Until I became a regular member of the Australian Hunting Net (AHN), I never realised just how hated and loved the .243 Winchester is amongst the members of that forum. To me, it was always a reliable and readily available cartridge that did the job well on pretty well all Australian game outside the big bovines. The term "Pope Gun" has now become synonymous with the .243 Winchester thanks to the many heated and often humorous and lively discussions on AHN concerning this cartridge. Everybody knows what a Pope Gun is, but the most often asked question is "how did it become to be known as the Pope Gun?"

     Well it soon became obvious that people were using their .243's on all creatures great and small from Hares to Bears and it seemed no muff was too tough for the .243. Then it was revealed that Pope John Paul II himself was a regular user of the .243 as he loved to pop Pigeons across the vast courtyards of the Vatican and having survived an earlier assasination attempt, he liked the idea of a cartridge flat enough for the courtyard but with enough grunt to say hello to any non-believers. Seems the Pope was right, the .243 was all anyone needed in this life or the next (and he should know) so the .243 was canonised and is known as the Pope Gun.

     Of course the detractors believe none of this, and would have you believe that a Rabbit will often require several follow up shots if a kid's toy like the .243 is used! The subject is a constant source of ongoing amusement on AHN and no doubt provides a good deal of entertainment for both sides of the argument. But on many occasions, those new to shooting and asking for helpful advice find it hard to navigate past the well intentioned but not very helpful responses of the obviously one eyed supporters and detractors. And so, after many requests by members to give a realistic rundown on this cartridge in the AHN journal without the distraction of ongoing arguments....here it is. And just remember this isn't a religious document, just my experience with the Pope Gun.


     I think I was about 17 when I bought my first .243, a Krico 600E and it's hard to believe that I have been using this cartridge for almost 30 years now. I'm not sure what exactly made me choose the .243 except to say in those days a .308 was a big gun and anything like the big magnums were considered the expensive toys of those fortunate enough to hunt the big stuff up the Territory or overseas. By and large most of the game in NSW, QLD and Victoria was shot with a .222, .22-250, .243 and .308......with the keen deer hunters favouring the .270 and .30-06....often in a BAR.  It was a different time, the .223 Rem had not quite deposed the .222 yet and many thousands of Pigs were regularly shot with .22 rimfires.

     In those days, Pigs and Goats were my main interest so it seemed like a .243 Winchester was plenty of gun for what I needed to do. I think I've only ever fired a couple of packets of factory ammo in my life and started reloading the week after I bought the rifle. My two favourite loads were the 85 Gr Nosler Solid Base Boat Tail and the Sierra 85 Gr HPBT Game King, both pushed along by Winchester's 760 Ball Powder. I never knew what actual speeds these loads did, chronographs were rare and expensive so load development would consist of incremental workup and choosing the most accurate load.  Field performance of these two bullets was excellent and numerous Pigs, Goats and Roos fell to both bullets. I never used to take much notice of retained bullet weight or how big they mushroomed.......there simply was no need and few Pigs came back for seconds. I also shot my first Sambar with that rifle, more good luck than good management really as I had absolutely no real

The rifle that started it all for me - Krico 600E FL

appreciation of the difficulty and skill required to locate these ghosts of the forest. A couple of skilled bow hunters I worked with took me on a two day stalk up the mountains near Corryong. What an eye opener, I didn't know people still hunted with bows and only in later years would I absolutely worship these guys for stalking the mighty Sambar with a bow.

     I was stalking with one of the guys and he pointed out a large hind on the creek flat below us. I took a lean on a fallen over log and shot her through the neck with an 85 Gr Nosler Solid Base. The deer didn't take a step and was dead before it hit the ground. I simply didn't know or appreciate how tough these animals are and thought nothing more of it. This deer stalking caper simply didn't have the excitement and numbers Pigs or Goats offered. Results speak for themselves and in the days before legal caliber limits, the .243 was used by quite a few blokes on deer of all kinds including Sambar.

      As my appreciation and understanding of the cartridge grew, I experimented with various bullet weights and styles. Needless to say, today's variety of components was only a distant dream in those days. Fox skins were bringing good dollars at the time, so I thought why not give the .243 a run? Well that idea was put to bed after the first trip and a couple of Fox that even their mother couldn't recognise. Even head shots would decapitate the unfortunate animal and tear up the neck section of the pelt too. The keen guys were using .222's and the real pro's were using the new kid on the block the .17 Rem, and the closest thing I had was a .223 Mini-14 that would be lucky to hit a Fox, let alone head shoot it. I then got onto some Sako 90 Gr FMJ's and the rifle shot them well. Headshots were the order of the day and the .243 didn't mess them up too bad at all, though a few shoulder shot animals were only fit for dunny rugs. I didn't become a millionaire, but the fur money helped pay for my increasing addiction to the .243 and would help fund that HB Remington 700 I'd been dreaming about.

