The Best Deer Cartridge You’ve Probably Never Shot

The Best Deer Cartridge You’ve Probably Never Shot

Remember that old children’s story, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears?” Some take the moral as a warning against breaking and entering, but most folks probably remember the story’s lesson about moderation: not too hot, not too cold, not too hard, not too soft—just right.

The .257 Roberts is the Goldilocks of whitetail cartridges. It’s not a screamer and it’s not a slowpoke. It’s not a small game cartridge and it’s not a dangerous game cartridge. Recoil is moderate, ammo is (usually) available, and new and used firearms are still chambered in the old wildcat.

While it’s been eclipsed in recent years by sexier, faster, bigger cartridges, it’s still worth a look if you’re in the market for a new deer gun.

High Praise for the .257 Roberts
Like the “X-Files” and duck gizzards, the .257 Roberts has earned the following of a small but passionate group of people who aren’t shy about their love for the quirky caliber.

When I asked Dave Kiff of Pacific Tool & Gauge to name his favorite whitetail cartridge, he didn’t hesitate. “The .257 Roberts. It’s a perfect all-around gun,” Kiff said.

Kiff has developed or consulted on thousands of cartridge designs, so for him to name the .257 without second thought is no small potatoes.

Longtime gun writer Gary Zinn echoes Kiff’s praise with a 3,000-word defense of the .257 in an article on Chuck Hawks’ website.

“My purpose here is to propose (or plead for) a resurrection of the .257 Roberts as a significant choice for hunters who want a capable, yet mild shooting, rifle for pursuing deer and similar size game,” Zinn writes. “The Roberts is not a puny quarter-bore cartridge!”

Frank C. Barnes, author of the classic “Cartridges of the World,” agrees that the .257 Roberts is one of “the most useful rifle cartridges ever developed.”

The .257 isn’t just loved by industry insiders, either. Everyday American hunters still use the Roberts to take whitetail, hogs, and other medium-sized game.

“My grandfather built me a .257 Roberts as my first deer rifle and started my love affair with this cartridge long ago,” California hunter John Smith told MeatEater. Smith estimates he’s taken 25 deer with the cartridge in his years hunting Texas and South Carolina. “It is arguably the perfect deer-sized cartridge. Flat shooting, low recoil, accurate, and deadly.”

Texas hunting guide Floyd Parr told us he’s taken a wide variety of animals with the .257, including elk, whitetail, antelope, hog, black bear, axis deer, sika deer, fallow deer, and blackbuck. “It’s my go-to round,” he said. “It’s perfect.”

Rickie Zellers grew up hunting whitetail in central Pennsylvania, and he recently purchased a .257 Roberts for his aging father.

“My dad eats, sleeps, and poops deer hunting,” Zellers said. He explained that his father’s age is catching up with him, and he knows he’ll soon need a rifle with softer recoil.

“So, I thought, what better than a timeless classic, the .257 Roberts? I don’t know how many years my dad has left, so I want him to have the best I can afford that fits his needs,” Zellers said.

.257 Roberts Ballistics
Despite the .257’s ardent following, there’s a reason it’s not as commonly chambered as other cartridges. Vortex’s Ryan Muckenhirn explained that the .257 Roberts has suffered from the no-man’s land that is quarter-bore cartridges.

“It’s a bullet diameter bracketed on either side by wildly more successful bullet diameters,” he said on a recent episode of the Vortex podcast.

Smaller calibers like the 6mm usually boast higher ballistic coefficients and sectional densities while shooting comparably weighted bullets. On the other side of the scale, the 6.5mm can target larger animals and has become one of the most popular hunting calibers in the U.S.

To make matters worse for the Roberts, the .25-06 Remington runs in the same caliber lane as the .257 but can push a 100-grain bullet about 300 feet-per-second faster. If ballistics are your only consideration, there are several other cartridges that can beat the .257 Roberts in a foot race.

But for most hunters, ballistics aren’t the only consideration. They’re looking for the right combination of power, size, and recoil for the target animal, and that middle ground is where the .257 shines (Goldilocks, remember?).

The .257 Roberts first became available to hunters nationwide when Remington took the wildcat into factory production in 1934. It was developed by gun writer and experimenter N.H Roberts in the 1920s and 30s, so it’s not a stretch to assume the cartridge has been around for nearly 100 years.

As with many old cartridges, the original .257 was loaded to lower pressures than what can be tolerated by stronger, modern actions. To allow the cartridge to reach its full potential, ammo companies in the 1980s began producing “+P” loads.

With these higher-pressure cartridges, the .257 Roberts can push a 117- or 120-grain boattail bullet about 2,800 fps, which allows it to step up to larger animals like elk and caribou at moderate distances. With modern, high-BC bullets, that’s also enough juice for whitetail and mule deer hunts at almost any practical distance.

Federal’s custom-loaded .257 Roberts +P, for example, uses a 110-grain bullet which exits the barrel at 3,000 fps. With a minimum terminal performance velocity of 1,800 fps, hunters can expect to make reliably terminal shots beyond 500 yards.

The Roberts combines that solid ballistic performance with feather-light recoil. Chuck Hawks reports that a 100-grain .257 exiting the barrel at 3,000 fps produces only 9.3 ft-lbs. of recoil with a 7.5-pound rifle. For comparison, a .25-06 Rem. produces 11 ft.-lbs. of energy with an 8-pound rifle, a .270 Win. produces about 17 ft.-lbs. with an 8-pound rifle, and a .30-06 produces about 20 ft.-lbs. with an 8-pound rifle.

These recoil figures can be adjusted with heavier or lighter bullets, of course, but when using the most common factory loads, the .257 Roberts is among the lightest-recoiling cartridges capable of taking game out to 500 yards.

How to Buy a .257 Roberts
The .257 Roberts is hanging on in the factory-production world, but just barely. Nosler offers a box of 20 cartridges for $93. You can get a box of the Federal load mentioned above for $100. Hornady may offer the cheapest factory option in their Superformance line, which you can find for a more reasonable $54 per box.

New factory rifle options are even more limited. Kimber offers their Hunter line chambered in .257 Roberts, and Ruger still makes their Model No. 1 in .257. Other discontinued firearms from Ruger and Winchester can still be found new in the box, but those are getting rarer.

Otherwise, hunters hoping to help resurrect the .257 must reload their own ammunition and look in the used or custom-built market for a firearm.

That’s a damn shame. Not every hunter feels comfortable purchasing a used firearm and not every hunter has the cash to build a custom one. Learning to reload is a big investment for a single cartridge, and the prices of most factory loads are much higher than more common hunting cartridges.

The .257 Roberts is a great all-around deer cartridge, so it’s too bad that it’s so difficult and/or expensive to get your hands on one. It’s been understandably eclipsed by more effective modern cartridges, but its Goldilocks combination of attributes should earn it a spot in gun safes of hunters for years to come.

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