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Getting Started with Long Range Shooting 4: Cartridge Selection

While cartridge selection is important, it's easy to overlook the fact that common rifle cartridges can be used to develop skills and ring steel at extended distances while being allured by popular extended long distance cartridges.

In previous installments of the Getting Started with Long Range Shooting series, we’ve covered fundamental skills, developing a shooting solution, and scope selection. It’s now time to take a look at cartridge selection.

Before getting into it, I want to take a minute and remind readers not to rush out and get that next rifle in a cartridge they got excited about in this post. There is still quite a bit to cover before getting that next rifle and rushing out now might result in some buyer’s remorse. Bear with me, I’ll let you know when I think we’ve covered enough to make that rifle acquisition.

There are a lot of considerations to take into account when selecting a cartridge. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on the factors to consider for cartridges that will be used ring steel (or punch paper) at extended distances. If any reader wants to revisit this topic from another extended distance application (like hunting), then please let me know and I will address that in a future post.

With that in mind, the question that every long range rifle shooter needs to answer what is the furthest distance targets are expected to be engaged at? This is important for several reasons as we will see throughout this post, but most importantly is because I’m willing to wager that readers already have access to cartridges that will work for their expected target ranges more often than not.

Ok. Enough with the preamble. Let’s talk about cartridges. If one spends any time checking out what the top shooters are shooting in Extended Long Range and Precision Rifle Shooting competitions, then one will see a nice mix of commonly available cartridges, obscure cartridges, and even some wildcat cartridges across a spectrum of calibers ranging from 6mm (0.243″) to 416 cal (0.416″). The majority of those competitors hand load their cartridges. For the sake of brevity again, I’m going to focus on the commonly available cartridges (and even in that smaller set some are more available than others). Here is a list of cartridges with their approximate maximum range to start from :

CartridgeApproximate Max Range
6mm Creedmoor1300 yards
260 Remington1100 yards
6.5mm Creedmoor1500 yards
6.5 PRC1700 yards
300 Winchester Magnum1400 yards
300 PRC1800 yards
338 Lapua Magnum1700 yards

As I mentioned, even with the short list of commonly available long distance cartridges, availability and selection is different with each cartridge. For example, Hornady offers three different 6.5mm Creedmoor loads, two different 300 Win Mag and 338 Lapua Mag loads, and only one load for the other cartridges in their Match product line. Availability and selection in factory match loads is important because some loads will be more precise in some rifles than others. For a discussion on this topic, refer to the factory load testing results I conducted while looking for 6.5mm Creedmoor factory hunting load for my hunting rifle.

Another thing to consider here is price per cartridge. Even with the current ammo crisis, some of the listed long distance cartridges are significantly more expensive than others. For example, consider a Hornady Match 20 round box of 6.5mm Creedmoor currently going for $45 compared to a Hornady Match 20 round box 338 Lapua Magnum currently going for $112.

Yet another thing to consider is the vast majority of cartridges designed for long distance applications tend to be barrel burners. Meaning we can expect to send somewhere in the neighborhood of about 2500 projectiles downrange before throat erosion starts affecting precision and a new rifle is needed. Compare this to the approximate 10,000 to 15,000 round barrel life for barrels that send more common rifle cartridge projectiles down range.

I bring this up because there are many more common rifle cartridges which can go far enough for most folks expected target distances. In addition, these cartridges are a lot more practical for developing the fundamental mechanical and shooting solution calculation skills required for engaging targets at extended distances. Not to mention these cartridges are the kings of availability and selection while also usually being more affordable. Let’s look at a couple of those:

CartridgeApproximate Max Range
223 Remington900 yards
308 Winchester1100 yards

You may have noticed that I’ve been using an approximate maximum range for comparing these cartridges. The approximation is the distance at which high quality match grade projectiles loaded into these cartridges are expected to decelerate to match the speed barrier threshold. In other words, this is the approximate range at which the projectiles will go from supersonic flight to subsonic flight. We refer to this transition in flight as crossing the transonic barrier. This is important because the vast majority of projectiles will start to tumble as they enter subsonic flight and as a result make a precise impact after that distance unpredictable. The max range is an approximation because the precise distance of the transonic barrier is dependent on actual initial velocity and environmental conditions previously discussed in the post covering shooting solution calculations.

I understand the allure of the cartridge with the furthest approximate match range. Heck, this allure is the primary reason I picked up a rifle chambered for 338 Lapua Magnum when I first decided to dabble in long distance target shooting. That said I confess that I spend most of time maintaining my long distance shooting skills with a rifle chambered for 308 Winchester and have plans to add another rifle chambered for 6.5mm Creedmoor to the collection for times that I plan to engage in target shooting activities at ranges beyond the reach of the 308 Winchester rifle without having to reach for the less practical 338 Lapua Magnum rifle.

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