Top 10 Reloaded Rifle Cartridges #7: .270 Winchester
Date: Sep 20 2021
The other day at the rifle range a friendly fellow asked what I was shooting. I replied that it was a .270 Winchester.
“I like something a little heavier than that,” he said.
It seems the .270 Winchester is just unable to shake some folk’s perception that it’s not quite adequate as a true big-game cartridge. Hunters who put forth such assertions are typically validating their own cartridge choice while insulting the .270 in the process. Proponents of the .338 Winchester Magnum are especially prone to disparaging remarks about the .270 Winchester. Some of these fellows live on the East Coast, where there is no earthly employ for a .338 unless they use their rifles to upend gangbanger Pontiacs or stop the charge of rogue dumpsters careening dangerously down steep streets in the urban jungle.
Despite these naysayers, the .270 Winchester is still going strong more than 90 years after its introduction. Whole families carry .270s to hunt game from pronghorn antelope to elk. My cousin was spring cleaning and gathered up a shopping bag of fired .270 brass from her three sons’ bedrooms. She gave them to me because she knew I would appreciate them more than a birthday present. A seemingly limitless combination of bullets and powders is available to load those cases.
One criticism of the .270 Winchester from years ago was a lack of bullets that remained intact at high-impact velocity. However, reliable bullets for the .270 have been available for decades. Nosler introduced its .27-caliber 130-grain Partition in 1948. The 150-grain Partitions were cataloged by at least 1952.
The 130-grain Partition was the bullet I used when I started handloading the .270 Winchester 40 years ago. Early one spring I walked around a bend in the trail and saw a large black bear standing 30 yards away with its head down. The bear looked up when it heard the click of my rifle’s safety switch off, but it was too late. The little bullet caught the bear at a slight angle behind the shoulder, took out its lungs and broke its far shoulder on the way out. The bear made a mad run for 30 yards and fell. The entrance hole was about the size of a 50¢ piece, and the exit hole in the hide was the diameter of a pencil.
In the ensuing seasons, Hornady 130-grain Spire Point, Nosler Solid Base and Sierra spitzer flatbase bullets were also shot. All three zipped right through mule deer. The only anomaly was one Sierra that hit an antelope. The buck stood broadside about 150 yards away. At the shot, a puff of dust kicked up behind and well to the side of the buck.
“Ha! You missed by a mile,” my partner shouted, but the buck ran only a few yards and fell over. Field dressing the buck, it looked like the bullet had reached the far lung, turned and gone out the offside flank.
When I finally hunted mountain goats, there were all sorts of decisions about backpacking gear and such. My Ruger .270 Winchester was an easy choice for a rifle. It was sighted dead-on at 200 yards shooting Nosler 130-grain Solid Base bullets with a muzzle velocity of 3,000 fps.
When a big billy was found standing on a narrow ledge on a cliff at about 300 yards, the crosshairs settled on the top of its white shoulder. Then I remembered the long stiff hairs over its shoulders and lowered my aim to a touch above where its spine should be. If the bullet failed to anchor the goat, it would kick itself off the ledge and smash onto the rocks far below. At the shot, the bullet broke the goat’s spine and jerked the earth out from beneath it. At that range the bullet had dropped only about 6 inches. A 7mm or .300 magnum would have reduced that drop a couple of inches, but it would have been at the expense of more than 10 additional grains of powder, a longer barrel and a pound of additional rifle weight.
Today the choice of .270 bullets is abundant. They include wide-expanding bullets that impart extreme tissue damage to game, deep punching bullets that curb expansion to a narrower forward section and retained shank for extensive penetration.
Extensively expanding bullets include (or have included) the Federal Fusion, Hornady SST and InterBond, Norma Vulkan, Nosler Ballistic Tip, Remington Core-Lokt Pointed Soft Point, Sierra GameKing and Pro-Hunter, Speer DeepCurl, Swift Scirocco II and Winchester Power-Point and Power Max Bonded. Deep-punching bullets include the Barnes Tipped and regular Triple-Shock; Federal Trophy Bonded Tip; Kodiak PSP; Norma Oryx; Nosler AccuBond, E-Tip and Partition; Hornady GMX; RWS H-Mantel; North Fork Semi-Spitzer; Speer Grand Slam; Swift A-Frame and Winchester XP3.
These bullets mostly weigh 130, 140 or 150 grains. The .270 Winchester gives up about 100 fps in velocity for each 10-grain increase in bullet weight. I’ve chosen speed over weight ever since that Nosler 130-grain Partition plowed clear through that big black bear at 30 yards.
