Rifleshooter.com’s Classic Series- Select timeless articles republished for today
The .300 WSM – – The End of History?
by [email protected]
The tracker spotted them first. The PH looked with his binoculars for awhile then motioned me over. As he pointed down over the edge and into the ravine, I decided that I’m really not into precipices. Especially not those that are on a windy mountaintop and that fall straight down onto a boulder-filled hillside 500 feet below. He suggested one spot as vantage point, but I demurred that I had no safety harness. Then he suggested I crawl out on a little ledge and hang over it with my rifle to get a shot.
Overlooking the wide ravine, I pressed myself into the rocky ledge, only two feet wide and curving around a large outcropping on the mountaintop. The wind swirled viciously around me, and peering over the edge through the binoculars I briefly studied the small herd below. I was unsure of the range – – the drop-off was playing tricks – – and the rangefinder was not at hand. Taking off my hat and laying it on the edge of a basket-sized rock at the end of the ledge, I rested the Winchester Featherweight and tried to get a clear view through the Leupold 2.3-8x scope. The breeze pushed the muzzle back and forth, and the 60 degree angle made for and unsteady hold.
The Mountain Reedbuck is a small African antelope, weighing around 90 pounds. This was the last day of the hunt, and after six days the Klipspringers and Waterbuck had eluded me. As I waited for the ram to separate from the ewes for a clear shot, the herd moved closer and closer to the thick tree line as it grazed. Finally the ram inched forward, but in a few seconds they would be into the bush, and gone. There was little time to dope the wind, the movement and the angle.
Boom-Whoosh ! The familiar hollow boom of the rifle rang out. The rifle recoiled off the padded rock and as I forced it back onto the target I saw the ram stumbling, and the herd dashing into the bush, running right. In a few moments, the ewes returned and ran left into the bush.
The tracker made his way down, found blood and we followed. Not 25 yards away was my very nice Mountain Reedbuck, now trophy material.
The cartridge was the .300 WSM. I had bought the rifle on a whim only a month before my long-planned safari, and tested loads like a fiend before any loading data was available other than from Winchester. The shot I just described was approximately 200 yards on the slant angle, in a gusting wind up to 15-20 mph, on a moving target.
There were other shots on that safari with that rifle, and in every case the round was deadly. I since bought a Browning A-Bolt II Stainless Stalker to try, and have experimented with factory and handloads in both guns. After all that, I can almost believe that we have come to the end of the road with big-game cartridges.
When the .300 WSM was announced I really gave it a big yawn. The supposed advantages over the long -established .300 Winchester Magnum were only noticeable when you consider the fact that the ammo companies have quietly down-loaded the big .300 Winchester Magnum over the years. When first introduced, it listed the 180 grain bullet at 3070 fps. Now the factories lob it along at 2950 fps.
The same trend carries over into the loading manuals. Why this is so I do not know, but the fact remains that around the 20-year mark after a cartridge is introduced, the manufacturers apparently decide that its time to weaken the cartridge for the sake of all those worn-out rifles around. That practice, on careful examination, is complete nonsense, but still remains.
It is impossible for a cartridge holding 8 grains more powder to have a lower velocity, given the same bullet and pressure. Therein lies the difference, as the .300 WSM is loaded to higher pressure. The “more efficient” short fat WSM case is just a bunch of advertising hype. The .300 Win Mag can be loaded to the same level, as the rifles are of the same strength. Witness the success of the Federal High Energy and Hornady Magnum loads, which operate at the same higher pressure level of the .300 WSM, and beat it by over 100 fps.
Claims were made for the WSM of increased accuracy, longer case life for handloaders, and lighter shorter rifles. I was skeptical but bought the rifle because it was one of those once-in-while really nice Winchesters Model 70s you see now and again when the planets align and the forces of assemblers and inspectors accidentally let a good one get out the door.
You may not like the Winchester or Browning, but you could do a lot worse and pay a lot more money for the privilege. But the .300 WSM cartridge, I’ve come to realize, is all you need. For nearly all of your game hunting.
In a fact that many enjoy pooh-poohing, the .30 calibre bore can handle any North American game. The idea is to find a cartridge that shoots flatter than Grandpappy’s good ole .30/06 from the Great War yet doesn’t knock you out from under your cellphone while shooting it. Remington’s UltraMag cartridges are not setting any sales records now that everyone has realized that they will make a flincher out of anyone and that they are too much for 98% of hunting.
The .300 WSM strikes the right balance. It is in effect a modern era version of the moldy but perfectly balanced .300 H&H Magnum in an accurate and efficient short action with no belt.
The factory 180 grain Power Point load is nearly perfect for any game. It is a trifle heavy for deer, but it will kill them with authority. On larger game, those who have used it proclaim it’s excellent penetration and knockdown power. In both the Winchester and the Browning rifles, 3 shots group well under an inch at 100 yards.
The Failsafe bullet has such a checkered reputation for accuracy and under-expansion that I see no reason to consider it unless you are hunting Brown Bear or Bison.
The .300 WSM responds very well to handloading. Some of my original cases are on their 12th loading and doing fine. Stretching is minimal.
I quickly found that W760 is very temperature sensitive and loads that were ok at 70 F. became sticky at 90 F. The accuracy is good, but the pressure inconsistencies were unacceptable.
