Hardly a month goes by without some magazine article or Internet chat room thumping the .243 Winchester for its inadequacies as a deer cartridge. Purists even nitpick the case’s short neck and sloping shoulder compared to the practically perfect 6mm Remington–a cartridge the .243 ran into the competitive dirt half a century ago. Yet out there in the real world, .243s just keep selling.
The .243 appeared in 1955, mostly thanks to Warren Page, the shooting columnist for Field & Stream and an avid wildcatter. Page convinced many American hunters that 6mm bullets were far superior to boring old .25-caliber bullets. Remington responded to the demand by chambering a necked-down .257 Roberts initially called the .244, while Winchester brought out a necked-down .308 they called the .243.
Anytime a rifle company answers public demand, it should heed the demand instead of thinking it knows better. Page promoted his 6mm wildcats as perfect “combination cartridges,” working great on both varmints and deer. Remington leaned toward the varmint side with the .244, fitting their Model 722 bolt action with a medium-heavy 26″ barrel with a 1:12″ rifling twist, and offering 75- and 90-grain factory loads. Winchester put the .243 in their new Model 70 Featherweight, a lighter version of the rifle many hunters considered the best bolt-action on earth, using a 1:10″ twist barrel and offering 80- and 100-grain loads.
Back then most hunters believed deer couldn’t be killed with bullets weighing less than 100 grains. As a result, the .243 kicked the .244’s butt, even though the Model 70 Featherweight retailed for 35 percent more than Remington’s 722. Within a few years, even Remington had to start making .243
Remington tried to revive the .244 in 1963 in their spiffy new Model 700 rifle, changing its name to 6mm Remington, with a 1:9″ twist and a 100-grain factory load. Interest revived, but not for long. These days Remington doesn’t chamber the 6mm in any regular-production 700.
I have a soft spot for the .243 since it cured me of a bad flinch caused by my 8th-grade purchase of a .308 Winchester Savage Model 99 with an aluminum butt*plate. Before then I was a good shot with a .22 rimfire and my father’s Marlin .30-30 but weighed 112 pounds. The 99’s buttplate battered my skinny shoulder, and the resulting flinch wasn’t cured until several years later, after purchasing a slightly used Remington 700 .243.
A few months later I was hunting the edge of an eastern Montana plateau by tossing rocks in the brushy coulees. Eventually, a 3×3 mule deer buck emerged from a patch of buffaloberry, stopping to look back over his shoulder at about 50 yards. The crosshairs of the scope rested steadily on his rib cage, and at the shot he flipped over on his side, instantly dead. Wow!
The .243 didn’t always electrocute deer (no cartridge does) but over the next few years, 17 big-game animals fell to that rifle, the last a whitetail doe that ran off after a broadside rib shot. After searching for an hour without finding a trace, my older hunting companion convinced me the shot missed, and we headed home.
But all through that long night I could see the reticle right on the deer’s ribs and went back the next morning. A magpie flew from thick brush less than 100 yards away, and the doe lay under the brush, heart-shot. Luckily, a coyote had dragged the guts out, and the meat was fine.
That convinced me the .243 wasn’t adequate for deer–until about 15 years later, when I heart-shot a mule deer doe with a .300 Winchester Magnum, and she went just about as far as the one shot with the .243. The truth is any reasonable cartridge will kill deer as long as we put the right bullet in the right place, and even a big magnum doesn’t guarantee to drop them instantly.
Since then there’s usually been at least one .243 in the house, but my wife, Eileen, never tried one, partly because of its reputation as a “women’s and kid’s” cartridge. Unfortunately, during the past few years, she started getting recoil headaches even from moderately-recoiling firearms. Switching to a 28-gauge solved the shotgun problem, but she hadn’t found the perfect deer rifle, partly because her long neck requires a Monte Carlo stock.
Then a really good Internet deal brought me a Husqvarna HVA .243, built on their commercial small-ring Mauser 98 action. The stock had a Monte Carlo comb, and one day Eileen picked it up. “This rifle fits me!” she said, “and it’s light!” We hand load some ammo, and a few weeks later she instantly dropped a big whitetail buck with one shot through the shoulders and spine. Now the rifle’s hers, and she doesn’t worry about it being a woman’s rifle.
Right now, my only .243 is a custom varmint rifle from about 1960, built on another small-ring Mauser action, with a heavy 26″ barrel and exaggerated Monte Carlo comb. It shoots great on varmints and, occasionally, deer way across alfalfa fields, though now I’m kinda looking for another light .243 for myself.
If there’s a classic deer hand load for the .243 it’s a bullet in the 100-grain class and 41 to 42 grains of either IMR4350 or H4350, the exact charge depending on the bullet. Until recently Speer offered their 105-grain Hot-Cor, and it killed most of the deer taken by my first .243, using 41.5 grains of IMR4350. The first-hand load we tried in Eileen’s Husqvarna was 41.0 grains of H4350 and the 100-grain Nosler Partition, and it grouped under an inch. I must confess we didn’t even chronograph the load before going hunting but would bet a box of Partitions the muzzle velocity is at least 2,900 fps.
Aside from the 105-grain Speer, Barnes once offered a 115-grain round-nose. Today most 105- to 115-grain 6mm bullets are long-range models, normally requiring a faster twist than the 1:10″ in most factory rifles. I’ve never owned a .243 with a twist fast enough to stabilize them but included some loading data from Hodgdon and Ramshot.
Oddly enough, half a century after the .244 failed due to bullets supposedly being too light for deer, these days a lot of .243 fans use sub-100-grain, controlled-expansion bullets for a big game, such as the 80-grain Barnes Tipped TSX and Hornady GMX; the 85-grain Barnes TSX, Nosler Partition and Hornady Interbond; and the 90-grain Nosler E-Tip and Swift Scirocco II. Right now, Eileen’s working up a load with the 90-grain Nosler E-Tip, because it shoots flatter and kicks even less than the 100-grain load used on her big buck, and my heavy .243 likes 90-grain Sciroccos. They work equally well on coyotes and deer.
Many 6mm varmint bullets have also gotten lighter. Hornady, Nosler, and Sierra offer plastic tips of 55 to 58 grains, which can be loaded to 4,000 fps or so, effectively duplicating the .220 Swift. I’ve shot a bunch of prairie dogs out to 500 yards with the 55-grain Ballistic Tip, and even way out there it creates considerable “lift,” as some varmint shooters say. The .243 is still a great combination cartridge!
.243 HAND-LOADED AMMO PERFORMANCE