Hot or Not: Why rifle caliber choice isn’t the same for everyone.

long range precision rifle

This is a guest article from Dan Flowers


In perusing a few of the other shooting pages, I am continuously amused at the time and effort that many people put into defending their particular choice of caliber… The 6mm vs 6.5mm vs .308 debates are epic – easily the equal of the “9mm vs .45”, the reigning hullabaloo of decades. This debate is likely to last a lot longer though, because the variables involved are even more complex.

Wander into one of the hotly contested rifle caliber debates and you will be lambasted with the dizzying myriad of factors which inform the opinions of the hoard. Rifles are inherently more complicated creatures, and the many applications of them add further layers of complexity to the discussion. BC’s, velocities, drop, wind drift, ease of loading, brass, bullet, and powder availability, action lengths and seating depths, barrel tapers, barrel and throat lifespan, gun weights and recoil, what factory rifles are available, what gunsmith builds what, what team shooter Bob Y. or Ted X. shoots… You get the picture.

Almost invariably, the type of shooting the poster does determines their choice and recommendation of caliber. Hobbyists and varminters like one thing, tactical shooters another, F-class guys something else and PRS aficionados may like 2 or 3 things the same month as new reamers get made. The reason the debate will never end is because depending on where you sit and your application, EVERYBODY IS CORRECT. The question is who is for what?

The poor schmuck new shooter who had the misfortune of wandering onto the page and asking too general a question has no idea that he just pulled the pin… A half hour later, he is cowering in the corner twitching and drooling, or has latched onto one reasonable-sounding voice in the maelstrom as the least rabid sounding one. Along the way MAYBE one or two people might have asked him more details about his level of experience, his intended application, or perhaps most importantly, how much money and time he has! Usually not. That doesn’t change their opinion or what the Holy Grail of calibers is…

All of what I have just written is a mere preface to set the stage for a bit of an intellectual exercise. Everyone has their TECHNICAL reasons that they choose a specific caliber. Total capability however is comprised of more than just technical factors. Specifically it is determined by:

1. Capability of the rifle and ammunition

2. Physical ability and proficiency of the shooter

3. Psychology of the shooter (confidence and stress control)

4. The Intellectual capability and knowledge of the shooter, and the resulting quality of their training and data collection processes.

The vast majority of shooters pick their equipment based upon #1 and measure it using #2. Before we advise the new or intermediate shooter however, we need to come to the understanding that numbers 3 and 4 are equally, if not more important, to the total capability of a shooter and are critical components to their development as shooters. In short: Process is everything, and until process is learned the choice of rifle caliber must support process development.

What I want to explore is how caliber selection impacts human and logistical factors, and specifically how it:

* Affects the learning and application of good processes in training and data collection

* Enables or hinders the volume of the shooter’s practice (and learning) based on cost

* Enables or hinders continuity and understanding of ballistics and environmental factors models

* May change or evolve based upon experience and application

To further frame and flesh out the theoretical effects of caliber selection on total process, I will give a hypothetical scenario. Any similarity to real people living or dead is purely intentional! LOL
Bob and Ted have decided to build precision rifles to get into PRS (or insert any other type of rifle match). Both have been recreational shooters for a few years although neither have any formal training. Both guys have roughly the same income, families to support and neither are independently wealthy nor do they have sponsors starting out.

Bob goes onto the “Super Typer-Sniper Precision Rifle Fanatics” page and asks what caliber he should buy. Ted is lurking as well and looking for input. A very outspoken and successful PRS competitor convinces Bob that a hot 6mm of some type is what he needs “to be competitive” in PRS based upon its much superior ballistics. He opines that while barrel life is shorter that is just the price to play the game (while he gets sponsor barrels). Bob wants to be competitive so he goes that route.

Ted listens to different person on the page who advocates for a slightly less capable caliber with a much longer barrel life advising to start slow, learn the ropes, shoot a lot and upgrade later. Ted wants to do well, but figures he has a learning curve ahead of him. He takes the less sexy caliber route, takes a weekend class to learn about precision shooting. He invites Bob, but Bob is confident that his hot rig and the internet are good enough.

