Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Living with the WSM...

It's been a long while since I've had the opportunity to post very much thanks to work and a family crisis down south but since hunting season is nigh upon us I've had the chance to do some range work with one of my rifles that I'll tell you about.

When you mention the .300 WSM you generally get a couple of reactions from shottists and hunters alike. One camp will talk about how fast you can shoot with such a little bitty cartridge and how its a .300 Winchester Magnum stuffed into a .308 action and when you shoot one rainbows and skittles burst from the ejection port. Well, frankly its not all that but more on that later. The opposing camp will talk about how this ridiculous cartridge is doomed for failure and instant obscurity, how it's little better than an '06 and how you can't buy ammo and.... well you get the point. Truth is that neither camp has likely spent a whole lot of trigger time (three rounds at the range with a casual acquaintance's isn't enough) with a real live living breathing specimen. I wound up with one of these quite by accident and here's how it happened.

The Rifle-

Honestly the rifle was something I really wanted regardless of cartridge and I more or less talked myself into the WSM round based on the rifle's merits alone. I justified the cartridge precisely because it was wedged ballistically right between the .300 Winchester Magnum and the .30-06- two cartridges with very good pedigrees that I've had significant experience with in the past. The rifle is a Nosler 48 Sporter and its a hard core hunting rifle. Fiberglass stock, Cera-Kote finish, Blackburn bottom metal, tack driving accuracy. Yep- its all that. It's also a push feed chambered for a cartridge that's essentially a shortened .404 Jeffery, for those of you inclined to pay attention to such things. Did I mention this short cartridge is also loaded to the gills with gunpowder and factory rounds push the very edge of SAAMI pressure limits? More on that later.

The good....
The rifle does shoot as good as they say and I've shot MOA groups with boring regularity using Nosler's ammunition as well as Federal "blue box" for half the price. Its also a surprisingly light and "huntable" rifle with great field manners at a spartan 7.5 pounds wearing a Leupold 4x scope and nylon sling. I've appreciated the weatherproof coating while chasing caribou in the rain and the trigger is something akin to 3 pounds of blessing. If you pick up any number of gun rags you can read glowing reports about these to your heart's content because since their introduction they've been the subject of numerous reviews. I've had mine since introduction and managed to hunt with it quite a lot over the last three years so I've formed a pretty good opinion of it.

The not-so-good...
Despite the fact the rifle is built from first rate components there are a few items that I find wanting after living with the rifle for a bit. First of all is the bolt handle- the thing is knurled like a rasp all the way around and angled backwards slightly. That apparently is to get the angle just right to cause the maximum damage after contacting your trigger finger knuckle during recoil (more on that later...). The safety is a good design but I rather prefer the M70 type flag safety over the "Remington Switch" riding on the starboard side of the rear receiver ring. At least in the three position style the bolt locks in the rear most position. A word is in order on the coating- I've seen similar ceramic based coatings being advertised on rifles regularly these days but this one is kind of disappointing. It works well enough until you bump it against something; say a rock or a pack frame during the course of your hunting. This entirely weatherproof wonder finish is pretty prone to chipping on contact with anything harder than fifth grade math. Mine has a series of chips and dings up and down the barrel from just two seasons in the field. Good news is the a recoat of the same material is commonly available at the local gunsmith and its quite reasonable to apply. Of the things I don't like lastly is the price... (not that price is of any great concern with an item that should last generations) but these things are not cheap. They're not even moderate. I hate to portray any kind of buyer's remorse but I'd think long and hard before doing this again, truthfully I've spent less and been happier with a rifle that's inferior to this thing in every respect. I want to believe that every word of the ad copy is true- rifle cranks are like that. While they are a great rifle (don't get me wrong, a fabulous piece of equipment) I don't think they're worth the considerable freight they command. That can be said of many things these days so I am aware it could just be my age showing.

