F&S Classics: August 1973

"The Deer Don't Care"

Field & Stream Online Editors

To this day, when I'm trying to write something on rifle hunting or choices of calibers, etc., I force myself to recall that it is all too easy in this business (in which a shooting editor is constantly associated with technical people, designers of new guns and cartridges, and so forth) to loose sight of the woods because of the trees.

It is all too easy to develop a down-the-nose approach to the hunter with a pump, autoloader, or lever action that probably could not hit a teacup consistently at 400 yards. Yet that same hunter just might know more about the game, the woods, and hunting than any beady-eyed ballistician. In modern big-game hunting, the man who gets his game is the man who knows the woods, not necessarily the one with the most accurate rifle.

On the other hand, if a good hunter can improve his accuracy, then he's just that much better a hunter. And the most successful hunters are those types who have both kinds of skill going for them.

I'm convinced that one of the reasons so many otherwise good hunters are missing game is that times are changing, populations are increasing, and many Eastern hunters accustomed to using a .30/30 in dense woods are starting to go West every fall. Many of them have read just enough about Western hunting to believe they need the biggest, hottest magnum they can afford, the one that looks the best on the ballistics table. Some are undoubtedly confused by the multiplicity of calibers, and maybe by the rash of articles which seem to accompany the appearance of every new cartridge.

Not long ago I made a visit to the small Central Texas community where I grew up, and had a most enlightening visit with an old hunting partner who was a co-conspirator in hundreds of plots against squirrels, ducks, doves, and the like during our school days. I noticed he was listening with mild amusement to my accounts of the hot new .25/06 I'd been testing along with my references to magnums, millimeters, and foot-pounds of energy.

"I guess you got to think up something to fill all that magazine space," he said finally, "but most folks I know sort of thumb through that stuff about calibers and velocities. We figure long as the Good Lord doesn't make any new models of deer we don't need a lot of new cartridges or rifles. To hear you writers tell it, a .30/30 won't kill a deer anymore; it's got to be some red-hot something or another that'll blow up a bar of soap in the next county."

"Besides," he added, "most of us just don't know what you guys are talking about; you have a language of your own, and I doubt one out of three of your readers could tell whether a .300 magnum is stronger than 6mm magnum; how come some cartridges are named in hundreds, others in millimeters, and others by a bunch of numbers, like I've been reading about the .45/70. What does that mean?"

He, of course, had some very good points, so I told him the .45/70 was named for the fact that it is .45 caliber and, in the original loading the case held 70 grains of black powder. The .30/06 was so named because it is .30 caliber and was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1906. The .270 measures .277 and in the .375 H&H;, the bullet mikes out to .375 thousandths. The .257 Roberts was named for its designer, N. H. Roberts, but that does not mean the .218 Bee was invented by a bee. Nothing really means anything for sure about American cartridges unless you know their background.

The Europeans actually have the only system that makes much sense; they first specify the size of the bullet in millimeters, then the case length and type, after which they may identify the company or inventor. Thus, our American .308 is really the 7.62x51 in that it is of 7.62 millimeters in caler and the case is 51 millimeters long. We also know it is of rimless case design, otherwise the Europeans designation would have been 7.62x51R, the R signifying a rimmed case.

But back to the problem of choosing the right American deer hunting calibers.

The .300 Winchester magnum, for instance, has ballistics and performance almost identical to the .308 Norma magnum. The 6mm Remington and the .243 Winchester are only a few feet of velocity apart, and the "new" .25/06 so closely approximates the performance of the .270 that it is doubtful whether a varmint or deer hit with either would ever know the difference.

Add to the confusion the fact that there are two completely different types of deer hunting, as different as East and West, and maybe that's the way it should refer to them. The Eastern hunt is usually in heavy timber or thick brush where a "long" shot may be less than 100 yards. The Western is open plains or mountain hunting where quite a few mule deer are taken at 300 yards or more.

Let's start with the Western type, because that is where ballistics seem to become the most confusing. Would you believe that quite often the rifle with superior ballistics, more "killing power" at long ranges can, in the hands of the average hunter, actually be a distinct disadvantage?

I believe this, and so do many guides and outfitters. There are several reasons. One is recoil, and the flinched-away chances at trophies that go along with it when too much rifle is in the hands of a shooter who simply has not been willing to pay the price of practice. Another is carrying weight. Still another is barrel length and handling.

The American tendency, unfortunately, is to order the biggest and bestest in everything from cars to gasoline to cartridges and shotshells. And I'm pretty sure that about as many deer are spared by the big magnums in the hand of inexperienced shooters as are bowled over at extreme ranges by experts.

One of the best big-game guides in the West, a man who has literally grown up guiding hunters, told me once that the average client he gets cannot be expected to consistently place shots well on a mule deer beyond 200 yards. And I have no reason to argue with him; my own observations have been pretty much the same.

So what we're really talking about in Western hunting is a 200-yard rifle, but one which can deliver the goods well beyond that if the skill and necessity are there. Dozens of calibers are capable of dropping the biggest muley in the world at 200 yards or beyond, and they aren't all cannons.

