Some Meditations on Power

Has the excellence of modern hunting bullets lessened the hunter's need for clavicle-cracking cartridges? It's very possible.

Field & Stream Online Editors

John Barsness and I check with each other on the meaning of life, optics, cartridges, rifles, and whether the vineyards of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, can produce a really great cabernet sauvignon. Out of this, we have become convinced that the excellence of modern hunting bullets has lessened the hunter's need for clavicle-cracking cartridges.

Last year John and his wife, Eileen, went to Africa and took with them a .338 and a .30/06. (Africa is very useful to shooters who are curious about the performance of bullets and cartridges because you can, in one hunt, take a dozen or more critters of different sizes, shapes, and degrees of toughness.) The latter worked so well that they never used the former.

This year, I got to go to Namibia (where the hell is Namibia, you ask? keep reading Field & Stream and you'll find out) to see, among other things, if John's experience could be duplicated. I went with a party of four other hunters. Two of us carried .30/06s; the other two had .338s. The fifth person, being a generally odd sort, toted a .338/06 wildcat. All of us are experienced hunters and accomplished shots. Three of us had been to Africa before. All of us were after the same fauna in the same area. The animals ranged in size from duiker, which may go to 30 pounds, to zebra, at 650. As a group, we collected a considerable number of trophies, and I got some interesting insights into the uses of power.

** Is Less More?**
You would think that, all other things being equal, the .338 shooters expended fewer rounds in collecting their critters, since the .338 is far more powerful than the .30/06, and as we all know, animals are deeply impressed by velocity, bullet weight, and muzzle energy.

Except that's not how things worked out. The .30/06 shooters expended considerably fewer rounds per critter than the hunters with the big guns. How come? The .30/06 users may have shot better because regardless of how skilled you are, recoil affects your shooting -- but that alone couldn't account for it.

What probably made the difference is this: There is no sure way to predict how an animal will react to a bullet, and within reason, animals are not affected by ballistics charts. The .30/06 shooters could have gotten exactly the same results with .308s or .280s or .270s or 7x57s.

What does matter is bullet placement and bullet performance. The former is probably 45 percent of the equation and the latter another 45 percent. The remaining 10 percent consists of random variables. Bullets such as the Fail-Safe (which I used), Ballistic Silvertip, Barnes X, Nosler Partition, Swift, Trophy Bonded, and Combined Technologies are so reliable and so consistent in their performance that they make caliber almost null and void.

I handloaded 180-grain Fail-Safes to just about factory velocity -- 2680 fps -- and took five animals with five shots: two warthogs (tough beasts of about 120 pounds), one zebra stallion (650 pounds and a nightmare if you hit them wrong), one springbok (100 pounds), and a gemsbok (oryx) of 400 pounds (exceedingly tough). Only the zebra ever moved out of its tracks; it galloped 70 yards and died. Four of the five bullets went through and through; the fifth was stopped, oddly enough, by the little springbok. The Fail-Safe went through its entire body and halted just under the hide.

As with almost all shots at big game, these five animals were taken at reasonable ranges: the two warthogs at 80 yards, the springbok at 100, the zebra at 150, and the gemsbok at 250.

Gemsbok can present a problem in the endless grasslands of the Kalahari Desert because they have wonderful eyesight and tireless legs, and they will put distance between them and you and keep it. You can, if you wish, take 400- and 500-yard shots, but I told my PH, Hannes Steyn, that I had a 300-yard rifle, and that was it. So we simply kept tracking the herd, and after ffive hours of playing hide-and-seek I found a good bull that gave me a 250-yard shot. The moral is, if it's too far away, get closer.

** The Indestructible Rifle**
Africa can be hard on rifles and scopes, and I wanted an indestructible rifle, so I settled on a Ruger Mark II All-Weather Stainless bolt-action with a laminated stock, and mounted a Swarovski AL 3X?10X variable on it. Rifle and scope traveled 9,500 miles from humid, hideous, sea-level John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to the 4,500-foot-high, bone-dry Kalahari Desert, bounced around in trucks and charter planes for 1,000 miles or so, and made the trip back without a change in bullet impact.

Because of the laminated stock, the Ruger weighs 9 pounds with the scope on board, and while this is heavy for a .30/06 these days, it makes the rifle easy to shoot with precision. It's slick-handling, very positive in operation, and dead reliable. Seldom have I developed so many warm, gooey feelings for a rifle in so little time.

** Old-Fashioned Ways?**
In the mid-1970s, when I got to know former Field & Stream Executive Editor Peter Barrett, I was stunned to learn that he used a .30/06 as his Main Gun for Africa. It was a time when I still worshiped ballistics tables and sheer power, and I thought him quaint. How could a man of such experience and wisdom use such a popgun? I wondered. Now it is a quarter century later, and I've done a lot of hunting, and I no longer wonder.