Versatile .243 Winchester proves its worth for Thomas Tabor
The light recoil of the .243 Winchester makes it a great choice for ladies and younger shooters but possibly the most favourable aspect of this cartridge is its diversity. For hunters after a single calibre capable of being effective on anything from deer, roos and pigs all the way down to rabbits, foxes and small vermin, the .243 is hard to beat.
From the time it was introduced in 1955 shooters quickly embraced both the cartridge’s light recoil as well as its hunting versatility. Eventually that same popularity led to a whole new era of .243/6mm cartridge choices – both wildcat versions as well as commercial calibres – but in the end the .243 has prevailed over all those decades and outlasted most of its challengers.
A little history
The late US cartridge wildcatter and gun writer Warren Page is largely credited with the advance of the .243 and at the time his desire was to cultivate a cartridge which could be used effectively for hunting deer as well as varmints, this eventually leading to the development of what we now know as the .243 Winchester. Page began by squeezing down the case of a 7.62mm NATO (which became known on the civilian market as the .308 Winchester) to accept the considerably smaller diameter .243/6mm bullet, the end result being a modern-looking, moderately sharp-shouldered and fairly long-necked case. Ironically, as a kind of a back-handed slap at the once highly-touted .25 Souper cartridge, Page called his new creation the .240 Page Pooper.
Like most wildcatters Page must’ve dreamt of his new cartridge eventually reaching the pinnacle of success in the commercial market, which it did when Winchester adopted it in 1955. But while that major player chose to put the new cartridge into production and chamber their rifles for it, they decided not to call it the Page Pooper and instead it became known as the .243 Winchester.
The first rifles commercially available in the new calibre were Winchester’s bolt-action Model 70 and lever-action Model 88. But as the popularity of the cartridge continued to grow so did the availability of choices both within the Winchester brand and from other rifle manufacturers. Even though Page’s original design was based on the 7.62mm NATO/.308 Winchester case, today’s reloading manuals show the current manufactured .243 Winchester brass to be 0.76mm longer than the .308 Winchester.
Nevertheless, shooters who reload their own ammunition can still produce brass for .243s by running .308 cases through their full-length resizing die to squeeze it down to .243 dimensions. But when this is done it has a tendency to increase the neck metal thickness which usually makes it necessary to turn that thickness down as if this isn’t done, higher chamber pressures could result.
Twist rate and bullet selection
The twist rate of a barrel is most often presented in the form of how many inches of the barrel it takes for the rifling to make one complete revolution. For example, a barrel with a 1-in-9 twist rate would indicate it takes 9” of that barrel length for the rifling to make a complete (360-degree) revolution. In order to determine the optimum rate of twist for a firearm, several factors are usually considered as calibre, length and shape of the intended bullet to be fired and velocities can all play a part in determining the best possible twist rate of a barrel. In general terms it’s commonly felt that longer, heavier bullets in most calibres perform best in faster twist rate barrels while shorter, lighter weight bullets function more efficiently in barrels with slower twist rates.
I’ve owned several factory-made bolt-action rifles chambered in .243 which currently include a Remington 700 BDL with replacement aftermarket composite stock and a new unaltered Ruger American. Both barrels are said to have twist rates in the 1-in-9 to 1-in-10 range which in this calibre should be best suited for the heavier .243 bullets in the region of 95 to 105 grains, yet I found both rifles stabilise a much broader array of bullet weights than those two.
While hunting deer-sized game my long-time favourite bullet is the 95-grain Nosler Partition but when chasing smaller game and varmints, I frequently switch to my own handloads with little 55-grain Nosler Solid Base bullets. While these fall on opposite ends of the usual .243 bullet spectrum, both group and perform very well yet differ in their impact points so a sighting adjustment must be made if switching.
The same year Winchester brought the .243 to the market Remington countered with their own .243/6mm cartridge, initially calling it the .244 Remington, that version originally made by necking down a .257 Roberts case (itself developed from the case of the 7x57mm Mauser). Eventually the .244 was renamed the 6mm Remington and while the latter is still made today by many rifle manufacturers, it lost the popularity battle with the .243 Winchester early on and remains that way still.
Weatherby also threw their hat in the .243/6mm ring with the .240 Weatherby Magnum in 1968 but, like all that company’s cartridges, its popularity has remained quite limited over the years. And more recently cartridges like the 6mm Creedmoor, .24 Nosler and a few others have tried to muscle in on the .243 Winchester but have enjoyed little success.
My own experience
For handloading I found the best powders for almost all bullets for the .243 are those with a slower burn rate. As alluded to earlier, my favourite .243 load for hunting larger game consists of a handloaded 95-grain bullet, specifically a Nosler Partition which I send on its way at a measured 3177fps. That load produces 1200ft-lb of energy on impact at 100m and when sighted-in to hit around 3cm high at that range the bullet will only be down a little over 15cm at 300m.
And when I shift from pursuing big game to varmints, my handloads with 55-grain Nosler Solid Base Ballistic Tip bullets leave the barrel at an impressive 3900fps, this load producing devastating results on smaller game. Even if you don’t load your own cartridges, factory loads are available from a variety of manufacturers producing similar bullets.
The way I see it
It almost seems like new cartridges are being developed on a monthly basis but in my opinion some of the best are those which have stood the test of time with the .243 Winchester certainly one of them. Whether you’re going after pigs and deer-sized animals or varmints and small game I don’t believe you can go wrong with this cartridge.
I have a close friend who underwent serious surgery just before the start of the US elk hunting season a few years back and feeling reluctant to use his normal elk rifle due to its stout recoil, he opted instead for his .243. Normally I wouldn’t suggest the cartridge for game of this size but he’s an experienced hunter and knew well its limitations.
Not willing to give up an elk season he used that .243 to kill two cows, each with a single shot, and while certainly not recommended for this type of application, it does demonstrate the effectiveness of the cartridge when loaded with a high-quality hunting bullet coupled with precise placement.