|August - September 2000
Volume 35, Number
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The Marlin 444SS is chambered for the increasingly popular .444 Marlin. Moose photo by John R. Ford. Purchase the CD-ROM here
Sometimes it is necessary to
reevaluate your position. For years I have harbored a somewhat conventional sense of
firearms power: the ability of any given cartridge to get the job done. Then it dawned on
me that I was missing the boat. For instance, one of the finest long-range, big game
calibers is the .30-30 Winchester. Further, a .223 Remington can compete with a .270
Winchester on any field; even more, the .375 Winchester is really a top-drawer elephant
and Cape buffalo gun, and the .458 Winchester has wonderfully flat trajectory out to 400
yards. At the same time I realize a .300 magnum is marginal for elk, and hunting buffalo
with a little rifle like a .338 Winchester courts suicide with every breath. What, is this
Yes, a little. But, what I just
wrote with some tongue-in-cheek humor is far from fiction in the minds of many shooters.
Therefore, let’s take a little time to realistically look at a wide variety of
calibers and arms. The idea is to try to understand why some cartridges are so wildly
overrated while others are dismissed as powerless. We also should give the whole business
the benefit of the doubt and try to discover if there are any physical reasons to justify
some of the belief.
The Theory of Relativity - our hero
Einstein came up with this concept. While it is far greater in scope than we want to
contemplate here, it can have some influence on our thoughts. The part that applies here
is similar to two objects, one moving, one stationary. If you are in a car it is
relatively easy to tell that the telephone pole is standing still and the car is moving.
But if you change the car to a spaceship, put it and the pole in a black void, you can
only discern that one moves relative to the other. Even though we know the spaceship is
driven by the rocket motor, our mind perceives that pole just roared by at 25,000 miles
per hour. This happens because we do not have the solid ground to use as a reference. To
put it another way, it all depends on our point of view.
Firearms and especially the worst
offenders, the contrivances some call “handguns,” function around a similar
problem. If we fire a .30-30 rifle and then let go with a .300 Winchester Magnum rifle, we
have a pretty good idea which one is moving. The big .300 is clearly the most powerful
arm. But now, what if we fire that humble .30-30 out of a 2 1/2-pound pocket rifle? It now
has extremely high velocity, flat trajectory, brutal recoil and a deafening muzzle blast -
relative to a .38 Special!
In this example what many shooters
see from their space capsule is a “handgun” that is pretty spectacular, relative
to other arms that are realistically recognized as handguns. Their logic was good, but the
total perception got out of hand. The warped perception is influenced by other factors as
well, with showbiz being a major element. With the zeal of P.T Barnum, handguns (pardon
the pun) got out of hand. Some individuals were selling egos, companies were selling
single shots and others, who were misinformed or unarmed with any scientific knowledge,
were selling words. Ultimately the same circles adopted the silly thought process that I
tossed out in the first paragraph.
To get our feet on solid footing,
let’s look at the ballistics of some of the pocket-rifle cartridges. As a base line,
the .30-30 Winchester fired from a rifle gives us a 150-grain bullet at about 2,400 fps.
We pretty much know what a .30-30 is capable of. It is a good 150-yard deer rifle and a
really good 100-yard deer rifle. It is not flashy, would feel silly if you looked over the
sights at 400 yards and probably would never be considered a fight stopper. If we flip the
pages in the Hodgdon or any other manual over to the heading of “Pistol Data,”
we see the same .30-30 is only capable of 2,100 fps with a 150-grain bullet. Of course,
this is not a “hot” cartridge.
If we pick out the screaming hot
rod, a long-range “wondergun,” it probably would be the 6.5mm JDJ or some 7mm
Ram-Ripper. They dazzle the eye with tremendous velocity, scream, roar and thunder all the
way to 2,400 fps with 120- to 140-grain bullets. Uh oh, did somebody move the phone pole?
