Hot Off the Press: Shooting the .264 Winchester Magnum
May 13, 2013
The .264 Winchester Magnum is like a beautiful, unloved stepchild. It shoots faster and flatter than any standard-length magnum other than the .257 Weatherby, it hits with undeniable authority at extended ranges courtesy of the extraordinary aerodynamics of its 6.5mm-diameter projectiles, and it recoils with unexpected politeness for such a high performer. Yet — aside from a small group of followers of cult-like loyalty — it has never gained the affection of the American hunter.
Introduced in 1959, the .264 Win. Mag. was an extraordinary cartridge. Heck, it still is, especially when handloaded to its full potential. Initially chambered in Winchester's "Westerner" Model 70, it was meant to fill the needs of far-shooting mule deer and elk hunters. When pushed right to its maximum pressure of 64,000 psi (as established by SAAMI), it will hurl a long, slender 140-grain bullet at more than 3,100 fps from a 26-inch barrel. That's faster than a 130-grain projectile out of the .270 Winchester, giving .264 Win. Mag. owners the advantages of increased velocity and the dramatically better ballistic coefficients gained by a heavier projectile of smaller diameter. The average 130-grain .277-diameter bullet struggles to achieve a BC of much more than 0.450, while even a moderately aerodynamic 140-grain .264 bullet approaches 0.500, and a streamlined one, such as Berger's 140-grain Hunting VLD, offers an astonishing 0.612. Note that the .264 Win. Mag. typically must be handloaded to achieve the above velocity figures.
Hard on barrels? Yes — historically. With today's improved barrel steels, slower-burning propellants, and improved cleaning solvents, it is not the throat-toaster it was reputed to be. Still, reasonable maximum-accuracy life expectancy is around 700 to 1,000 rounds.
Alas, Remington and its new-in-1962 7mm Remington Magnum dealt a resounding deathblow to the .264 Win. Mag. Offering heavier bullets, greater terminal energy, more frontal diameter, and a vast selection of projectiles suitable for handloading courtesy of its 7mm military cartridge predecessors, all at a price of only a bit more recoil and a little lost velocity, the "Seven Mag" became a cartridge in every American hunter's vocabulary, while the excellent .264 Win. Mag. slipped quietly into near-obsoletion.
Today, the 7mm Rem. Mag. is still the more versatile cartridge; however, it is, and always has been, a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none kind of round, while the .264 Win. Mag. is a legitimate niche cartridge that does what it does better than any other American cartridge. With deer-size game on the menu, there is absolutely nothing flatter shooting or with more carrying ability.
As far as I'm aware, only Winchester Repeating Arms and Shaw Precision Guns (a division of E.R. Shaw barrels) currently produce factory rifles chambered in .264 Win. Mag., though Remington did feature the cartridge in the Model 700 Classic at one point (and those rifles are reputed to shoot very well). Of course, any custom riflesmith worth his salt can build a rifle in .264. Win. Mag.
Barrel length is important to the .264 Win. Mag; it really needs 26 inches to achieve full velocity potential. Winchester's current Model 70s feature 26-inch tubes, Shaw rifles are available with whatever length the purchaser wants, and the Remington 700 Classic had a 24-inch barrel.
As far as ammo goes, both Winchester and Remington still produce .264 Win. Mag. factory ammunition (though only one load each, in basic, nonpremium lines), Nosler offers a premium load in its Trophy Grade line, and ProGrade lists a whopping three loads in its Hunting Grade line.
My choice of the "economy" loads (both the Winchester and Remington loads are priced $47 per box at the local Cabela's) is Remington's 140-grain Core-Lokt round. The 140-grain projectile is fairly streamlined, providing acceptable aerodynamics, and it has a protected tip (meaning only a bit of exposed lead, a tiny flat meplat where the bullet initiates negotiations with its target). While this does protect the bullet from deformation during recoil and during travel up the feedramp and into the chamber, its more important function is to limit potentially explosive expansion (as a result of high velocity) upon impact. The bullet holds together well, and though I've never shot truly big game, such as a mature bull elk or moose, with it, I've heard that it performs well.
