Shooters have long wondered why seemingly superb rifle cartridges die or wither away. Remember the 244 Remington? The 284 Winchester? The 7mm WSM or 243 WSSM? How about the 5mm Remington rimfire or the 6.5 Rem. Mag? Bet you’ve never even heard of the 256 Winchester Magnum.
There are plenty of numbers, calibers and cartridges to go around, embarrassing virtually every ammo maker that ever hitched its name to a shooting star. But were the cartridges really to blame?
Some Rifle Cartridges Die Because They Deserve To, but…
The truth is more complicated than that. For every poorly designed 256 Winchester Magnum (based on a necked down 357 Magnum case) there are probably three or four well designed but unlucky rounds like the aforementioned 244 Remington.
Here is a list of just some of the reasons superb rifle cartridges die or wither on the vine:
The List: 9 Reasons Why Rifle Cartridges Die
1. Bad Press. This has probably killed more cartridges than all other reasons combined. A writer with an axe to grind, a score to settle, or a misperception of the cartridge launches a broadside against it. “That new, superfluous 245 Flameblitz is the most overbored, inaccurate, barrel-eating varmint round ever foisted on an unsuspecting public.” Word spreads, the writer gets challenged and — unwilling to admit he might have jumped the gun before all the facts were in — doubles down. “I couldn’t get a group smaller than three inches. Pressure spikes were crazy. The primers backed out of five rounds. My Grandpa’s 22 Hornet shoots rings around this at half the cost.” The “expert’s” opinion gets parroted and the die is cast. I can’t tell you how many people who have never fired, let alone owned, a 264 Winchester Magnum have told me it burns out barrels faster than a nuclear detonation.
2. Wrong Rifles. This was a common theme in the 20th century. Remington in the 1960s announces a fine, short-action cartridge in the 350 Remington Magnum. It has the powder space to launch a 250-grain spire point 2,600 fps from a 22” barrel, generating just what woods elk hunters want — more than 3,700 foot-pounds of energy. But Remington chambers it in a funky looking M600 carbine with an 18” barrel. It hurts shooters’ ears as much as their shoulders. Bye bye.
Winchester beat Remington to the wrong rifle mistake with its 219 Zipper (25-35 Winchester parent case) of 1937. It hardly mattered that the Zipper could crank out 3,300 fps with a 55-grain bullet because… that bullet had to be flat-nosed! A flat-nosed varmint bullet? Yup, Winchester introduced it in the Model 64 lever-action with a tubular magazine. Not exactly a cutting edge varmint cartridge platform, even in 1937. Even mounting a telescopic sight on the M64 was problematic. As if hard of learning, the very next year Winchester released its 218 Bee with flat-nose bullets in a lever-action M65. This little stinger was a better cartridge design than Winchester’s popular but older 22 Hornet, but, because rear-locking lever-action bolts aren’t as strong as front-locking turn bolt actions, pressures were kept lower than they could have been, throttling the Bee’s potential. (Speaking of poor cartridge design, the 22 Hornet, despite its continuing popularity, is about as poorly designed as they come. Rimmed, slope-shouldered, and extremely long-necked, it is an inefficient powder space. And the neck is so thin that it tends to collapse when seating bullets. Better rifle cartridges die, yet the Hornet hangs in there. Go figure.)
3. Stiff Competition. Winchester seems to be snake bit when it comes to 22 centerfires. In 1964 they determined the shooting world needed a hot, new .224 varmint round to replace its aging 220 Swift, the fastest .224 centerfire in the world. Alas, the Swift was hard on barrels and stretched cases excessively. The new 225 Winchester had straighter walls and a sharper shoulder and sped within 100 fps of the Swift. It should have been a hot seller. Instead it was a not seller. It ran smack into the better known and extremely popular wildcat 22-250 which Remington released as a factory round the very next year. Inexplicably, the 225 Winchester was designed with a rimmed case, which made no sense in the modern, bolt-action rifles preferred by the vast majority of varmint shooters. Apparently Winchester thought the rim would appeal to single shot varminters. They were quickly proven wrong.
Competition doomed both the fine 222 Remington and 222 Remington Magnum. This really had to hurt. It came with the support of taxpayers. Remington had two great little cartridge here, but both missed becoming the U.S. military’s new service round when the govt. went with the ever-so-slightly different (shorter) 5.56 NATO. As you can imagine, that almost instantly overwhelmed the 222 Remingtons. To its credit, Remington grabbed the new 5.56 NATO and claimed it as the commercial 223 Remington, a cartridge that decidedly will not die any time soon.
