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If you’re a long-range hunter or want to break into the sport, it’s worth taking a look at some of the most widely used calibers for the purpose. Not every cartridge is suitable for long-range shooting, however.
Long-Range Caliber Selection
When you’re choosing among the available long-range hunting calibers, you’ll have to consider several factors. These include the following:
Can you find factory-loaded ammunition, brass for reloading, and rifles chambered in this cartridge?
Some cartridges cause more barrel wear than others due to the effects of velocity, pressure. As a rule, magnum cartridges tend to cause more erosion than standard rifle calibers. Barrel wear will determine whether you’ll be able to achieve consistent results for 1,500 rounds or more than 8,000. Multiple factors affect the barrel life, including chamber pressure and average muzzle velocity.
The recoil the cartridge generates depends on the type of action, the weight of your rifle, the weight of the bullet, and the powder charge. There are various ways to reduce recoil, rendering the weapon more comfortable to fire.
If you prefer bolt-action rifles, you’ll find a nearly endless supply of cartridges to choose from. However, not every long-range hunting cartridge is available in a semi-automatic rifle.
When hunting at long range, you need the bullet to deliver sufficient energy to the target to inflict a traumatic and rapidly incapacitating wound.
One is the type of game you intend to shoot. Another is the range at which you intend to shoot your targets.
Long-Range Hunting Calibers
These are some of the most popular long-range hunting calibers in use today.
This round is based on a 6.8mm SPC necked down to .22 caliber (5.7mm). As a result, it’s available in semi-automatic AR-15-pattern rifles. With the right loads, the Valkyrie can deliver the same energy as a .357 Magnum at 1,000 meters. Typical bullet weights range from 60 to 90 grains.
The 6.5mm Creedmoor cartridge, introduced in 2007, was designed specifically for long-distance target shooting and found its way into the hunting community. Where the 6.5mm Creedmoor shines is that it achieves flat trajectories, doesn’t cause excessive barrel wear, and generates moderate recoil. The 6.5 shares a bolt face with the .308 and is a superb long-range hunting cartridge due to the recoil sensitivity. A common bullet weight of this round is 140 grains.
Introduced in 1925, hunters often considered the .270 Winchester to be the mythical all-purpose hunting cartridge. Loaded with 130- and 150-grain bullets, the .270 has a higher ballistic coefficient and muzzle velocity than its parent cartridge, the .30-06, achieving a flatter trajectory and greater effective range.
The .308 Winchester, introduced in 1952, is the commercial variant of the 7.62×51mm NATO cartridge developed by Frankford Arsenal for the United States Army. The .308 Winchester is one of the most popular centerfire battle and sniper rifle cartridges in the U.S. and abroad.
It strikes a good balance between terminal performance, rifle action length, load versatility, effective range, and recoil. In addition, the number of bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles chambered in this cartridge is vast. Common bullet weights are 150, 165, and 175 grains.
A classic hunting, service rifle, and sniper rifle cartridge, the designation denotes the caliber (.30) and the year of its adoption (1906). The .30-06 served the United States with distinction in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and, to a lesser extent, in Vietnam. The .30-06 was replaced by the 7.62×51mm NATO, the military variant of the .308.
As a hunting cartridge, there are several bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles available in this caliber. The long case neck and powder capacity lend themselves to handloading, and the .30-06 can accommodate heavier bullets than the .308 Winchester, up to 220 grains. Muzzle velocities vary between 2,500 and 3,000 feet per second, depending on bullet weight and powder charge, although 2,700–2,900 is common.
.300 Winchester Magnum
The .300 Winchester Magnum is a belted cartridge derived from the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum. This round delivers between 3,600 and 4,000 ft-lbf of kinetic energy and achieves high velocities. As a result, this round is suitable for hunting most, if not all, North American game—the .300 Win. Mag. is also prized for its long-range capabilities. However, as a magnum cartridge, it causes increased barrel wear compared to other, lighter rounds. It also requires a long-action rifle, increasing weight.
The .300 Winchester Short Magnum, or WSM, replicates the energy of the .300 Winchester Magnum in a reduced-length cartridge suitable for short-action rifles, allowing you to use a lighter weapon. This is strictly a bolt-action rifle cartridge — don’t expect to find semi-automatic weapons chambered in this round.
.338 Lapua Magnum
The .338 Lapua Magnum fulfills the need for an intermediate sniper rifle cartridge. It’s roughly twice as powerful as the 7.62×51mm NATO but approx. half as powerful as the .50 BMG. Sniper rifles chambered in this cartridge have an effective range exceeding 1,500 meters, and using bullets between 250 and 300 grains, the .338 Lapua Magnum is a highly capable hunting round. Kinetic energy tends to hover around 5,000 ft-lb.
If you own a rifle chambered in the .50 BMG cartridge, you have the ultimate long-range weapon. This caliber leaves traditional small-arms ammunition behind and enters anti-materiel territory. The .50 BMG or Browning Machine Gun cartridge is most commonly associated with the M2 and the Barrett “Light Fifty” (M82A1/M107). However, numerous bolt-action rifles are available in this caliber for precision shooting.
Loaded with bullets typically weighing between 661 and 800 grains, the .50 BMG is capable of delivering killing shots at more than 3,500 meters, as demonstrated in Iraq. For hunting, the .50 BMG is more powerful than most sportsmen will require; however, there’s nothing more potent for long-distance targets. Muzzle velocities, depending on bullet weight and barrel length, tend to vary between 2,700 and 3,000 feet per second.
Weapons in this caliber tend to be on the heavy side, both due to the length of the cartridge and the need to attenuate recoil.
Recoil and Other Factors
Rifle cartridges capable of propelling heavy bullets at high velocities necessarily generate more recoil velocity and energy than their lighter or slower counterparts. The result is that the perceived recoil is markedly increased. While you can become accustomed to recoil and learn to tolerate it, recoil can negatively affect your shooting performance.
Anticipating an uncomfortable recoil impulse can cause you to develop a flinch. Furthermore, recoil causes shooter fatigue, limiting the number of rounds you’ll be able to comfortably fire.
There are several ways to minimize the recoil energy of your hunting rifle. One is to use a muzzle device, such as an effective brake, which exhausts propellant gases in the opposite direction of the recoil. Another is to use a hard-rubber recoil pad, which will dampen the blow to your shoulder. Alternatively, you can choose a heavier rifle or experiment with different loads.
By taking the time to do your research and compare available cartridges, you can find the perfect round to suit your long-range shooting needs.