Enter the human factors zone… (cue music…)


Bob goes for speed, with a .243 running hot 105’s to 115’s. He knows he can expect 1200-1300 rounds of best accuracy before his barrel starts to go. So, he limits the number of rounds he expends during load development, and tries to get a “good enough” load (dispersion, ES, SD) as quickly as he can. He finds what he thinks is a .5″ load with a reported 12 fps SD based on a couple of 5 shot groups. He thinks about shooting some more or tweaking it a little tighter, but the $500 for a new barrel and the down time having it replaced weighs on his mind more than he thought it would. He decides that it is good enough. He still used 1/10th of his barrel life or 120 rounds. Barrel life left: 1,080

Ted has a .308 that he expects to get at least 5,000 “best accuracy” rounds out of. Based on the weekend class he took, he spends more time tweaking in load dev using larger sample sizes. He’s comfortable doing this because he isn’t as worried about counting rounds. He spends some extra time, gets a .4″ load with a 15 ES and 4.2 SD on a 10- shot string. He tests under several different temp conditions getting better data on environmental effects on the load and rifle. Maybe he does a barrel temp test for POI shift. He is able to do all of this within 1/10th of his barrel life or 500 rounds. He gets more repetitions of trigger time while doing it. Barrel life left: 4,500.

Potential performance-affecting variables induced by the separate approaches:

*Differences in quality of data on chosen load based on sample size

*Potential differences in load performance due to more/less time in development

*Difference in knowledge about barrel behavior

* Difference in data collected on load environmental sensitivity or adjustment factors.


Bob, still aware of his barrel life wants to get his data fast and he’s got the way to do it. Bob shoots a 5 round group at 100, adjusts and confirms with a second 5 round group under a strong 12 O’clock sun. He then shoots 5 rounds on steel at 600, estimates the center of the impacts (that he can see) and moves out and repeats at 800 and 1,000 as it gets cloudy. He smacks a piece of 2 MOA steel 3 out of 5 of times at 1,200 to ice the cake. He plugs the numbers into his ballistics program and finds the data points don’t match the baseline velocity and BC he entered. He tweaks velocity first – close, but… Then he tweaks BC to get as close as he can.. Still not perfect, but really close. All that data in only 30 rounds! Unfortunately, because of his small sample sizes he remains blissfully unaware of the error the changing light conditions threw into the sample sets from which he derived his trajectory curve. He’ll get it served back up to him at the next match, leaving him wondering why those misses happened… Another 2.5{0d72f224d09eb6311b19c82130e799361a8d1c40ea71bf66af1084212bc8f146} of barrel life used. 12.5{0d72f224d09eb6311b19c82130e799361a8d1c40ea71bf66af1084212bc8f146} total used. Barrel life left: 1,050.

Ted baseline zeros on an overcast day with the hidden sun at his 6 O’clock. Expecting cold-bore events, he first shoots a series of 5 cold bore shots returning the barrel to storage condition between each. He logs the POI. He then shoots a 10- shot hot string and finds the statistical center before making a single sight correction and confirming. The 10 shot shows him a .2 mil shift to the 2 O’clock starting after shot number 5 as the barrel heats. He also shoots at 600, but fires 10 shots onto paper. He takes the time and calculates the center of his group just as he did at 100. It shows that the center is actually .2 mils lower than where he would have placed it visually. He repeats this at 800 and gets halfway through his 1,000 string before the sun, now high overhead breaks through strongly on the target. Knowing that changing light conditions can confuse his baseline, he stops shooting and decides to come back the next day. 50 rounds used.