If we move to the opposite end of
the spectrum, the new-age dangerous game cartridge for handguns, the .375 JDJ, we see a
270-grain bullet at 1,900 fps. Similarly we have rifle rounds, the .375 Express and 9.5mm
Mannlicher-Schonauer, driving 270-grain bullets at 2,100 fps, while the .375 Winchester
gets us 2,200 fps with a 220-grain bullet. Few experienced, or even inexperienced, big
game hunters would tout any of the last three as being even “good” for bison,
buffalo or pachyderms. By contrast, the great round, the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum
will push a 300-grain bullet 2,600 fps, and even this glorious boomer is considered on the
light side by many, when dangerous game is the target. Clearly opinions are at odds with
the facts here. Is there any reality to the pocket-rifle enthusiasts claims, or are they
all misinformed? I think the truth
lies in the middle.
Surely all the success had by the
single-shot pistols is not fiction, but how is it possible that a useless rifle cartridge
becomes invincible when you chop off the barrel and buttstock? There certainly is some
misinformed mischief at work. The PHs I know can paint a rather dismal picture of the
performance of many hunters with handguns, while others have done very well.
Back to the theory of relativity and the
.30-30 Winchester, we must consider the factor of human bias. If we fire the .30-30 from
an 8-pound arm with a 24-inch barrel, it is a pretty meek instrument. If we swap for a 2
1/2-pound piece with a 14-inch barrel, add a stock with terrible recoil management, we
have the proverbial tiger by the tail. Blast becomes loud and recoil gets verrry
noticeable. Hey, if something screams and kicks, it must be powerful. I know, I am guilty.
If we shift gears to my two favorite
shotguns, the 28 and 10 bore, you can see a similar effect. The big 10 has a rather mighty
voice and certainly gives you the impression that the phone pole is moving when the recoil
happens. I expect it to sledgehammer a mallard or a honker at 50 yards. However, when my
little 28 with its gentle pop and meek recoil goes off, I feel like I am undergunned. It
never fails to surprise and delight when a big mallard hits that brick wall thrown up by
the little 28. Perception of noise and recoil gets in the way of ballistic reality.
A .54-caliber flintlock pistol is an
even more relevant example. Its job is to grow up so it can take an elk. After a thorough
reinforcement of the stock with ACRAGLAS, I began to add ever increasing amounts of powder
and then to use stronger and stronger powder. In the end I had an absolutely savage,
powerful handgun. There are balls of fire everywhere, recoil is nearly brutal (due to
light weight and stock design). My own son runs and hides every time he sees the monster,
after having his knuckles bruised and pounded by the trigger guard. But, I succeeded. The
velocity of the big .54 caliber climbed and climbed all the way to 1,350 fps. This is
unquestionably an extremely powerful flintlock pistol. In reality it drives a 225-grain
bullet at 1,350 fps. In spite of all its fluff and dander, it is not quite a .41 Magnum, a
cartridge I see as marginal. Thus we have part of the misinterpretation of the real power
of some arms. Racket and recoil are often mistaken for performance.
Another facet that leads some to
believe they have more gun than reality dictates is the ease of accuracy and hits. Many
who have taken up the single shots as handguns may have either experienced or imagined the
difficulty of making precise hits with a revolver. Suddenly they go from a set of iron
sights and offhand shooting to a solid rest with a scope sight and a fantastic trigger
pull. Where once a basketball was safe at 50 yards, a softball at 200 yards is in mortal
danger from every shot. The shooters, not necessarily incorrect, senses tell him
this thing roars and bucks and hits, therefore it must be very effective, and, within
reason, it is.
Two factors may contribute to the
apparently unreasonable success. First, most who take up hunting with single shots still
feel they are handicapped. They know that even though they have a lot of power, they
really do not have any in excess. Also, hunters realize their real accuracy is limited,
compared to full-sized rifles. What this does is make them try harder. They try to get
closer to the game, try to get a good rest and try to put the bullet in the right place.
What they are secretly doing is hunting better.
I believe we can also add a
ballistic advantage to this puzzle. In virtually every case, where rifle bullets are used,
the velocity is low, relative to the strength of the bullet. What this means is the
bullets are probably going to perform very well, perform like the very best bullets do at
high velocity. That is, they will mushroom only a little, keeping plenty of shank and
penetrate well, plowing through and leaving a uniform path of damage from side to side.
Thus, even though the guns may actually be anemic, the hunter and the bullet do the two
things that can overcome almost all power failures.
