May 12, 2022
By Steve Gash
The .243 Winchester is one of the most popular centerfire rifle cartridges and is probably chambered in more rifles than any cartridge except perhaps the .30-06 Springfield. Countless .243 Win. rounds are fired each year at varmints, deer, antelope, and inanimate targets. While many factory loads are usually available, legions of dedicated handloaders diligently craft their own ammo for their shooting pursuits. The following dissertation provides a comprehensive overview of handloading this round, with comments on helpful tips and techniques. Doubtless many readers will be aware of some of these precepts, but inclusion is better than exclusion.
The .243 Win. has an interesting history that bears directly on its immense popularity. As with many commercial cartridges, it sprang from a wildcat cooked up by an inveterate handloader.
The .243 Win. is based on the .308 Winchester case necked down with no other changes. Cartridge experimentation was in its heyday in the 1950s when the .308 Win. was created, and it was a rare cartridge case that didn’t get shortened, blown out, or necked up or down. Many sources credit the impetus for the .243 Win. to the late Warren Page, the gun editor for Field & Stream.
Winchester had a crafty, two-pronged strategy for the .243 Win., and it worked. Winchester thought of the .243 Win. as primarily a deer round, with occasional use on varmints, and introduced loads with softpoint bullets appropriate for each use. The deer load had a 100-grain bullet at a listed 3,070 fps and an 80-grain varmint load at 3,500 fps. (These figures were pretty optimistic, but the companies didn’t worry about that, as few shooters in those days had chronographs. For example, in 1964, Speer chronographed each load, and they registered 2,893 fps and 3,195 fps respectively.)
The second major factor in the .243 Win.’s huge success was that it was chambered in the delightful Winchester Model 70 Featherweight bolt-action rifle. Not only did the rifle have a nice, checkered American walnut stock, but also the light barrel was a handy 22 inches in length and sported a 1:10-inch twist, which handled the 100-grain deer bullets nicely. Accuracy was excellent, and hunters quickly made the .243 Win. a big hit.
Let’s Talk Handloading
So much for the history lesson. Now let’s talk handloading. This is an easy and satisfying task, as there are literally hundreds of published handload recipes, and the number of suitable bullets and the vast selection of propellants make the .243 Win. a handloader’s delight. Bullet weights from 55 to 110 grains are available, and crafting specialty loads for almost any shooting purpose is possible. (Remember, however, that .243 Win. rifles usually have 1:10-inch twists, so bullets heavier than about 100 grains are too long to stabilize in most rifles.)
Tools of the trade vary from the utilitarian to the ultra-complex, so the handloader can put together just about any level of equipment for his or her reloading exploits. Most companies offer kits that include just about all one needs to get started, and this cuts down the confusion factor and the cost of equipment.
Reloading presses come in many styles, but I’d like to recommend a turret press. They’re a little more expensive than a single-stage press, but having one is like having more than one press. Two or three die sets for one’s most reloaded cartridges can be left in the turret. As for dies, well, there are lots, so take your pick. For bolt-action .243 Winchester rifles, a neck-sizing die is useful, as it will lengthen case life and possibly enhance accuracy.
Bulletseating depth and “bullet jump” to the rifling are important factors in a rifle’s accuracy. A tool like the Hornady Lock-N-Load O.A.L. Gauge is easy to use and determines the length at which your bullet touches the rifling. Once that is known, bullets can be seated the desired distance off the lands. Usually, about 0.010 inch or 0.015 inch off the lands is a good place to start.
Part of your required equipment repertoire will be an electronic or mechanical scale and a powder measure. Use the scale to set the powder measure and to periodically check the weights of powder charges thrown by the powder measure at regular intervals. Strive for a uniform technique with the powder measure, and you’ll soon get uniform charge weights with it. Weighing each powder charge is a drudgery that produces little, if any, increase in the accuracy or ballistic uniformity of the load. But do it if it’s fun for you.
Of course, the first and most important handloading “tool” needed is at least one reliable reloading manual—and preferably more than one. Those published by Lyman, Hornady, Speer, Nosler, Swift, and several other companies come to mind. (Manuals are often included in many reloading kits.) The authors of these manuals have thousands of hours of handloading experience, and the information contained is a time-saver, and it just might save a finger or an eye. The .243 Win. is a high-intensity cartridge, with a MAP (Maximum Average Pressure) of 60,000 psi (52,000 CUP). Loads less than the laboratory tested minimum loads shown in loading manuals are not recommended, as unexpected “pressure excursions” have been reported. As always, caution is the watchword. Check everything and keep good records. Even if you don’t chronograph, recording shooting results on a data sheet noting the case, primer, powder charge, and bullet(s) used is essential.
Cases, Primers & Powders
To handload, of course, one must have empty cases, and new or once-fired cases are best. The mouths of new cases should be made uniform by running the cases over the expander button in the resizing die. Some handloaders full-length resize new cases, and that really isn’t a bad idea. “Uniformity for Accuracy,” as the saying goes.
