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The .270 Unloved

As a shotgun shooter who shoots rifles when the situation demands it, I think my approach to the job is slightly atypical. Most serious rifle shooters I know have an obsession with tiny degrees of increased accuracy. Careful load development takes up a good deal of their free time. Success is calculated in clover leaf groups at 100 yards or more.

I admit to a less demanding approach to my rifle shooting. I prefer to shoot double rifles, which you shoot much like a shotgun anyway, at as close a range as you can get away with. However, like everyone else, I have my bolt rifles and I shoot most of my deer through a telescopic sight. I stick to ranges and shots I am comfortable with and doubt I have ever shot a deer further away than 250 yards. I have shot a lot more at under 150. As a result, I cannot recall ever having lost a deer I pulled the trigger on (I did lose a warthog once, when my bullet hit his tusk because he turned his head just as I fired).

However, back to serious rifle shooters. Human nature leads many to experiment with ever better groupings at ever longer ranges. They seek to hone their skills and push the limits of themselves and their equipment. It may not be my bag, but I admire the dedication and often marvel at demonstrations of rifle shooting at range that I would never attempt, or hope to achieve in the field. Hard work and dedication pays off. 

However, what this kind of single minded pursuit of excellence does is to channel all this obsessive focus into the formation of opinions that can make the participant somewhat narrow in his focus and rather unnecessarily dogmatic in his attitudes. Why else to we see the endless, often heated, discussions on website forums about what calibre is best? 

People attach their colours to a bullet or cartridge in the way they do to a football team or a favourite musician. This is the reason it can be very hard to sell certain calibres when they become ‘unfashionable’. The .270 is a current case in point, certainly in the UK.

The .270 (or .270 Winchester to give the round its full title) came into being in 1923 and hit the market in 1925. It’s subsequent popularity was as a result of the enthusiasm for the cartridge shown by the famous American shooting writer Jack O’Connor, enthusing about his success with it in the magazine Outdoor Life.

In the post WW2 era, the .270 seemed to be everyone’s favourite rifle. Ideal for shooting flat out to long ranges, sheep hunters and deer stalkers appreciated its merits. With 130 grain bullets, the .270 is ideal for medium deer and African plains game, achieving 3,060 fps. It can be loaded up to 150 grains if desired for larger game, or down to 90 grains for ‘varmints’.

Once the darling of the hunting fraternity, the .270 never really gained respect among target shooters. It has been speculated that the cartridge lacks the potential for accuracy of some rivals, others believe the commercially loaded ammunition was never produced with match grade performance in mind and, therefore, never delivered the accuracy desired by target shooters.

Comprehensive testing in 2010 by Jim Carmichael, writing for Outdoor Life, shows the potential of the .270 cartridge; with hand-loads giving five-shot groups at 100 yards consistently better than 2 inches, regardless of bullet weight, from 90 grain to 150 grain. The best results achieving sub 1-inch groups. Even with factory ammunition, the .270 performed well across the range of bullet weights, with 90 grain Sierra ‘Varminter’  and 110 grain bullets grouping as well as 130 and 150 grain bullets, sub MOA groups being commonly achieved. Winchester Supreme Grade loads with ballistic silver-tips weighing 130 grains grouped at 1.114 inches. so, the calibre is certainly capable of accuracy way beyond the demands of the average deer stalker.

For years it was commonly used on the hill for controlling red deer numbers. I have seen many a shot-out .270, supplied by Dickson of Edinburgh, to professional forestry shooters, disposed of at auction. It was once a common rifle in the hands of British sportsmen but now it is rarely ordered. A comment on the UK site ‘The Stalking Directory’ summed up the attitude many of today’s stalkers have towards the calibre; ‘I enquired in my local gun shop about a secondhand .270. I got the impression the .270 was about as popular as a fart in a space suit’.

Common objections to the .270 by British shooters include excessive kick and loud report. Much of this experience probably stems from the use of rifles built too light for calibre and poorly fitting. Some of the BSA models, like the Monarch, needed to be tamed with rubber butt pads and moderately loaded ammunition. Otherwise, the ‘buck and roar’ proved off-putting to many users.

Before sound moderators became common, the .270 seemed to many rather uncivilised but properly moderated, it is far more acceptably behaved. The fad for very light rifles may have dented the .270’s reputation. Consider the BSA Majestic Featherweight Deluxe, weighing 6 1/4 lbs. While some sportsmen benefitted from the easy-carrying nature of rifles like this, designed for walking on high ground for hours, they had to cope with fierce muzzle blast and the inconvenience of not being able to see the bullet strike through the scope due to the heavy recoil.

Talking to the head of a major English gun making company this week, he agreed that the .270 has always been a very effective calibre and told me he had shot a lot of deer with one, had used it for chamois and goats in the mountains and in a properly set-up rifle it was one of the calibres he would always have in his cabinet. Orders for .270s were infrequent but he had one bolt-rifle in production in .270 and noted it was well thought of by many professional stalkers, many of whom have shot thousands of deer with one.

Perhaps put-off by the loan or purchase of a cheap, old, badly set up rifle in the past and scarred for life (perhaps literally with the bite of an old, metal scope to the eyebrow). Many sportsmen discount the .270 and have passed this dismissive attitude to their acolytes in later life. 

Whatever the reason, while the majority seem to despise the .270, it retains a following amongst a small group of experienced sportsmen who know and appreciate what it can do when teamed with a properly set-up, quality rifle and ‘scope. Many would, and do, use nothing else.

Right now, there are bargains to be had. If it has .270 on the barrel, many buyers won’t consider it and many gun shops can’t sell it. Perhaps it is time for a younger generation to re-evaluate what the .270 can deliver, then see what they can buy with their budget. 

While the .308 is enjoying a wave of popularity, a careful examination of the equivalent ballistics of the .270 show it to be a far better long range medium game calibre. It is time to bring O’Connor’s darling back in from the cold.