 6.5/.284, but with good loads it can shoot very well. Standard factory loads are very limited today, but with handloads or specialty loads, it is an unsung hero for small to medium big game in open country.
2) .270 Winchester
Introduced in 1925, the .270 Winchester was eclipsed by the .270 Weatherby Magnum in the 1940s, and again by the .270 Winchester Short Magnum a decade ago. All three are excellent choices for longer range shooting, but don’t sell the original short just because it isn’t the fastest .270! This old timer remains a phenomenon, flat-shooting and effective. It is an ideal choice for deer-sized game in open country, and a fine choice for mountain game. I prefer larger calibers for elk, but the .270 is perfectly adequate for elk, and I have personally used it for elk all the way to 400 yards with no problems. It also offers the tremendous advantage of light recoil, which always makes precise shot placement a whole lot easier. In other words, when it came to the .270, Jack O’Connor was right all along!
3) .280 Remington
Milder, light-recoiling 7mms like the 7×57 and 7mm-08 are awesome at medium ranges, and the magnum 7mms are wonderful at longer ranges, but the .280 Remington mustn’t be sold short. Dating clear back the ’50s, it has never been exceptionally popular, a “slow but steady” seller, but its relatively small following is so loyal as to almost approach cult status. Realistically, it will do at least 95 percent of what the 7mm Remington Magnum can do, and it can do it in a shorter barrel while burning less powder and generating less recoil. It also tends to be a very accurate cartridge. I have never been a huge .280 fan, but it’s a cartridge I respect tremendously. The last time I used it was a foggy morning in the Oklahoma sand hills. A buck appeared on a distant hill, and of course a laser rangefinder is useless in fog. I figured something like 350 yards, gave it a backline hold, and the buck tumbled down the hill.
4) .30-06 Springfield
Long live the King! With all the magnum .30s out there today, it’s easy to underrate one of the world’s most useful hunting cartridges, the .30 Caliber, U.S. Government, Model of 1906. It is not as fast—and thus not as good a long-range choice—as the faster .30s. It is not as inherently accurate at the .308 Winchester. But don’t underrate it. The 100 to 150 feet per second edge it carries over the .308 makes a difference in energy and trajectory as range increases, and it’s a lot easier to shoot than the magnum .30s. At longer distances, you need to understand its trajectory; depending on the load, sighted dead-on at 200 yards you’re going to drop 8 or 9 inches at 300 yards, and perhaps 20 inches at 400. But you will still have enough to do the job when the bullet arrives. Just last week I used a 180-grain bullet from a .30-06 to take a nice Montana elk at 325 yards. I figured 11 inches of drop, held just below the backline, and the bullet arrived exactly where it was supposed to.
5) .300 H&H Magnum
Ben Comfort used the .300 H&H to win the 1,000-yard Wimbledon Match in 1935. Although an increasingly rare bird today, the .300 H&H was the standard “fast .30” for the next 30 years, and there are still a lot of great old .300 H&H rifles out there. Today’s factory loads are very mild, pretty much the same as the fastest .30-06 loads, but with good handloads the .300 H&H remains an oft-forgotten champion. Loaded properly, it should be at least as fast as the .300 Winchester Magnum. It is definitely not as fast as cartridges like the .300 Weatherby Magnum and .300 Remington Ultra Mag, but it also doesn’t kick as hard. Its 2.8-inch case does require a full-length (.375 H&H-length) action. This, plus the scarcity of factory loads, are its drawbacks. On the plus side, it is an extremely accurate cartridge, and its long, tapered case allows wonderfully smooth feeding.
6) 8mm Remington Magnum
Introduced in 1978, here’s another unpopular and underrated cartridge. Since it is not a big seller, factory loads are pretty ho-hum, but with good handloads it really comes alive. My own 8mm Remington Magnum, with a good Pac-Nor barrel, is the most accurate rifle I have ever owned. It’s also a long barrel, 28 inches, and with a 220-grain Sierra, it carries 2,000 foot-pounds all the way to 600 yards. I have never used it at such distance, but at normal ranges I am convinced that the larger diameter (.323-inch) bullet hits harder than any .30-caliber. It’s beyond my capability to make it popular, but if you’re looking for a cartridge for elk and moose at longer ranges, look no further.
7) .338 Winchester Magnum
A companion introduction to the .264 back in 1958, the .338 gained ground slowly, but has emerged as one of our very best elk cartridges, with full capability for the largest bears. With its deep-penetrating 250-grain bullet, it’s fairly slow and, in my experience, starts to get difficult to use at 250 yards and beyond. However, with the exception of big bears, the bullets we have available today are so much better that, in any caliber, the heaviest bullets aren’t as necessary as they once were. With a 200-grain bullet pushed a lot faster, up to 2,900 fps, the .338 is perfectly capable of shooting well past 300 yards, and as with the 8mm, its increased frontal area makes a dramatic difference in effect.
8) .375 H&H Magnum
I’m kidding, right? No, I’m not. The hundred-year-old .375 H&H is one of the most versatile cartridges the world has ever seen. With a 270-grain bullet, it has a trajectory very similar to the 180-grain .30-06, and thus is fully capable of reaching out when needed. There are lighter .375 bullets that can be pushed much faster, though this is the province of handloaders and smaller manufacturers. Shooters new to the .375 are often surprised at how accurate it is, but this makes sense when you think about it. A few 10 thousandths of an inch of fouling makes a bigger difference to a .223-inch bore than to a much larger caliber, likewise small variances in bullets. So the big bores tend to shoot well, and the .375 is fast enough for considerable distance. The biggest stumbling block is that we often put low-power “dangerous game” scopes on our .375s. Mine wear 1.5-6X at a minimum, and often 2-7X or even 3-9X, which allows use of the cartridge to its full potential.