.243 Winchester

Shooting, reloading and hunting with the .243 Winchester

Any line-up of the most popular centrefire rifle cartridges includes the .243 Winchester. Since the .243 Winchester’s appearance in 1955, it has been challenged by numerous newcomers, last but not least being the 6mm Creedmoor, but after almost 70 years it’s still extremely popular.

Recoil of the .243 is tolerable, even in lightweight rifles which naturally appeal to young and female shooters. The cartridge delivers sufficient energy for game animals such as pigs, goats and deer — provided the correct bullet is used and properly placed.

.243 Winchester
A variety of 6mm cartridges (left to right): 6mm PPC USA, 6mm Creedmoor, .243 Win, .243 Ackley Imp, 6mm Rem, 6mm Ackley Imp, .243 WSSM, .240 Weatherby and .240 Flanged Magnum (Kynoch)

That’s the problem. There’s little margin for error; miss the vitals and you’ll be faced with a long tracking job or lose the animal.

So it appears the .243 Win is more of an expert’s cartridge than a beginner’s. Despite this, the .243 is still a popular choice, not only with pig hunters and deer hunters, but also varmint shooters.

This mild little round is popular in other countries too. I’ve seen .243s in the hands of Inuit eskimos in the Arctic who use them not only for seals but polar bears. I’ve also seen the .243 used in Zimbabwe to bag antelopes varying in size from duiker to eland for the biltong market.

The .243 Win started life as a wildcat just three years after the birth of its parent, the .308 Win. It was the brainchild of Warren Page, gun editor of Field & Stream magazine, who was a dedicated hunter and benchrest shooter. After he got hold of some early samples of the then-experimental 7.62x51mm NATO T64 case, he necked down the prototypes to shoot .243 diameter bullets and named his wildcat the .240 Page Super Pooper (PSP).

.243 Winchester
The .243 Win is a popular round with roe deer and chamois hunters. It’s also the designated minimum for hog deer in Victoria throughout Europe

It retained the parent cartridge’s body length but featured a considerably sharper 30-degree shoulder, resulting in minimal body taper and a full 7.9mm (5/16”) long neck — the latter quality being preferred by handloaders and competitive shooters alike.

The original PSP rifle was built on a BSA Royal medium-length action fitted with a 56cm (22”) Apex barrel with 1:10 twist. Stocked by Lenard Brownell, it weighed 3.2kg (a shade over 7lb) and delivered minute-of-angle accuracy.

Page loaded his Super Pooper with the 105gn Speer bullet and 48gn of H4831 which produced 3100fps and took it on a hunt in New Zealand. There it made 14 one-shot kills on red deer.

This drew the attention of Winchester, which adopted Page’s brainchild, but did not adhere to his suggestions regarding neck length and shoulder angle. Commercial considerations, to whit the extra cost of drawing small-calibre brass to a steep shoulder, and a desire to have the .243, .308 and .358 family alike in respect to neck and shoulder dimensions, made Big Red decide to adopt the gentler 17-degree shoulder and short neck of the .243 as we know it. Thank goodness this is no longer a valid excuse today.

.243 Winchester
The .243 loaded with a 90gn or 100gn bullet is deadly medicine for goats and pigs, but has also accounted for a lot of deer

When it was introduced, .243 Win factory ammunition was typically loaded with 80 and 100gn bullets at advertised velocities of 3500 and 3070fps. These bullet speeds created quite a stir in the shooting world. Virtually every sporting rifle manufacturer in the world jumped on the bandwagon and chambered for the sizzling new round. Its burgeoning popularity gave it such a head start that the 6mm Rem could never catch up with it.

Today almost nobody offers rifles for the 6mm Rem (not even Remington), while the .243 is still a world standard, despite an avalanche of new super-duper cartridges. We won’t go into the reasons for this and will ignore fanciful theories about the difference in rifling twists. Let’s be content that it remains in the past now.

I obtained a BSA Featherweight .243 a year after the cartridge was introduced and did a lot of hunting with it. Alas, the rifle had a muzzle brake machined into the end of the barrel and every time I fired it, my ears were ringing for hours. This undoubtably laid the foundation for my deafness. But I have to admit that the .243’s performance impressed me — at least until I got a Telepacific chronograph and used it to check a few sample factory rounds. The amount of velocity loss in the BSA’s stubby 47cm (18½”) barrel amazed me!

