Choosing YOUR Ideal Hunting Cartridge
by Ross Seyfried
Kinetic energy does not matter. Accuracy almost does not matter. The headstamp on the case certainly does not matter. Having more shells in the magazine does not matter. How well you can hit with your rifle is almost all that matters!
What if I were to tell you that there is a rifle out there that will let you take more deer and elk; and bears and sheep and caribou and coyotes; and kudu? Yes, there is a rifle out there that will make you more successful in virtually any hunting situation you can imagine. Now your mind immediately goes to the biggest, fastest, largest, longest and most expensive kind of machine modern technology can create. But alas, this is going to be much simpler and down to Earth than you might imagine.
I am about to offer you the keys to the kingdom of hunting-rifle success; keys gleaned from several decades of hunting and the observation of more than 1000 head of big game being taken. This is not about me, but about the dozens of men, women and young shooters I have guided or known around the world. Folks just like you who I have watched succeed and fail, often very simply because of the rifle, or more accurately the cartridge they have chosen.
Perhaps my most succinct quote is, “you cannot buy skill.” I firmly believe that. I began to form the opinion in my competitive pistol shooting days. At the time, and for quite a while I lived on top of the hill. I watched others, who were actually more technically skilled than I, begin to approach the level that could possibly beat me. They were close, very close but one by one I watched them get to the top of their game and never be able to beat me. The reason was that they thought that as they reached that upper eschelon, they had to buy the new widget, holster or fashion-pistol, and that it would be this, and not pure practiced skill, that would best me. When I saw them go for the gear, I knew I still had them. They gave up their thinking that they could beat me by practicing harder and learning their game better, and vested their faith in what they thought was superior equipment. They failed because they gave up on their own ability to keep doing the next thing right. Gear was not the answer.
Too, here in Oregon where we have guided lots of successful elk hunters, I see hunters with the most expensive, plastic super-accurate “elk rifles” often fail miserably. The hunters did not need a rifle that would shoot the expensive and claimed half-inch group, with the flattest trajectory and loudest roar. Instead they needed a rifle that would allow them to hit a soccer ball at 150 yards. So, while you cannot buy skill, it is in my opinion very easy to buy a false sense of security that turns into what amounts to a handicap!
As we begin this journey of practicality I will share another important concept that leads to success. Your dedicated editor and I worried about the seasonal timing of this story, worried that this is not big game hunting season and that it was unreasonable to bother you with hunting rifles months before hunting season. We thought that this might be the wrong time of year to think about your deer rifle. However, in reality, it is the perfect time to think about rifles. You should spend some time and effort thinking about the choice, this critical and very important choice. If possible you should go to the range where hopefully other shooters will let you test drive their rifles. And then once the choice is made, you need to spend the summer practicing.
If there is a way to buy skill with a rifle, it is to buy ammunition or the reloading components to make ammunition and then pull the trigger… a lot!
So far I have incorrectly referred to this as a “rifle” choice, but in this article we are going to focus on the far more critical choice of the perfect hunting cartridge. The rifle that fires the cartridge is important, but with the correct kind of cartridge, a wide variety of rifle shapes and actions can allow you to perform very well. In a way the rifle you use can be determined by personal preference. I would caution, as you consider your perfect rifle, that thinking about making up for a bad first shot, with a second or third shot; is heading in the wrong direction. While I am bothering you with my philosophies, here is another that I believe to be a fundamental truth of shooting, “you cannot miss fast enough to win.” Focus your mind on a very basic principle, make the first shot count.
Shooters and hunters like horsepower. I am as or more guilty than the next guy, but in my “maturity,” I have begun to see the reality of it all. Perhaps the best example of what almost every hunter does not want would be the two really big, fast, flat, high-energy modern super-magnums. These are the .300 and .338 Remington Ultra Mags. Now before you think I am picking on Remington, I am not. I detest these cartridges and can do so on the most honest grounds . . . I designed them.
Before Remington adopted them as factory rounds they were the .30 G&A and .33 G&A, invented, designed and perfected by yours truly. They are based on the .404 Jeffery case and offer more or less 200 fps more velocity than the existing kings of the day. The numbers are impressive; but do they really give you anything that will help you catch your buck? The subject of “energy” is a long-debated one, but rest assured it does not matter at all.