Fired cases require more scrutiny. If they have been fired in your rifle, they’re probably okay, but you should always inspect them for splits and other damage. A tumbler is handy for cleaning cases so that defects are easier to spot.
Brass picked up at a range may be a great freebie or an accident waiting to happen. Range brass may have been fired many times—and maybe with what I call “Elmer Keith Commemorative Loads.” Look such finds over with a jaundiced eye. Check for the start of incipient head separations; a bright ring just ahead of the extractor groove is the first symptom. If there is one, check the inside of the case with a bent paper clip. A “groove” where the separation is starting will be felt. Trash these cases.
Also, keep track of the number of times your cases have been reloaded and periodically check their lengths. Trim if necessary. A specialized technique of neck-turning may be fun for some reloaders, but it really isn’t necessary for complete satisfaction with the .243 Win.
However, this word of caution on .243 Win. cases is appropriate. Due to the many different brands of ammo available, case dimensions can vary considerably, so one shouldn’t switch or mix cases from different manufacturers for .243 Win. handloads because high pressures could result. This is especially important for “range brass.”
Virtually all .243 Win. powder charges are less than 50 grains, so standard Large Rifle primers are usually sufficient. Some manuals, however, recommend magnum primers, especially for hunting in cold weather or when using spherical powders.
The medium-sized .243 Win. case does best with relatively medium- to slow-burning powders. In fact, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was a widely held belief that powder selection spurred the popularity of the .243 Win. Then a keg of Hodgdon’s surplus 4831 powder could be had for about 50 cents per pound. In fact, both IMR 4831 and H4831 both work just dandy in the .243 Win.
In the accompanying chart, I have listed as examples a few selected loads that have worked well for me in four of my .243 Win. rifles. They should point the new .243 Win. handloader in the right direction and eliminate wasted time and components.
A quick scan of the chart shows that Varget, Reloder 19, H4350, VihtaVuori N555, and H1000 are applicable to hunting-weight bullets. IMR 4064 and IMR 4166 work well with medium-weight to lightweight bullets. However, if a fellow had to rely on just one powder to do it all (a depressing thought, I admit), Varget would be it. It just does very well with a wide range of bullet types and weights.
Bullet selection is dependent on the intended use. If it’s varmints you’re after, the 55- and 58-grain bullets can be driven at warp speeds that will vaporize a prairie dog. However, since these bullet weights are readily available in the .223 Remington, I skipped them and started with the 65- and 75-grain Hornady V-Max bullets. As expected, Varget was the star here. Charges of 38.5 grains with the 65-grainer and 38.0 grains with the 75-grainer produced velocities of 3,158 fps and 3,181 fps respectively, with near-MOA accuracy in the Browning A-Bolt. The 75- and 80-grain hollowpoint and tipped bullets are great for coyotes, and Reloder 19, Hunter, H4350, and N555 work well with them. A pet load with the Sierra 80-grain Spitzer Boattail uses 38.5 grains of IMR 4064 for a velocity of 3,097 fps.
Bullets for deer loads abound. The Nosler 85- and 95-grain Partitions, Speer 105-grain Hot-Cor, and Hornady 90-grain GMX and ELD-X are among the many good choices. The ELD-X is a great game bullet, and a charge of 41.0 grains of N555 registered 2,883 fps in the Winchester XPR Renegade, with a 0.63-inch group average. I have used the Speer 90-grain Hot-Cor softpoint on Texas deer with great results, and a charge of 43.0 grains of H4350 gives 3,015 fps and minute-of-deer accuracy.
Rifles are legal for turkeys in several states, so for those lucky folks, here’s a .243 Win. turkey load that I pulled from the Speer Handloading Manual Number 15. Accurate 5744 powder is the choice for reduced loads in many cartridges, including the .243 Win., and a charge of 21.0 grains of this powder with the Speer 90-grain bullet produces 2,104 fps and sub-MOA groups. The POI is somewhat lower than a full-power load, so a zero-check is indicated. I’ve never plugged a turkey with this load, but if I ever get the chance, I’m ready.
My experience on big game with the .243 Win. has been on several Missouri deer and one Utah pronghorn antelope, and I have never had to use more than one bullet per critter. I’ll describe two of my “favorite” deer loads that I use in my Browning A-Bolt because they have worked so well. One uses the Nosler 95-grain Ballistic Tip over 41.2 grains of Reloder 19. Velocity is 2,818 fps, and groups easily stay within one inch. It’s a freezer-filler.
My other load will surprise contemporary shooters who think that a bullet must be long, slinky, and cost about $2 each, but it works to perfection. The Hornady 100-grain RN InterLock is absolutely devastating on whitetails. A charge of 39.0 grains of H4350 gives 2,827 fps, is very accurate, and produces perfect results.
I could go on, but you get the idea. The .243 Win. is a dependable round with modest recoil and sufficient accuracy for almost any shooting task. Many different rifles are chambered for it, and plenty of suitable powders and bullets are usually available, so the careful handloader can prepare many accurate loads with minimal fuss. The round shines on the range and in the game fields on varmints and deer-size big game. It’s no wonder the .243 Winchester is one of America’s most popular and versatile rounds.