Is the .243 Win. the Magic Bullet for the Urban Sniper Rifle?

In his excellent book entitled The Ultimate Sniper, Major John L. Plaster discusses the reasons why the .308 Winchester (7.62mm NATO) is probably the most popular of all military and police sniping cartridges.

The bullet possesses the power to penetrate many inanimate objects encountered by military and police snipers. It’s an ideal round out to 700 yards. Beyond 700 yards, and up to 1000 yards, Plaster is enamored with the .300 Winchester Magnum. He proposes that the ideal commercial cartridge is the Federal Premium .300 Win. Mag. 200-gr. Boat-tail Soft Point (BTSP). He points out Art Blatt’s data (Extended Ballistics for the Advanced Rifleman) which reveal that Federal’s bullet is aerodynamically superior to most bullets with a Ballistic Coefficient of .602, second highest to .607 of Federal’s 7mm Magnum.

In addition, Plaster recommends the .300 Phoenix 250-gr. Boat-tail (BT) or the .338 Lapua Magnum 250-gr. BT as an intermediate between the .300 and the .50 Browning Machine Gun (BMG). Both cartridges are based on shortening and downsizing the .416 Rigby. However, Frank Barnes, in Cartridges of the World, 7th ed., states that the .300 Phoenix, a proprietary cartridge developed by G. McMillan & Co., has not lived up to its intended 3100 fps. On the other hand, the .338 Lapua Magnum, which was initially developed by the Research Armament Co. in the U.S. and now manufactured with a strengthen case web by Lapua of Finland, is meeting with success in Europe, especially in the form of the Sako TRG-41. According to one U.S. dealer, this model is being sold to various SWAT/police groups as fast as it becomes available.

With some law enforcement agencies, the .223 Remington, rather than the .308, represents the primary sniper round, primarily due to fear of .308 over penetration. However, on the negative side, the .223’s lower energies may prevent one-shot stops, particularly on those targets under the influence of controlled substances, as well as failure to penetrate media of varying densities obscuring the target; i.e., car door, glass, plaster board etc. This is complicated by the tendency of the .223 to fragment.

Plaster’s comparison of Federal’s Gold Medal Match .223 69-gr. Boat-tail Hollow Point Match (BTHPM) against the Gold Medal .308 168-gr. BTHPM shows that, when contrasting several ballistic variables, only the .223’s trajectory fares better than the .308’s, with noticeable bifurcation starting at 400 yards (See Table I). Even though the .223 muzzle velocity is greater than that of the .308, two become approximately equal at 500 yards. At 500 yards, energy of the .223 is 41% that of the .308.

Thus, contrasting the two Match rounds from 100 to 500 yards yields the following: 1) trajectory of the .223 is slightly better, 2) velocity of the .223 is slightly greater up to 400 yards, 3) energy of the .308 is slightly greater by approximately 80% to well over 200% up to 500 yards, and 4) the .308 does not fragment. Plaster, therefore, concludes that the primary disadvantage of the .223 over the .308 is lack of bullet penetration; and, as a result, shot placement becomes paramount.

Almost as an afterthought, Plaster’s comments introduce the .243 Winchester as possibly representing a replacement for the .223. Having low recoil, with similar muzzle velocities, the .243 represents approximately twice the bullet weight and twice the energy at 500 yards. Plaster points out that these advantages are found in a near-Match cartridge since commercial Match cartridges are not available in the .243. Federal, Remington and Winchester now manufacture cartridges with near-Match or premium characteristics.

Plaster focuses on Federal and points out the following characteristics. The .243 Federal Premium .243 Win 100-gr. Boat-tail Hollow Point (BTHP) out performs both the match .223 and .308 in trajectory and velocity out to 500 yards (Table I). However, the .308 out performs the .243 in energy from approximately 30-25% during those 500 yards.

Based upon this data, Plaster refers to the .243 as a “magic bullet” that “solves many of the over penetration concerns for .308 loads while still delivering lethality much more reliably than any .223, no matter its bullet weight or style.”

Did Plaster intentionally overlook the 6mm in favor of the .243? His last sentence in the several paragraphs regarding the .243, gives us a clue. “Since no Match-grade .243 round currently is loaded, we’re giving you the next best thing; detailed ballistic data for the Federal Premium .243 Win 100-grain BTSP load.” Clearly, Plaster is enamored with boat-tails since he presents a section entitled “Boat-tails Are Better.”

