The Best Straight Walled Hunting Cartridges and Rifles
A look at the new wave of options for hunting in former shotgun-only locations.
More and more states are allowing the use of straight walled cartridges during their shotgun or muzzleloader deer seasons. The centerfire rifles are more consistent in accuracy and don’t suffer from the unexplained fliers that are often seen with shotgun slugs.
Some of these cartridges offer improved trajectory and down range energy over shotgun slugs or muzzleloaders and have an added 50 to 100 yards of ethical shooting distance. They offer fast follow up shots (in states that allow repeaters) and are much easier to clean than a muzzleloader.
There are several gun makers offering rifles chambered for straight walled cartridges. Many of these cartridges were traditionally offered in lever guns, but just about every action type has been configured to fire these rounds. And as popularity soars, you can expect to see even more enter the fray. Everything from single shots to semiautos can be found chambered for straight walled cartridges, probably right at your local gun shop.
We’ll take a look at what straight-walled cartridges are on the market, and what firearms are available to shoot them. We’ll talk about the pros and cons of each round, and provide a list of guns should you be bitten by the straight-walled bug. No matter what your rifle preferences are, you’ll find something that will appeal to you.
Laws vary state to state, so make sure the cartridge and rifle you pick are legal for hunting where you live.
Several handgun cartridges are chambered in rifles and may be appropriate for hunting deer. Listed below are the most popular.
This cartridges is a bit on the light side for deer hunting, even from a longer rifle barrel. The up side it that it has very low recoil. Marlin makes some nice lever action rifles in .357 Magnum as does Henry Repeating Arms.
My pick for ammo is Hornady’s 158-grain XTP. Keep your shots under 100 yards to insure enough energy at the target. —Bryce Towsley
Henry, and perhaps others, offers this cartridge in a lever action rifle. With proper bullets it will work for close range deer hunting at 100 yards or less.
The .41 magnum has lived in the shadow of the .44 Magnum for its entire life and as a result ammo options are a bit limited. My pick would be Barnes VOR-TX ammo with a 180 grain XPB bullet. —Bryce Towsley
.44 Remington Magnum
The .44 Magnum has been used in carbines for decades and in my never humble opinion it is one of the best of the pistol cartridges for hunting deer, when you consider all aspects including price. There was a time where my hunting buddy and I used lever action .44 Magnum rifles almost exclusively for deer hunting in Maine and Vermont. We shot a pile of venison and never had a problem.
In an accurate lever action like the Marlin Model 1894, it is great for deer out to 100 yards or perhaps a little further. The twist rate of rifling in most guns is 1:38 which limits the bullet weight to 270 grains or lighter, because heavier bullets may not stabilize with that twist rate. No problem, as this cartridge shines with 240-250 grain bullets. I like Federal’s Fusion 240 grain ammo on deer.
If you have a 1:20 twist in your rifle as some newer guns do, also consider the Hornady ammo with the 300 grain XTP bullet. —Bryce Towsley
My favorite handgun hunting cartridge is even better in a rifle. I have lost count of the deer, hogs and bears I have shot with this cartridge and a Freedom Arms revolver, but it never fails to impress. After shooting a bear some years back, my guide walked up to it and exclaimed, “That’s the deadest %%^#@** bear I have ever seen!
Big Horn Armory makes rifles chambered for this formidable cartridge. The Federal load with a 300-grain A-Frame bullet is an excellent ammo choice for deer. —Bryce Towsley
Another excellent choice and capable of 200 yard shots. Again, Big Horn Armory makes the rifles for this big bore round. The concept when this cartridge was designed was a long range hunting cartridge for handguns, and it works even better in a rifle with the longer barrel giving the round increased velocity. Hornady makes a 200 grain FTX load that is a good choice. —Bryce Towsley
The 500 S&W cartridge is a 50-caliber semi-rimmed handgun round developed by Cor-Bon in partnership with the S&W “X-Gun” engineering team, which was creating the S&W Model 500 X-frame revolver. Both the new X-frame and the round were introduced at SHOT Show 2003 as a hunting handgun cartridge capable of taking all North American game species.
Lots of companies make ammo now and most of it is very good. I recommend you check out the Federal load with a 325 grain Swift A-Frame bullet. From a rifle, the velocity will be around 2,000 fps. —Bryce Towsley
These days .38-55 Winchester is more likely to be found in a cowboy action shooting match than in the deer woods, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hold its own there. This cartridge was first introduced around 1875 as a black powder load, and was used with that propellant for a more than a few decades.
A modernized version of the .38-55 Winchester debuted in 1978, with smokeless powder providing the oomph to throw the 250-or-so-grain projectile downrange.
