Announced in 1958, the .264 Winchester Magnum didn't appear in rifles until the following year, after its stablemate, the .338 Winchester Magnum. Both derived from the .458, Winchester's first short belted round, circa 1956. A few shooters wondered about the choice of a cartridge for Africa's heaviest game to herald a new line of 2 1/2-inch cases based on the longer .375 H&H Magnum. Not many bought the .458 Model 70 African, especially at $310, twice the price of a standard 70.
The .338, in the Model 70 Alaskan, made more sense for North American game. However, it was still considered over-powered for all save the big bears, and it kicked hard. The Westerner in .264 Magnum might well have become a popular rifle. With a 140-grain PowerPoint at 3,200 fps, the big 6.5mm round certainly shot flat--and carried more than enough energy for elk. Winchester saw fit to load the .264 also with a 100-grain bullet at 3,700 fps. Advertised as a magnum for the plains, for hunters after deer and antelope, coyotes and rockchucks, the .264 flopped.
The .25-06 excelled at that game. So did the .270, and, for that matter, the .243, 6mm and .257 Roberts. They all behaved more politely than the fire-breathing .264, which, in Winchester's own words "makes a helluva noise and packs a helluva wallop." The Westerner's 26-inch barrel was none too long for the slow powders in the big hull. When the Model 70 Featherweight, with its 22-inch tube, appeared in .264 Magnum, savvy handloaders shook their heads. Remington, Browning and Sako have chambered rifles for the .264, but now all (even Winchester) have abandoned it. By the way, no 6.5mm cartridges have fared particularly well Stateside. The .264 followed Charles Newton's doomed .256 by 45 years. The 6.5 Remington Magnum, chambered in the firm's Models 600 and 660 carbines in the mid-60s, flopped. The recent .260 Remington has struggled, though it is a fine cartridge. Current interest in the 6.5/284 is still at a simmer. Hornady's new 6.5 Creedmoor has yet to prove itself.
I once built a .264 Winchester on a commercial Mauser action. The first game animal I shot with it was a fox. Truly though, this is a big-game cartridge. Especially with the bullets available now, it belongs on the trail of large ungulates. Unfortunately, Winchester ratcheted down the chart velocities, from 3,200 to 3,030 fps for the 140-grain bullet. On paper, then, the .264 Magnum is a .270 that uses more powder, kicks harder, and shakes leaves from the oaks with its muzzle blast.
The current staff at Winchester can't say if there actually was a change in the load or if the first figures were just deemed too optimistic. Had Winchester focused on ambitious heavy-bullet (129- to 150-grain) loads and hawked them for big game, it might have drained market shore from the 7mm Remington Magnum, which arrived three years later. The only differences between the two: .20 in bullet diameter and a smart ad campaign by Big Green. I still like the .264. A better pick for high-plains deer hunting, or even elk on the rims, would be hard to find. Recent proliferation of accurate 6.5mm bullets has boosted the versatility and effectiveness of this cartridge.
You don't see it much on the African veldt, but it would excel there for most antelopes. The .264's great reach has brought it to the mountains; but profligate use of powder in short barrels, and rude manners in lightweight rifles, put it well down on my list of sheep cartridges.
Don't assume that all you can wring from a 140-grain bullet in a .264 Magnum is 3,030 fps. My handloads have achieved 3,300 safely. Very slow Hodgdon and IMR powders should give you speeds well in excess of 3,200 from a 26-inch barrel (I particularly favor IMR 7828, have used H870 and suspect RL-25 would be another good pick). Lightweight bullets can be driven to 3,600 and above; but they're not useful for game bigger than deer and are unnecessarily violent at launch. The world is full of better varmint rounds. Oddly enough, factory loads include only 140-grain softpoints from Winchester and Remington. However, Nosler catalogs half a dozen .264 loads in its Custom line--in weights from 100 to 140 grains.