The next day he waits until the strong sun is high and repeats his 100 yard statistical zero. He notices a heavy .1 mil shift in his base zero due to the sun condition and he makes a note. He then repeats the 600, 800, and 1,000 yard lines, 10 shots each, measuring carefully noting the difference in dope from the day before. This takes another 40 rounds. Like Bob, he places the first day’s data points (fired in the same light conditions) into his ballistics app except his work with only a velocity tweak. He repeats with the second day’s data and the data matches the curve as well, although the POI seems to have changed slightly. He correctly identifies the shift as a light condition since the other environmental factors were the same. For the hell of it, he comes back and shoots the 1,000 on two more days at 40 and 90 degrees(after a 10 shot zero check) to check for temp sensitivity. 50+40+ 40 = 130 rounds. 2.6{0d72f224d09eb6311b19c82130e799361a8d1c40ea71bf66af1084212bc8f146} barrel life used, same as Bob. Total barrel life used, 12.6{0d72f224d09eb6311b19c82130e799361a8d1c40ea71bf66af1084212bc8f146}. Barrel life left – 4,370.


Bob shoots 300 rounds at short range practicing for alternate positions. (25{0d72f224d09eb6311b19c82130e799361a8d1c40ea71bf66af1084212bc8f146} of his barrel life, 37.5{0d72f224d09eb6311b19c82130e799361a8d1c40ea71bf66af1084212bc8f146} total). Barrel life left: 750 rounds.

Ted practices 600 rounds in alternate positions. (12{0d72f224d09eb6311b19c82130e799361a8d1c40ea71bf66af1084212bc8f146} of his barrel life, 24.6{0d72f224d09eb6311b19c82130e799361a8d1c40ea71bf66af1084212bc8f146} total) Rounds left – 3,770.

Bob plans to shoot 100 rounds in practice prior to each 100 round match. If he skips practice before the 4th match he can shoot 4 matches before his barrel declines.

Ted plans to shoot 200 rounds before each 100 round match. While shooting double the practice, he can shoot 12 more matches with an ever-amounting pile of data on the rifle and ammo.

Potential performance-affecting variables induced by the separate approaches:

* Differences in quality of data based on much different sample sizes

* Differences in quality of data based on not recognizing or not choosing to control for variables because of self-imposed limitations on ammo expended

* Difference in the amount of trigger time

* Difference in data collected on environmental effects


Bob has a 30{0d72f224d09eb6311b19c82130e799361a8d1c40ea71bf66af1084212bc8f146} ballistic advantage over Ted in terms of wind drift. Because of the meticulous processes Ted was able to use (because of the forgiving barrel life), he has a harder zero, more reliable dope, potentially a more predictable load and better understanding of the load/rifle performance under a variety of conditions. He was also able to practice more because he wasn’t worried about shooting out the barrel he just spent so much time collecting data on, and has developed better wind doping skills.

Over the 12- match remaining lifespan of Ted’s rifle, Bob has to re-barrel and start the entire process over 3 times during this period, developing new loads and data each time, and without the same statistical significance of Ted’s data which continues to grow with time. He also experiences no down time with his rifle away in the shop.

My (loaded) questions…

1. Given either barrel life considerations (or over-confidence), would shooters of superior calibers be less likely to use good statistical processes?

2. If the shooters of “inferior” calibers were to follow good process, how much could the actual performance of the platform be enhanced?

3. In a scenario such as the one I have proposed, to what degree would the probability of error on Bob’s behalf (due to small sample sizes and reduced knowledge of the rifle/load) offset the ballistic superiority of his platform?

4. Is there psychological and intellectual value in the “intimately known” and intuitive that translates into enhanced performance?

5. What happens when Ted steps up to the better cartridge after nailing down his processes???!!!

So, in synopsis, where someone is in the learning process or development as a shooter DOES MATTER. Once best practices and process have been learned and established, shoot whatever you like.

Different tools for different jobs at different points in the shooter’s development. Hope this made you think.

~DF~ ”


1 Comment

  1. J. Shaw on September 26, 2017 at 5:53 PM

    This pretty well explains why I decided to learn to shoot long range with a .308 Savage Palma rifle. I was advised that by the time I killed the barrel I might have learned a thing or two. That was great advice.

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