What is the best medium caliber for hunting?
The argument over which centerfire cartridge caliber is best has most likely been going on since the second cartridge caliber was introduced. This article is not going to put an end to it, but it may help some make a more informed decision. With the number of cartridge and bullet choices we have today, the caliber plays little importance in the decision of which setup we choose.
What matters in bullet and cartridge choice for the job at hand is bullet mass, impact velocity, and terminal performance of the chosen bullet. As manufacturers have seemingly constantly brought new cartridges to market and have used every marketing ploy known to man to sell them, they have figured out, to some extent, what the end-user prefers. This has been the major determining factor in what bullets are available to us today and will be the biggest deciding factor in which cartridges perform the best.
Let’s Focus On Small to Medium Big Game
Hunting small to medium big game will be the intended focus as I believe larger big game is better left to larger bullets and calibers. While there are many calibers available that may be suitable for hunting, we are going to focus on the three that have the most overlap in performance. Those three calibers are .264, .277, and .284. Let’s dive in, starting with the smallest, and work up.
The .264 has been around for a very long time. It has seen varying levels of buyer enthusiasm and might currently be at its peak. As it has gained popularity in recent times, the number of available bullets has greatly increased. In my opinion, the two that have upped this caliber’s game the most have been the Hornady 147 ELD-M and the Berger 156 EOL. These are two of the best available bullets for the caliber and are the two that encroach the most onto the .277’s territory.
The fact that 8 twist barrels have been readily available for rifles chambered in .264 cartridges has made it very attractive for bullet manufacturers to take advantage of. A large number of available .264 bullets make it a great caliber to build a rifle in. The numerous options combined with its performance are a few of the biggest reasons why the .264 is a much better option than the .277. The .264 has a lot of overlap with the popular .277 bullets, with only a few out of reach. We will take a look at the performance numbers in the charts below.
Sandwiched in between the .264 and the .284 sits the .277. The single biggest reason for it lagging behind the other two is its lack of good bullets. All else being equal, the.277 can perform just as well as the other two, depending on the setup. Despite the extreme popularity of some cartridges, like the 270 Winchester, the .277 never gained the popularity of its smaller and larger siblings. This is why we do not have the number of available bullets, as there are for the other two calibers in this discussion.
One huge driving factor in bullet availability for a given caliber is the SAAMI barrel twist rates for the available cartridges. The .277 still lacks in this department. Most factory rifles still lack the faster twists to accommodate larger, longer, sleeker bullets. The 6.8 Western may help change this. Its SAAMI drawing is specified with an 8 twist barrel, and a few larger bullets are starting to be announced. While the 27 Nosler is specified with a 10 twist with SAAMI, Nosler is building some with 8.5 twists for the 165 Accubonds. While not always the case, most manufacturers build rifles with twists specified in the SAAMI specs. I am not convinced this caliber will ever truly take off until we see more factory rifles with faster twist barrels.
The .284 has been around for roughly the same length of time as the .264 and has been extremely popular most of its existence, with many different cartridges to choose from. I would say it is most likely the second most popular big game hunting caliber behind the .308 calibers. Its popularity has led to a very large quantity of available bullets. Many of these are great ballistic performers and thrive in long-range hunting. Most factory rifles are fitted with 9 twist barrels which are plenty fast to shoot all but the largest bullets for the caliber. Most of the newer .284 bullets are approaching the sweet spot for the larger North American big game animals. Due to its popularity, it has been quicker to step out of antiquated design limitations. Faster twist barrels and longer, larger, sleeker bullets have come hand in hand to propel the caliber past the current reach of the .277.
Is There A Place For Them All?
After discussing the calibers and looking at the charts we have a better picture of which calibers are better options. Let’s leave emotion out of this equation and acknowledge the facts. If you are wanting to shoot 150 grain or smaller bullets the higher ballistic coefficient of the .264s bullets will trump the .277s. If you are wanting to shoot the 165-170 grain bullets the .277s higher ballistic coefficient has such a small advantage that the higher achievable velocity of the .284s will negate any gain the .277 affords and one must consider the limited options for barrels fast enough for said bullets.
The .264s available bullet selection and their performance cover a large number of hunting scenarios. With the newest larger bullets leaving very little to be desired on the caliber’s upper end there is not much room for the .277 on its lower end. The .284 has most of the current .277 terrain covered at least as well and in most cases better. The .284, however, has several larger bullets that leave the .277 in the rear-view mirror performance-wise. Where does the .277 fit in? I don’t feel it has a place on the lower end, as the.264 bullets and available cartridges all outperform the same weight .277s. Does it have a chance on the upper end? Once again I do not feel it does. The .284 bullets and available cartridges outperform the .277s in most cases.
Best Medium Caliber Conclusion
As shown in the charts there is a sliver of hope with bullets like the 165 Nosler Accubond or the Berger 170 Elite Hunter but what if you blow your budget on a rifle only to find it does not like the couple of available bullets that meet your goals? The .264 and the .284 currently cover the bases much better than the .277. The .277 doesn’t do anything better than the surrounding calibers to warrant painting yourself into a corner. For smaller game and lighter recoil, the .264 is just a better option. For larger game and cleaner quicker kills, the.284 is a much more lethal choice.
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