Originally named for the .38 caliber slug and 55 grains of black powder that pushed it, modern hunting loads typically use about 30 to 35 grains of an all-purpose powder such as IMR 3031. This delivers a 255-grain bullet anywhere from 1,250 to 1,800 feet per second out of a 26-inch barrel, which provides plenty of energy to cleanly take deer-sized game at moderate ranges.
Most modern factory ammo in .38-55 Winchester is designed for the cowboy action crowd, though there are a few hunting rounds available.
Winchester offers a Super-X load with 255 grain Power Point bullet that is deadly on deer. So if you happen to come upon a rifle chambered for the grandfather of all deer rounds, check that it was built to handle the pressures created by smokeless powder and punch your tag using one of the rounds that started it all. — Joseph Albanese
When it was introduced in 1964 the .444 Marlin was the most powerful lever action cartridge on the planet. It pushed a 240-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity of 2,350 ft/s. (Some of today’s loads push a 265 grain bullet even faster.) Designed as a stretched out .44 Magnum to use in a Marlin lever action rifle, this old workhorse had a loyal following for several years.
That faded as lever actions lost their market place to bolt actions and the .444 Marlin was all but retired after Marlin stopped making guns.
But that was before these new straight walled cartridge laws were implemented. It’s making a comeback today, aided with better bullets and propellants than were available during its early life. The .444 Marlin has proven to be one of the best straight walled cartridge choices for deer hunting. CVA and TC have single shot rifles and Marlin has just reintroduced the 444 lever action, which will no doubt breathe new life into this cartridge.
Hornady’s Superformance load uses a 265 grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2,400 ft/s. I witnessed it used on deer recently and it performed flawlessly even at relatively long range. —Bryce Towsley
This cartridge was introduced as a black powder round back in 1873 and it had a great run. It even saw some use in buffalo hunting.
Still, it had just about died out by mid-20th century as hunter’s interests moved on to bottle-necked smokeless powder cartridges. Then in 1972 Marlin introduced the lever action Model 1895 in .45-70. Some nostalgic hunters bought them for a chance to use the “old” cartridge from their great grandfather’s time. They soon discovered that the .45-70 is a great hunting cartridge in any century.
What followed was a comeback for the .45-70. Several companies in addition to Marlin and Henry offer .45-70 rifles in single shot or lever actions. In a strong rifle like the Ruger Number One single shot, the .45-70 can be handloaded to very impressive ballistics.
Still, it was Marlin that rescued the cartridge and I would guess that there are more 1895 Marlin rifles in in .45-70 than all the others combined. I bought my first Marlin .45-70 in 1990 and have never been without one since. I have used the .45-70 on a black bear, hogs, moose, bison and a lot of deer.
The Marlin 1895 in .45-70 was my choice for a recent hunt in Iowa during their shotgun season. I used Barnes Vor-Tx ammo with 300 grain TSX FN bullet. It exits my Marlin at an honest 1,925 ft/s, shoots extremely well and simply bludgeons whitetails. —Bryce Towsley
This cartridge was designed to be used in an AR-15 rifle and where legal that’s a good way to go. Ruger, Mossberg, Savage and others are chambering it in a bolt action rifle now. Neal Emery from Hornady told me they have seen a boom in ammo sales recently due to the popularity of the .450 Bushmaster for deer hunting.
The Hornady 250 grain FTX load exits a 20 inch barrel at 2,200 fps and is well suited for deer out to 200 yards.
I came to respect this cartridge a few years ago when I used some prototype Remington Hog Hammer ammo with a Barnes 275 grain bullet to shoot a bunch of hogs and a water buffalo. This ammo was a death ray from my short barreled AR-15. Sadly though, the ammo never was introduced to the market. The good news is my friends at Barnes tell me it will soon be launched in the Barnes VOR-TX line of factory ammo. —Bryce Towsley
Named for the hero that slays the monster in one of history’s earliest known epic poems, the .50 Beowulf is a gargantuan round designed to deal with modern beasts.
Bill Alexander of Alexander Arms built the round to function in the company’s AR platform to offer increased stopping power to go through engine blocks and automotive glass at checkpoints and roadblocks—i.e. for military and LE applications. Though they both fit within the confines of standard AR magwell, the 5.56/.223 looks downright anemic when compared to the 50 Beowulf and it turns a double-stack 5.56 magazine into a single-stack, much like the .450 Bushmaster.
The .50 Beowulf is the largest round that can be put through an AR-15 without extensive internal modifications. Commercially available rounds offer 300 to 450 grain pills moving somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 feet per second, which offer more than enough power to take down nearly any hoofed game.
