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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Weatherby powered the magnum rifle revolution

by Bryan Hendricks | September 12, 2021 at 3:53 a.m.

Weatherby rifle aficionados believe Weatherby cartridges deserve more respect than we gave them during our recent exegesis on popular rifle cartridges.

We mentioned Weatherby sparingly because few Arkansas hunters use them, but they are worth a closer look.

By Weatherby, we mean the proprietary cartridges that Roy Weatherby designed, and around which he also designed his incomparable Mark V action. Weatherby cartridges are all very high capacity designs featuring belted rims and unique double-radius shoulders. The 270 Weatherby Magnum, created in 1943, was the first. Weatherby designed it after wounding and losing a trophy mule deer with a conventional 270 Winchester, which, like every other cartridge of that era, was limited to primitive bullets with very low ballistic coefficients. Those bullets lost a lot of energy in flight and did not expand well when they encountered targets at the long ranges that define western hunting.

Weatherby wrote a letter to the editor of Field & Stream declaring that extreme shock created by extremely fast velocity was necessary to reliably kill big game animals. The objective, he said, was enough speed to make a bullet disintegrate inside its target.

Field & Stream published Weatherby's letter, and the outpouring of letters in agreement convinced Weatherby that a market existed for such a cartridge. He used those letters to secure financial backing to start his own business.

To contain that amount of energy, Weatherby also had to design a stronger action than existed at the time. Weatherby's Mark V action contains nine locking lugs that keep a bolt in battery behind chamber pressures that would blow up or weld shut the Mauser actions that were popular in the 1940s.

The Mk. V action is also stronger than the Winchester Model 70 action and the Remington 700 action both of which have only two lugs. The Mk. 5 action has nothing in common with the two-lug action of the Weatherby Vanguard, which is made by Howa.

With this combination, Weatherby was able to push a 130-grain bullet nearly 3,500 feet per second. That was much faster than the 270 Win. A soft-point bullet at that speed performed exactly as Weatherby intended. He got even better results with 150-grain bullets.

Generally, hunters associate high velocity only with flatter trajectory. This infers a false assumption that faster velocity allows a hunter to kill game at longer distances because a faster bullet does not drop or drift as much as a slower bullet.

That is not necessarily true, and it is not what Weatherby envisioned. Within about 325 yards, bullets like the Hornady Interlock, Nosler Partition and Speer soft point impart extreme hydrostatic shock. More modern bullets, like the Barnes TTSX, Nosler Accubond and Hornady ELD-X deliver an acceptable degree of shock out to about 400 yards.

Bullets with high ballistic coefficients do fly flatter, but they still lose a lot of energy over a long distance. At long ranges, they do not create much shock, and their wound channels are not significantly wider than the bullet diameter.

Indeed, Weatherby intended for bullets fired from his cartridges to drop animals in their tracks at ranges within the abilities of the average hunter. Even with better barrels, bullets and scopes, those ranges have not changed over the decades. For hunters that only fire a rifle three or four times a year, 300 yards is at the limit of their ability.

This is what I meant years ago when I wrote that the 257 Roberts I took to a hunt in southeast Arkansas was unsuitable to try to kill a mature, large-bodied buck at more than 300 yards. A handful of gun nuts howled in protest, but that statement was accurate.

If I were to insist on using a quarterbore in that situation, the ultimate cartridge, with a proper bullet, would be the 257 Weatherby Magnum, which is about 700-800 feet per second faster than the Roberts. The extra speed gives the same .257-inch diameter bullet about 1,000 foot pounds more kinetic energy. And, because of its speed, the same bullet from a Weatherby flies flatter. By Roy Weatherby's reasoning, that does not entitle you to shoot farther, but it enables you to shoot more accurately at your normal range with greater effect.

If, like Roy Weatherby, you believe that there is no such thing as too much power, all of the Weatherby cartridges, up to the 300 Weatherby Magnum, are suitable for Arkansas hunting.

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