The Best [Common] Calibers For Long Range Success: Pros & Cons, 2021

It is no secret that long range rifle sales have boomed in recent years, and are continuing to do so at an alarming rate, with newbies wanting sub-MOA long range accuracy right out of the box. But where do new buyers look for the best advice on long range calibers? Google of course, and for good reason thanks to the abundant amount of resourceful information available on demand. So let me help you today by answering this: what are the best common rifle calibers for long range success, and what are the pros and cons of each?

From reliable and reputable old-school sniping cartridges, to newer and enhanced extreme long range rifle systems, choosing the ultimate suitable caliber can be overwhelming to say the least. To get it right, your choice needs to stem from a number of variating factors. Stopping power, effective range, recoil energy, weight, availability of parts and ammo, and cost all play a large part in producing the perfect output. For the sake of simplicity, we will look to only a few common factory chamberings. This is far from an extensive list, but we need to draw a line somewhere, so we will stick to the following calibers:

  • .223 Remington
  • .243 Winchester
  • .308 Winchester
  • 6.5mm Creedmoor
  • .260 Remington
  • .270 Winchester
  • .30-06 Springfield
  • .300 Winchester Magnum
  • .338 Lapua Magnum

You many be wondering why I haven’t included cartridges such as the 6.5PRC, .300PRC, .375 and .408 CheyTac, especially considering their outstanding aerodynamical ability and extreme long range performance. The simple answer is that these calibers are still a long way from becoming “common”; costing a hefty financial investment along with a general lack of ammo/part availability. But instead our provided list has a proven track record for success, with the majority of our contenders providing endless fun and skill development thanks to the affordable cost while still meeting accurate long range demands.


How Will We Score These Calibers?

There are a variety of technical and pertinent factors that combine to form the ideal caliber for a given person’s needs, so our comparison will be based on the following categories.

Stopping Power & Retained Energy

Relevant to hunters, military personnel and law enforcement, stopping power and retained energy is a determinable factor. It is important to know how much energy or punching power your projectile is able to deliver at close distances, but also how well your bullet retains that energy and delivers it upon targets further down range.

If you’re a steel or paper target shooter, then this score may be negligible, but for those who need a hard-hitting round, keep an eye out on this one.

Long Range Accuracy & Transonic Range

One of the biggest (initial) deciding factors for many, is how far the bullet can actual travel and still accurately impact your target. This is commonly known as the caliber’s maximum effective range, and can be determined as the point at which the projectile transitions from supersonic flight speeds to subsonic speeds – the transonic range.

Projectiles that have a higher ballistic coefficient (BC) paired with a faster muzzle velocity (MV) will retain velocity over a longer range. This means that the projectile will reach its transonic range at a further distance; increasing its overall effective range and maximum shooting distance.

Felt Recoil

You will not impress anyone in the long range community by selecting the largest caliber if you are unable to properly mitigate and control the recoil of your rifle.

Females and those with smaller frames may find the recoil of larger calibers extremely unpleasant, taking away from the enjoyability of the sport. At the same time, heavy recoil not only leads to accelerated fatigue, but also a large disruption towards accuracy amongst novice shooters.

Weight & Manipulation

Once again, a factor relevant more-so to hunters, military personnel, law enforcement, and also tactical shooters – is weight and manipulation of the rifle system itself.

A large and heavy rifle is not only cumbersome and slow to manoeuvre, but also lends itself towards fatigue in a short space of time.

Affordability

Often one of the largest contributing factors towards any civilian purchase is cost – at least in my own personal experience. But not just the cost of the rifle system itself, but more importantly the cost of ammunition and/or reloading components.

Most shooters are required to stick to a budget – even more-so when the wife has a say – so the rifle that you choose needs to be an affordable shooter. There is a vast difference between short, large and magnum-action calibers, with .50cal match cartridges costing upwards of $10 (USA) or R250 (RSA) per shot.

Barrel Life Expectancy

Those who know a little more about what they’re after will consider the rifle’s accurate barrel life expectancy, and rightly so. If you are looking at long range shooting as a serious hobby – instead of a tool to depend your life upon – barrel life is a real contender, particularly in countries or states that have a painfully slow licensing process.

Accurate barrel life can lasts anywhere from 1500 to 8000+ rounds, depending on your caliber, and once this accurate barrel life has breached, shooters can expect spikes in muzzle velocity variation and a decrease in sustained accuracy, particularly as distance increases.

