Read on to learn about the most underrated rifle cartridges for hunters.
The .270 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, and .375 H&H (among many others) all have well-deserved reputations as great cartridges for hunters. However, there are many underrated rifle cartridges that perform well in the field, but don’t have reputations that match their capabilities.
Sometimes a cartridge performs very well but doesn’t get much publicity and fails to really catch on with the general hunting and shooting public. Sometimes a cartridge gets pushed out of the limelight by a newer cartridge that has a slight edge in performance. Either way, all of the cartridges on this list are solid performers but are not nearly as popular as some of the other choices out there.
Continue reading to see our choices for the most underrated rifle cartridges for hunting, whether it’s big game, small game, or anything in between.
1. .264 Winchester Magnum
L to R: .256 Newton, 6.5×55, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Remington Magnum, .264 Winchester Magnum
Courtesy Of Rifle Shooter Mag
When it was first introduced to the hunting and shooting communities in the late 1950s, the .264 Winchester Magnum was considered to be state of the art and quickly became extremely popular. Developed using the .375 H&H Magnum as a parent case, the .264 Winchester was significantly more powerful than the .270 Winchester rifle cartridges, yet still would fit in a standard length rifle. There are many things to like about the .264 Winchester: it’s flat shooting, accurate, and has surprisingly little recoil. This made it very popular among varmint and deer hunters out west where long range shots were more common.
However, the introduction of the 7mm Remington Magnum in the early 1960s was the beginning of the end for the .264 Winchester. While the 7mm Remington Magnum doesn’t shoot quite as flat, it does use a heavier bullet and did not develop a reputation for excess barrel wear like the .264 Winchester did.
Even though it is not nearly as popular or common as it was when first introduced, rifles chambered in .264 Winchester Magnum and factory ammunition can still be found if you look hard enough. It’s an underrated rifle cartridge these days to be sure, but it is still a great choice for an elk, mule deer, or pronghorn hunt out west.
2. 7x57mm Mauser
The 7x57mm Mauser, also known as the 7mm Mauser, was a major leap forward in the development of rifle cartridges when it was introduced in the 1890s. The smokeless 7mm Mauser was originally developed as a military cartridge and it was very successful in this regard. However, it was also very popular in the hunting community. The fact that it had mild recoil, a relatively flat trajectory, and could fire bullets with a very high sectional density that penetrated very well made it an instant hit among big game hunters, especially black bear and grizzly bear.
It is an excellent cartridge for hunting plains game, but it can also be used to hunt much big game animals. The famous hunter “Karamojo” Bell killed hundreds of elephants with brain shots from a 7mm Mauser (known as the .275 Rigby by the British). While I do not recommend using the 7mm Mauser on thick-skinned dangerous game like buffalo and elephant (and doing so is illegal in many countries), Bell’s feats with the cartridge do a good job of demonstrating what it is capable of in the right hands.
The ballistics of the 7mm Mauser are surpassed by many modern cartridges and the cartridge has declined in popularity over the years as hunters and shooters have abandoned it in favor of newer cartridges. However, even though the 7mm Mauser is one of the most underrated rifle cartridges, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Especially in Europe, there are a number of hunters who still use the 7x57mm Mauser and finding rifles and ammunition for it is not difficult.
3. .35 Remington
2 .35 Remington Cartridges Compared To A .30-06 Courtesy Of The Big Game Hunting Blog
Introduced in the early 1900s along with Remington’s new Auto-Loading Rifle, the .35 Remington was marketed as a competitor to the venerable .30-30 Winchester. Though the cartridge was ballistically superior to the .30-30 Winchester and did catch on with the hunting community, it never quite achieved the popularity of the .30-30 Winchester.
Unfortunately, even though it is a capable cartridge for hunting medium and even large game at close range, the cartridge has slowly declined in popularity over the last century. Hunters wanting a flat shooting cartridge for longer range hunting have turned to more modern cartridges and many hunters looking for a good woods gun have remained faithful to the .30-30 Winchester. That being said, even though the .35 Remington is still a very underrated rifle cartridge, it still has a dedicated following. Factory ammunition is still readily available and many great rifles, like the Marlin 336, are still manufactured that are chambered in .35 Remington.
4. 9.3x62mm Mauser
While it is relatively popular in Europe, the 9.3x62mm Mauser is one of the most underrated rifle cartridges in North America. This is a shame because the 9.3x62mm Mauser is one of the best all-around hunting cartridges in the world. It delivers about 90 percent of the power of the .375 H&H Magnum with less recoil and fits in a standard length (instead of a magnum length) rifle action. This makes it an extremely versatile rifle cartridge.