Typical mixed bag and what the .243 does best

     As the years rolled by, I gained a good appreciation of the .243's ability, the effects of wind and just how much of a holdover I needed for those long shots. It actually seemed that all this time I had only been scratching the surface of this cartridge and it had so much more to give. Meaningful comparisons could be made with various other cartridges that were being used around me and whilst a loyal fan, I often hunted with a .30-06 or .308 as well.  If either of these killed the Pigs & Goats any better, I couldn't see it. A bad shot was a bad shot with any of them.

     On many cold windy nights when bullets wonder, the .243's performance on those long shots on nervous Fox's was clearly in a different class to the .22 centrefires others were using. One pro I used to shoot with put away his .17 Rem on nights like that and used my .243...in fact he bought it! That bloke used my HB Remington for years as a Roo shooter and was on his 4th barrel when I lost touch with him.

     Ah yes, barrels. If there is one thing wrong in the world of the .243 then it is it's appetite for barrels. I have learned to accept this as there really is no such thing as a free lunch and in that light the .243 is no worse than other high performance cartridges like the .22-250 and .220 Swift. I have made significant contributions to the wealth of the barrel making industry over the years. My early rifles with Chrome Moly barrels would average around 1800 to 2000 rounds of really accurate life and it really depends what you're prepared to accept. I'm fussy and anything that shoots worse than just over an inch in a general purpose rifle is not much chop to me, so I rebarrel them. With varmint rifles I'm even more fussy. The advent of stainless barrels was a godsend really, these would give me up to 400, maybe 500 rounds over the Chrome Moly barrels and as a bonus, being less porous than Chrome Moly they are much easier to clean.
     As my disposable income steadily increased, I have had many opportunities to move onto something different but simply haven't found a worthy contender to replace the permanent spot as "go to rifle" that the .243 has always held in the gun safe. With the availability and range of current components I have compared and discounted many contenders. So who are the contenders?

     Well undisputed king of the 6mm's is the .240 Weatherby, however it's availability in rifles I like is very limited as is the availability of ammo in rural areas if you don't reload. Cost of cartridges and cases is pretty crazy too, barrel life is not great. There is an alternative to the .240 Wby if you are lusting for that level of performance and that is the 6mm/06 wildcat, based on the .30-06 case. Cheap components but you'd need to build the rifle and no factory ammo, so a reloader's option only.

     The 6mm Remington is basically a ballistic twin of the .243 but has always lagged behind in sales thanks to a shaky start back in 55 when both cartridges were launched. The 6mm Rem has a bit more capacity but can only use it in a long action as it is based on a 7x57 parent case. The bullets need to be seated deep to accommodate it in a short action, therefore reducing case capacity.  Rifles chambered in 6mm Rem are limited and these days it is verging on obscurity, and that is a shame. Nevertheless, the 6mm Rem is a worthy alternative to the .243 and I have seen a few work very well in the field over the years.

     The .243 WSSM has pretty well come and gone without a whimper, many gunshops have stock heavily reduced in price that hasn't moved in years. I really thought I'd be one of the first to own one of these. A PPC on steroids, the concept promised so much and I was disappointed with the reality. Rifles that had feeding issues with the very short stubby cartridge as well as the need to chrome line bores to combat barrel erosion set these cartridges up for failure from the start.

     The feeding issues were mostly resolved in the Winchester and Browning A Bolt rifles they were offered in, but it was too late. The rumours had killed it, but it wasn't the rumours that stopped me getting one......it was a chronograph that did that. On a number of side by side tests with my 26" HB Savage .243, the WSSM's could not match let alone exceed the std .243 in my preferred 90/95 Gr bullet range. The two WSSM's were a 23" barrelled A-Bolt and a 24 " barrelled Mod 70 Supershadow. The performance difference was only around 50 FPS in favour of the WSSM against a 24" barrelled Mod 700 in .243 Win. There just seemed no point in taking on a new cartridge when it offered so little and accuracy was nothing to rave about either, but to be fair these were untuned sporters. Add to that, Winchester stopped production of the Mod 70 and my dislike for the magazine arrangement on the A-Bolt, which is an otherwise fine rifle....that left me with an easy decision to give this cartridge a miss and stick with the proven performer.