The .243 was introduced in the same year as the 6mm Remington (1955). At the time, the 6 mm was called the .244 Remington with a 90-gr. bullet. Later, Remington brought out a new bullet of 100-gr. and a new barrel with a faster twist rate. The new rifle and cartridge were named the 6 mm Remington.

In comparing the .243 and the 6mm, Edward Matunas’ views in Lyman’s Guide to Big Game Cartridges & Rifles probably best characterize those of others regarding the slight differences between the two cartridges. That is, bullet performance between the two cartridges is virtually the same, with some indication that the .243 might be slightly more accurate and, in his view, the 6 mm might have slightly better ballistics.

Of the three manufacturers of premium cartridges, two types of bullets can be found. Federal offers a 6 mm 100-gr. Nosler Partition (NP) built for mushrooming, weight retention, and hydrostatic shock. Even so, it displays similar characteristics to the .243 100-gr. BTHP, especially with regard to trajectory (Table II). The 6 mm 100-gr. NP tends to lose more energy toward the end of 500 yards.

Remington offers a 105-gr. boat-tail called Extended Range BTSP with similar ballistic characteristics to the .243 100-gr. BTHP, particularly with regards to energy out to 500 yards (Table II). Thus between the .243 100-gr. BTSP and the 100-gr. 6mm NP, ballistics favor the BTSP. Only when the 6 mm 105-gr. BTSP is considered, do the two calibers become similar.

Should either the .243 or the 6 mm replace the .223 or .308? Debatable with the .223, not with the .308. With the latter, the answer is a definite no! Or, can either one find a niche between the .223 and the .308? A niche where over penetration and under-penetration of varying media represent potential problems.. as in an urban setting. Here, a sniper weapon system would be called upon, in situations of less than 200 yards, where the under-penetration of the .223 and the over-penetration of the .308 could rule out these calibers.

Burt Rapp examines the sniper and his rifle in an urban environment in his handbook entitled The Police Sniper, A Complete Handbook. The urban environment is dramatically different from rural areas. Those differences reflect short ranges, greater opportunities for cover – both by the shooter and the target, ricochets, innocent bystanders, greater chances for taking hostages, and, finally, the presence of the media.

These factors indicate the need for a caliber where accuracy and energy are of prime importance. Closely following is a caliber that will not over-penetrate but, at the same time, had adequate penetration to stop the target as well as to penetrate media with penetrable density which may be shielding the target. Clearly, scenarios exist where the .223 would not penetrate, and perhaps fragment, while, on the other hand, the .308 would penetrate intact. The same scenario questions the over penetration of the .308 leading to non-beneficial outcomes.

Thus, it seems reasonable that, under these conditions, the .243 would be a better bullet that the .223, but not as good as the .308. I suspect that the .243’s major deficiency, when contrasted against the .308, would be potential plate glass deflections, a prime concern when considering shooting scenarios in an urban setting.

What type of rifle best serves as an urban sniper rifle? Steyr’s sniper rife, SSG-PII, is offered in two calibers, .308 and .243. A recently modified version of the SSG-PII, called the SSG-PIV, is advertised to best fit urban conditions. The Steyr SSG-PIV has a 16.75-inch barrel for greater maneuverability and a screw-on flash suppressor/muzzle brake. The new model retains many of the characteristics of the SSG-PII, except one. It is only offered in the .308 caliber. The .243 is available by special request, while the 6 mm is not available.

Rifles offered by other manufacturers in .243 varmint configurations could be modified as urban sniper rifles; i.e., reduction in barrel length, addition of muzzle brake/flash suppressors etc. Costs would be dictated by the extend of modifications. Figure 1 shows a Rem. BDL in .243, originally equipped with a wooden stock and heavy barrel. Mag-na-port varmint muzzle brake was installed and the overall length of the barrel was reduced to 20 inches. It was stocked with H-S Precision Tactical, equipped with a Harris bipod and scoped with a Leupold Vari-X III. Rifle consistently gives sub MOA groups. With the exception of the Leupold scope, this is probably a good example of a reasonably priced modification of a varmint rifle for an urban sniper configuration.

Any discussion of an urban sniper rifle would be incomplete without including an evaluation of the .25-06 cartridge respect to the .243 and 6 mm (Table II). The most dramatic difference is in trajectory, in which the .243 and 6 mm are better. Some variation in velocities exist, but all are close.