So now that that’s done, let’s get to it.


.223 Remington

While this may not be the first cartridge that comes to mind for long range shooting, with an appropriate modern bullet, the lightweight .223 Remington (or 5.56 NATO) is more than capable of reaching some good distances with good accuracy. Sierra and Hornady now both produce ­tipped match bullets (suitable for AR-15 rifle magazines as well) producing significantly higher BC’s while maintaining similar levels of accuracy.

But is it the right choice for you? If you’re after extremely low ­recoil characteristics, with a decent range capability and close to medium range varmint or small game hunting, then the .223 Remington is an excellent contender. Not to mention the fact that factory ammunition can be found nearly anywhere at extremely low cost.

Approximate figures based off Hornady’s 73gr ELD-Match ammunition [average sea level pressure]. Note that data will vary drastically between light and heavy projectiles

.243 Winchester

Based on a necked down .308 case, the .243 Winchester is a popular sporting rifle cartridge with a lightweight bullet that is optimised for long range performance with a flat trajectory. The bullet is often described as a “jack of many trades”, with lighter bullet options for varmint hunting, and heavier bullets which are good for medium sized game.

Is it the right choice for you? If you already own on, then you can certainly make it work for you, or if you are seeking a long range hunting rifle with a flat trajectory, then yes. However, as a serious long range shooter who requires good terminal performance or modern tactical upgrades, I’d give this one a miss.

Approximate figures based off Hornady’s 95gr SST Superformance ammunition [average sea level pressure]. Note that data will vary drastically between light and heavy projectiles

.308 Winchester

Now onto the .308 Winchester – the commercial cartridge which the 7.62x51mm NATO military round was derived from – commonly used for target shooting, military sniping and police sharpshooting. It is also one of the most successful hunting cartridges used worldwide. For many years the .308 Winchester was crowned as the king of long range short-actions, until recent years where it has been superseded by a number of modern calibers such as the 6.5 Creedmoor.

Is it the right choice for you? While it’s not the fastest or farthest short-action round available, affordability and availability of both ammo and accessories are second to none. Recoil is moderate, weight is ideal, stopping power is sufficient, and if the world falls to pieces, ammo can be found anywhere. You will get more bang for your buck choosing the .308 Winchester as your next Long Range caliber, and your barrel should outlast all others.

Approximate figures based off Hornady’s 168gr ELD-Match ammunition [average sea level pressure]. Note that data will vary drastically between light and heavy projectiles

6.5mm Creedmoor

From PRS shooters to Long Range hunters, the Creedmoor has made a name for itself. Introduced by Hornady in 2007, and specifically designed for long range target shooting, the cartridge has proven to be exceptionally accurate, and has knocked the .308 Winchester off the throne as king of short-action long range cartridges. Some 6.5 Creedmoor loads are capable of duplicating the muzzle velocity and trajectory of the .300 Winchester Magnum, while generating significantly lower recoil and proving to be far more cost effective, but without the .300WM’s stopping power of course.

Is it the right choice for you? If you’re after the most affordable shooter with excellent long range capability and plenty of tactical upgrade options, then yes. This caliber has taken off so fast that nearly every manufacturer is making products to accommodate it, and it is extremely easy and fun to shoot.

Approximate figures based off Hornady’s 140gr ELD-Match ammunition [average sea level pressure]. Note that data will vary drastically between light and heavy projectiles

.260 Remington

Introduced by Remington in 1997 – combining 6.5mm projectiles with a .308 Winchester case – the .260 Remington is sometimes capable of duplicating the trajectory of a .300 WinMag, but with less recoil. The larger case capacity even allows the rifle to produce higher velocities than the 6.5 Creedmoor, which would make it seem superior. However, the downside is that the cartridge often struggles to use the most aerodynamical 6.5mm projectiles; VLD or very low drag bullets. This is because they are longer and more streamlined than traditional projectiles, struggling to achieve a suitable cartridge length that fits into the majority of applicable box magazines, while still producing superior accuracy results.

Is this the right choice for you? If you already own one, then there is no need to look elsewhere. If not, then the 6.5CM would make more sense as a short-action long range contender; if you plan on using long VLD bullets and detachable box magazines, the .260Rem may struggle. But, if you intend on purchasing an expensive action (and chassis) which is capable of firing both .30cal and 6.5mm projectiles through a simple barrel change, then the .260 Remington is your winner.