Nosler 90 Gr BT made short work of this unusual Goat

     In recent years I have settled on two standard loads for my .243 that shoot to the same point without resighting. They are the 87 Gr V-Max bullet and 90 Gr Nosler Ballistic Tip in Lapua cases, both pushed along by AR2209. The V-Max is a very accurate high BC bullet and destructive on varmints and soft skinned game. I used this bullet in a season of Fly competition as well and did pretty good, winning the event by a fair margin. This bullet has become my standard long range pest popper and I have grown to have a lot of confidence in it. Anyone can get caught with a less than perfect bullet for the job and I have taken a number of Fallow with this bullet using neck shots on undisturbed animals. The animals have dropped on the spot each time and whilst the 90 Gr Nosler is the bullet for this job, using the 87 V-Max in this scenario proved totally adequate, penetrating deep enough to shatter the spine and cause massive internal damage to blood vessels and arteries.

     The Nosler 90 Gr BT is not the lightly constructed varmint variety that most are familiar with. The 90 and 95 BT's are game bullets with heavier jacket and a solid base...in effect it is the old Solid Base bullet cleaned up with a poly carbonate tip. The 90 Gr BT has been a great performer on all manner of game. The most noteworthy was a very large Sambar hind a few years ago. I was on a Fallow hunt and we were driving out to our arranged drop off points when I spotted the bedded down hind get to her feet, just inside the tree line. Range was 220m, the deer was nervous and I decided to take the shot. Bearing in mind the heavy bones of the shoulder (my favourite shot on deer), my next instinct was to try for a neck shot but she was moving too much. I opted to put the bullet just behind the shoulder blade and the impact sounded like a cricket bat hitting a drum of water. The deer dropped and I was sure wasn't going anywhere, but then she got up and was wobbling on the spot...so I gave her another one for insurance, same spot on her other side. This time she collapsed and stayed down.

Large Sambar taken at over 200m with Nosler 90 Gr BT

     Both bullets were recovered under the skin on the offside after breaking the near side ribs. Internal damage was extensive and both bullets lost most of their weight, although one of them still had the lead core locked in the base of the jacket.

     Does this mean I recommend the .243 for Sambar? Of course not, in some states it's not legal anyway but it was what I had in my hand when the opportunity presented and given the years of experience with this cartridge, I had no hesitation.  I've loaded the 95 BT's for a mate of mine to use on Pigs up the Territory with great results on some pretty big mud encrusted hogs. He was worried before he went up there as everybody else was taking cannons. He need not have worried, most were impressed with the performance of his rifle & loads which included the culling of some brumbies as well. I've seen him drill a Fallow stag from just forward of rump, through to offside shoulder with this load.

     So is it all peaches in the land of the .243 and can this cartridge do no wrong? HeHe...Of course not, marksmanship is the single biggest improvement you can make to any cartridge.  What the .243 has going for it is it promotes marksmanship by beating up the target, not the shooter. Simply put, more people will shoot a light recoiling rifle well. Add to that, a level of performance well suited to most Aussie game and the availability of factory rifles & factory ammo of every type from just about every manufacturer, and you have a success story. I've yet to own a real dog in this caliber either, though a friend's Remington 788 with 18.5" barrel was pure evil. Orange balls of flame on a sunny day and people running for their lives anywhere near him soon convinced him that you need more than 18.5" to get the best from this cartridge.

     Funnily enough it is this huge choice, particularly in ammunition that leads to most of the spectacular failures and criticism of this cartridge. It is too easy for a casual shooter to grab a couple of boxes of 55 Gr Ballistic Silvertips and head off on a Pig hunt, thinking that the 4000 FPS the sales guy raved on about will sort out the hoggies. Wrong, those 55's will fail dismally on most occasions...they are designed for creating clouds of feathers and paddock pizza Rabbit. The range of factory ammunition in .243 Winchester matched to specific game in mind is simply beyond the grasp of many casual shooters and I've found nearly all failures can be traced back to the use of inappropriate bullets. This phenomena is not seen so much in the larger cartridges as most factory offerings here are not of the varmint variety and will perform adequately on medium and larger game. Unless you want to make paddock pizza, then stick to bullet weights of 80 Gr and over in the .243 and you'll never look back...as a bonus these bullets buck the wind and hold the speed much better too.

