Our 6mm Superstar

The .243 Winchester Has Grown Ever More
Versatile In The Last 62 Years

By Dave Anderson

The .243 Winchester is one of the outstanding successes among postwar cartridges. Introduced in 1955, chambered in popular rifles such as the Winchester 70, Winchester 88 and Savage 99, it became so popular so quickly, it left little room for competition.

The .243 was promoted as a combination deer/varmint cartridge. Groundhogs in the east and rockchucks out west were fairly abundant, and finding a place to shoot wasn’t as challenging as it is now. Deer were about the only big game the average hunter could expect to have an opportunity to hunt. For most hunters owning two centerfire rifles was as unlikely as owning two cars or two televisions. A dual-purpose cartridge with a versatile 3-9X variable scope was an attractive concept.

I didn’t acquire a .243 until the mid ’70’s, and then only because of an opportunity to buy an excellent condition ’60’s era Remington 700 BDL. It was too good a buy to pass up, and I found it was too accurate with handloads to consider reselling. Five shots in 3/4 inch may seem no big deal today but it impressed me back then.

The first whitetail deer I shot with the .243 was with a handload using the 100-grain Speer at a bit over 3,000 fps. The deer was an average size 3×3 buck, shot broadside through the lungs at about 150 yards. It broke into a run and quickly went out of sight behind some trees. I had an anxious moment thinking I was in for a long tracking job until I got around the bush and saw the deer lying dead, having covered maybe 100 yards.

Like many who hadn’t yet shot a lot of game, back then I was quick to reach broad conclusions from limited data. I figured since I could shoot bigger cartridges just as well, there wasn’t much incentive for me to use the .243. For the next couple of decades I used it mainly as a loaner for relatives who didn’t shoot often and liked the mild recoil.

I’d rather have a bit too much power than not quite enough. I don’t think there is a better medium game cartridge than the 7mm-08 or 7×57 Mauser, though there are dozens just as good. If you can handle the recoil, more is better, which is why most of my African shooting was done with a .300 Win Mag.

Nonetheless, after a third of a century of taking the .243 for granted, over the last few years it has become my most-used centerfire cartridge. What changed? Better bullets, lighter rifles, and in my case, less recoil tolerance. I’ve mentioned in the past having laser surgery on one eye to repair small retinal tears which could have led to a detached retina.

Doctors tell me near-sightedness and age were the prime factors in causing the tears. While recoil was likely not a major factor I’ve decided to limit exposure to recoil. I still shoot my .375 H&H rifles, but not often, not many rounds in one session, and not from a bench.

The .243 still does pretty well as a combination deer/varmint cartridge. It also does very well as a target cartridge at ranges out to 1,000 yards or so, generally with long, fast-twist barrels.

The chart nearby shows muzzle velocity from various barrel lengths from 18 to 26 inches. A good rule of thumb with many standard cartridges is 25 fps per inch of barrel. In this case the rule of thumb was almost right on.

Dave’s battery of .243 Win rifles have various length barrels and configurations
for hunting and target shooting. They include (left to right), a Ruger American
Compact, 18-inch barrel, Minox 3-9×40; Sako 85 Finnlight, 20.3-inch barrel,
Swarovski Z3 3-10×42; Tikka T3, 22.4-inch barrel, Meopta 3-9×42; Remington 700
SPS, 24-inch barrel, Leupold 6.5-20×50 VX III; Ruger Precision Rifle, 26-inch
barrel, Bushnell 4.5-30×50.

My favorite hunting rifle at present is my Sako 85 Finnlight .243. With Swarovski Z3 3-10×42 scope it weighs 6-3/4 pounds, balances and handles beautifully, functions smooth as silk and is spooky accurate. With the 95-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip loaded to 3,000 fps with Alliant RL-17, so far I’ve killed five deer with five shots and in all cases the bullet exited. For hunting purposes I’m quite happy with barrels of 20 inches and even ones of 18 inches.

For long-range shooters wanting more velocity, 26 inches is considered the minimum, and they really prefer 28- or 30-inch barrels. They also want heavier, streamlined bullets in the range of 107 to 115 grains.

