If you hunt and want to shoot at a longer range, you may be wondering what the effective range of a rifle cartridge is. In this post, we’ll look in-depth into that question.
In general, a bullet’s maximum effective range is the distance at which it no longer travels fast enough to reliably expand when it hits a target. This is usually about 1,900fps with most bullet designs. In addition to expanding reliably, a bullet must carry sufficient energy to take down the animal.
The effective range of a bullet can be measured in different ways because it depends on what the bullet needs to be “effective” at doing. For this experiment, we’ll look at three common ways to determine effectiveness.
- Distance Bullet Drops Under 1,900 FPS – As a bullet travels, it slows down. When a bullet slows down under approximately 1,900 FPS, bullets can enter a target and never expand. If the bullet expands, it is not very effective at causing damage and can result in an injured animal rather than effectively killing it. The number on the chart below is the distance in yards at which this standard is no longer met.
- Distance Bullet Carries Less Than 1,000 ft-lbs of Energy – The 1k ft-lbs number is widely considered the amount of energy needed to immediately and ethically kill a deer-sized animal. For law enforcement, a human target is approximately the same size as a deer. The number on the chart below is the distance in yards at which this standard is no longer met.
- Distance Bullet Carries Less Than 1,500 ft-lbs of Energy – This standard is used for elk-sized game such as kudu, moose, a waterbuck, a young eland, etc. The number on the chart below is the distance in yards at which this standard is no longer met.
- Max Travel Distance – This is the distance, in yards, at which a bullet will impact the ground when fired in the air at a perfect angle to maximize distance.
- Why Some Boxes On The Chart Are Marked “N/A” – This means that the bullet does not meet this standard at any distance. You may note some specialty bullets such as the .300 Blackout on are marked as N/A for all three standards because it uses very heavy, very soft bullets which travel very slow. It doesn’t fit neatly into these standards, but obviously is very lethal from short range.
The data in the following table contains averages for each cartridge. We analyzed 6 different loads for each cartridge (the proper way to read that sentence is “Jim sat at a computer for WEEKS putting data into very complicated Excel sheets) to come out with an average of what several common loads for each cartridge will accomplish.
|Cartridge||Distance (yds) Bullet Drops Under 1,900 FPS||Max Effective Range with 1,500 ft-lbs||Max Effective Range with 1,000 ft-lbs|
|.458 Win Mag||94||495||703|
|.416 Remington Magnum||208||513||695|
|.378 Weatherby Magnum||440||661||850|
|.375 H&H Magnum||320||534||707|
|9.3 x 62mm Mauser||301||487||632|
|.338-378 Weatherby Magnum||587||787||1019|
|.338 Lapua Magnum||565||741||1015|
|.340 Weatherby Magnum||527||716||990|
|.338 Win Mag||426||491||940|
|.30-378 Weatherby Magnum||804||870||1115|
|.300 Weatherby Magnum||711||783||1115|
|.300 Winchester Magnum||684||699||980|
|.300 Ruger (RCM)||496||490||774|
|7.62 x 39mm||191||42||233|
|7mm Weatherby Magnum||790||707||1010|
|7mm Rem Mag||710||610||904|
|.280 Ackley Improved||601||540||850|
|.270 Weatherby Magnum||718||554||818|
|6.8 Remington SPC||311||70||240|
|6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum||907||697||1002|
|6.5 Weatherby RPM||811||610||909|
|.264 Winchester Magnum||715||514||813|
|6.5-284 Norma Match||607||405||710|
|6.5 x 55 Swedish Mauser||460||215||512|
|.257 Weatherby Magnum||655||360||598|
|.240 Weatherby Magnum||590||224||478|
|.223 / 5.56||325||N/A||170|
Every effective range calculation will, by its nature, be only a broad approximation. Shot placement, bullet construction, and animal individuality will all dramatically impact the effectiveness of the bullet.
