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Top 10 Hunting Cartridges of the Past 10 Years

Top 10 Hunting Cartridges of the Past 10 Years

Thirty years ago, when the .416 Rem. Mag. was announced, it was billed as a cartridge that “filled one of the last gaps in the hunting-cartridge lineup.” This hasn’t stopped cartridge makers from devising all sorts of new rounds to improve upon existing designs, however. Some of those new designs have been stone-cold commercial failures, relegated to the ballistic dustbin, but others survived, and some have even flourished. One 21st century cartridge, however, has become a juggernaut—the 6.5 Creedmoor. Love it or loathe it, the Creedmoor has amassed a large, loyal following among target shooters and hunters alike that doesn’t show any signs of slowing.

I don’t know if the Creedmoor’s meteoric rise is what has prompted other companies to develop new cartridges or not, but there have been a number of new rounds following on its heels, not to mention some really great hunting cartridges unveiled over the last 10 years. That isn’t a condemnation of cartridges that came before—the .30-06 Sprg., .308 Win., .270 Win. and even the true geriatrics like the .30-30 Win. and .45-70 Gov’t. are still effective at dropping big game. However, there’s a new crop of hunting rounds poised to make their mark on history. Here’s a list of the best new hunting rounds, 6mm and larger, to break cover in the previous decade.

.300 HAM’R
Bill Wilson is a master at making high-end 1911 pistols, but he’s also a serious hunter. In particular, Wilson likes to hunt feral hogs, and using the 7.62x40mm as a starting point, Bill designed what is quite possibly the best hog hunting round for AR-15 rifles (and certainly the cartridge with the catchiest name)—the .300 HAM’R. Wilson wanted more energy and better ballistics than the 7.62x40mm could provide, so he added a bit of length to the cartridge’s case and changed the shoulder angle to create the HAM’R. Those minor changes allowed the HAM’R to reach 2300 fps with a 150-grain bullet. That’s a significant bump in power over the .300 AAC Blackout—the .300 HAM’R shoots 150 fps faster from an 11.5-inch barrel than the Blackout does with a 16-inch barrel. In the rifles I’ve tested, the .300 HAM’R is also extremely accurate. I’ve shot two pigs with the HAM’R, both big boars, and both fell dead where they stood. The best part? All you need to do is swap out the barrel on your AR-15 to turn it into a HAM’R (provided the barrel length and gas length match up). You can use 5.56 magazines, but if you use .300 Blackout mags with their smaller internal ribs, you won’t lose any capacity. Shocked to see the .300 HAM’R leading off this list? You’ll understand when you shoot one of these rifles.

Three boxes of Hornady 6.5 PRC behind two 6.5 PRC Cartridges

 

Two 6.5 PRC cartridges on top of box, with downed buck in background

6.5 PRC
In a world suddenly brimming with 6.5mm cartridges, the 6.5 PRC is a standout. It drives a 143-grain bullet about 150 fps faster than the Creedmoor, and its design (based on the .300 RCM) offers just what most Precision Rifle Series (PRS) shooters want—a case that allows the shooter to seat long, heavy-for-caliber bullets without losing a bunch of capacity; recoil that doesn’t abuse; and gilt-edge accuracy—all without burning barrels. For hunting purposes, it’s essentially a magnum Creedmoor, and will fit in a short-action rifle. Imagine having a lightweight hunting rifle chambered in a round that doesn’t beat you senseless when you pull the trigger, shoots flat, bucks wind with the best of them and carries 1,600 ft.-lbs. of energy at 500 yards. If that appeals to you, then the 6.5 PRC is a good bet. I tested the 6.5 PRC in the months prior to its introduction, and I was certain this precision target round would win the hearts of hunters. On that first outing, I shot a whitetail at over 300 yards with the 6.5 PRC—the bullet hit where I wanted, the buck went down and I was instantly a fan of this cartridge.    

Two cartridges  sitting in front of a Weatherby box with a black bolt-action rifle in the background.


6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum
The team at Weatherby didn’t have to look far when they wanted a parent case for their new 6.5mm cartridge. The .300 Wby. Mag., which has been around since 1945, was necked-down to generate the hot new 6.5-.300 Wby. Mag. that came to market in 2016. There isn’t a 6.5-.300 Wby. Mag. factory load that doesn’t exceed 3300 fps, and it’ll push 127-grain Barnes LRX bullets at a blistering 3531 fps. As you might imagine, it’s a very flat-shooting round. Loaded with 140-grain Berger VLD Hunter bullets at 3315 fps and sighted in 2.7 inches high at 100 yards, it’s hitting dead-on at 300 yards, and at 400 yards it’s just 7.7 inches low. What’s more, that load carries almost 2,000 ft.-lbs. of energy at 500 yards. It’s the only cartridge on this list that wears a belt, and it’ll burn barrels faster than other rounds here, though that’s not a major concern for the hunter who shoots upwards of 40 rounds a season. It’s also the fastest 6.5mm on the market, and it’ll take most North American game while generating less recoil than the larger magnums.   

Two 6mm Creedmoor Cartridges laying next to three shot group with rifle above.


6mm Creedmoor
The formula here is simple: neck down a 6.5 Creedmoor to 6mm and viola, a new hunting and target round is born. It’s not vastly different from its parent cartridge, but the 6mm Creedmoor does reduce recoil. That allows you to call misses in matches more easily (which is why many target shooters like it) and it also makes it an ideal round for young or recoil-sensitive shooters. Hornady makes affordable ammo, but a bunch of other manufacturers including Nosler, Berger and Federal are also offering loads. 6mm Creedmoor rifles I’ve tested (including the E.R. Shaw Mk. X I own) all shoot well. I can consistently get sub-inch groups at 100 yards from the Shaw with Hornady Precision Hunter ammo, and those groups are oftentimes closer to a half-inch. The 6mm Creedmoor won’t turn the hunting world upside-down the way its big brother did, but if you like 6mm rifles and want a gun that can take deer, antelope and varmints one day and clang steel at 1,000 yards the next, this is your weapon of choice.  

