Big Guns and How to Shoot Them

A big gun is .400 caliber or above, and shooting one is like driving 150 mph

I was going to use this post as an extension of my last, on handloading and Greek gore, and explain that if you want to learn how to shoot a big rifle in a practical manner, you need burn up a goodly amount of what can be very expensive ammo. But I think it would be more useful to explore just how different big guns are from run-of-the-mill rifles.

What is a big gun? It’s bigger than a .375 H&H. A .375 is a medium rifle. Big is .400 or above. A .375 H&H cranks out around 37 foot-pounds of recoil, which is sincere. A big gun starts at around 50 foot-pounds, and can go up to 70, which is .458-Lott territory. More than 70 foot pounds is best used by the insane*.

Big guns are used offhand. Period. You shoot them off a bench only to get them on paper, and that’s the end of that. Big guns are always shot fast. You take a quick first shot, and then get off numbers two and three as soon as you possibly can. Very seldom is there time for a fourth shot, or a fifth.

Big guns are heavy, of necessity. The well-designed ones weigh 12 pounds, and I’ve seen a great many doubles that weighed 15. You need that weight. Without it you’ll have to resort to a muzzle brake, and you don’t want a muzzle brake on a dangerous-game rifle.

But to illustrate just how different all this is, I need to turn to the wonderful world of automobile racing. A friend of mine once got a chance to ride around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (home of the Indy 500) with the legendary Grand Prix driver Jackie Stewart. My friend had considerable experience driving at what he considered high speed, but he said that when Stewart went past the 150 mph-plus mark, he found himself absolutely petrified. Stewart, on the other hand, was chatting away, explaining what he was doing, and why, and commenting on the car, with hardly a care in the world.

Shooting big guns, as they are meant to be shot, is like driving 150 mph-plus. It’s going into a different world where your previous experience does you very little good. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Professional hunters, by and large, are not great shooters of small groups. If you gave one of them your 6.5 Creedmoor with the 5X-25X scope and a 2-pound trigger, he would probably shoot you a 6-inch group.

But if it were a question of sticking one in a buffalo’s eye at 5 yards, in the space of a heartbeat, he can do that. That’s what you’re paying him for, that and telling stories around the fire at night as the hyenas have hysterics and the hippos fart. And to be able to do the shooting part, he has practiced quite a lot.

Practiced offhand, that is, with a big rifle.

* The worst case of recoil I know was soaked up by the late arms historian Jac Weller. Weller used a .460 Weatherby as his Alaska bear rifle. The gun delivers 93 foot pounds of recoil, which places it firmly in the Frightful category, but Weller took the additional step of having the factory rubber recoil pad removed and replaced with a steel buttplate. Weller was a consensus All-America guard at Princeton in 1935, and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. To say that he was prodigiously strong is to understate the case, but even so, you gotta wonder.