Factory ballistics were taken in a 66cm (26”) barrel and I found the 80gn load clocked 3246fps while the 100gn barely managed 2755fps.

.243 Winchester
The .243 Win with bullets for all purposes (left to right): Sierra 55gn BlitzKing, Hornady 65gn V-Max, Sierra 70gn MatchKing, Sierra 80gn SBT, Speer 85gn SBT, Berger 90gn BT, Nosler 95gn BT, Nosler 100gn Partition and Speer 105gn spitzer

Current ballistic tables are more realistic. The .243 is now listed at 3350fps with 80gn bullets and 2960fps for 100gn bullets fired from a 61cm (24”) barrel. Today, most .243s are fitted with 56cm (22”) barrels and factory loads usually chronograph 50fps slower.

The low velocity results coupled with ear-damaging muzzle blast made me lose confidence in the BSA .243 and I got shed of it. Later I did test a number of .243s for gun reviews and regained some degree of respect for the cartridge. In 1983 I bought a Sako 581 Classic with 61cm barrel, one of the nicest rifles I’ve ever owned. I did a lot of handloading for it and the results made me change my opinion of the .243 Win.

When hunters and shooters started reloading the .243, several drawbacks came to light. One was excessive barrel wear, but just like with the .220 Swift, the problem (if it ever did exist) was badly overstated. True, the .243 is hard on barrels; any small-bore high-intensity cartridge is but there are any number of modern cartridges that are much worse.

More serious, however, were reports that some .243 rifles were coming apart. This produced several theories. At a Winchester seminar I asked one of the factory technicians what he knew about any problems with .243s. He told me he had surmised that there were three contributing factors: the ‘high’ maximum working pressures (52,000cup); the length of the 100gn bullet; and, if present, erosion ahead of the chamber’s throat.

.243 Winchester
Nick found AR2209 is a good all-round propellant powder for the .243 Win. It gives top velocity and good accuracy with bullets weighing from 70 to 105gn

He had concluded that the force of the detonating primer kicked the bullet out of the case mouth before the powder charge was ignited; the bullet’s long bearing surface caused it to snag in the eroded throat section of a much-used rifle; combustion occurs; burning gases build up behind the bullet caught in the eroded throat; chamber pressures are increased beyond maximum; and things start to come apart. He concluded that the problem didn’t happen in new barrels or with lighter varmint projectiles.

SAAMI became aware of the problem and advised the ammo makers they needed to reduce working pressures to alleviate the problem. Most took the advice and reduced pressures to 46 to 48,000cup. Today, the .243 has a maximum pressure rating of 60,000psi.

Many laboratory ballisticians had also found the .243 to be rather touchy after the industry started switching from copper-crusher to piezoelectric pressure testing equipment during the 1970s and ’80s. Copper-crusher testing provides only the maximum pressure, but piezoelectric testing provides a moment-by-moment view of the pressure curve. This revealed that certain .243 loads showed rather strange pressure curves, often with unexpected detours, especially with heavy 100gn bullets once the chamber throat became worn.

Not long after I started loading for the .243, my reloads started showing signs of high pressure, despite the fact I used a load that worked fine at first. Eventually, I traced the cause to case necks growing thicker after several loadings and cured it with an inside neck reamer. This happens quite often with .243 Win brass. But I’ve never experienced a similar problem with the 6mm Rem.

For the handloader the solution is simple: take the time to check the thickness of case necks once in a while, and ream them if necessary.

Over the years I have seen a number of .243s blown up by massive overloads, but case-neck thickness and throat erosion make it difficult to determine the exact cause. Back in the 1960s some enterprising gunsmith fitted Sako barrels in .243 to No 4 Lee Enfield actions and advertised them as Sakos. During that period I paid a visit to Commercial Marketing where I was shown six of these rifles that had blown up.

In my opinion the .243 Win is a fine round. In its factory loadings it delivers excellent velocities, even though some 50fps less in rifles with 56cm barrels. Handloads can safely be developed which will, in a 61cm barrel, exceed factory figures by 100fps and with bullets compatible to the individual gun, sub-MOA accuracy can sometimes be had from a standard factory sporter.

I’m not knocking the .243, however, when I say my experience has shown that it is no way the equal of the .257 Roberts when both are properly loaded.