When we begin to entertain the
question of trajectory and long range, we are again confronted by reality. The
super-screamer mentioned earlier, the 6.5mm, really is not all that spectacular at any
real distance. If zeroed at 100 yards, it will be down almost 6 inches at 200 yards. Most
of the .30-caliber single shots will drop 8 to 13 inches at the same range with 150-grain
bullets, and a .223 Remington will still fall 4 1/2 inches. Now no one would call a .458
Winchester a flat-shooting, long-range caliber, but by the same measure the big 500-grain
solid only drops 8.8 inches. It is again all about perspective.
I remember once upon a time when a
fellow who was a renowned expert at long-range shooting with single-shot pistols was
confronted with a big critter 200 yards away. He found the hit almost impossible - with a
.416 Remington - because of the unknown high trajectory. Funny thing, he was
launching a bullet at 2,400 fps, the same or more velocity than his pet long-rangers. The
big .416 was actually flatter than most of his handguns. The lesson? Im
not sure, but I have an idea. Human nature tends to see ranges as plenty long enough when
they are holding a rifle; perhaps they look a little longer when the barrel is short.
Whatever the case, when it comes to trajectory, rifles, long or short, must obey the laws
At the other extreme is the Elmer Keith
related belief that rifles like the .300 Weatherby are somewhat, to very, ineffective on
elk-like critters. Believe it or not there was pretty good precedent for the thought. A
good bit of it sadly originated with the great Weatherbys designer, Roy Weatherby.
In a slightly misguided attempt to promote sales, he suggested that the high-velocity
cartridges were so effective, killing with hydrostatic shock, that bullet construction and
even bullet placement were irrelevant. In many places and especially Africa, hunters shot
beasties somewhere with bullets going several hundred feet per second faster than their
makers intended. The bullets exploded, committed ballistic suicide, and professional
hunters wore out their yearly allowance worth of shoe soles tracking cripples.
If you do everything wrong, failure
is almost a certainty. The truth is the .300 Weatherby is one of the best, if not the
best, cartridge on earth. You only have to feed it with tough bullets and hit the vitals.
You can carry the thought further to the idea of taking Cape buffalo with a .300 or .338.
If you are hunting and not stopping fights, either can be perfectly effective, making
clean, quick one-shot kills. I have taken many buffalo with a .300 magnum and a 220-grain
solid. Those who attack them with .338s and the new super-bullets, like the 230-grain Fail
Safe, report the black brutes usually hit the ground more quickly with this recipe than
big bores. Often ballistic truth seems more strange than fiction.
Another realm that is subject to
confusion is one of my favorites: the big-bore hunting revolvers. Fortunately we do not
have to discuss trajectory, for few are foolish enough to suggest these big sluggers are
flat shooting. However, the subject of power, the ability to take game, even big dangerous
game, is easy to question. Not long ago my editor (and yours) - seems to put us both
behind the same rock doesnt it? - anyway, this fellow who lives with big-bore,
lever-action rifles had the audacity to ask me why I thought my .45 Colt and .475 were
elephant and buffalo guns, while generally their best loads were barely up to the most
mild blackpowder performance in his 86 Winchester. Sad to admit, he has a point.
The first reason is one we thumped
earlier. No way will his wimpy 86 kick and roar like my .475. Therefore my gun is the most
powerful! But, there are one or two more realistic answers to his question. First, many or
most underrate the potential of the big-bore blackpowder rifle. The old .45-70 or 90 or
120 are absolutely spectacular game getters. The .50s, whether they burned 70, 80, 90 or
even 140 grains of powder, were powerful rifles.
Because I am one of the original
designers/perfecters of the big handgun rounds, I know something that most do not know
about them. My hope, dream and design criteria was simply to try to get a 3-pound, 6-inch
barreled revolver to think it was one of Daves Winchesters. That is, I wanted a
hunting revolver to be ballistically equal to a .45-90, or even a .45-70. When
the .45-caliber, 325-grain bullets nudged 1,500 fps and the .475 heaved 430 grains of lead
1,300 fps, we were there. Now without question we were armed with revolvers thoroughly up
to the task of taking 1,000-pound animals. Pushing the envelope beyond to 2,000 pounds, or
10,000 pounds, was another matter.
