October 18, 2022
Historically, deer hunters in many areas of the Midwest and East had restrictions on the type and range of the projectiles legal for use. Fear of stray bullets in regions with high human populations drove these regulations, which eliminated projectile types with high aerodynamics.
Fat, short bullets that lose steam quickly were considered safer. As a result, slug-firing shotguns, muzzleloaders, and big-bore revolvers were often legal, but bottlenecked cartridges pushing sleek, small-diameter bullets were not.
When savvy regulation-makers cottoned on to the fact that fat, short bullets fired from straight-wall cartridges are more accurate—and thus more ethical—without posing increased danger, the trend that is now our straight-wall cartridge movement kicked off.
Classics such as the .45-70 Gov’t were legalized in many states. Obsolete cartridges such as the .444 Marlin were resurrected. And fresh blood such as the .350 Legend was injected into the straight-wall cartridge species.
Each cartridge-restricted state has its own definitions, and it’s up to you to determine what rounds are legal for use in your area. Some regions incorporate a minimum diameter and a maximum cartridge case length into their definition, so be cognizant of that when researching.
However, the fundamental definition is simple: straight-wall cartridges do not have a shoulder. They can, usually, be tapered.
Naturally, no one cartridge fits every hunter’s needs. That’s why the following list spans the spectrum from light-and-little to heavy-and-huge.
How about the firearms that shoot straight-wall cartridges? There’s a vast spectrum. Traditional lever-actions house capable classics such as the .45-70 and .444 Marlin. Large-framed revolvers are chambered for fast, powerful rounds such as the .460 S&W Magnum. Bolt-action rifles are ideal for newer cartridges such as the .350 Legend and .450 Bushmaster—and provide best-in-class accuracy. Interestingly, AR-type rifles are also ideal when chambered in .350 Legend and .450 Bushmaster. Finally, single-shot rifles have been chambered for them all.
Without further ado, let’s dive in and take a closer look at five of the best straight-wall cartridges currently available.
Introduced in 2019, this is the fastest-growing straight-wall cartridge on the market. And for good reason: It’s very capable to 200 yards (or a bit more); it recoils lightly and is easy to shoot accurately; and ammo is comparatively cheap.
I shot one of my best whitetail bucks using a Winchester XPR chambered in .350 Legend, taking him facing on with one 150-grain Deer Season XP bullet from about 130 yards. This load is debatably the best of those available for deer. It generates 2,325 fps of muzzle velocity, which translates into 1,800 ft/lbs of energy. Zeroed at 100 yards, it drops 7.6 inches at 200 yards.
Several different factory loads are available, loaded with bullets of differing weight and construction and suited to a spectrum of tasks. This contributes to the cartridge’s versatility and has certainly helped it gain popularity.
From the array of available rifles, I’d pick a simple bolt-action, purely for the associated accuracy advantages.
This warrior of a cartridge is as old as the .350 Legend is new. Adopted by the U.S. military in 1873, it served honorably through the Indian Wars and until it was replaced by the .30-40 Krag in 1892.
Where legal, it’s a wonderful, versatile choice for deer hunters. The proper firearm is either a single-shot or a lever-action design. Both are traditional and capable—but the lever-action sports lots of speed and firepower.
Plenty of excellent factory ammo is available to hunters. Personal favorites for deer are Hornady’s 325-grain LeveRevolution FTX, Winchester’s 300-grain Ballistic Tip, and Barnes’s Vor-TX loaded with 300-grain TSX bullets. The latter load is also wonderful for elk.
Hornady’s 325-gr. FTX exits the muzzle with 2,050 fps and generates more than 3,000 ft/lbs of energy. Zeroed at 100 yards, it drops 10 inches at 200 yards. Recoil is zesty, but not uncomfortable.
A wonderful side benefit of the .45-70 is that it’s so capable on, well, everything. There’s nothing walking the North American continent that it can’t kill cleanly.
.460 S&W Magnum
Savvy big-buck hunters adopted the .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum before the straight-wall trend. Huge X-Frame revolvers with long barrels and scopes shot as accurately as many lever-action rifles, and provided 225-yard effectiveness. There’s still not a thing wrong with such a system. Plus, whether you pick a revolver or a single-shot chambered for this powerhouse cartridge, you can also fire .454 Casull and .45 Colt ammo in it.
This cartridge made the lineup in leu of the bigger .500 S&W Magnum thanks to Hornady’s 200-grain FTX bullet, which exits 8-inch revolver barrels at an eyebrow-raising 2,200 fps and packs 2,150 ft/lbs of muzzle energy. In the wheelgun world, that’s about as fast and flat-shooting as they come. When zeroed to impact dead on at 100 yards, it drops 11 inches at 200.
If your go-to is a revolver, either by preference or restriction, this straight-wall cartridge is your best bet.
Until the .350 Legend came along, this was the trendiest straight-wall cartridge of them all—and it’s still a better choice if you occasionally shoot critters larger than deer. Introduced in 2007, the .450 Bushmaster has a drastically rebated rim and is made to function safely in AR-15-type rifles. It’s also popular in bolt-action and single-shot designs.
Two drawbacks have forced the .450 Bushmaster to take a back seat to the .350 Legend: It recoils quite hard, and ammo is expensive. On the plus side, several very nice bolt-action rifles are available for reasonable prices, such as Ruger’s American Ranch rifle and walnut-stocked Scout Rifle. And of course, you can buy or build an AR-15 in .450 Bushmaster.
Myriad factory ammo is offered, too. To compare apples to apples here, Hornady offers a 250-grain FTX load that’s excellent for whitetails. The bullet exits 20-inch barrels at 2,200 fps, generating nearly 2,700 ft/lbs of energy. Zeroed at 100 yards, it drops 9 inches at 200.
In an unusual twist, the .444 Marlin is both the most obscure and the most capable of the cartridges in this lineup. How’s that? It pushes the most aerodynamic bullet, and it pushes it the fastest.
More or less a lengthened version of the .44 Magnum, the .444 Marlin was introduced in 1964. It can be handloaded with bullets designed for the .44 Magnum, but is at its best when loaded with projectiles engineered for the higher velocity generated by the greater gunpowder capacity of the .444 case.
Hornady’s 265-grain FTX exits the muzzle at 2,325 fps, generating 3,180 ft/lbs of energy. That’s the same speed as the 150-grain .350 Legend bullet, with the benefit of 115 grains more weight and significantly more frontal diameter. Zeroed at 100 yards, the 265-grain FTX drops just 7.5 inches at 200 yards.
Rifles are hard to find. Older Marlins are most common and most popular, but are pricy. Barrels for T/C Contenders and single-shot rifles by CVA are the most cost-effective way to get started shooting one.