Accuracy can be dismissed, because while rifles cause accuracy, cartridges do not. So we are left with trajectory. If you drive a 180 grain 30 caliber or a 250 grain .338” bullet 200 fps faster, will it help you take the buck or bull? If we begin with a sensible 200 yard zero we see that the super 300’s bullet path will drop 5 ½” at 300 yards and 16 inches below the point of aim at 400 yards; while the pokey old .300 magnums are below the point of aim 6.3 and 18.4 inches respectively. The .338s are similar; the fast ones are essentially 7 inches low at 300 and 20 inches down at 400; while the slower bullets are 8” and 23 inches low. So at the end of the day we are talking about an advantage of about three inches in trajectory at 400 yards.
Are you good enough with your rifle to prove three inches at 400 yards in the field? Probably not! Can you, with any rifle, hold ¾ minute of angle out in the woods or plains, without a bench rest? Now, can you hold that ¾ minute in the face of very intimidating muzzle blast and recoil? In my experience there are very, very few hunters who can hold three fourths-of-a-basketball at those ranges. Worse yet many, when armed with my two magnum “children,” otherwise known as the screaming cannons, cannot hold ¾ of a basketball at 100 yards! Dammit, practicality is an ugly thing. But remember I only used my cartridges as examples of the kind of mistake that is often made when trying to buy skill and success.
Within the realm of cartridges that are capable of taking big game, success in bringing down any animal, your actual animal, is dependent on two things, where your bullet strikes, combined with the bullet that does the striking. Those two things and those two alone will determine your success or failure. Bullets are a subject for another time. But notice that left out of this are the issues of trajectory of the bullet, retained energy, and many other buzz phrases that have been used to burn up many a hunting magazine page.
A cartridge that you like, that you are comfortable with, have confidence in and one that does not intimidate your subconscious goes a long way to helping you make that precise hit. The same cartridge needs to offer you reasonably flat trajectory, penetration and “killing power”. Of course there is not just one cartridge that will do the job, but we can begin to define the performance level and to a degree the cartridges themselves that will help you.
Without any drum roll, they are not magical, mysterious or spectacular; most of them have been around for a long time. You may have the greatest hunting rifle of all time standing right in your rack. Essentially we are looking at cartridges that can drive a sensible hunting bullet at something between 2500 and 3000 fps. That velocity range will give a hunter all of the trajectory he can reasonably use. We now need only to define bullet weight and caliber to answer the question.
But before we do, we need to digress for a moment and realize that shooters are not created equally. That is, some shooters are more able to hit well in the face of relatively heavy recoil and muzzle blast than others. I can say that heavy recoil makes precision more difficult for any shooter. That is, more recoil requires more muscle tension to control the rifle; to keep it from hitting you in the head or jumping out of your hands. There is nothing easier to hit with than a .22 and few things more difficult than a .577 Nitro.
Young shooters or others learning the art of rifle shooting simply should not be exposed to violent cartridges. And different people of all shapes and sizes perceive recoil and noise differently. Some are quite intimidated by a .30-06, more are handicapped by a .300 Weatherby; while on the other extreme I know a couple of riflemen who shoot a .378 Weatherby with absolute precision. All of this is to say, “you be the judge of what works for you”. But, be honest with yourself.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting to yourself that you do not like the recoil and noise generated by a .300 magnum. There is much wrong with crippling a deer because you fired the shot with your eyes closed and a trigger finger that lashed out like a shark bite. There isn’t really an absolute answer to the question, but I think we can crowd it into a relatively small corner.
The game we hunt has some bearing on the caliber we choose, but not as much as you might think. I suppose 90 percent of the critters we chase will be in the deer-size realm; whether they are white tails, mule deer, antelope, goats, caribou, sheep, impala, wildebeest or pigs. Elk and the larger African plains animals may fit into a slightly larger category, but again the larger and tougher a critter is, the more critical bullet design and placement become. So, when asked to make a choice between a hunter who hits the “heart” with a light rifle or the “green stuff” with a big .375, I opt for the little gun every time.
As we begin to sum up, let’s say the .243” bores are probably a little on the light side. That is not to say a 6mm cannot be a good, or perhaps even a great white tail rifle. It certainly can, but the bullet mass and momentum can leave us with marginal penetration. On the opposite end of the spectrum, let’s rule out the .375” bores and probably the .338s as well. They are fantastic calibers, but with too much recoil to make it “easy” for most. We are beginning to zero in on the .25 to .30 calibers and will toss in the 8mms just because some of us like them. Now it is time for the different case sizes to weigh in.
