Rifle calibers are kind of like craft beer (hear me out). You might start your journey into the outdoors with something common, safe, and recognizable. Maybe a .22LR, .223 Rem., or a .30-06. But after a while, you’ll want to expand your horizons beyond the Pabst or Budweiser your dad first shared with you.
We’re not talking anything too crazy. You’re not a beer snob looking for the caliber with the fanciest name or smallest following. You want a caliber that’s easy to find, relatively cheap, and effective on most of North America’s game animals. Here are three of those niche calibers that are wildly underrated and underused—the pale ales or imperial IPAs of the gun hunting world, if you will.
The .300 Blackout (also known as .300 BLK and .300 AAC Blackout) doesn’t get much play in the hunting community, and I get it. Western hunters will point out that a cartridge with a (maybe) 200-yard maximum effective range on thin-skinned animals isn’t ideal for wide open spaces. Still, in the right environment, the .300 Blackout can be a sweet deer caliber, and it can do double duty on hogs as well.
This caliber was developed in the early 2010s for military applications. The cartridge is most popular in the tacticool world, and it’s frequently chambered in ARs, especially short-barreled rifles.
It looks like a .30-caliber projectile stuffed into a .223 Rem. case, and that’s because it is. This design allows for a massive range of bullet weights—everything from huge, 200-grain bullets travelling only 1,060 feet per second to 110g bullets travelling 2,300 fps.
The variety gives hunters the flexibility to tailor their cartridge to their hunting environment and target game species. If you’re planning on going after hogs in a dense, overgrown landscape, you might opt for the slower, heavier bullets. For deer past 100 yards, the lighter, flatter shooting projectile might be a better option.
I’ve taken several whitetail deer with rifles chambered in .300 Blackout. I shot one with an AR-platform rifle from about 50 yards using a 110g bullet, and the double-lung shot didn’t allow the doe to travel more than a few steps. On another hunt, my brother-in-law took a nice buck with a little break-action rifle from about 85 yards using a 125g projectile. It too met a quick fate and, like my doe, it had minimal meat damage.
You can find rifles of all varieties chambered in .300 Blackout. For ammo, check out Federal’s 150g Power Shok cartridge.
While the 300 Blackout has enjoyed broad appeal across a wide range of hunters and shooters, the .338 Federal is designed for one specific application: mountain hunting.
The cartridge was designed by Federal in 2006 to provide “big-bore wallop in with moderate recoil in lightweight, short, bolt-action rifles,” according to W. Todd Woodard’s excellent book, “Cartridges of the World.” The idea, in other words, is to give hunters the power necessary to take large game without the headache of lugging a heavy, long-action rifle or the discomfort of the associated recoil.
The cartridge uses the same case as the venerable old .308 Win., but necks it up to accept a .338-caliber projectile. Its muzzle energy exceeds the .30-06, equals that of the 7mm Rem. Mag., and cooks along about 200 fps faster than the .308 Win. with a similarly-weighted bullet.
In the real world, the .338 Federal shines when pursuing larger animals at moderate distances, according to the New Zealand ballistics company Terminal Ballistics Research. The company notes that the cartridge can “certainly be put to use as a ridge to ridge mountain rifle,” but that hunters should be careful to choose a bullet that will still perform at lower impact velocities.
Several manufacturers make bolt-action rifles chambered in .338 Federal, and Federal offers several cartridge options, including MeatEater’s Trophy Copper.
.280 Ackley Improved
Like many calibers, the .280 Ackley Improved (AI) is underrated only by those who have never used it. The cartridge is more than capable of taking large game like elk and moose, but it can do so with less powder and less recoil than magnum cartridges like the 7mm Rem. Mag.
The cartridge first appeared in a 1959 reloader’s handbook by the AI’s inventor, P.O. Ackley. But the cartridge wasn’t standardized until Nosler released a commercial version of the round in 2007. Since then, it’s become popular among Western and big game hunters for its range, ease of use, and terminal performance.
It’s based on the .280 Rem., which is itself an American adaption of the 7×64 Brenneke. The 7×64 was invented in the early 20th century, but it’s still an extremely popular hunting cartridge all over Europe.
The ballistics and accuracy are impressive. The .280 AI can push a 120g round about 3,200 fps (about as fast as a typical 55g .223 Rem.) and a 175g round about 2,700 fps (just 100 fps shy of the 7mm Weatherby Mag.). The 40-degree shoulder (10 degrees sharper than the .280 Rem.) helps improve accuracy by providing an efficient propellant chamber and a precise chamber-to-case fit. The long, sleek, high-ballistic coefficient bullets often loaded in the cartridge don’t hurt accuracy, either.
“The .280 Ackley Improved is a bit of an oddball,” Ryan Callaghan said. “I loved my .280 Rem., though I didn’t have much confidence with it beyond 350 yards. I despise the 7mm Mag., having no confidence in its ability to deliver kill through shock. For whatever reason, the Ackley landed in a sweet spot for me. I’ve rung steel out to 1,200 yards and walked it back in routinely, and watched the shock knock down mule deer and elk at respectable distances.”
Weatherby chambers many of their rifles in the .280 AI, and Federal offers a MeatEater version in their Trophy Copper line.
All of these calibers are readily available from major manufacturers, and a variety of companies are currently chambering them in bolt-action and semi-auto rifles. New horizons and beers are on tap. There’s only one question: What are you waiting for?