Best Long-Range Hunting Cartridges

Best Long-Range Hunting Cartridges

Hunters usually define “long range” as about 500 yards. MeatEater’s Janis Putelis told me that he doesn’t pull the trigger on anything past 400 yards, and new hunters should probably stay within 300 yards. But if you’ve practiced extensively, are shooting from a solid rest, and aren’t shaking from buck fever, these five cartridges are more than capable of bringing down an animal even beyond the 500-yard mark.

We’re staying away from wildcat cartridges, very large cartridges, and intercontinental ballistic missiles because we used the Caliber Battle criteria to make this list. Ballistics is important, but so is comfort, ammo cost and availability, and versatility. A .50 BMG might be “better” at long range, but you’re not lugging one into the tree stand on your next whitetail hunt. These cartridges will all get the job done at distance without forcing you to take out a second mortgage or pick up a Humvee.

Long Range Cartridges We Use

*All measurements at 500 yards

6.5 Creedmoor

Haters can hate, but everyone knew this cartridge was making the list. The MeatEater crew has taken too many elk and whitetail with the 6.5 Creedmoor to ignore it. The Creedmoor cut its teeth on the long-range shooting circuit thanks to its high-BC bullets and low recoil. It didn’t take long for hunters to hop on the bandwagon, and they soon discovered that it walks that super-fine line between power and comfort. New hunters will also appreciate the wide selection of reasonably priced cartridges available from every major manufacturer.

Our Pick: 120-Grain Trophy Copper 6.5 Creedmoor Velocity at 500 Yards: 2015 fps Energy at 500 Yards: 1080 ft.-lbs. Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 41.6 inches Recoil: ~13 ft.-lbs.

6.5 PRC

The 6.5 PRC is even newer than the 6.5 Creedmoor, but it’s already jumped from the competition bench to the deer blind. The PRC makes modest improvements to the Creedmoor’s velocity and power, but what really attracts long-range aficionados is its factory twist rate. Cartridge designers specify barrel twist rates when submitting their designs to SAAMI, and the PRC comes with a 1:8 twist, one of the fastest available. This allows factory guns chambered in the PRC to stabilize the long, heavy, high-BC bullets favored by long-range hunters. You’ll notice from the list below that while the PRC isn’t always the fastest or most powerful, it competes with the .280 AI and the .300 Win. Mag. in the bullet drop category.

Our Pick: 120-Grain Trophy Copper 6.5 Velocity at 500 Yards: 2158 fps Energy at 500 Yards: 1241 ft.-lbs. Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 36.5 inches Recoil: ~17 ft.-lbs.

.270 Winchester

The .270 Winchester doesn’t get enough love these days. Between 6.5 fanboys and .30-caliber Fudds, outdoor writers seem to have forgotten about Winchester’s legendary, 97-year-old cartridge. That’s a cryin’ shame. It’s an excellent long-range option that packs more heat than a 6.5 Creedmoor, drops less at 500 yards, and only hits with about 20% more recoil. Plus, it’s one of the least expensive options on our list.

Our Pick: 130-Grain Trophy Copper 270 Winchester Velocity at 500 Yards: 2100 fps Energy at 500 Yards: 1273 ft.-lbs. Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 37.3 inches Recoil: ~16 ft.-lbs.

.280 Ackley Improved

The .280 Ackley Improved got its start as a wildcat cartridge, and it’s never enjoyed the popularity of the other cartridges listed here. But the .280 AI has been around since the 1950’s, and it’s earned a well-deserved reputation for stopping animals at distances beyond 500 yards. Ammo is limited and somewhat expensive, but not impossible to find. You can think of it like a souped-up 6.5 Creedmoor—it also shoots a 140-grain bullet, but it fires it about 300 fps faster.

Our Pick: 140-Grain Trophy Copper 280 Ackley Improved Velocity at 500 Yards: 2165 fps Energy at 500 Yards: 1457 ft.-lbs. Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 36 inches Recoil: ~16 ft.-lbs.

7mm Remington Magnum

In his famous book, “Cartridges of the World,” Frank C. Barnes describes the 7mm Rem. Mag. as a “fine long-range, big game cartridge.” We should all aspire to such high praise. It shoots the heaviest bullet on our list so far, but it launches that 150-grain pill just as fast. The only downside? Recoil. At 500 yards, it hits 5% harder than the .280 AI, but it produces about 20% more recoil back at the shooter’s shoulder.

Our Pick: 150-Grain Trophy Copper 7mm Rem. Magnum Velocity at 500 Yards: 2139 fps Energy at 500 Yards: 1524 ft.-lbs. Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 37.1 inches Recoil: ~19 ft.-lbs.

.300 Winchester Magnum

The granddaddy of long-range hunting cartridges, the .300 Win. Mag. is another favorite among the MeatEater crew. It hits with more recoil than the other options on this list, but it delivers at the business end of the gun. It won’t turn you into Chris Kyle, but there’s a reason the famous American sniper chose the .300 Win. Mag. At 500 yards, it travels the fastest and hits the hardest of any option on this list. That’s not to say it’s the “best.” Many hunters try the .300 Win. Mag. and opt for something with less kick. But if you can control it, the .300 Win. Mag. can take large animals that look small from where you shoot them.

Our Pick: 165-Grain Trophy Copper .300 Win. Mag. Velocity at 500 Yards: 2167 fps Energy at 500 Yards: 1721 ft.-lbs. Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 36.3 inches Recoil: ~26 ft.-lbs.

A Note on “Inherent Accuracy”

Some cartridges develop a reputation for accuracy, but that often has more to do with the rifles being used than the attributes of the cartridges themselves.

It’s true that straight-wall cartridges that have a long, narrow powder column tend to be less accurate because that column doesn’t always ignite consistently. But virtually any match-grade or handloaded bottleneck cartridge shot from a quality barrel can be super accurate if you’re shooting 100-yard groups.

At long distances, however, a bullet’s velocity and shape (i.e., its ballistic coefficient) make some cartridges more “accurate” than others. A fast bullet that cuts through the wind will produce more consistent groups at long range than a slow bullet that gets pulled around by the breeze. What’s more, some cartridges are designed to use a faster standard barrel twist rate, which allows those barrels to stabilize long, heavy, high-BC bullets. Those cartridges will also be more accurate at longer distances.

The cartridges in this list feature bullets with similar weights, BC’s, and velocities. That’s why accuracy wasn’t a criterion. With a good gun, any of these cartridges can make consistent shots at whatever distance you consider “long range.”

Last Shot

Hunters shouldn’t necessarily aspire to be “long-range hunters.” The best hunters are those who can get close to an animal, and the skills required to do so will serve you better than any high-speed, low-drag rifle setup.

But some hunts don’t allow for those close-range shots. Mountainous or open terrain can keep target animals well out of arm’s reach. In the closing hours of a multi-day hunt, a 400-yard shot might be all you can get. If you find yourself in that situation, your cartridge better be up to the task, and these five options will perform well on everything from pronghorn to black bear.

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