Why the Cartridge Matters Even When Shot Placement is King?

I’ve learned a lot about hunting and a bit about long distance shooting over the past year. As part of that process, I’ve blogged quite a bit about my experiences, equipment choices, and cartridge selection. Some of that has generated quite a few spirited discussions about which cartridges are better. The one common thing that all the discussions agree on is that shot placement is more important that anything else given a suitable cartridge for the hunt. Which leads me to asking, does caliber or cartridge really matter?

The short answer is: Yes. It does matter. The Chuck Hawk’s website has an excellent article which covers this topic in a lot more detail and with a lot more authority that I’m capable of, but I’ll share what I’ve learned from various sources and experience anyway.

Sectional Density

First things first. There are a ton of different rifle cartridges available in the market with projectiles ranging from .172″ to .458″ in diameter (which is their caliber). Those projectiles range in weight from as little as 20 grains to as much as 500 grains. And before anyone asks about the mighty 50 cal, I’m intentionally leaving it out.

The weight and diameter are important because they are the characteristics of the projectile that determines the projectiles sectional density. Sectional density is important because it is a good indicator of the projectiles penetration potential. Given sufficient energy and velocity on impact, a well constructed bullet with a modern design should expand and penetrate deep enough to reach vital organs and cause enough damage to quickly and ethically dispatch an animal.

Speaking in general terms projectiles with smaller diameters require larger sectional densities to penetrate game sufficiently. Larger game requires more penetration.

A couple of rules for thumb that I follow, taken mostly from the Chuck Hawk’s website:

  • For medium game (CPX2 classification), sectional density should be greater than:
    • .210 for .32″ caliber and under,
    • .200 for calibers between .33″ and .39″, and
    • .185 for .40″ caliber and over.
  • For large game (CPX3 classification), sectional density should be greater than:
    • .250 for calibers under .375″, and
    • .220 for .375″ caliber and over.

I should also note that I’ve often heard that anything under .243″ is insufficient for medium game and anything under .270″ is insufficient for large game. I’m not sure I buy into that as I’ve heard several anecdotal stories of people taking large game with .264″ caliber cartridges using a 140 grain pill during African Safari trips. But then again, I’ve only had experience harvesting deer as far as medium game goes and no experience whatsoever with harvesting large game.

Impact Energy

I’ve covered this topic previously, so I won’t go into much detail here. But the important things to remember is that as a rule of thumb:

  • For medium game (CPX2 classification), impact energy should be greater than 800 ft-lbs, and
  • for large game (CPX2 classification) impact energy should be greater than 1,200 ft-lbs.

Energy is a product of mass and velocity. Different cartridges will send bullets (sometimes of the same caliber) with different weights at different velocities down range. This important because the cartridge selected will determine the maximum effective range for the game being hunted.

For example, a 243 Winchester cartridge may send a 90 grain .243″ caliber pill down range at 3150 fps. Using a ballistic calculator, we can see that the projectile will dip below 800 ft-lbs of remaining energy just after 525 yards. Which means that the effective medium game range for this particular cartridge is 525 yards. Compare that with the 1300 yard effective medium game range of the 28 Nosler (which sends a .284″ caliber 162 grain projectile down range at 3,175 fps).

Now depending on one’s own skill and the terrain the cartridge may not matter. But for those who are skilled enough and are hunting a terrain where extended ranges are possible or probable, the cartridge matters.

Availability

As I’ve mentioned, there are a plethora of rifle cartridges. Consider the line up of Hornady’s Precision Hunter product line. This line up as over 27 different cartridges, including:

  • 243 Winchester
  • 6mm Creedmoor
  • 25-06 Remington
  • 257 Weatherby Magnum
  • 6.5 PRC
  • 6.5mm Creedmoor
  • 270 Winchester
  • 270 Winchester Short Magnum
  • 7mm-08 Remington
  • 280 Remington
  • 280 Ackley Improved
  • 7mm Winchester Short Magnum
  • 7mm Remington Magnum
  • 28 Nosler
  • 7mm Shooting Times Westerner
  • 308 Winchester
  • 30-06 Springfield
  • 300 Ruger Compact Magnum
  • 300 Winchester Short Magnum
  • 300 Winchester Magnum
  • 300 Weatherby Magnum
  • 300 PRC
  • 300 Remington Ultra Magnum
  • 30-378 Weatherby Magnum
  • 338 Winchester Magnum
  • 338 Lapua Magnum

That’s great! Lot’s of different choices. Yeah? Not so much. Surfing over to Lucky Gunner and searching for products in this line up yields only six (6) options:

  • 243 Winchester
  • 257 Weatherby Magnum
  • 6.5mm PRC
  • 6.5mm Creedmoor
  • 300 Winchester Magnum
  • 300 PRC

But what about Cabela’s? They have 21 different options available on line which is better, but of those only three (3) of those are currently in-stock and eight (8) more are available in limited quantities at the store closest to me.