Nosler 90 Gr BT's recovered from large hind

     For me as an enthusiast, the single biggest thing the .243 has going for it is the selection of superb 6mm bullets. Some calibers are born lucky and some aren't, but whether you like the .243 or not you can't argue against facts. For a 6.5mm, 7mm, or .30 cal bullet to get on the same playing field as a clean 105 Gr 6mm bullet in terms of BC, you are increasing weights to around 160 gr and 180 Gr for the .30 cal, buy which stage their non-magnum parent cases are struggling to launch them at meaningful velocities. The 6mm is well served with high quality bullets thanks to the flow on effect of the 6mm's dominating benchrest competition. When you match these bullets to the .243 case, you have an engine room that can launch everything from the heavy 100 Gr to the lightest 55 Grainers at between 3000 and 4000 FPS. It is a very efficient and versatile cartridge  that will shift it's whole range of available bullets without dipping under 3000 FPS. And we haven't even resorted to reloading yet. Some may not want to reload given the numbers Hornady's Light Magnum 100Gr PSP load delivers...3100 FPS from a factory load.

     Of course it is in the reloading process that you can gain the full potential of any cartridge, and the .243 is no different. Most of my rifles have liked being driven hard, though I'm more interested in accuracy, if it happens to comes hard and fast...all the better. The availability of top quality Lapua brass is another attraction and goes a long way towards very accurate loads that can take repeated firings without cracking necks or loosening the primer pockets. I also use a Lee Collet die to neck size my cases, the increase in brass life is astounding and trimming has almost become a rare event since I stopped dragging an expander ball through the case mouths. For the 87 and 90 Gr bullets that I like, the most useful powders for me have been AR2209 and on occasions Reloader 22, both will give me over 90% loading density which I prefer with top velocities and accuracy. Reloader 22 in particular can really produce some startling figures without pressure signs, so much so that in fact apart from playing with one, I've not considered a .243 AI of my own.

     Reloading for the .243 is very straight forward and you would be hard pressed to find a gunshop that doesn't stock dies, shell holder and reloading components. I often hear the short neck of the .243 being criticized by supposedly knowledgeable reloaders. I've never had a bullet drop out and even the short 55's can easily be seated one caliber width deep, so I can't understand what the problem is? Cartridge concentricity is as good as anything else I run through a competition seater too.

My current Pope is a Winchester Mod 70 Coyote Lite with Leupold VXIII 6.5-20x50

     As to favourite rifles, well I've had a heap of them in .243 over the years and to be honest I'm not hard core loyal to any one brand. I'm more loyal to the nuts & bolts construction of the rifle, I hate wood and worship stainless, alloy, Graphite and Kevlar. The most accurate rifle I've owned was a HB Savage 12FVSS in a Choate Varmint stock, weighed a bloody ton but shot 0.4 MOA with regular monotony and was absolutely 100% reliable. Once I stopped shooting the Fly, I stupidly traded it. The flipside is I use my current rifle the Coyote a lot more in the field as it isn't such an ordeal to manhandle it around the hills. My least favourite was a Model 700 with detachable magazine, nothing but feed troubles.
     So in the final washup, is the .243 a saint or a sinner? Not surprisingly, in my eyes it is most definitely a saint. It has easily met the challenge on everything I've put it to. No it's not a Sambar rifle but will do a good job on Fallow, Goats, Pigs, Roos, and is an outstanding choice for Dingo or feral dogs. It is also an excellent paddock pizza tool for the smaller critters like Rabbits, Fox and Crows. It does have one of the nastier barks though, and is not fur friendly either. If you are interested in a classic Aussie all rounder then you might just find the .243 a more than useful tool.

     Of course many of the roles I put the .243 to are done every day by other cartridges offering similar performance. The likes of the .25-06, .260 Rem, 7mm-08, and 6.5x55 Swede are all good choices for medium game but perhaps not so well suited to extended varminting. I would always let the .243 stand on it's own merits rather than denigrate other fine cartridges, each cartridge offers something just a little different from the next and the best choice is often down to personal preference and exactly what you mostly intend to use the rifle on. For any prospective buyer, the best scenario is obviously to have a shot with the calibers you're interested in, talk to people that use them and ignore opinions from people that haven't used them. And as a last resort, hop onto the AHN forum and ask "is the 6.5 Swede really better than the Pope Gun?"

Australian Hunting Net 2006