Several elk seasons ago, I carried an FN Mauser .270 Winchester loaded with Barnes 130-grain Triple-Shocks. One evening along the edge of a timbered ridge, a bull elk jumped from its bed and ran up the hill. A step before the elk disappeared into the trees I raised the rifle and fired. The bull staggered a few steps, fell and rolled downhill until it wedged against a tree. The Triple-Shock had caught the bull at the rear rib, cut a nasty path through the lungs and sailed out the far side. A heavier bullet from the .270, or even a much bigger bullet at even higher speed from a magnum cartridge, might have killed the elk quicker, but how is a mystery.
That shot was only 60 yards. So here’s an account for pessimists who say the .270 has lost its drive at a distance: My son Paul took a rest for his .270 Winchester and shot a cow elk standing somewhat over 300 yards away across a wheat stubble field. The bullet flew through the elk’s lungs, causing it to wobble around for a moment, then fall over.
Long ago the standard load for the .270 Winchester with 130-grain bullets was 60.0 grains of H-4831. Every handloader from the 1950s and 1960s I knew used that combination. Some of today’s reloading manuals cite a slightly lighter amount of the powder as maximum, but some current reloading manuals still list 60.0 grains of H-4831 as maximum with speeds running from 3,000 to 3,100 fps.
With that amount of H-4831, a friend’s .270 Winchester with a 22-inch barrel shot Nosler 130-grain Ballistic Tips and Partitions at about 3,100 fps. My Ruger 77’s 22-inch barrel reaches about 3,060 fps with various 130-grain bullets. However, that measure of H-4831 with Ballistic Tips cratered primers when shot in a CVA Apex. A grain less of H-4831 imparted a velocity of 3,145 fps to the Ballistic Tips from the Apex’s 25-inch barrel.
Today an array of powders are available for the .270 Winchester. Hodgdon alone lists about 20, while Western Powder and Alliant each include several. On the relatively faster burning side of Big Game, Hunter, IMR-4350 and Reloder 17 and 19 provided good accuracy and velocity with 130- and 150-grain bullets in six rifles. Comparatively slower burning powders such as Reloder 22, IMR-7828, H-1000 and Magnum have also worked well.
Velocities listed for some of the loads in the accompanying table for my old Ruger M77 are upward of 200 fps slower than those listed for factory loads and in the Western Powders and Sierra reloading manuals. About 50 fps of that disparity can be attributed to the Ruger’s 22-inch barrel; Western Powders used a 24-inch barrel and Sierra used a 26-inch barrel to record velocities. The Ruger’s chamber throat, worn over 35 years of shooting, is probably responsible for a bit more of that lower velocity.
Paul Box, a ballistics technician at Sierra Bullets, said those factors, and using a different brand of case and primer, can contribute to slow velocities. “But there are just slow barrels,” he said. Box said he commonly sees individual barrels vary up to 150 fps in velocity. While shooting the 7mm Remington Magnum load data for the Sierra reloading manual, Box developed a load with 130-grain bullets that produced 3,400 fps of muzzle velocity. “When I put a new Lilja 7mm magnum barrel on my Model 700 action, I used that exact load because I wanted to really fling those bullets out there,” he said. “But instead of 3,400, the velocity was 3,200 fps.” Box was satisfied with that velocity, though, because the load was grouping bullets in .2 inch at 100 yards.
There is an ill-considered trend today of using a chronograph as a guide to increase powder weight to attain velocities listed in reloading manuals. Achieving reloading book velocities might signify a load develops approximately the same pressure as those reached by ballisticians compiling data for reloading books. If a load comes up 200 fps short of what is published in a reloading book, pressure is most likely lower. If velocity is significantly higher, pressure is probably higher – and most likely too high. “Increasing powder weight to match reloading book velocities might work with some rifles,” Box said, “but most of the time it doesn’t because there are so many variables.” Chronograph readings are a better gauge of safe pressures than trying to read pressure signs like flattened primers, shiny smears on the case head face from the ejector or a stiff bolt lift, which usually fail to appear until pressures have risen to the brink of disaster.
With the choice of so many different bullets and powders, a safe and appropriate load for the .270 Winchester is easy to assemble. Today those loads certainly make the .270 a fitting choice for hunting antelope to elk. While the big-bore boys will never be persuaded, they don’t know of what they speak.