When it comes to handloading the .243, few problems arise. Cases are long-lived and .243 brass has shown little more tendency to stretch with repeated full-power loads than any other high-intensity cartridge. I trim every fourth or fifth firing depending on the rifle and pressure of the load.

Nor does the short 6.1mm (0.241”) case neck deserve criticism — it gets an adequately tight friction grip on even the longest, heaviest bullets.

There is an ample supply of unprimed brass for the .243 and just like with other calibres, .243 cases vary in weight and capacities. Four different makes of case ranged in weight from 166 to 171.5gn and held from 50.5 to 49.5gn of water respectively. In each instance it’s a minor difference, but it pays to carefully check every new batch of brass you buy before duplicating powder charges.

In the early days, available bullets were limited in weight to 75, 80, 90 and 100 grains. Today, there’s a super abundance of component bullets as well as factory offerings. Handloaders can choose between a wide range of bullet weights from 55 to 105gn designed and constructed to handle everything from varmints to deer.

Broadly speaking, anything weighing less than 85gn should be restricted to varmint-predator hunting as their fragile construction often causes superficial wounds on big-game animals. At one time the 90gn Speer soft-point bullet was my first choice for pigs and goats, with the 105gn Speer held in reserve for deer.

Now there are any number of premium, lightweight, controlled-expansion projectiles — Barnes 85gn TTSX, Hornady’s 90gn and 103gn ELD-X, and 100gn Interlock BTSP. Nosler’s offerings, in addition to three different varmint bullets weighing from 55 to 70gn includes: the 90gn AccuBond, 85, 95 and 100gn Partition and the monometal 90gn ET.

The Barnes 85gn TTSX and 90gn ELD-X, in particular, allow for higher velocities and actually exceed the terminal performance of their heavier running mates, especially at close range.

Heavier premium controlled-expansion bullets like the 100gn Norma Oryx, 100gn Lapua Mega, Nosler 100gn Partition and 100gn Speer Grand Slam provide insurance for the unknown such as high-velocity close-range impacts, hold up better over a long haul and hit harder away out yonder. My favourite deer bullet in the .243 was the 100gn Mega, but after it became unavailable, I chose the 100gn Partition to replace it.

Loaded over 44.5gn of AR2208, the 55gn bullet achieved 3760fps in my Sako Classic to equal the velocity of the same weight bullet in the .22-250 and .220 Swift, making it an excellent long-range varmint round.

To take full advantage of the velocity gain without sacrificing downrange performance, the best choices are projectiles with a polymer tip or a non-lead core, which have a higher ballistic coefficient because of their increased length. A good example is the 55gn Nosler Ballistic Tip, which has a BC of .288 against .250 for the Hornady 58gn V-Max. When driven at over 4000fps it flies flat and explodes small rodents.

The best powders are those of a relatively slow burning rate. Although such propellants as RE-15, AR2208 and AR2206H offer good velocities and fine accuracy, muzzle speeds don’t meet adequate hunting standards. I have gained good results with RE-22 and Winchester 785, which are no longer available, but I’ve found the .243 is ideally suited to the use of AR2209. In my experience it offers excellent shot-to shot uniformity, superb accuracy and good muzzle speeds with bullet weights from 70 to 100gn.

As for primers, the .243 uses large rifle or large rifle magnum, depending on the powder’s ignition requirements.

The .243 Win may be facing a serious challenge from the new 6mm Creedmoor, which offers increased performance and gun-nuts claim is a better design with its sharper 30 degree shoulder and longer neck. With its fast 1:7½” rifling twist, the Creedmoor will shoot bullets weighing 115gn at a velocity similar to that obtained with the 105gn in the .243. An extra 10 grains of bullet weight may not offer much of an advantage for the typical shooter who buys a .243 Win for use on feral animals, but it would definitely have an edge for large deer like a red stag. To date the newcomer hasn’t made much of an impression on the .243’s popularity, but it’s one to watch.

The .243 Winchester undoubtably lives up to its reputation for being a fine dual-purpose cartridge. Adequate for deer, while not actually ample; hard to go past for long-range varmint/predator work, but not quite the best. It may be a controversial cartridge, but 70-odd years after it was introduced it is still the most popular .243/6mm cartridge and is a staple chambering by all rifle manufacturers.




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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.