Author kneeling behind a sable antelope.


The Nosler Family
The 26 Nosler came first, and was followed by the 28, 30 and 33. They’re all based on the 7mm RUM which, in turn, was the offspring of the .404 Jeffrey. Since they all stem from the same case design, I’ll group the Nosler family together, but each of these cartridges has something great to offer for a wide range of hunting applications. The 26 Nosler is among the fastest of the 6.5s, pushing a 140-grain Nosler AccuBond at 3300 fps and dropping just 5 inches at 300 yards when zeroed at 200 yards.

Cartridges and grouping on target next to rifle.


The 28 Nosler is a superb all-around rifle for everything from antelope and pronghorn up to moose and elk. And like the 26, it shoots laser-flat; when firing 160-grain AccuBonds at 3300 fps, the 28 Nosler is 5.1 inches low at 300 yards with a 200-yard zero, and carries 2,000 ft.-lbs. of energy to more than 500 yards. It seemed only natural that Nosler would add a 30-cal. to the family, and they did: the 30 Nosler is available with factory hunting bullets up to 210 grains, and it’ll push that heavy bullet from the muzzle at 3000 fps. Not long ago, the company released the 33 Nosler, and it’s available with factory loads from 225 to 300 grains, which doesn’t lag far behind the .338 Lapua.

Hunter kneeling behind elk holding antlers


All of these cartridges fit in standard-length actions, so which one you choose depends upon application. For deer and antelope, the 26 is a great option, and if I were going to add elk to the mix, I think the 28 is a logical step up (though probably not necessary). The 30 Nosler is a great cross-canyon elk cartridge, as is the 33—provided you can handle the recoil these cartridges generate. For hunting in areas with big bears, the 33 makes sense—flat-shooting, accurate and powerful enough to stop a bruin if things go badly. Early critics thought these cartridges would burn barrels in a hurry, but shooters are getting 1,000 rounds without a loss of accuracy—and many hunters won’t fire that many shots in a lifetime.   

Box and cartridge of 350 Legend sitting in foreground, with a dead buck in the background


350 Legend
The 350 Legend is the answer for hunters in straight-wall-only states who want a mild-recoiling, affordable round that is effective on deer, and this niche-filler is a killer. For whitetail, hogs and black bear out to moderate distances (say 200 yards), it performs well, and practice ammo runs between $10 and $15 a box. The case is similar to—though not exactly the same—as a .223 Rem., and recoil is less than that of a .243 Win. While the ballistics won’t impress any PRS competitors, the mild-mannered 350 Legend is a welcome addition for small-statured or recoil-sensitive shooters who don’t want to try and master the more powerful .450 Bushmaster in areas where local regulations limit hunters to straight-wall rounds. Plus, it’ll work in AR-style rifles.

Hunter kneels behind a downed African animal with curved horns

 

300 PRC box and cartridges in front of horns.

.300 PRC
The .300 PRC is another crossover target cartridge that’s doing quite well, but despite the name, it isn’t based on the same case as the 6.5 PRC (because, essentially, that would make it a .300 RCM). Instead, it’s based on the .375 Ruger, and that provides enough case capacity—while still maintaining a .532-inch bolt face—to propel heavy-for-caliber bullets at impressive velocities. The PRC will handle bullets as large as Hornady’s new .30-caliber, 250-grain A-Tip, but for hunters the 212-grain ELD-X load is the ticket. At 2860 fps that bullet retains 850 ft.-lbs. more energy than a .30-06 Sprg. 178-grain load, and at 500 yards the PRC’s wind drift is almost a third less than the ’06. What’s more, the .300 PRC’s modern design, which headspaces off the shoulder, helps make accuracy potential quite high for most rifles. I carried the .300 PRC in Africa and hunted everything from deer-sized reedbuck and impala all the way to nyala, and performance was exceptional across the board. Recoil is relatively manageable for a .30 caliber with these kinds of numbers, and Hornady’s factory ammo is affordably priced. The PRC is a modern .30 caliber that’s got the goods to go the distance, yet it’s a sensible, effective round for almost any game.

Hunter standing behind a downed black bear.

 

6.5 Wby. Mag. Catridge

6.5 Weatherby RPM
The newest cartridge on this list is Weatherby’s newest creation, the 6.5 Wby. RPM. It lacks the Venturi shoulder and belt that have been hallmarks of Weatherby rounds for the last 70-plus years, but the RPM is a compelling cartridge; if, that is, you think that the world needs another 6.5. With its rebated rim, the RPM is designed to fit in Weatherby’s trim six-lug Mark V action. The six-lug action is smaller than the company’s flagship nine-lug action, and lighter, too. Adam Weatherby calls the smaller action the company’s best kept secret, and I would agree: a few years ago I picked up a Mark V AccuMark in .308 Win. with the smaller action, and it was a joy to carry. The 6.5 Wby. RPM is available in three loads with your choice of Hornady 140-grain InterLocks at 2975 fps, 140-grain AccuBonds at 3075 fps, or Barnes 127-grain LRX at 3225 fps. But the real story here might be more about the new Mark V rifles which are chambered in this cartridge, including the stunning titanium-actioned, 4.9-lb. Backcountry Ti. That rifle/load combo will surely appeal to any serious high-mountain hunter who’s covered their last breathless mile at high elevations carrying a gun that’s too heavy. Several other new Weatherby models will be available in RPM as well, including the standard (non-titanium) Backcountry and the revised and updated Weathermark.

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