The Cartridge-
The .300 WSM has been out for a good while now and despite the initial pessimism from a certain element of the firearm enthusiasts crowd about the imminent demise of the round, it's still around. The round was introduced with a great deal of hoopla. Winchester (reading their usual playbook) generated a lot of fanfare and rated the cartridge at 3050fps with a 180gr bullet initially; matching (and in some cases slightly exceeding) the .300 Winchester Magnum. I'd bet darn few .300WSM rifles ever zip one that fast out of the barrel though. Shooting mine over a chronograph yields 2900 fps and a little bit of change. It's quite likely that factory ballistics were taken with a 26" pressure barrel, never mind a 26" barrel on a short action rifle makes about as much sense as lipstick on a hog. Most WSM chambered rifles will come with 22-24" barrels and never get close to the 3000 fps mark. When you lighten the payload to 150gr. bullets though, the story changes a bit and with the lighter slugs you can match the velocity of a .300 Win Mag. with relative ease in a shorter barrelled rifle. With bullets heavier than 180 grains the longer bullet starts crowding powder space and performance lags well behind what the bigger case .300s are capable of.

What does this mean to the hunter? Well for one, I think bullets lighter than 180gr. make no sense in a magnum rifle at all. All but the toughest 150gr. bullets become bombs at those high velocities and while they will fly slightly flatter initially, the lighter slug loses velocity quicker and for true long range work is inferior to the 180gr. The 180s at 2900fps make a very effective load but then again the same bullet in a .30-06 makes just as good a load. With judicious hand loading or "light magnum" ammunition you can get 180s perilously close to what the .300WSM shoots out of the '06. I'll leave it to your Google prowess and reloading manual perusing to check it out.

I guess a better question is why do you need to. The '06 and its kin have proven they have the right stuff to kill game to 300 yards since Theodore Roosevelt and Stuart Edward White. Its smaller cousin the .308 Winchester is virtually indistinguishable from it in the hunting field and both of those rounds do well in barrels as short as 20 inches. The .300 WSM will generate more velocity than the '06 but the shorter, lighter action is the draw and a three shot magazine is the drawback. Another issue is recoil- short actions, light barrels and featherweight stocks shooting heavier bullets at high velocity equal R-E-C-O-I-L and lots of that too. I've shot a fair bit in my life and a fair bit with heavy guns but the lightweight magnums have something special in that department. In all seriousness- I take one look at mine and visions of Dall Sheep dance in my head. That kind of hunting is carrying a rifle for two weeks and firing it a single time.

There are some other significant problems with shooting bullets at high velocity in cases that are smaller and that is pressure- lots of it. The cartridge is rated at 65,000 psi which is right where the SAAMI limit is and where Weatherby loads most of their cartridges at too. I've had several types of factory ammo exhibit stiff bolt lift, cratered primer pockets and wonder of wonders a stuck case. I managed to remove the case without too much hassle but the fact I had been bear hunting with the rounds earlier in the week didn't leave me much confidence in the rifle or the cartridge for a while.

As a consequence I believe most manufacturers are going to start downgrading the velocities a bit and back off on the pressure. While the rounds I'm shooting now are slightly cooler than those first ones, the accuracy is certainly first rate and my confidence in the rifle's functioning is growing back ever so slowly. There are no flies on the reputation of a 180gr Partition at 2900fps for killing almost anything, but its not what was promised in the beginning.

So there you have it- a beautiful, accurate rifle tailor made for Alaskan hunting that sells for what a good used car used too. One that fires a ponderous cartridge that's under performing and effective at the same time. But boy does it shoot and it packs in the mountains like a dream come true. I guess I'll use it a while longer.


mdmnm said...

Nice report and evaluation, Hodgeman. I don't have any experience with the ceramic coatings, so I appreciate learning about the "chip factor".

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Hey Hodgeman

Great to see you posting again. I was very taken with the sales copy for the '48 so it was great to read a real-world evaluation. I was taken with the idea of the .270WSM what made you choose the .300?


hodgeman said...

SBW- Bascially the 48 I bought was off the rack in Fairbanks, I had a choice between a .300 and a .325.

In truth I think I would have preferred the .325 WSM although its not nearly as common as the .300.

I think the .270WSM is a very nice round and makes a fine plains game/ deer rifle. Not so sure I'd pick one for moose or bears but plenty of folks do and use it successfully so what could I say?