Despite the massive energy, the chamber pressure is actually much lower than a standard 5.56 round. The Beowulf only produces 33,000 pounds per square inch, which is well below the 50,000 psi of the 5.56. — Joseph Albanese
Winchester .350 Legend
At SHOT Show 2019, Winchester introduced a brand new cartridge. The .350 Legend was built specifically with straight-walled hunting regulations in mind, delivering a soft-shooting round that could cleanly take deer-sized game out to 200 yards. It was also not likely to over travel, thanks to the wide .35 caliber bullet propelled by only 21 grains of powder, keeping with the spirit of those straight wall limitations.
The new round is based off a .223 case, but straightened out through a few draw steps and some massaging with a hydraulic press. When done, the case accepts a bullet with a diameter in the same neighborhood as the .357 Magnum. This keeps manufacturing costs down, and makes the .350 Legend very affordable when compared to some other straight wall cartridges, such as the .450 Bushmaster.
Despite kicking about 20 percent less than .243, which is the caliber of many youngsters’ first deer rifle, .350 Legend penetrates approximately 20 percent more. When shot out of a similar length barrel, the .350 delivers more energy than a .30-30, the most classic of deer hunting cartridges. There’s also less muzzle blast than comparable rounds, which helps when introducing new shooters.
Despite the .350 Legend having the same .378 nominal rim diameter as a standard .223 round, you’ll need specialized magazines to reliably feed the straight walled cartridge, but this is the case when trying to use any straight walled cartridge in a rifle platform designed for bottlenecked cartridges. You’ll also obviously need a new upper, but many are already on the market thanks to the popularity of the round.
At SHOT Show 2020, Winchester unveiled a couple of new .350 Legend offerings, in addition to the 150-grain Deer Season XP, 180-grain Power-Point, and 145-grain FMJ the company is already producing. One is at the upper limits of the new round’s speed; the other, the lower.
The new Power Max Bonded load pushes a 160-grain bullet at 2,225 fps; while the sub-sonic Super Suppressed 265-grain load boogies along at only 1,060 fps.
Winchester claims the 350 Legend Power Max Bonded delivers reliable expansion and maximum retained weight, thanks to the proprietary bonding process used forming the 160-grain bullet. The bullet’s contoured jacket, coupled with the bonded core, provides deeper penetration and maximum weight retention.
The notched hollow point is designed for rapid expansion for quick knockdown power, which Winchester believes makes this load viable for elk as well.
As the name suggests, the Super Suppressed round is designed with suppressor use in mind, but its benefits go beyond the can. Even without use of a sound dampening device, the subsonic velocities reduce the report of the shot.
The lower speed is mostly thanks to the larger pill, which weighs a whopping 265 grains—about 100 grains more than others. The entire bullet is encased in a copper jacket, which greatly decreases fouling in both barrels and suppressors. — Joseph Albanese
STRAIGHT-WALLED HUNTING RIFLES
Rifles built to handle straight walled cartridges run the gambit from single shot to semiauto, from antique to modern. As the metallic cartridge did a lot of growing up in the Old West, many of the rifles chambered for overgrown pistol rounds are lever guns. The platform transitioned well from their home on the range and into hunting duty, as evidenced by the numbers that take to the woods with hunters every year.
ARs chambered in .450 Bushmaster are credited with driving the straight-wall craze. Hunters that grew up knowing the AR as “America’s Rifle” wanted to take them afield, and building one to fire a straight-walled round was one way to do so if you lived in one of the states with such regulations. Their popularity spread, and manufacturers took notice.
Single-shot break actions for straight wall cartridges are fairly common, as the receiver remains the same for nearly every caliber. The manufacturer just needs to produce a barrel that holds the round with the proper head spacing, which is a relatively uncomplicated process if you have the tooling necessary to do so. As demand for a round grows, they just build a new barrel and send it out to the adoring public.
Bolt actions for straight walled ammo were a bit like hen’s teeth for a while, though they are becoming more numerous. The bolt action itself is strong and robust, so manufacturers stuff them with the fastest rounds they can in an effort to up performance for ballistic hungry consumers. But demand drives innovation, and shooters are asking for more. — Joseph Albanese
It’s been rumored that CMMG worked alongside Winchester while they developed the .350 Legend, building an AR-platform rifle that would compliment the new round. The timing of the release would certainly indicate that, as CMMG unveiled a carbine-length AR chambered at the same time the new round was revealed at SHOT Show 2019. The .350 Resolute received nearly as much fanfare as the new round itself.
The 300 MK4 represents the top tier of the Resolute line, offering premium touches like a Geissele Automatics SSA 2-stage trigger and your choice of custom Cerakote finishes. The forged 7075-T6 aluminum M4-type upper is mated to a 16.1-inch 4140CM steel medium taper barrel with 1:16 twist to stabilize the .350 in flight. Controls are ambidextrous, and the rifle is one-size-fits-all thanks to an adjustable buttstock.