It's not loaded particularly hot; factory figures suggest a muzzle velocity of 3,030 fps from a 24-inch barrel. That results in a 500-yard drop of 42.3 inches when zeroed at 200 yards. Maintained energy at 500 yards is 1,139 foot-pounds. My Winchester Model 70 Sporter pushes it to 3,021 fps from a 26-inch tube (I chronographed it in 20-degree temps, and it would have been higher on a warmer day). Average accuracy is an acceptable 1.54 inches.
The Winchester 140-grain factory load is also pretty good. Though not quite as aerodynamic in shape, and sporting a good bit of exposed lead at the nose, impact result on deer-size game is typically spectacular. Advertised muzzle velocity is the same as the Remington load: 3,030 fps (my rifle gives 3,010 fps). The suggested 500-yard drop is 42.2 inches when zeroed at 200, and maintained 500-yard energy is the same as the Remington load: 1,139 ft-lbs.
For pure downrange performance, Nosler's 130-grain AccuBond load banishes both of the above in disgrace. (Of course, it costs more, too.) Due to enhanced muzzle velocity (3,100 fps according to the factory and 3,108 through my rifle) and greatly increased aerodynamics, it drops only 34.7 inches at 500 yards, and though it is a lighter bullet, its maintained velocity provides 1,389 ft-lbs of 500-yard impact energy.
I haven't been able to get my hands on any of the ProGrade ammunition yet, but all three options (120-grain Barnes TTSX; 125-grain Nosler Partition, and 140-grain Nosler AccuBond) look good, especially if the company pushes them to the .264's full velocity potential.
Today, many outstanding component bullets and suitable propellants are available for loading the .264 Win. Mag., and it really comes into its own with carefully developed high-performance handloads. See the handy tear-out on page 54 for more details.
What It Can Really Do
Too many statistics make my head hurt, and they surely can be used to misrepresent facts, but let me try and simplify this and compare one good, aerodynamic .264 Win. Mag. handload with a couple of quality factory loads in its nearest cousins: the .270 Winchester and the 7mm Rem. Mag.
- .264 Win. Mag. Handload: 130-grain Swift Scirocco II (BC: 0.571) at 3,200 fps
- .270 Win. Federal Factory Load: 130-grain Nosler AccuBond (BC: 0.432) at 3,060 fps
- 7mm Rem. Mag. Federal Factory Load: 150-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip (BC: 0.495) at 3,025 fps
At my home elevation of 5,000 feet, calculated with a temperature of 50 degrees and 50 percent humidity, with all loads zeroed at 200 yards, we get the following ballistic projections:
The .264 Win. Mag. load drops only 29 inches at 500 yards and 109 inches at 800. A 90-degree, 10-mph crosswind causes it to drift 11 inches at 500 yards and 29 inches at 800. Maintained energy at each range is 1,813 ft-lbs and 1,319 ft-lbs respectively.
The .270 Win. load drops 35 inches at 500 yards and 137 at 800, and the 10-mph wind causes it to drift 16 inches at 500 yards and 45 inches at 800. Maintained energy is 1,383 ft-lbs at 500 yards and 880 ft-lbs at 800.
The 7mm Rem. Mag. load drops 35 inches at 500 yards and 132 at 800. The 10-mph wind causes it to drift 14 inches at 500 yards and 39 inches at 800. Maintained energy is 1,703 ft-lbs at 500 yards and 1,156 at 800.
Surprisingly, the .264 Win. Mag. handload betters even the 7mm Rem. Mag. factory load in every category. It has less drop, less wind drift, and more maintained energy. Of course, a good handload in the 7mm would close the gap and certainly surpass the 6.5mm projectile in energy, but the comparison shows just how good the .264 is.
Though it's more than a half-century old, the .264 Winchester Magnum is one of the few niche cartridges that is as yet unsurpassed by the motley assortment of modern magnums. It is still the fastest, flattest light medium bore available.
As such it has a legitimate but rather overlooked place in the modern hunting realm. With proper loading, it can outperform the .270 Win., 7mm Rem. Mag., .30-06, and its other sibling cartridges, and it does so with less recoil. Combining history, high performance, and excellent manners, it is a true aristocrat among rifle cartridges.