The .300 Winchester

by Jack Steele

SAY YOU WANTED to hunt with just one big-game rifle.  Have it become an extension of your own body.  Know it like the smell of your Dad’s wool coat.  Say you wanted it in a caliber flat enough to poke coyotes at long distance but powerful enough to make a bull elk take notice at the far end of a cross-canyon shot.  Say you wanted it all in one package so you could always count on that one rifle to get the job done.  Sound like a pipe dream?

The do-it-all rifle is not a myth, as many a seasoned rifleman knows.  In fact, while the gunrags do a healthy business recommending good calibers for this, and best bullet for that, it’s a fact that when flying lead doesn’t have the intended results, it’s the man behind the rifle that’s almost certainly to blame.  Show me a man who blames a miss on his rifle, and I’ll show you a rifleman in need of polish, which leads to the primary reason behind choosing one good rifle — polished skills.

Of course, the best way to polish skills is by shooting your chosen Betsy often and from real-life shooting positions.  A rifle that feels right and doesn’t kick like a mule goes a long way toward promoting regular practice.  So does reloading for it, which will promote accuracy and increased familiarity.
It goes without saying that a one-rifle battery should be as accurate as possible.  In practical terms, however, a 2-MOA rifle is plenty good enough for most big-game hunting.  Latch onto a rifle that consistently shoots 1 MOA, and you’ll regret the day you part with it.  Any big-game rifle more precise than that should be considered an heirloom.

What really gets interesting, however, is deciding on a caliber.  Ask five seasoned riflemen for their top choice, and you can expect five different opinions, all vehement, all well reasoned.

The .30-06 is the perennial all-mention, and rightly so; there’s no rust on the classic.  The .270 Winchester, aside from being a hell of a caliber, was Jack O’Connor’s darling (though he admitted the ought-six probably was better) and therefore commands a prodigious following.  The .338 Winchester Magnum was a favorite of Elmer Keith and is a superb choice for the steel-shouldered.  The 7mm Remington Magnum does a whole lot with class.

Lots of others, most notably the .308 Winchester and the .280 Remington as well as various Weatherby Magnums and a slew of wildcats, can and do fit the bill.  But the .300 Winchester Magnum — the .300 Win. Mag. just might be the best of all!  Except for the big brownies, which rate their own .375 H&H Magnum to many minds, the North-American hunter with a good .300 Winny has all the rifle he will ever need.  And then some.

So, why not the .30-06?  Why not, indeed.  The good ol’ ought-six is still a top choice.  From ‘chucks to elk, it is a serious caliber for the serious hunter, no question about it.

There is one area, however, where the ought-six gives up some ground, and that’s when it comes to pushing heavy bullets — the kind you want when big, tough critters like elk and moose are on the program.  Yes, the classic .30-06 load pushing a 180-grain pill at 2700-2800 ft/sec will do almost anything you need, but throw in a big bull elk across a wide canyon at dusk, and the Winny gets the nod.  Consider that at 400 yards, the Winny’s 3100 ft/sec with the same 180-grainer gets you 450 ft/lbs more terminal energy and five inches less drop.

If that weren’t telling enough, jump up to the 200-grain rock ,and by today’s mega-magnum standards the 2550 ft/sec generated by a .30-06 case can be considered positively lethargic, although for close work in heavy timber, the combination is hard to beat.

By contrast, the Winny pushes the 200-grainer to a speedy 2950 ft/sec with careful reloads.  At 400 yards, this translates into almost 700 ft/lbs more terminal energy and a trajectory flattened by 7 inches.  That is the kind of difference that makes a difference on tough game.

Bottom line:  While the .30-06 still may be the finest all-around caliber, it says here that if elk are in your plans (and elk are increasingly in everyone’s plans) the .300 Winchester might be a better choice.

The same analysis applies to the .270 Winchester.  By all accounts a hell of a sheep and deer caliber, throw elk into the equation and the .270 becomes marginal.  Sure, there are elk hunters who shoot their bull with a .270 every year, but they are the exception.  Most of the savvy elk crowd considers the .270 either too small or the absolute bare minimum for wapiti.

Suffice it to say that, at 400 yards, the .270 shooting 130 spitzers and the .300 Win. Mag. shooting 200-grain spitzers have virtually identical trajectories.  The difference is that the .270 arrives carrying roughly 1300 ft/lbs of energy (below the 1500 ft/lbs often cited as a minimum for elk) while the Winny will deliver over a ton of energy, almost 2300 ft/lbs  What the great .270 is to deer and sheep, the .300 Winny is to elk.  Bad medicine.

As to the 7mm Remington Magnum, this fine caliber is often considered to be the ought-six’s ballistic clone.  The 7-Rem’s small advantages in sectional density are offset by the .30-06’s increased frontal area.  The ought-six has an advantage in that more and heavier bullets are readily available, especially for the handloader, but basically, in the field you could choose one or the other and never notice the difference.  So as versatile, accurate, and popular as this .284 is, the .30-06 retains an edge, and the .300 WinMag outclasses them both.

The .338 Winchester Magnum is another thing altogether.  By all accounts a large caliber by North-American standards, it has been said that true recoil starts at the .338.  A seasoned rifleman who practices regularly certainly should have no trouble handling the .338, but for many casual shooters, the .338 is simply too much rifle to shoot regularly or accurately.

It is noteworthy, however, that in terms of the wide spectrum of game animals available in North America, the .338 is probably the most well centered.  A fair choice for the big brown bears (though a .375 H&H is superior for this work by an order of magnitude), the .338 is rightly considered by many as the preeminent elk caliber, while still being plenty flat enough for whitetails, antelope, and even coyotes.  Take the big bears out of the equation, however, which they are for the vast majority of hunters, and the .338 becomes a too large shoulder pounder for most weekend warriors, though still optimal for dedicated wapiti chasers.  Let face it.  You don’t need a .338 for any whitetail walking the earth.

By contrast, the beauty of the .300 WinMag is that it is so well suited to the typical range of hunting experiences to be had in North America.

After plains game?  180-grain Ballistic Tips at 3100 ft/sec equal bad mule-deer medicine and devastating performance on pronghorns.  The same load is a ringer in “beanfield” situations.  Elk and moose in your plans?  Load 200-grain Partitions or A-Frames at 2900 ft/sec, and be assured that you have the right gun!  Feel like practicing on coyotes or chucks?   Scream some 165-grain boattails at 3250 ft/sec, and worry about your end of the rifle.

Like with all calibers, there are situations where a different caliber would be ideal, but for all-around versatility, flat trajectory, and high energy, the .300 Winchester Magnum shines, maybe like no other.

In the end, the choice of an all-around rifle depends on many factors.  If you like a gun, you are much more likely to shoot it and shoot it well, so choose a rifle you like.   Also, any experienced rifleman knows that where you hit ’em is much more important than what you hit ’em with, so place your emphasis on skills rather than on the size of the rock.   But when all that is said and done, take a good hard look at the .300 Winchester.

You may not look any further. ###


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