4. Wrong Bullets. Winchester’s 218 Bee will take another hit here. Because it was fitted in the tubular magazine M65 lever-action, bullets had to be flat to prevent recoil ignition — not likely but possible when sharp bullet tips rest against primers of the round in front of them. Flat .22 bullets aren’t exactly efficient flyers, costing the 218 bee its long-range sting. The 219 Zipper chambered for the M64 lever action had a similar flat-nose bullet problem.
One of Remington’s contributions to Wrong Bullet history was its 244 Remington. Engineers felt a 90-grain bullet would be about as heavy as varminters would want to shoot. They didn’t think anyone would choose the 244 Rem. for deer hunting. But they did. And deer hunters wanted at least a 100-grain bullet to do it. The 243 Winchester offered it.
5. Wrong Rifling Twist. This goes hand-in-hand with Remington’s 90-grain 244 Rem. bullet. It stabilized in 1-12” twist rifling, so that’s what Remington put in its 244 Rem. rifles. This slower twist wouldn’t “over-stabilize” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) lighter-weight, thin-skinned varmint bullets that might have shredded under centrifugal force at 3,400 fps and 204,000 RPM. The 243 Winchesters came with 1-10” twist rifling, and their 100-grain, 24-caliber deer bullets became extremely popular. That sealed the deal. Even after Remington renamed the 244 Remington 6mm Remington and gave it 1-9″ barrels, it couldn’t recover.
Sometimes Rifle Cartridges Die From Neglect
6. Insufficient Support From Rifle Makers. This might have been the 5mm Remington’s problem. I don’t think anyone but Remington ever chambered for it. They offered it in the Model 591 and Model 592 bolt-actions. T/C once sold Contender barrels for it. Never mind that the 5mm Remington Rimfire Magnum outperforms the 22 WMR and 17 HMR. Too little, too late. The same fate may yet befall the even better 17 WSM rimfire.
7. Insufficient Support from Ammo Makers. This is one of those chicken or egg things. Does Winchester offer only one 150-grain Power Point load for its excellent 284 Winchester because no one likes the cartridge? Or does no one buy rifles chambered for the 284 Winchester because they can’t find good ammo? You see this with a lot of “fringe” cartridges including 6mm Remington (the old 244 Rem. with a new name and in fast twist barrels,) 257 Roberts, and 264 Win. Mag. In its 2018 catalog, Remington isn’t even listing its excellent 416 Remington Magnum, and its 7mm Ultra Mag. is down to one loading. That seems like a good way to help rifle cartridges die.
I’m sure bottom line thinking is at work here. Big manufacturers don’t want to lose money in small market items, preferring to concentrate on high volume sales in such popular cartridges as 223 Rem., 243 Win., 270 Win., 308 Win., 7mm Rem. Mag., etc. Fortunately, we now have some alternatives. Norma, Federal, Nosler, and Hornady support more of our less popular cartridges with some solid, modern bullet loads. Smaller firms like Double Tap and Graf & Sons feature a wide selection. Swift Cartridge Co. is doing a great job of supporting the big bore, hunting handgun, and lever-action calibers.
Of course, the ultimate cartridge manufacturer for any odd-ball cartridge is the individual handloader. With a few simple tools, primers, powder and bullets, you can build the finest cartridges to ever ignite in your pet rifle.
8. Gossip and Rumors. We’ve all contributed to this cartridge killer. It’s an ego thing. We hear someone badmouthing a cartridge for some perceived shortcoming and, ignorant but unwilling to admit as much, we nod knowingly and go forth to repeat the rumor. “Yeah, that 264 Winchester Magnum is fast and hits hard, but it’s a barrel burner. You’re lucky to get 500 rounds down ‘er before she’s burned out.” I’ve was as guilty of this as anyone in my younger years, but the wisdom that comes from embarrassing experience has largely stopped that. I don’t want to be a reason rifle cartridges die.
9. Poor Marketing. Manufacturers sometimes spend significantly on research and engineering, insufficiently on marketing. Hornady has shown the marketing way in recent years with its highly successful 17 HMR and 6.5 Creedmoor. Federal appears to be doing a similar job with its 224 Valkyrie, but not its excellent, underrated, little known 338 Federal. I have no idea how much $ a company should invest in marketing and advertising, but I do know the more they do, the better the chances for a cartridge to catch fire, no pun intended.
Surely these aren’t the only reasons good rifle cartridges fade and die. You probably have some insights of your own. Let us hear about them and perhaps we’ll revisit this topic with another installment of why good rifle cartridges die.
Hunter, optics investigator, recreational shooter, and cartridge aficionado Ron Spomer has a soft spot for unpopular rifle cartridges, which explains in part the 6mm Remingtons, 270 WSMs, 7mm SAUMs, 284 Winchesters, 7mm STWs, etc. with which he’s been known to hunt. “Hey, they all worked!” he said.