Shooting appropriate bullets, a rifle chambered in 9.3x62mm Mauser is suitable for hunting everything from the smallest of the Tiny 10 species of antelope all the way up to the biggest eland. It will also certainly work on large, thick-skinned dangerous game and hunters armed with the 9.3x62mm Mauser have killed thousands of buffalo and elephant over the last century. That being said, the 9.3x62mm Mauser is a little on the light side for extremely large species of dangerous game and has a smaller margin of error than more powerful cartridges like that .375 H&H Magnum.
Even though it is one of the most underrated rifle cartridges in the United States, factory loaded 9.3x62mm Mauser ammunition is fortunately readily available (though not exactly plentiful). The same thing goes for rifles chambered in the cartridge. So, if you want a great all-around hunting rifle and you don’t like being in the mainstream, then the 9.3x62mm Mauser is the perfect choice for you.
5. .375 Ruger
.375 Ruger (L) Compared to a .375 H&H (R) The Big Game Hunting Blog
The .375 H&H Magnum is the standard by which most dangerous game cartridges are measured. The fact that it has been around for over 100 years and is still considered one of the best all-around big game hunting cartridges around really says something. However, the .375 Ruger may be the most serious competitor to the crown worn by the venerable .375 H&H for the last century. In fact, though the jury is still out, the .375 Ruger might even be better than the .375 H&H.
The goal of the designers of the .375 Ruger was to match the performance of the .375 H&H while using a standard length (instead of a magnum length) case. They did a good job of designing the cartridge and by making a straight walled case with no taper, it actually has a larger powder capacity than the .375 H&H even though it is 7mm shorter. Because of this, the .375 Ruger has a slight velocity edge when shooting the same size bullets at the .375 H&H. Not only will it meet or even exceed the performance of the .375 H&H, but because the case will fit in a standard length action, rifles chambered in .375 Ruger are shorter, lighter, and handier than comparable rifles chambered in .375 H&H.
The biggest strikes against the .375 Ruger are that it is a relative newcomer to the hunting community and that it is directly competing with one of the most popular hunting cartridges of all time in the .375 H&H. However, it is unique on this list of underrated rifle cartridges in that its popularity is actually increasing. Only time will tell what will become of the .375 Ruger, but it certainly has a bright future and may not be underrated for much longer.
BONUS: .458 Winchester Magnum
After it was commercially released in 1956, the .458 Winchester Magnum was an instant hit among big game hunters who wanted a hard hitting cartridge that could fit in a standard length bolt-action rifle. The development of the cartridge coincided with an increasing number of American hunters journeying to Africa on safari and the cartridge quickly became one of the most popular dangerous game cartridges on the continent.
Unfortunately, problems began to surface regarding the performance of the .458 Winchester in the years following its release. Reports of “squib” loads started trickling in from the field. When that happened, the bullets penetrated poorly, or in some extreme cases, even bounced off animals! This is obviously not something you want to have happen when hunting dangerous game, and these incidents resulted in the deaths of several hunters with many more sustaining serious injuries. Among those injured was Jack Lott, a well-known professional hunter and writer, who found himself on the wrong end of a scuffle with a Cape Buffalo after his .458 Winchester failed to do the job. Not surprisingly, the reputation of the .458 Winchester took a major hit and several other cartridges, like the .458 Lott (designed by Jack Lott after his bad experience with the .458 Winchester), were developed as improvements to the .458 Winchester.
So what was the problem with the cartridge? Designed to duplicate the performance of the extremely effective (and popular) .450 and .470 Nitro Express cartridges, Winchester intended the .458 Winchester to shoot a 500gr bullet at 2,150fps from a 26” barrel. Since the .458 Winchester was developed from a .375 H&H case shortened to 2.5” in order to fit in a standard length action, there wasn’t quite enough space in the case to fit the powder necessary to achieve those ballistics without compressing it. These compressed loads eventually resulted in clumped powder charges, which often ignited erratically and failed to generate anything close to desired velocities.
Winchester quickly corrected the problem by revising their performance standards downwards to a 500gr bullet at 2,040fps, which no longer necessitated a compressed load of powder. This was still a very potent load and was quite effective on thick-skinned dangerous game. However, the damage had already been done. Just like when dealing with a cheating lover, hunters found it difficult to trust the .458 Winchester again after so many people got burned.
That being said, slowly but surely, the reputation of the .458 Winchester is improving. Modern advances in powder technology allow manufacturers and handloaders to safely produce loads matching, or even slightly exceeding the original performance standard for the .458 Winchester, but now using a shorter 24” barrel and without the need to compress the powder. A 500gr bullet at 2,150fps is strong medicine for even the biggest buffalo and elephant. However, the cartridge is still hasn’t quite shaken the stigma it earned many years ago, thus earning a spot on this list of underrated rifle cartridges. As long as modern ammunition is used, the .458 Winchester is a fantastic cartridge that can be relied upon to take all manner of dangerous game regardless of the poor reputation the cartridge developed several decades ago.
What do you think of our choices for the most underrated rifle cartridges? Did we miss any? Do any work better in lever-action or bolt-action rifles?