A lot of thought should be given to the proper cartridge/bullet for the wild game you’re after. Harvesting deer, elk, bear, etc. should be quick, clean and humane. As in all things many of the Armed Intelligentsia have strong opinions on the subject. Let’s give some thoughts to what you’re shooting and why . . .
As some states only allow certain bore diameters for game such as deer, sheep, elk, moose, or bear, and some states only allow shotgun for deer, I’ll stick to varmints and medium to large game, and narrow that to metallic cartridges. Having only hunted birds with a shotgun, I have very limited knowledge on shotgun slug shooting, or which works for bucks.
First, let’s re-visit the older Taylor Knock Out Factor, or TKO, as it pertains to hunting game. It was an early attempt at determining if a cartridge/bullet combination was enough for hunting. Here is his equation:
- (Equation 1)
Where the mass of the bullet is in grains, times the velocity in feet per second, times the diameter of the bullet in point inches. Mr. Taylor’s equation may have been OK back in the day, but back then, we didn’t have bonded core bullets, X-frames, solid copper rounds, copper and lead-tipped with a co-polymer….
John “Pondoro” Taylor had quite the opinion, and it lasted for years. It was also taken as gospel by a good many big game hunters. Mr. Taylor was quite the hunter and also, reportedly, a poacher. He had a fondness for the .450/500 Nitro Express and the .375 H&H and was said to have killed over a thousand elephants. In short, his opinion was that you shoot the biggest, fastest bullet you can.
The great thing about the free market system is that the ammunition industry tends to listen to those of us who shoot and hunt. They are constantly modifying jackets, bullet shapes, bonding the jacket to the core, extending the jacket inside the core, mixing lead with hardening agents. Anything to improve the ballistics and stopping power of their rounds.
The number of manufacturers is mind-numbing. Federal, Nosler, Hornady, Speer, HSM, Berger, Winchester, Herters, Barnes. Just to name a few. Then there are the bullet types, Scirocco, Partition Gold, Silvertip Trophy, Bonded Tip, FTX, DGX, InterLock, Accubond, Partition, Grand Slam, Core-Lokt, Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded, InterBond, GameKing BTSP, A-Frame. And that just scratches the surface.
But back to our subject. When going after small game (under about 50 pounds), almost anything works. Almost.
What’s needed here is a fast, rapidly expanding pill of pillage. If you’re hunting camp meat, try not to blast the bunny with your .454 Casull. Stick with maybe a .22 mag. For varmints, — coyote, fox, etc. — I like the .22-250 for its speed and rapid expansion. The most common semi-automatic rifle in use is the 5.56 or .223 in the AR platform. It’s an excellent choice for predator predation. The Hornady 40 grain TAP round is a pretty decent choice here. The V-Max also works very well.
Then there’s the medium game such as mule deer, white tail deer, antelope, (speed goat). These tend to be animals greater than about 50 pounds and up to 250-300 pounds. They’re usually thin-skinned and have a lighter bone structure. For these, we want a relatively rapidly expanding bullet to give a decent temporary and permanent wound cavity. It also needs to be able to break bone and stay together for those shoulder shots. We’re talking calibers are usually in the .25 to .30 range. The venerable .30-30 has probably harvested more deer than any other. A personal favorite is the 7mm magnum. It’s flat shooting, has a varied bullet weight and type, and doesn’t hammer my shoulder. I do like the Swift Scirocco, too. It holds together quite well and expands decently. It also has a good G-1 ballistic coefficient, meaning it’s very accurate.
As Nick showed us recently, the Lehigh Defense 110 grain pill in the 300 Blackout works quite well without over penetrating. I’ve also taken deer with .243, .256 mag, .270, and .308, and 7 mag. They all work, especially with good shot placement.
Large game, such as caribou, elk, moose and bear will need a different bullet and probably a larger diameter as well. Their hides tend to be thicker and bones bigger. I’ve seen elk drop like a sack of concrete and others run off because some loud sound just spooked them, even though they were ‘running dead’. These are animals that can go from a few hundred pounds to a half a ton or better.
On a trip to Africa, a friend hit a a 2,200 pound Eland with seven shots from a .338 ultra mag before it went down. All were good chest hits. Apparently not good enough, according to the Eland. Here’s one of the rib cages…(mmmm, rib-eye steaks!)
It expanded to .710 at it’s widest point, and as the scale shows, and likely retained all of it’s weight.
For these larger animals, we should be looking at Barnes X, Nosler Partition, Swift A-Frame, or Federal Trophy Bonded. (Just a few suggestions that come to mind.) Maybe solid constructed bullets? Rounds that hold together quite well after busting through heavy bone while still having the velocity to traverse 24-36 inches of a well-muscled critter is the key. I’m not suggesting a quartering away shot is acceptable, but it can happen. Quartering away shots need either more velocity or a stronger bullet to be effective. This is where bonded cores, solids, or plain dumb luck come into play. Personally, I like some type of bonded core, or an A-frame type design. Berger, Swift, Federal, to name a few, all make good pills.
A few years ago, a buddy of mine and I were after bear. He had a .300 Win Mag, and I had a .264. We had a nice bruin about 150 yards out, feeding on berries. We had the time to get prone and do the count of three thing.
By the time the shooting was over, we had eleven pieces of brass on the ground…and no bear. Due to work schedules, a return trip wasn’t made till the next weekend. We never did find ursis americanus. We both had good, clean, ethical first shots. That bad boy just soaked up the lead and copper. I have no doubt that the bear took a few fatal hits and I’m still sick to this day over losing him.
That was also a pivotal time in my hunting life and I decided to take Robert Ruark’s advice. Use enough gun! On muley, blacktail, whitetail, and antelope, it’s going to be at least a .308. And I prefer the high neck shot. They drop rather quickly. On elk and bear, I like the .375 H&H. This year, I’m using some Berger solids to see how they perform.
Using enough gun brings about some issues, though. Namely recoil. If caliber choice causes you to flinch, you may not shoot as accurately as you normally do. A 7mm Mag delivers about 20 ft./lbs. to your shoulder. The .308, about 18. The .338 hits you with about 35 ft/lbs. Something to keep in mind.
Mr. Pierre van der Walt has written what I consider a go-to book on bullets and cartridges for hunting. While it starts out with bullets in the 9.3 diameter range, his guidelines are applicable for the smaller cartridges, too. As he goes through each caliber, he notes bullet types that are common for it and their velocities for the most common rifle. And he has a color-coded chart that shows at what range the bullet type is optimal given its factory speed for an average rifle and the bullet performance at the bracketed speed. His book is the best I’ve read on ballistics and hunting.
While I’m not trying to ignite a caliber flame war, it is hunting season across this great country. So let us know…what caliber/bullet works for you?