Best For Beginners

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The first big game I ever shot was taken in 1965 with a .243 Winchester. The rifle was a first-year production of what would quickly come to be known as the “post-‘64” Model 70, topped with a fixed 4X Unertl scope. I thought it was a pretty trick setup, and it worked just fine for me! Actually, it was a pretty darned good rifle. The much-reviled post-’64 Model 70 worked just fine and shot straight. Those fixed-power Unertl scopes weren’t anything like the quality of their famous target scopes, but it also worked just fine—and in those days a fixed 4X scope was pretty much standard for big game.

I wasn’t exactly a beginner when I used a .243 to take this pronghorn back in the late 70s, but it’s a cartridge that I have used a lot over the years and have much respect for. It is a great choice for a beginner…but today I don’t think it’s the best choice.

The .243 Winchester cartridge also wasn’t a bad choice. In fact, since its introduction in 1955 it has reigned supreme as the top choice for a beginner’s deer/pronghorn rifle. Remington’s .244 came out in the same year, with a bit longer case, more case capacity, and a bit more velocity. However, Remington saw the cartridge as a long-range varmint round, barreling their rifles with a fairly slow twist to best stabilize lighter bullets. Winchester saw their .243 as a combination rig for both varmints and small to medium big game in open country. Apparently the public agreed with Winchester. The .243, initially with 80-grain varmint loads and 100-grain big game loads, took off like a rocket.

The .244 languished until, a few years later, Remington sped up the rifling twist, added a heavier bullet, and renamed the cartridge the 6mm Remington. The 6mm Remington, based on the 7mm Mauser case necked down, does not fit into a short bolt action, but otherwise it is absolutely a better cartridge than the .243 Winchester. This fact really doesn’t matter; the .243 remains wildly popular, a world standard hunting cartridge, while the 6mm Remington has become a rare bird.

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Left to right: .243 Winchester, .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington. All three of these cartridges, based on the .308 Winchester case, are good choices for beginners, with light recoil and lots of performance. Like many hunters I started with the .243, but today I think the 7mm-08 is probably the very best choice.

The .243, with a 100-grain bullet at 2960 fps, is flat-shooting and, on deer and deer-sized game, performs far beyond what its caliber, bullet weight, and mild energy levels might suggest. With lighter bullets it is indeed a marvelous varmint cartridge. It hasn’t been one of my primary choices for big game since the 1960s, but over the years I’ve taken quite a few deer and pronghorns with it, and even a scattering of African plains game. Some hunters who are patient and willing to pick their shots use it with perfect satisfaction on game up to elk. That is pushing the .243’s envelope very hard, but one of its greatest attributes is that its wonderfully mild recoil makes it extremely easy to shoot it well…which is why it is so popular as a beginner’s first deer rifle.

There’s nothing wrong with a starting a youngster, a petite female, or even a grown man with a .243. Shooting is supposed to be fun. Recoil is not fun, and it’s very difficult to learn good shooting habits when you’re getting kicked around. However, I am no longer certain the .243 is the best choice for a beginner. It will certainly do the job on any deer that walks, and if some varminting is also in the cards, it remains one of the few cartridges that can do double-duty as a varmint and big game round. However, for big game I have come to regard it more as an expert’s cartridge, and I think there are a couple of other choices better-suited for beginners.

Back in the late 90s I used the .260 Remington quite a bit. It’s a great cartridge for both beginners and experts, its only drawback being that it has not become popular, so ammunition is limited in variety and can be hard to find.

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Both are based on the same .308 Winchester case, which means they can be housed in a short action, lighter and handier for people of smaller stature with smaller hands. Both produce mild recoil, but offer a great deal more capability than the .243. They are the .260 Remington and 7mm-08 Remington. The .260 is a 6.5mm, actual bullet diameter .264. Long a popular wildcat (6.5-08), it became a factory cartridge in the late 90s. At first it showed much promise, and around the turn of the millennium I used it quite a bit both to start new hunters and for my own use. With light bullets it isn’t a bad varmint rifle, and with its long-for-caliber 140-grain bullets there isn’t much out there it won’t handle.

Its big drawback is that, despite much initial hype, it has nearly died on the marketplace. It seems unlikely now that it will ever become especially popular, so despite its attributes it probably isn’t doing anybody a great favor to saddle a new hunter with a cartridge that might become increasingly difficult to find ammo for. So although both the .243 and .260 remain good choices, I think the 7mm-08 Remington stands today as the very best choice for new hunters…and not a bad choice for anyone who wants performance in a light rifle with little recoil!

My daughter, Brittany, was 17 when she took her first game animal, a California wild hog, with a .260 Remington. It’s a wonderfully effective little cartridge, but we soon graduated her to a 7mm-08 because of greater availability.

My daughter, Brittany, was 17 when she made a late decision to try hunting. I started her with a .260 Remington that we had, but when it was time for her own rifle I got her a Kimber in 7mm-08. She has never looked back, and neither have I. Based on her consistently spectacular performance with that rifle, the 7mm-08 has become the cartridge I recommend most when asked about the right choice for a beginning hunter.

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The most common load propels a 140-grain bullet at about 2800 fps, depending on the load. Realistically, this is about the same as the .260 Remington with the same bullet weight, so recoil is very similar. The 7mm-08 offers a possibly theoretical advantage of a bit more frontal area (.284-inch versus .264), but the real advantages are the ability to use heavier bullets if desired, and, because of its popularity, a wonderful selection of loads to choose from.

Brittany, now about 21, on shooting sticks with her beloved Kimber 7mm-08. Recoil is very mild, but performance is awesome. She has great faith in the rifle and shoots it well, and it’s amazing how well she has done with it.

We got Brittany’s 7mm-08 back in 2003, and ever since then I have been amazed at her accomplishments with this little rifle. It is, of course, an excellent deer rifle with full capability to handle elk-sized game. Following this train of thought, she has used it on a wide range of African plains game, from small antelopes on up to larger, tougher game like zebra, wildebeest, and kudu. Once she used it to take a huge eland bull, pushing a ton in weight. This was against my better judgment, but I had to agree with her professional hunter that she was better off with a rifle she trusted than a rifle she was afraid to shoot. One well-placed 140-grain Nosler Partition did the job quite well!

That’s the real secret to any beginner’s rifle: It has to be easy to shoot. Both the .260 and the 7mm-08 produce more recoil than the .243…but they also offer much more capability, and the recoil is still minimal and should be acceptable. Any of these three are very good choices to start a new hunter, but my vote for the “best of the best” goes to the 7mm-08 Remington.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>