The Resolute ships with a 10-round magazine designed specifically to feed .350 without a hiccup, but you can buy 5-rounders if your state limits capacity during hunting seasons.
You’ll pay a premium for this premium rifle, but entry level level Resolutes start at $1,049 if you don’t need as much polish in your deer gun. MSRP: $1,549. — Joseph Albanese
If you want a century old round in a space-age lever gun, look no further than the Henry Model X in .45-70. Introduced this year, the X Model takes lever guns into the future with high-tech synthetic furniture, modern touches, and contemporary styling.
Chambering the new rifle in the time-proven, heavy round makes versatile hog dropper, rugged deer gun, or dedicated truck gun ready to take on whatever comes your way on the Back 40 or in the backcountry.
The X Model features Henry’s new side loading gate, which makes keeping the lever gun fed even easier than before. It also means that you don’t need to take the suppressor off to load it, should you make use of the barrel’s 5/8×24 threads—and without a can attached, you can still load and unload via the mag tube if you so choose.
Fiber optic sights (red rear sight and green front sight) are included for quick target acquisition, though the rifle’s receiver is drilled and tapped to accept your choice of optics. In-line sling swivel studs, a Picatinny rail for a bipod or lights, and M-Lok accessory slots on the forend complete the modern refinements. MSRP: $970. — Joseph Albanese
Before the .350 Legend burst on the scene, those that wanted to hunt with a AR in one of the states restricting rifle hunting to straight-walls during deer season used an AR chambered for .450 Bushmaster.
This thumper of a round doesn’t appeal to the masses in the same way that 5.56 does, so factory options are a bit limited. You can build your own, but the hard-hitting round can be tough to tune, so you may want to leave this one to the pros if you’re not an experienced builder, but if you want to venture into that territory, here’s everything Range365 learned on a bumpy road toward building its own .450 Bushmaster hunting AR from scratch.
The Ruger AR-556 MPR in .450 Bushmaster is an excellent choice if you don’t feel up to the challenge of rolling your own. Ruger built this bruiser around a caliber-specific bolt machined from a high-strength alloy and engineered with tapered lugs to support the large case head of .450 and take the abuse it dishes out. (The round is a kicker, so the recoil sensitive should beware.)
It’s not all brute strength however, with some finesse coming in the form of Ruger’s Elite 452 two-stage trigger that offers a smooth, crisp, 4.5 pound trigger pull.
A muzzle brake with a radial port design reduces felt recoil and muzzle movement, though follow up shots are not likely to be needed with the big iron.
Ruger figures you’ll be hunting with this, so it comes from the factory with a five-round magazine—and even dedicated mags with a higher capacity in .450 BM tend to have troubles feeding. MSRP: $1,099. — Joseph Albanese
There’s probably no more iconic deer gun than the bolt-action rifle. Ever since American GIs began sporterizing service rifles and captured Mausers after the close of the WWII, bolt guns have dominated the deer woods. Most of these were built to handle the higher velocity bottlenecked rounds, eschewing the slower moving older rounds in favor of the newly proven designs.
But with the resurgence in popularity straight wall cartridges are now experiencing, some manufacturers are building bolt guns specifically for them.
One such manufacturer is Savage, which has built the Axis XP II in .350 Legend. The synthetic-stock bolt action weighs in at under seven pounds with an 18-inch barrel and a Bushnell Banner 3-9x40mm scope mounted on top, so it won’t wear you out toting it through the woods all day.
The Axis II features Savage’s excellent AccuTrigger, which is user-adjustable from 2.5 to 6 pounds, and outperforms triggers on rifles costing twice as much.
The package is priced right for beginners, with everything you need to get hunting for less tan $500. MSRP: $478. — Joseph Albanese
Many folks learn to shoot with a break-action single shot rifle because of the safety inherent in the platform. Break the gun open and it’s incapable of firing, and it’s plain as day to Dad or whoever is teaching the new shooter that firearm has been made safe even from a distance.
Many enjoy the simplicity and minimalism that the break action offers, preferring to hunt with one even after they advance beyond the beginner stages—plus the lighter weight of a single-barrel break gun is also attractive.
The CVA Scout has all of the features you’d want in a break-action rifle, at a price that won’t break the bank. Even in stainless steel trim the Scout retails for less than $400, so you can get a serious deer gun and still have money left over for glass.
All models are truly ambidextrous, which is a boon for lefties that are used to paying a premium for rifles designed to work with their anatomy.
The Scout is available in a variety of straight-wall calibers, including .44 Magnum, which should appeal to hunters who also keep a wheelgun on their hip in the woods. MSRP: $394 — Joseph Albanese