Approximate figures based off Hornady’s 130gr ELD-Match ammunition [average sea level pressure]. Note that data will vary drastically between light and heavy projectiles

.270 Winchester

Now we get into the long-action cartridges, kicking off with the .270 Winchester. The cartridge is a necked down version of the .30-06, and is one of the most popular and widely used hunting cartridges around. The caliber is suitable for hunting large game, and is really capable over long distances, producing the option of higher velocities and a flatter trajectory when using lighter bullets.

Is it the right choice for you? Again, this one is only recommended if you already own one, or if you’re after a long range hunter. If long range target shooting is your goal, you’d be better off selecting a rifle that was engineered for long range performance, such as the 6.5CM. Why? Well, the 6.5CM produces less recoil, a further effective range, a longer barrel life, and also a faster twist rate (of the barrel), providing superior stability when it comes to high BC low-drag projectiles.

Approximate figures based off Hornady’s 145gr ELD-X ammunition [average sea level pressure]. Note that data will vary drastically between light and heavy projectiles

.30-06 Springfield

The .30-06 Springfield was the US Army’s primary rifle and machine gun cartridge for nearly 50 years, until it was finally replaced by the lighter 7.62x51mm NATO (.308 Winchester). While it was designed for reliable feeding in battle rifles, and not efficient powder burns for consistent accuracy and long range precision, it still earns its place amongst sports shooters and hunters. The cartridge offers long range and good accuracy, being one of the most versatile rounds which can accommodate smaller load options for less recoil and power.

Is it the right choice for you? If your goal is to build a classic long range hunting rifle, or if you wish to collect and compete with old military surplus rifles, then yes. Otherwise you may be better off selecting a modern caliber.

Approximate figures based off Hornady’s 178gr ELD-X ammunition [average sea level pressure]. Note that data will vary drastically between light and heavy projectiles

.300 Winchester Magnum

A round that excels at both long range hunting and precision target shooting – the .300 Winchester Magnum. Based on the .375 H&H Magnum (shortened and necked down to accept a .30 caliber bullet), the .300WM holds a special place in the heart of many hunters, target shooters, military units and law enforcement snipers alike. It is often selected as the preferred cartridge for long range sniping and marksmanship, and while recoil is heavy – often compared to a 12-gauge shotgun – it is an excellent long range cartridge that gets the job done.

Is it the right choice for you? With the right setup, it can be a smooth shooter; hitting extremely hard and flying flat. Effective range is in a similar league to the 6.5CM, but stopping power holds the tremendous advantage, suitable for hunting large and dangerous game. However, barrel life and ammo cost are its downfall, with heavy recoil that is often too much to handle. Recommended only for those who are experienced and know what they’re getting themselves into.

Approximate figures based off Hornady’s 200gr ELD-X ammunition [average sea level pressure]. Note that data will vary drastically between light and heavy projectiles

.338 Lapua Magnum

The .338 Lapua Magnum cartridge was purposefully developed in the 80’s for long range military sniping – intended to extend the snipers’ capabilities in desert and mountainous terrain – sitting half way between the .300 Winchester Magnum & .50 BMG. Prior to this round, there was no bridge between the 7.62x51mm (.308 Winchester) and .50 BMG, so snipers were forced to choose a limited range bolt-action rifle or the completely over-powered 50cal. The .338LM is becoming a popular choice by hunters and long range target shooters, capable of taking down any game. The only downside is the cost.

Is it the right choice for you? If you have the experience to handle such a rifle, and want an extreme long range hunting caliber for seriously large game, then maybe. Although many will argue that you shouldn’t be hunting over these distances anyway – myself included. But the .338 Lapua is most often purchased as a status symbol, by shooters who have big bucks and want a modern sniper build. So the decision is yours.

Approximate figures based off Hornady’s 270gr ELD-X ammunition [average sea level pressure]. Note that data will vary drastically between light and heavy projectiles

Conclusion

Having covered a fairly comprehensive list of common long range calibers, you should now have an idea as to what rifle and cartridge may be suitable towards your needs. If you’ve made the decision, and now you’re after some guidance on bullet selection, read our blog on: The Best Bullets for Long Range Precision

If I had to select three of my favourite (affordable) calibers from the list above, it would be the .308 Winchester, the 6.5 Creedmoor and the .300 Winchester Magnum. If I was after a long range target shooter, I would undoubtably select the 6.5 Creedmoor, but if I needed the added capability of hunting large and dangerous game, then the .300 WinMag would be my first choice.

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