Guns & Ammo: Modern Loads in Light Rifles

By Gun Rack Editor Ed Hall


lightweight deer rifles


I’ve been a fan of compact, lightweight deer rifles for many years. I also like to downsize recoil by loading lighter bullets and am pleased to see both of these concepts “trending” with rifle and ammo companies. Those who prefer .30-06 and larger deer rifles may still doubt lighter loads. But today’s dependable hunting bullets make smaller calibers perfectly adequate for deer out to 300 yards or more.

If you want a bullet that mushrooms and then holds together while driving deeply into or completely through a big deer, you can have that. If you prefer extreme expansion and shock on impact, you can have that, instead.

The .243 is the quintessential example of what I’m talking about. When introducing it 60 years ago, the gun and ammo companies touted it as ideal for varmints and deer. It lived up to the hype as a long-range varmint round. But too many bullets fragmenting explosively on close-range impact and not penetrating even light-skinned whitetails doomed the round for deer hunting. Back then, any bullet diameter less than .30 was suspect for deer, except maybe the high-speed .270 that Outdoor Life gun editor Jack O’Connor so famously championed.

However, put a modern monolithic bullet in a .243, and you can expect a gaping exit wound. With such bullets, a couple of other dandy old deer cartridges in the same size range might be ideal for today’s lighter rifles, namely the .250-3000 and .257 Roberts.

In 1980, when the 7mm-08 was slightly downsized to make the lower-recoiling .308, interest in lighter short-action deer rifles got a boost. Most short-action rifles come chambered in .308, and I believe these also may benefit from modern bullets and cartridges that tame recoil without compromising deer effectiveness.

A conventional 150-grain lead-tipped soft-point .308 leaves the muzzle at 2,820 feet a second and hits 8.4 inches low at 300 yards when zeroed at 200 yards. But the Hornady Superformance 7mm-08 load launches a 139-grain bullet at 2,950 ft/s, and it hits just 6.8 inches low at 300 yards while still delivering 1,311 foot-pounds at 500 yards, more than adequate for deer though I wouldn’t advise such a long shot for anyone but the most experienced and practiced rifleman.

Even the venerable .30-30 lever gun may now shoot well beyond the 100 or 150 yards once considered its deer limit (as long as the rifle itself is accurate enough). Once shackled by the safety need for flat-nosed bullets in tube magazines, Hornady’s rubbery pointed bullets and new powders take the .30-30 lever gun from a marginal 945 foot-pounds of energy at 200 yards to 1,027 at 300 yards.

In 1997, Remington squeezed the neck of the .308 case to give us the .260 Remington. Another Outdoor Life gun editor, Jim Carmichel, thought this one the ideal deer round.

Yet NRA High Power long-range target competitors were the ones who embraced it, and more target rifles have been chambered for it than hunting. The streamlined 6.5mm bullet delivers long-range performance with less recoil during those lengthy shooting matches.

But the .260 case, same as the .243, has a long tapering shoulder that is not conducive to match-grade accuracy, and it may only be reloaded a time or two.

In 2007, the folks at Hornady introduced what I consider the technically perfect case for the .264 bullet, a bit shorter than the .308 with less body taper and a nicely sharp shoulder. They named it the 6.5 Creedmoor in honor of a historic NRA range located at a swampy farm once owned by a Scotsman named Creed, hence “Creed’s moor,” and thus Creedmoor.

The 6.5 Creedmoor drives a 143-grain bullet out the muzzle at 2,700 ft/s; it hits 7.8 inches low at 300 yards, delivers 1,302 foot-pounds at 500 yards, and does it with noticeably less recoil than the 7mm-08.

Hornady also loads the .257 Roberts with a 117-grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,946. This one hits 7.3 inches low at 300 yards while still packing a more than adequate 1,332 foot-pounds. But you’ll need either an older rifle or perhaps a custom barrel to shoot this one, as no manufacturer chambers a new rifle for it.

If you really want to lighten recoil, look for an old .250-3000 or .250 Savage. Think of this one as a .22-250 opened up to accept a .25 bullet. The little guy delivers 1,000 foot-pounds at 250 yards with only 3 inches of drop. But, again, you’ll need either an old or a custom rifle here, too.

While this may be going a bit too light for deer, I have no problem recommending the .243, and with Hornady 80-grain GMX monolithics in my handloads, I get a safe muzzle velocity of 3,425 ft/s. The load hits with 1,082 foot-pounds at 300 yards, after dropping only 5.7 inches.