To see how it is not only possible,
but plausible, we look at the bullets. Generally the blackpowder bullets were made of soft
to moderately hardened lead. An alloy of one part tin to 20 parts lead was common. This is
a fine metal, but one that will mushroom and flow well below 1,000 fps impact velocity. It
is ideal, perhaps perfect, for deer, elk, moose and bears. It also puts a terrible slap on
a bison or buffalo, as long as we do not ask it to chop too much bone or plow through huge
amounts of solid muscle.
As we go, we can make a parallel
case for the demise of the true big-bore rifles, the 8-bore and the grandaddy of all
rifles, the 4-bore. Believe it or not, even the 4 had its troubles with African elephants
- that they used 437 grains of powder and 1,500 to 2,000 grains of lead notwithstanding.
Cartridges like the .600, .577 and even the .470 thoroughly outdid the old cannons in pure
elephant clubbing performance. Why? Well, velocity gets part of the credit, but the real
answer to the question was steel-jacketed solid bullets.
Suddenly elephant hunters had
bullets capable of penetrating most of the length of an elephant and would not whimper at
a foot of solid bone. When we compare this to the old lead bullets hardened with 8 percent
tin or 10 percent mercury, the penetration and, therefore, the ability to floor big game
made a quantum leap forward. As we return to the big-bore revolvers, we see the same
scenario. We began to use hard metal in the modern sense. Instead of a hardness of Brinell
12 (which was very hard in the old days), we moved to 22 or 23 on the hardness scale.
These bullets, fired at our revolver velocities, were nearly as invincible as the
steel-jacketed solids in the express rifles. They would wade through big bones with only
minor scrapes and scratches.
At the same time, the flatnose
shape, perfected by Veral Smith at LBT, gave us unprecedented accuracy after they hit.
They penetrated straight as a string and resisted tumbling better than any
other bullet. Also, the big flat noses cause big wound channels. Suddenly we
had the power of Daves Winchester but with penetration off any scale known to
old-timers. Of course, if you put the same bullet, made of the same metal, in one of the
old Winchesters, it will do the same, or even more if you boost the velocity. Would I go
Cape buffalo hunting with a .45 and 90 grains of blackpowder? Absolutely, with the
condition that I am going to be very careful about where the bullet lands. The end result
of the big revolvers is very impressive. When you point a 3-pound revolver at the
shoulders of a ton of buffalo and watch the bullet end the battle, instantly on impact,
you realize there is some reality involved.
This leads us to yet another
conundrum. Why, if the .475 revolver or a .45-90 is so suited to big game, is the .458
Winchester often condemned for failing because of a low-velocity round - that is, a round
that may only deliver 1,800 fps? Remember, we are quite happy with the revolvers at 1,300
to 1,500 fps. Two reasons seem likely to me. First, I said I would hunt buffalo with a
.45-90 and have hunted them with .45 and .475 revolvers. There is a big difference between
hunting, taking a carefully placed precise shot at an unsuspecting beast, and ending a war
with a wounded dynamo. The .458 is often asked to work as a fighting tool rather than a
hunting arm. In this employment bullet placement may be marginal and the enemy may be in
advance, instead of retreat. Under these circumstances you need all the power and
penetration money can buy. While I think they could handle it, I do not willingly pick
fights with my revolvers.
Another reason the .458 may fail
more dramatically than logic dictates is its big, long 500-grain bullet. If the velocity
is low at impact, the bullet may be mildly unstable. Instead of the predicted yaw, it may
turn sideways. If it does, penetration is over and the battle is lost. I found this to be
true with the .45 Colt when I tried 412-grain bullets. They were loaded to 1,300 fps, a
load that was virtually identical to the .475, with its 430s at 1,300 fps, at least on
paper. In reality, when I pointed the 412-grain .45 bullets at buffalo shoulders, the
penetration was marginal, bordering on failure. While at the same time the .475 usually
punches through the far side with 360-grain .45s not far behind. The bottom line was that
the 412-grain bullets were not stable enough after impact. They fell on their sides and
failed to penetrate. The .458 with a slow shot may suffer a similar fate.
In the end we see that reality has
many faces. Some levels of power and performance are purely imaginary, while others have
basis in logic and science. Whatever the game, cartridge or argument, we see one continual
truth. The fellow who hits the right spot with a good bullet is almost done tracking.
Whenever you wonder what is true and real, check out the window, the pole may be moving.