However, when energy is used as a measurement of penetration, the .25-06 is the winner with 989 ft-lb at 500 yards. But penetration is a double-edge sword. Too much and back to the .308 (1150 ft-lb @ 500 yd) and too little, back to the .223 (475 ft-lb @ 500 yd). But we’re concerned with shorter distances, such as 200 yards – probably the maximal distance for urban police sniping.

At 200 yards, energies can be divided into two groups: 1) Federal’s .243 100-gr. BTHP and 6 mm 100-gr. NP, and 2) Remington’s 6 mm 105-gr. BTSP and .25-06 122-gr. BTSP (Table II). Approximately 100 ft-lb separate the two. Is the division too close to be real? Probably. Seems to me, it’s a judgment call.

Is energy the correct measurement for knockdown power? Ross Seyfried from Guns and Ammo magazine argues that kinetic energy, in foot-pounds, relates well to small animals but not to animals over 100 pounds. Including variables such as bullet weight and velocity divided by a constant, he prefers the Taylor Knock-Out Formula (African Rifles and Cartridges by John Taylor, no relation!) which provides a linear relationship between energy and these variables as the cartridge becomes larger and faster.

On the other hand, Edward Matunas presents the Optimum Game Weight Formula (Lyman’s Guide to Big Game Cartridges & Rifles) which assigns optimum game weight in pounds against an average factory rifle cartridge ballistics (Table III). Based upon these numbers, the .308 is an over-kill to 400 yards; the .243 may be acceptable; the 6 mm a little better; while the .25-06 appears to be ideal. Matunas’ numbers represent optimum for a clean kill and assumes a thoracic, not a cerebral, placement of the bullet. I’m not convinced that these numbers support Plaster’s magic bullet concept for the .243, primarily because they were generated for game and assumed a thoracic, not a cerebral, placement of the bullet.

Another approach is used by the military and some law enforcement agencies. Here, computer simulations predict a lethality factor of different types of bullets impacting upon different sites of the body. Even though data generated from such program may influence the shooter where to aim, it seems to me that a better approach would be to consider case studies of actual shootings. Such studies with handgun loads have been performed by Evan P. Marshall and Edwin J. Sanow (Handgun Stopping Power: The Definitive Study) and are held in high regard. They provide a methodology for predicting the stopping power of any handgun load.

Let’s assume that Plaster is correct. Clearly, the man has the credentials to make that assumption. Perhaps, the .243 represents the magic bullet when it comes to over penetration – particularly in an urban situation. I suspect that if the “.243 or 6mm magic bullet concept” caught on, both calibers would not be developed by rifle manufacturers. The market probably cannot support both cartridges. Since the .243 is better known than the 6 mm, it seems logical that it would be the obvious choice.

This article attempts to address the question of whether the .243 Win. could serve as a viable sniper cartridge. The starting point was Plaster’s comments on the caliber and his reference to the Federal Premium .243 Win. 100-gr. BTHP cartridge. In order to make an evaluation, I examined premium .243 and 6 mm cartridges made by Federal (Premium) and Remington (Extended Range), using their published numbers. Even though Hornady and Winchester (Supreme) cartridges offer BTSP cartridges in the same calibers, their ballistics are not represented here. Their energy values are closer to Federal than to those of Remington. Thus, I made the judgment that their inclusion would have not made any significant contribution to the article but, in fact, would have cluttered Table II.

The .25-06 was examined as a serious contender against the .243 and 6 mm.

Notably absent is the 6 PPC which uses a .243 bullet. Even though the ballistics are comparable to the .243, it was omitted because of the scarcity of commercial cartridges. Finally, hand- or custom-loads were also not addressed. I agree with Plaster and others that, even though these loads could be more accurate and more consistent than commercial cartridges, potential liability problems prevent their use.

After urban sniper results are scrutinized over an extended period of time using the .243 in such rifles as the Remington 700 Varmint, Ruger M-77 VT Steyr SSG-PIV and Winchester 70 Heavy Varmint, we may be able to make a better evaluation of Plaster’s “magic bullet” concept. Finally, I want to ask the question as to whether we are seeing the emergence of cartridge selection based upon a given shooting scenario? If so, then we might be led to expect that the .308, and to a lesser extent the .243 would represent standard sniper cartridges, in an urban situation, while the .338 Lapua Magnum, and to a lesser extent the .50 BMG, in a very long range or heavy penetration situation, would represent specialty sniper cartridges.