No doubt light-recoiling cartridges are capable of sending modern bullets far downrange with more than adequate killing power for deer. While the “experts” may disagree on what is minimally adequate energy for a sure-kill on a deer, few dispute 1,000 foot-pounds. Equally important, these bullets hold together through high-velocity up-close hits and also mushroom dependably at way-out-there ranges.

While not quite as important, I also believe bullet drop should be minimal so as to not require precise distance ranging and calculation before a shot is taken.

What about the rifle itself? Is it really more difficult to hold a light rifle steady when shooting off-hand? Unless there are extenuating circumstances, I pretty much always shoot within a couple of seconds of shouldering the rifle, and I’m no shakier with 2 pounds less rifle in my hands. But I am 72 years old, and if I have to hold a heavier rifle for more than five seconds, I get a little wavy with it. A light, compact rifle comes quicker to the shoulder, and I don’t grow as weary packing it, especially when hunting on the move.

Going with a carbine-length barrel has little impact on bullet velocity, and, if anything, shorter barrels of comparable weight can be more accurate when made right. Benchrest shooters must stay within weight limits, and they would rather have short, fat barrels.

My T/C Contender .22 Hornet pistol with 10-inch barrel consistently puts five shots in 1-inch groups at 100 yards. My Competitor pistol in .22-250 hovers under 1/2-inch at 100 yards. My Remington Model Seven FS in 7mm-08 groups at an inch or so with its 18-inch barrel.

The lightest bolt rifle I know of is made by Mel Forbes at New Ultralight Arms. Short, long and magnum actions in just about any cartridge may be ordered.

Yes, they are very expensive. But everything inside is built to benchrest tolerances. Very little of that money goes to making them pretty.

My next favorite bolt gun is the much more affordable 5.5-pound Savage Lightweight Hunter, and a stainless version is now being made. This plain but nicely done rifle is considerably better than deer-accurate, and in my estimation, the crisply adjustable AccuTrigger is still the best off-the-shelf. Other rifle makers may offer adjustable triggers, but the Savage trigger goes down to 2 pounds whereas others only go down to 4 or maybe 3 pounds. The target version of the AccuTrigger is adjustable down to 6 ounces.

Remington’s Model Seven is made a bit heavier than it used to be but still lighter than the Model 700. Ruger makes a Hawkeye Compact at just over 6 pounds.

After a long hiatus, Thompson/Center is again making Contender frames for seven rifle and 11 handgun barrels.

At 4.5 pounds this is the lightest of all, ideal for carry in the Vermont mountains and New York woods. In a deer rifle, .30-30 is the best barrel, especially since Hornady turned it into a 300-yard cartridge.

But if you are seriously contemplating a new Contender carbine, note that while T/C only offers rifle-length barrels in .30-30 and a couple of other deer cartridges, custom barrel makers offer a much wider variety. With a custom maker, you can order a barrel chambered for obscure cartridges like the .250 or .300 Savage, or maybe a .35 Remington. Barrels may be short or long; light, medium or heavy; stainless or blued. SSK uses Shilen barrel blanks, in my estimation the best.

You may also shoot a custom cartridge designed for that very gun.

J.D. Jones at SSK is best known for a line of large Contender “Hand Cannon” cartridges. While these were designed for the handguns, they also work very nicely in carbine and rifle-length barrels. The .444 and .225 parent cases were chosen for the rims, because in T/C’s single-shot action, rimmed cases do not need a springy extractor to snap into an extractor groove, as is typical with other rimless cases in Contenders and Encores.

The Contender action is not built for high-pressure .308 cartridges. For these, T/C brought out the stouter Encore. Yet the Contender is safe with .223-class loads because the small diameter of the case puts light-enough force against the action. The massively potent .45-70 is also safe in a Contender because of its low pressure, and just as a .45-70 achieves its power by burning a large volume of powder within the Contender’s pressure limitations, JDJ cartridges do the same.

The .375 JDJ squeezes the neck of a .444 Marlin case down to .375. Think of it as a deer and bear cartridge; it has even taken several elephants.

My favorite Contender deer cartridge is the .309 JDJ, also formed from .444 Marlin brass. It can drive a 150-grain bullet at 2,500 ft/s, but my favorite deer load is a 110-grain Barnes TTSX monolithic at 3,000 ft/s. The 6.5 JDJ is considered a 300-yard deer cartridge, and the mild recoil makes it my wife’s favorite.

You might also want to check out Mike Bellm, Bullberry Barrel Works, E Arthur Brown (EABCO), and Match Grade Machine. All make Contender barrels.