I began by saying the super-large, beyond-magnums are a bad idea, but how much gun powder do we need? It is easy to say a .25-20 is too small, but as soon as we get to the .257 Roberts we have plenty of speed with 100 to 120 grain bullets. The smaller 6.5mm cartridges like the .260 Remington work very well, as illustrated by more than a century of almost invincible success of the 6.5 Mannlicher Schoenauer and 6.5 x 55 Swedish. The 7mms become magnificent and while it is ancient there are few better cartridges on Earth than the 7 x 57mm Mauser and its grandchild the 7mm-08 fits in the same performance realm.
Of course the mid-sized .30 caliber cartridges need little introduction or discussion. To me, the .308 does not put the 30 caliber’s best foot forward, while the .30-06 has enough case capacity to push the 165-180 grain bullets at interesting speed without undue recoil. Of course my personal favorite .30 caliber cartridge the .300 Holland & Holland only proves two things. First I am archaic and that critters really cannot read the headstamps on your brass.
There is a certain intrigue and much success in the land of belted magnums. The .257 and 270 Weatherby rounds are wonderful things. They generate lots of speed and very flat trajectory, while the light bullet weights keep recoil at manageable levels. We can add the short beltless magnums of the same calibers to this list also. (However, the added speed demands bullets of very special design and quality, or penetration and success may fail.) The 7mm Remington Magnum is almost legendary. But, it now has enough bullet weight to generate significant recoil and comes with the same bullet-design demands as the smaller magnums.
Ah, I see the guy in the back of the room waving his hand. He feels like the kid on Christmas morning who did not find a package under the tree . . . “errr, maybe you forgot something?” No, I just saved perhaps the best for last. When in doubt . . . get a .270 Winchester!
Now the guy in the front row is gasping, “Yes, but what about Elmer Keith, and I want to hunt elk.” First, like my dislike for my super-power cartridges, I can make a pretty honest case for my .270. I grew up, not a student of Jack O’Connor, but as a pure disciple of Elmer Keith. I not only read everything he wrote, but had the great good fortune to know him well and to become his friend. At the time his opinion was perfectly founded and honest, “only big bores and bullet weight can make a rifle that will kill well.”
The equation at the time was valid, for him. But there were two parts of it that the old master did not factor in. First, he possessed almost super-human skill with any firearm. He could shoot his .577 like it was a .22. He thought we were all like him. The humble gentleman thought of himself as normal, but he was not. His advice would not apply to the majority of us who are intimidated by the flash and recoil of the bigger magnums of today. The second part is that he did not have the great advantage of the “super-bullets,” we have today. Bullet design and construction are far more important than size, and today’s bullet technology has stretched the results of what the smaller, less powerful cartridges can produce.
The most successful African Safari I ever guided was shot with a .270 Winchester loaded with 150 grain Nosler Partition bullets. The rifle was ancient and worn, a pre-war Model 70. The “driver” was past 70 years old and this was his only rifle; a rifle that he has used for many decades in most of the hunting grounds of the world. He shot two extremely tough animals, a zebra and a wildebeest, first. Each fell to a single shot, as did a huge lion. He broke a sitatunga’s neck (that was the only target) offhand, in the wind, at 300 yards. An elk-sized kudu bull tumbled when the bullet hit the point of his shoulders. There was no real magic; just a great rifle, fine bullet and unimaginable skill on the part of the rifleman.
Over the last dozen years my son and I have guided for more than 100 elk here at Elk Song. They have been taken with a remarkable spectrum of rifles ranging from 4-bore to 6.5 mm, with a good selection of .577s, .416s, .375s, 338s and .300s in the middle. Many of them have been taken with .270s and I can tell you that no cartridge puts an elk on the ground more quickly than the .270 Winchester loaded with the magnificent (and now non-existent) 140 grain Winchester Failsafe bullet. (Some of the Barnes X designs are producing similar results.) The reason for the grand success is twofold, and returns us to the beginning: first the hunters hit very precisely with the gentle rifle and second, the bullet performance is off the scale.
So, at the end of the day, which cartridge is the best one for you? There is no absolute answer, but moderation is a very good idea. Choose a normal-sized cartridge case, with a .25-30 caliber bullet; then practice, practice, practice. When you gain complete confidence in your rifle it will almost hit for you.
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