For example, having 1,500 ft-lbs of energy to kill a bull elk is a decent barometer, but elk have also been killed with far less energy when excellent shot placement and good bullet construction are in play. However, hunters who choose to use gear that does not meet this standard are often forced to either make an unethical shot or to pass up shot opportunities when the elk isn’t turned the right way.
Also, remember that the data in the table above is using averages of multiple loads per cartridge. You may be able to use a heavier bullet and achieve more energy or a longer range with more velocity.
Long-Range Bullets vs Standard Hunting Bullets, it matters
Since we’re talking about max distances, I’d like to clarify something here. Not all bullets are “Max-Range bullets”. I mentioned that a bullet may not perform well under 2,000 fps. Well, that would limit most hunting rifles to between 150 and 400-yards. But wait, there’s more.
Depending on bullet type and construction, the minimum expansion velocity for rifles falls between about 1300 and 2000 fps. If you want to max things out, you need a bullet that will expand at lower velocities. But, you don’t want to get too close to that minimum expansion velocity. Minimum sucks.
For example, most of the all-copper expanding bullets need something like 1,900 0r 2,000 fps to expand even a little. while they work great at closer ranges, they will fail miserably if you want to push your shots out there. So, you definitely need a long-range bullet for most longer shots.
We have an article on Backfire that goes a bit deeper into long-range hunting cartridges and bullet selection. Here’s a link to it.
“The bullet with the lowest expansion threshold is Nosler Accubond Long Range, which expands starting at 1300 fps. Hornady ELD-X and Barnes LRX both will expand at 1600 fps. All three are excellent choices for long-range hunting ammo.”Jordy Buck, owner of guntradition.com
Max Distance vs Practical Distance
Practical distance isn’t the same as the max distance a rifle can shoot. There are quite a few variables that all work to decrease the true potential of a rifle. Seldom is the practical max the same as the true max distance.
Perhaps my hunting rifle and bullet combo are capable of shooting 550-yards. That doesn’t mean I should take a shot that far. The three sometimes neglected variables are the human factor, the weather factor, and the fact that you are shooting at a wild animal, not a stationary target.
If it’s foggy or rainy out, the clarity of your sight picture will limit how well you can shoot. Just like shooting near dawn or dusk, or shooting into a glare. That can easily make my practical distance come down to 250-yards.
If I add to that a gusty 25 mph wind, I’m not shooting past 200 yards. It’s all highly situational, but it matters. You’re also not going to shoot as well on a moving animal.
A rule of thumb I use is if an animal is walking, shots need to be twice as close. If your max is 400-yards and the deer is moving, perhaps stick to 200-yards. Or wait and hope it stops for a few seconds.
Another limiting point is how well you judge distance. Far shots start to need a lot of compensation for bullet drop and wind drift to make an ethical shot on a game animal. Do you plan to hit every animal with a rangefinder? Shots near the max effective range can totally miss the animal if you misjudge the distance by 50-yards.
Shooting “Max Distance” is a Recipe for Failure.
I don’t like playing games of “how far can I go” and “minimum bullet energy”. Isn’t it smart to have a buffer and not go to the utmost maximum? That’s when little things cause failures. Sure, some experts have even gone beyond what we consider the “max distance”.
Youtube is full of those videos. But, everything has to be perfect for it to work. Remember, they don’t show you the times it didn’t work. Little things that you may never have noticed can make a shot fail if you are really pushing the limits.
The Bigger Question is, what’s YOUR maximum? Know how well you shoot in different conditions and trust your skills. Learn to listen to your gut and understand your abilities.
At the moment of truth, if you aren’t sure you will make a good shot, don’t squeeze the trigger. I’m not talking about self-doubt or simply asking yourself “what if I miss”. If for a brief fraction of a second everything is lined up and you in that instant know you got it, take the shot.
But, if you aren’t able to get things perfectly lined up for just long enough to pull the trigger and follow through a smidge, let it go. Better to pass on a questionable shot. A good marksman will not squeeze the trigger unless he believes it will work. Be intentional and smart with each shot.
Leave nothing to chance, because great things don’t happen on accident.