Is the .243 Winchester the “best” deer cartridge for young and recoil-sensitive deer hunters? Perhaps.
Shooters who have enjoyed more than 50 years on planet Earth might be surprised to hear younger folks questioning the merits of the “old .243 Winchester.” Old? Why, you young whippersnappers, this ain’t no old fogey cartridge. It is sleek, fast, efficient, and fully modern. It may have been the newest, hottest centerfire on the market when Elvis was singing “Jailhouse Rock,” but that doesn’t mean it’s over the hill. According to ammunition and handloading die sales, the dottering .243 Winchester is still the most popular .243 in the world. It hasn’t been bumped off by the 6mm Remington, the .243 Winchester Super Short Magnum, or even the more powerful .240 Weatherby Magnum, all of which came later.
Not bad for a cartridge born in 1955, six years before the first human rocketed into space. Bake a cake and light the candles. Let’s celebrate a hunting round that is aging well.
Prior to the .243 Winchester’s arrival, America’s most versatile, light-recoil, “dual-purpose” cartridges for hunting varmints and deer were the .250-3000 Savage and .257 Roberts. Both pushed .257-caliber bullets of 87- to 120-grains in the neighborhood of 2,600 to 3,200 fps. Apparently this didn’t fully satisfy hunters in pursuit of woodchucks, coyotes, whitetails, and pronghorns, because they largely abandoned both those rounds when the .243 Win. hit the market.
The .243 Winchester’s genesis was the .308 Winchester, released in 1952. This short-action case (abbreviated from the .30-06 case) appeared to contain the ideal powder volume for pushing smaller-diameter bullets, so wildcatters quickly took up the challenge. They squeezed the neck down to just about every imaginable diameter. For some reason, the .243-caliber hit a nerve.
This was surprising because the .24-caliber was an oddity. The only .24-caliber U.S. cartridge previously produced was the obscure 6mm Lee Navy of 1895. Factory rifles and ammunition for it were phased out in 1935. In England, Holland & Holland had released its .240 Magnum Rimless cartridge in 1923, but it never won a following here.
Most likely that British .240 influenced American experimenters. Warren Page, then shooting editor for Field & Stream magazine, called his necked-down version of the .308 Winchester the 243 Page Pooper. He wrote glowing reviews of it, driving demand. Winchester set out to meet that demand by releasing the round as a legitimate factory cartridge. Thankfully, it changed the name.
The shooting public responded in a big way. Ballistic performance didn’t seem to justify the change in allegiance from the .25-caliber Savage and Roberts rounds to the new .24-caliber Winchester, but today the .243 Win. is chambered in virtually every rifle built and the Savage and Roberts are nearly extinct.
As anticipated by Page and Winchester, the .243 Win. has proven an effective dual purpose round. Frangible 55- to 58-grain bullets jump out at 4,000 to 3,800 fps and ruin a small rodent’s salad days. Slightly longer 70- to 75-grain bullets at 3,500 to 3,400 fps moderate wind deflection and carry a bit more punch downrange, making them ideal for coyotes and way-out-there woodchucks. A variety of 80- to 87-grain slugs at 3,300 to 3,100 fps continue the progression toward reduced wind drift and additional crunch. With tough bullet materials and construction, these are suitable for both coyotes and bigger game, including feral hogs.
Winchester and other ammo makers originally engineered 90- and 100-grain .243 projectiles for deer and pronghorn. Those heavier slugs continue fulfilling this role nicely, hitting 2,900 to 3,000 fps – about 100 fps faster than the .257 Roberts with a 115-grain bullet. The .257 bullet drops two inches more at 400 yards, but it also carries 100 foot-pounds (f.p.) more energy. I don’t believe deer notice the difference.
Trajectory of a 100-grain Boat Tail Spire Point from the .243 Win. nearly mirrors a 140-grain BTSP from a .270 Winchester. The .243 slug drops about a half-inch more at 300 yards, an inch more at 400 yards. A more critical difference is downrange energy. At 400 yards the .243 Win. is hauling 1,000 f.p. kinetic energy; the .270 Win. carries 600 f.p. more. Experience suggests that 1,000 f.p. are a safe minimum for consistent, dependable terminal performance on deer. That means the .243 is a 400-yard deer rifle at best. To which 90 percent of hunters say, “So what!” The vast majority take their game much closer.
The .243 Win. may not crack thunder, but it spits lightning. At 400 yards a 75-grain V-Max launched at 3,300 fps and zeroed at 200 yards drops just an inch more than a 55-grain V-Max from a .22-250 Rem. at 3,600 fps muzzle velocity. The big difference is the .243 slug will be carrying 247 f.p. more energy at 400 yards—nice to have on coyotes.
Despite delightfully flat trajectory with all .243 loads, shots on big game must be placed carefully for behind-the-shoulder heart/lung hits unless hunters use controlled-expansion bullets designed for deep penetration. Soft-lead, jacketed bullets can pancake on shoulder bones and muscle and fail to reach vitals. Thinly jacketed, soft-lead, cup-and-core bullets—whether hollow point, soft point, or polycarbonate tipped—can break up quickly on impact. They deliver devastating damage to heart and lungs if slipped in broadside, but can’t be trusted to reach vitals from other angles. Tougher 85- to 105-grain bullets (bonded, partitioned, monolithic, or combinations thereof) can shoot through shoulders, break bones, and penetrate clear through a broadside deer.
Aside from speed and flat trajectory, the .243 Winchester’s most valuable trait is low recoil. While the .270 Win. kicks with about 18 f.p. of free recoil energy and the .300 Win. Mag. jars you with 27 f.p., the .243 Win. barely nudges you with just 10 f.p. (All in seven-pound rifles.) This prevents flinching in young and new shooters. It can stop flinching in experienced shooters. This leads to accuracy, and precision bullet placement is what makes any rifle deadly.
Many consider the .243 Winchester the perfect cartridge for coyote hunting. It’s a near ballistic twin of the .22-250 Rem. with more downrange punch. It may not be the ideal cartridge for deer, but it’s more than adequate. Use the right bullets, aim true, and it’ll terminate not just whitetails but also black bears, mule deer, sheep, pronghorns, and even caribou. Thousands of elk have been taken with the round. I knew a Westerner who claimed he’d taken 13 bull elk with 13 shots, all delivered broadside by a .243 Win. More than a few moose have been invited to the dinner table with a .243 Win., too.
No wonder it’s so popular.