The bellowing .300 Winchester magnum may turn the grass brown and rattle rocks loose from the mountain, but with factory ammunition it is only about an inch flatter at 200 yards (with the same 150-grain bullet) as the much less punishing .30/06. As this is being written I'm glancing over a ballistics table from Federal Arms Co. (the figures are similar to those from Winchester, Remington, et al) and the mid-range trajectory of mild-recoiling .270 Winchester with 150-grain bullet is 2.9 inches. The 7 mm Remington magnum shows 2.0 inches at that distance with the same weight of bullet, and the .300 Winchester magnum shows 1.9 inches with that same weight bullet. The old .30/06 shows 2.6 inches, and the .308 2.6 inches. Now then, the man under hunting conditions, who can hold closely enough to make use of 1 inch at 200 yards doesn't need to be reading this. He already has a rifle, presumably one that never misses.

So, at 200 yards, presuming that one 150-grain bullet can be placed about as well as another, any one of those rifles should be swift and certain death to a deer.

The important thing, then, would be which one of those calibers or rifles the average shooter could best place his shots with. I believe he'd probably do so better with the .270, .308, or the .30/06 because they'll kick him less and he'll flinch less.

It is true that we haven't figured in velocities nor how long it took for the bullet to get to the deer (any of 'em will get there before he can run off). Nor have we discussed striking energy in foot-pounds. These are important, but sometimes I look at impressive foot-poundages of the larger magnums in much the same way as I do at automobile speedometers that indicate top speeds of 130 miles per hour. I wonder if they'll really do it, and if so, what difference it makes. In everyday use the full potential of modern cars or rifles rarely can be utilized by the operator.

I assume if one could interview a large number of mule deer bucks sent there by .300 magnums and .30/06s, few could testify to the exact difference between 2783 foot-pounds and 1920 foot-pounds. This would be something like asking Joe Frazier which smarted more, Foreman's right or his left.

Which brings up a point that sooner or later will be considered by many rifle buyers; how much kick can you honestly take without becoming spooky of a rifle? Can you place bullets as well with a .300 Weatherby as with a .243?

If you answered yes to that last question, you're either a rare specimen or have not sighted in many .300 Weatherbys. The fact is that even the most accomplished rifleman can shoot the less punishing calibers better. I'd like to make clear here that I certainly have nothing against the Weatherby-popularized principle of high magnum velocities. What I'm saying is that I believe the average shooter can hit better at average range on a deer with something on the order of a .270 Weatherby or .257 Weatherby than he would with a .300 Weatherby. And any of these calibers at normal ranges would kill the deer just as dead. Both the .257 and .270 Weatherbys hold a lot of powder, but because they propel bullets that weigh from only 100 to 130 grains, their kick is not nearly so bad as that of the .300.

Muzzle brakes are an answer of sorts. The ones I've tried will cut down on recoil all right, but they'll leave your ears hanging in shreds. This must necessarily be the case, since recoil is reduced by diverting propellant gases to the side and rear. And out in the field, where you don't wear headphones, that smarts.

The other way to cut down on kick is to increase the weight of the rifle. Any one who sho0ts a .30-caliber magnum that weighs less than 9 pounds is going to get walloped, but good. On the other hand, you can shoot a milder-kicking rifle, one in the .30/06 class, that weighs 71/2 pounds and not get the feeling that you've been whopped upside the head with a baseball bat. And if you had to climb a mountain with a rifle hanging on your shoulder, which would you opt for, the 9-pound job or the lighter one?

It has been estimatedor the .30/06 because they'll kick him less and he'll flinch less.

It is true that we haven't figured in velocities nor how long it took for the bullet to get to the deer (any of 'em will get there before he can run off). Nor have we discussed striking energy in foot-pounds. These are important, but sometimes I look at impressive foot-poundages of the larger magnums in much the same way as I do at automobile speedometers that indicate top speeds of 130 miles per hour. I wonder if they'll really do it, and if so, what difference it makes. In everyday use the full potential of modern cars or rifles rarely can be utilized by the operator.

I assume if one could interview a large number of mule deer bucks sent there by .300 magnums and .30/06s, few could testify to the exact difference between 2783 foot-pounds and 1920 foot-pounds. This would be something like asking Joe Frazier which smarted more, Foreman's right or his left.

Which brings up a point that sooner or later will be considered by many rifle buyers; how much kick can you honestly take without becoming spooky of a rifle? Can you place bullets as well with a .300 Weatherby as with a .243?

If you answered yes to that last question, you're either a rare specimen or have not sighted in many .300 Weatherbys. The fact is that even the most accomplished rifleman can shoot the less punishing calibers better. I'd like to make clear here that I certainly have nothing against the Weatherby-popularized principle of high magnum velocities. What I'm saying is that I believe the average shooter can hit better at average range on a deer with something on the order of a .270 Weatherby or .257 Weatherby than he would with a .300 Weatherby. And any of these calibers at normal ranges would kill the deer just as dead. Both the .257 and .270 Weatherbys hold a lot of powder, but because they propel bullets that weigh from only 100 to 130 grains, their kick is not nearly so bad as that of the .300.

Muzzle brakes are an answer of sorts. The ones I've tried will cut down on recoil all right, but they'll leave your ears hanging in shreds. This must necessarily be the case, since recoil is reduced by diverting propellant gases to the side and rear. And out in the field, where you don't wear headphones, that smarts.

The other way to cut down on kick is to increase the weight of the rifle. Any one who sho0ts a .30-caliber magnum that weighs less than 9 pounds is going to get walloped, but good. On the other hand, you can shoot a milder-kicking rifle, one in the .30/06 class, that weighs 71/2 pounds and not get the feeling that you've been whopped upside the head with a baseball bat. And if you had to climb a mountain with a rifle hanging on your shoulder, which would you opt for, the 9-pound job or the lighter one?

It has been estimated