A Few Unkind Words on Hypervelocity

In return for all that power, you lose a lot.

Field & Stream Online Editors

James Moar is a Quebec caribou guide in August and September and a subsistence hunter the rest of the fall, and he has a horror of wasting meat. After he watched me send two caribou bulls to the Great Lichen Patch in the Sky with a 7.21 Lazzaroni Tomahawk that dumped them with a minimum of fuss and destruction, he said: "I'm glad you didn't use too much gun. The client before you used a .30/378 and shot his two caribou at 200 yards. The bullets smashed both shoulders, and you couldn't use the meat because it was bloodshot and filled with bone splinters. If you nudged the bulls with your boot, they sort of sloshed around. I don't like those big guns."

Neither do I. And yet, despite my continued preaching and the similar exhortations of my colleague John Barsness, huge, hypervelocity cartridges continue to flourish like toadstools after a rainstorm. What is a hypervelocity cartridge (known hereinafter as an h-v cartridge)? It's a round that pushes big-game bullets beyond even magnum velocities. What do I have against them? Read on.

  • Extreme accuracy is vital for long-range shooting, yet hypervelocity cartridges are inherently less accurate than smaller rounds. For many years, it has been no secret that the smaller the cartridge, the easier it is to shoot accurately; and not just because of the human factor but because when you fire a rifle, the whole firearm vibrates like a bell. The less the vibration and the more consistent the vibration, the smaller the groups. The greater the vibration, the wider your bullets fly. So if you were to shoot a .30/378, a .300 Weatherby, a .30/06, and a .308 in rifles that were identical except for the chambering, you would see your group sizes diminish as you burned less and less powder.

You can get extraordinary accuracy with an h-v cartridge if you use a massive barrel and combine it with a muzzle brake, but this results in something that you can't carry. Years ago, I shot a rifle built by Allen Hall, who makes benchrest actions. It was chambered for a .416 Rigby case necked down to .30, and as I recall, it fired 250-grain Sierra bullets at 3300-plus fps, courtesy of a 30-inch barrel roughly the diameter of a truck axle. The rifle was highly accurate and could do astounding things at extreme distances, but you couldn't hunt with it because it must have weighed 15 pounds.

Marine Corps snipers-who are expected to hit man-sized silhouettes (or man-sized people, for that matter) on the first shot at ranges up to 1,000 yards-do it with .308s and 10X scopes. The Marines long ago realized that hitting at long range is not so much a matter of how much powder you burn, but how good you are at range and wind estimation, and how well you shoot.

  • These things hurt, and it is wise to be frightened of them. A couple of years ago, a rifle-and-ammo maker that produces a line of h-v cartridges had a seminar at which gun writers were invited to shoot them. Now gun writers are not recoil-shy, because their shoulders are mostly scar tissue, and they don't mind about losing their hearing, because they're mostly deaf, but only one brave soul shot those monster rifles, and he was a young man the size of a Santa Gertrudis steer. The rest of us went to the Five-Stand field.

And it followeth as the night does the day that if you are scared of a rifle, you are not going to be able to hit with it.

  • Hypervelocity ammo costs a bundle and burns out barrels quickly. As the Marines can tell you, if you want to learn to shoot well, you have to shoot a lot, and with the h-v cartridges, money can become a problem. Let's pick on Weatherby as an example. The .300 Weatherby, which is the best of the big .30s this side of sanity, costs $35 to $50 a box. On the other hand, .30/378 Weatherby ammo costs $80 to $85 for a box of 20. Unless you're wealthy, your only alternatives are handloading or not practicing.
    Barrel burnout is less important but worth mentioning. The more powder you burn in relation to bore size, the quicker your bore erodes. A .30/06 barrel, if it is not abused, will probably give you around 5,000 rounds of first-class accuracy. A .300 Weatherby will probably start to give out at 1,500 rounds. A .30/378? A guess would be around 750 to 1,000. And a good-quality stainless-steel replacement barrel, plus chambering and fitting, can run you $500 these days.

  • Buying the rifle is only the beginning. Once you have your cannon, Grasshopper, your studies are about to begin. You need someplace to shoot at long range. You need a rangefinder that works at the yardages you intend to shoot. You need to know the trajectory of your bullets, which you can get either by buying a computer-run ballistics program, or by setting out targets at 25-yard intervals from 300 yards to 600 and seeing just how far your bullets drop at each interval.

Then, you shoot. You learn to judge wind up close and out there, and mirage, and bullet drop, and to compute them all quickly in your head, because when it comes time for the real thing, there's no other way that's quick enough. You also learn to avoid cringing in terror as you squeeze the trigger. Or perhaps you don't.

Or you can buy a standard rifle and limit your shots to 300 yards. Concentrate on stalking and outwitting game and using the ground to get close. Hunting, I think it's called.

  • ** Remember Billy Dixon.** In the 1870s, at a place called Adobe Walls in Texas, a group of buffalo hunters was trapped in an abandoned mission by a band of Comanche Indians who looked forward to slitting them from crotch to brisket with a dull deer antler. Things looked bad for the hunters until one Billy Dixon shot the Comanche leader dead at what was probably close to a mile, and the rest of the war party remembered they had pressing business elsewhere. Dixon made this shot with a .50 Sharps buffalo rifle, which hurled a lumbering 500-grain bullet at roughly 1200 fps. Instead of a scope, he had a peep sight called a vernier sight. Rangefinder? Nope. Ballistics program? Nope. Shooting experience? Plenty. Incentive? Loads. It worked for him, and it can work for you.