Your milage may vary depending on when you shop online for these or when you visit your local stores.

Now these searches were specific to a particular product line. However, searching by cartridge one will find some cartridges offer more variety than others. Furthermore, variety of a particular cartridge will vary from location to location. For this reason, many hunters will stick with only the most prolific hunting cartridges (Chuck Hawk’s has more info on this). A short list of the prolific cartridges found in Hornady’s Precision Hunter line include:

  • 243 Winchester
  • 25-06 Remington
  • 6.5mm Creedmoor
  • 270 Winchester
  • 270 Winchester Short Magnum
  • 7mm-08 Remington
  • 7mm Remington Magnum
  • 308 Winchester
  • 30-06 Springfield
  • 300 Winchester Short Magnum
  • 300 Winchester Magnum
  • 300 Weatherby Magnum
  • 338 Winchester Magnum
  • 338 Lapua Magnum

I would say any cartridge selected from the above list is a fairly safe bet as far as ammo availability is concerned.

Affordability

Hunting ammo isn’t cheap. And it can get very expensive quickly.

Since I’ve already been using Hornady’s Precision Hunter product line as a point of reference in this post, I will continue to use to provide a consistent comparison. Here is a quick list of what a box of twenty rounds for some of those prolific cartridges goes for at Cabela’s:

  • $34.99 for 243 Winchester
  • $34.99 for 25-06 Remington
  • $34.99 for 6.5mm Creedmoor
  • $43.99 for 7mm Remington Magnum
  • $34.99 for 308 Winchester
  • $34.99 for 30-06 Springfield
  • $39.99 for 300 Winchester Short Magnum
  • $39.99 for 300 Winchester Magnum
  • $53.99 for 300 Weatherby Magnum
  • $46.99 for 338 Winchester Magnum
  • $104.99 for 338 Lapua Magnum

Prices will vary by product and manufacturer, but generally speaking the shorter the brass case and the lighter the projectile the lower the cost. It’s something to keep in mind as it some cartridges like the 338 Lapua Magnum can become cost prohibitive.

Felt Recoil

Recoil sucks. Yes, it can be managed. There are a number things that can be done to reduce felt recoil. Like:

  • Using a heaver rifle,
  • adding a muzzle device,
  • adding a recoil pad, or
  • improving one’s shooting technique.

But at the end of the day, the recoil is there. Unmanaged recoil can be painful and even dangerous. Three of the four ways I’ve listed to manage recoil increase the weight of the rifle which can also negatively impact the hunting experience.

I’m not going to speak for anyone else, but I tend to prefer less recoil. I’m willing to bet most others feel the same way. I tend to find shooting rifles with less recoil more than shooting rifles with more felt recoil. This means I tend to practice more with rifles that recoil less. Which means, I’m also more proficient with lower recoiling cartridges and rifles. With this in mind, I tend to prefer lower recoiling cartridges which are suitable for the hunt over other suitable cartridges with more recoil.

With that said, here is a list of the “prolific cartridges” found in Hornady’s Precision Hunter product line in order from lowest felt recoil to highest when fired from a lighter weight hunting rifle typical for the cartridge:

  • 6.5mm Creedmoor
  • 243 Winchester
  • 25-06 Remington
  • 7mm-08 Remington
  • 308 Winchester
  • 270 Winchester
  • 270 Winchester Short Magnum
  • 7mm Remington Magnum
  • 30-06 Springfield
  • 300 Winchester Short Magnum
  • 300 Winchester Magnum
  • 300 Weatherby Magnum
  • 338 Winchester Magnum
  • 338 Lapua Magnum

Summary

Yes. The cartridge matters. Granted it doesn’t trump shot placement, but it still matters.

Starting with a list of cartridges for which I have access to rifle chambered for and I can shoot with adequate proficiency, here is my typical cartridge selection process for a given hunt:

  1. Filter out any cartridges with a less than sufficient sectional density for the target game.
  2. Filter out any cartridges that are cost prohibitive to shoot.
  3. Filter out any cartridges that are unavailable to shoot due to a lack of available inventory (meaning I don’t currently have and won’t be able to procure a sufficient quantity prior to the hunt).
  4. Sort the remaining cartridges by their effective range.
  5. Filter out any cartridges whose effective range is less than the lesser of the maximum range I can proficiently shoot or the maximum range of shot on the terrain that will be hunted.
  6. Select the cartridge I am most proficient with from the remaining cartridges on the list (this is usually the lowest recoiling cartridge on the list).

Let me know if I’ve missed something. I’m always looking for ways to improve.

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Written by Uncle Zo

Just an average Joe who loves to geek out on firearm mechanics and ballistics.

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