IMR4350 produced good accuracy with average velocity, but H4350 has worked out exceptionally well. Every rifle is different of course, and your handloading is tailored to your own rifle, but I can achieve 2870 fps with the Sierra 200 grain SBT, and 3040 fps with the Hornady 180 grain BTSP. The Hornady 150 grain SST can be pushed out over 3300 fps without any problem.
Accuracy with all these near-maximum loads is sub-MOA for 3 shots. What is especially nice about this cartridge is that unlike most other long-cased magnums, accuracy is excellent with reduced loads. For example, the Hornady 150 grain SST loaded to 3100 fps will group 3 shots into one large hole. So you can load this down for women and younger shooters, and have a rifle that recoils about like a .270 Winchester.
A word on seating depth. both guns I tried are not at all fussy about it. The Browning has a short magazine and some loads are seated o.085” off the lands. No problem, the loads still groups under 1 MOA. The Winchester has a longer magazine and can seat bullets farther out. However, in true Winchester fashion, they can’t spend an extra 10 cents to punch press a shoulder in the magazine body to prevent the rounds from slamming forward during recoil and damaging the noses. Weatherby and Browning do positively retain the rounds with their magazine designs, and the bullet noses are perfect from the first shot to the last one in the magazine.
The recoil claims for this round are accurate. The smaller powder charge and perhaps some other burning rate factor make for less felt recoil than the ballistics would seem to indicate. The fact that eventually sinks in to the novice shooter is that a hunting rifle, as opposed to a targetrifle, must be light and compact enough to carry it all day through brush and up and down hills and tangles. Lighter rifles bring the price of heavier recoil.
I had a Weatherby Ultralightweight Mark V rifle in .300 Winchester Magnum. It was accurate but kicked like a mule – – hard and fast. This was with the factory Pachmayr Decelerator pad too. Practice sessions were flinch-producing.
This .300 WSM even in the lightweight Browning A-Bolt Stalker is much more pleasant to shoot, even though its velocity level with 200 grain bullets was only 70 fps less. The fast-stepping 150 grain deer load is easy to shoot, and the do-all 180 grain factory load is tolerable for anyone with a bit of rifle experience.
After lots of fireside debates, it remains a fact that the .30 calibre rifles have the greatest selection of bullets in this country, and offer the frontal area and bullet weight needed to handle the largest North American game in a pinch. While no .30 calibre weapon is ideal for polar bear or bison, it is far more suitable than any smaller bore. It is about ideal for elk in the 180 grain Power Point load or equivalent handload, and the 180 grain Failsafe load or a Swift A-frame will do a number on any Brown Bear you might meet, if you do your part.
The same cannot be said for any 7mm or .270 bore, which are the next series of WSM cartridges, with their dinky 160 grain and 150 grain bullets. While good for deer, and perhaps elk, they don’t offer enough wallop for the larger or more deadly game. And the smaller bore rounds need a harder bullet to penetrate properly on large animals, which serves to limit expansion of the smaller diameter bullet. Sort of a Catch-22 situation: adequate penetration but limited expansion. There’s no free lunch.
Nor can a possible .338 WSM be considered an “all-around” load, as a 200 grain deer load (with its increased recoil) would only achieve about 2900 fps, making it less suitable than the .300 150 grain load for flat-shooting situations, and a 225 grain .338 load would achieve 2800 fps – – nice for elk, but with more drop and recoil than the 180 grain .308 load, which is more than adequate already. Only on a 250 grain load at 2700 fps would offer better performance than the .300 WSM on moose and big bears.
Drawbacks to the cartridge are that the rounds don’t fit into nearly any cartridge loops, bullet pouches or boxes, they are so fat. And magazine capacity is reduced to three. But you are gaining a shorter rifle, a lighter rifle and a very capable “one-gun” calibre. It is very appealing.
I am very happy with the calibre and if I were limited to one rifle, it would be a .300 WSM. The Winchester Featherweight M70 can be very attractive and reliable (don’t buy unseen) but is somewhat heavier than the Browning A-Bolt Stainless Stalker and not all-weather. The Browning A-Bolt extractor system, while reliable in over a dozen different such rifles I’ve shot over the years, is not confidence-inspiring on a long and expensive hunting trip away from home. Bolt disassembly is a bench-and-tools-only nightmare and the extractor is a little bitty piece of curved steel ala Remington, and it is held in place by the tiniest piece of plain old bent wire you can imagine.
I’d love to recommend the Winchester stainless M70, but I cant. The stock is lacking in any bedding and the recoil pad is hard and punishing. Plus, for some odd reason Winchester doesn’t finish the bolt face or extractor very well on this model and I’ve found some of these rifles in other calibres don’t feed or extract smoothly, in addition to not shooting too accurately.
So at the beginning of the 21st Century, a new class of sporting rifle cartridges has been born, and for all practical purposes they are obsolescing all that came before. Sure, I like my Roberts and Hornets and whatnots. But forced to pick ONE to do all my game hunting in North America ( and 90% of anywhere else), there is hardly a more efficient choice than the .300 WSM.
Until some new technology replaces our hunting implements, we may be at the end of history.