What Different Cartridges Really Mean

Many hunters are confused about the relative performance of various centerfire cartridges, believing that some are more accurate than others, some “hit harder,” and some shoot so flat you can aim dead-on out to 700 yards and expect one-shot kills.

Dream on!

I once showed up in a deer camp to meet a friendly character who insisted his new 7mm STW shot so flat he would nail every deer out as far as 700 yards. To make sure he could reach that, he’d zeroed the rifle for 500 yards. What he either didn’t know or didn’t want to believe is that a 160-grain Nosler AccuBond launched at 3,200 fps from a 7mm STW and zeroed at 500 yards lands almost 8 inches high at 100 yards, 13 inches high at 200 and 14 inches high at 300. Yeah, it’s dead on at 500, but by 700 yards it still drops 40 inches.

He shot over a nice buck at about 400 yards and went home for a thin bowl of tag soup.

At a pronghorn camp in Wyoming, I showed up with a sweet Dakota Model 10 chambered for the delightful .25-06 Remington, one of the best balanced pronghorn rounds ever chambered in a rifle. When the guide heard this, he was overjoyed. “Twenty-five ought six! Excellent! Incredible knockdown power. That thing is so fast, you hit one anywhere, even in the hoof and the shock will kill it!”

Well… not quite. I hit a buck, a darn good one that nearly scored 80 B&C points, 350 yards away and it did die, but after a short run. I’d hit him in the lungs. Maybe if I’d parked that 117-grain Hornady in his hoof… .

There are dozens of cartridges, but none are magical. They're just containers for powder, primer and bullets.
There are dozens of cartridges, but none are magical. They’re just containers for powder, primer and bullets.

The truth about cartridges is they’re all just powder reservoirs. The brass cases hold powder, primer and bullet in convenient, waterproof containers that store and load quickly and easily. When you slap the primers at their bases, the powder ignites and the expanding gases push the bullet out the barrel. The quantity and type of powder determine how fast the bullet goes. Lighter bullets go faster than heavy ones. Blunt bullets slow down faster than pointy ones.

No cartridge is magical. None shoot “dead flat.” As soon as any bullet leaves a barrel, gravity begins pulling it down. The only reason even the fastest bullet hits dead-on at 100 yards is because we angle our barrels slightly up in relation to our line-of-sight.

Bullets actually do more to change trajectory than do cartridges. The right 140-grain bullet (sleek and long) from a 6.5mm departing the muzzle at 2,700 fps can shoot flatter than the wrong 180-grain bullet (short and fairly blunt) from a .300 Weatherby Magnum launching at 3,100 fps. It can even carry more energy far downrange.

As for inherently accurate cartridges, don’t worry about it. There are subtle differences if you’re trying to put all bullets into one hole at 200 yards, but for big game hunting or even varmint hunting, the minor accuracy advantages of a certain case taper or shoulder angle don’t mean diddly. The rifle and bullet are what make or break accuracy in hunting. Bullets need to be balanced, barrels need to be consistent, rifles need to be properly bedded and triggers need to break cleanly without too much pressure. Three pounds pull is about right.
Last but not least, the most critical component in accuracy and striking the target at any distance is the shooter. Oh yeah, it’s that guy or gal behind the butt stock that makes or breaks 99 percent of all shots taken. Spend your time training to shoot well under field conditions and your rifle, cartridge and bullet will more than keep pace.

Shop Sportsman’s Guide for an awesome selection of Rifle Ammunition!



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