Such bullets require a fast twist for stability. Frankly I think most .243 hunting rifles these days could stand a faster twist. I know I’ve become a curmudgeon on the topic of barrel twist, but bullets have changed and barrels need to change with them.

When the .243 appeared, Winchester used a barrel with a 1:10-inch twist in order to stabilize bullets in the 80- to 100-grain range. To this day most manufacturers use the 1:10 twist, even as bullets have become more streamlined, more ballistically efficient, and longer.

I do appreciate the manufacturers’ dilemma. Many .243 Win shooters like lighter bullets in the 55- to 75-grain range for varmint shooting. For such bullets even 1:10 is on the fast side, which is why Remington went with a 1:12 twist when it introduced its .244 Rem cartridge. Even if a 1:8 twist was accurate with 55-grain bullets there’s a chance the bullet would be spinning so fast it might come apart in flight.

It’s unreasonable to expect a barrel to give optimum results with both 55-grain bullets and modern low-drag bullets weighing twice as much. One solution may be to do as Tikka does with its T3 in .223 Rem, and offer a choice of 1:8 or 1:12 twists. Asking a lot? Maybe so, but personally I could stand with fewer options in stock design and materials, and more options in barrel twist.

In the meantime, life with a 1:10 twist .243 isn’t so bad. I especially like the Hornady 87-grain V-Max as a moderately priced, very accurate range and varmint bullet. Sierra and Speer offer several bullets from 80 to 100 grains to suit a 1:10 twist.

With heavier .243 bullets, slower powders usually give higher velocities, and they include
(left to right) WW 780, Alliant RL-22 and RL-25, IMR 7828, and Ramshot Magnum.

In the meantime, life with a 1:10 twist .243 isn’t so bad. I especially like the Hornady 87-grain V-Max as a moderately priced, very accurate range and varmint bullet. Sierra and Speer offer several bullets from 80 to 100 grains to suit a 1:10 twist.

For deer I like the 95-grain Nosler BT and the 95-grain Hornady SST should also be a good choice. If I ever take the .243 for elk, which isn’t likely, I’d load the 80-grain Hornady GMX, Barnes 80-grain TTSX or 85-grain TSX.

A 1:9 twist brings a few more bullets on board such as the slippery Berger 90-grain VLD and the 90-grain Scenar. It will usually stabilize the Hornady 105 BTHP and 105 A-Max.

For long range match shooting a 1:8 twist handles most match bullets in the 105- to 108-grain range. For 115-grain bullets 1:8 is on the bubble and 1:7 is recommended by Berger. My Ruger Precision Rifle in .243 with 1:7.7 twist stabilizes the 115 Berger, though it might not at sea level or at -20 degrees F.

Powder choices depend on the bullet weight range. For bullets in the 80- to 100-grain range I started using H4350 decades ago, and it remains a good choice, as do IMR 4350 and Accurate 4350. Others I’ve used and liked include WW 760 (and the identical H414), IMR 4451, and Ramshot Big Game.

My favorite, though, is Alliant RL-17. When powders became hard to find in recent years I reserved my small stash of RL-17 exclusively for my Finnlight. Powder availability seems much improved and I hope never to run short again.

When loading 115-grain bullets for the 26-inch Ruger, I like slower burning powders. So far I’ve tried H4831 SC, WW Supreme 780, and Alliant RL-22 with good accuracy. To get velocity over 3,000 fps even in the 26-inch barrel I prefer even slower powders, and currently am trying to decide between IMR 7828 and RL-25. I may well have this barrel burned out before settling on a load, in which case I’ll rebarrel with a somewhat heavier, 28- or 30-inch barrel.

Brass availability and quality has never been an issue with the popular .243 Win. I’ve used more Winchester than any other, mainly because it is what my dealers seem to stock. R-P, Hornady, Nosler and Norma also make fine .243 brass. When I can find it, I dote on Lapua brass which I have always found to be very consistent, and the case heads seem particularly strong. I always consider it a “plus’ for any cartridge if Lapua makes brass for it.

I’m happy with my .243 rifles, especially my lovely little Finnlight, but those new bullets such as the Hornady 103-grain ELD-X really interest me. If Sako builds a Finnlight .243 Win with 1:8 twist I’ll never ask anything more. Well, maybe a matching .22-250, also with 1:8 twist.

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