View CartCheck OutNews LetterNews Letter Sign-upWolfe Publishing Company
Wolfe Publishing Company
Handloader MagazineRifle MagazineSuccessful Hunter Magazine
Magazine Subscription Information
Wolfe Publishing Company
HomeShopping/Sporting GoodsBack IssuesLoaddataMy AccountAdvertisingGun Links
Online Magazine Login:    Email:    Password:      Forgot Password    Subscribe to Online Magazine
Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
July - August 2000
Volume 32, Number 4
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 190
On the cover...
The Weatherby .280 Remington was produced in the W
Rifle Magazine
Rifle Magazine Wolfe Publishing Company
Rifle Magazine Featured Articles
Table of Contents
Product Tests
What's New
Rifle Magazine

There’s some disagreement over the effects of rifle recoil. Much arises from a lack of what the poet William Butler Yeats called “negative capability.” By this Yeats meant a writer’s ability to cast aside his own personality and instead “become” Captain Ahab or Hamlet. Shakespeare, Yeats believed, could become 20 or more people, both men and women, while more ordinary writers could only be themselves, which explains why characters in some mystery novels all talk alike.

Negative capability has a lot to do with gun writing too, and especially with kick. Many gun writers simply don’t have much negative kick-ability. They only know how they feel when a rifle goes off in their hands. Oh, they might have vaguely observed that some humans feel pain when shooting, so divide the world into categories such as kick-sensitive “women and kids” and kick-proof “real men.” Some acknowledge that “small men” may feel kick more than “normal” (meaning real) men, but others have written that if somebody can’t take the kick of a (insert anything from a .30-06 to a .470 Nitro Express), they should stay out of the game fields.

All of us are the product of our own experiences, but gun writing involves trying all sorts of stuff, then reporting on how it works. If we do this honestly, we should see how stuff works in the hands of several shooters, not just ourselves, and we should watch it work several times, not just once. Over the years I’ve tried to do this, which has led to some different conclusions about kick.

One is that there isn’t much difference in the way women and men handle kick. Most women who want to hunt (as opposed to those coerced into it) can handle the recoil of a 7mm Remington Magnum or .30-06. However, most don’t like any rifle that kicks much harder, and many can never learn to even tolerate a .30-06. The same can be said of most men. The big difference between women and most men lies not in kick tolerance but rational thought. Most women buy one rifle in an adequate caliber. Many men buy several rifles, often in progressively larger calibers, looking for the blinding flash of awesome killing power promised in advertisements, catalogs and shooting magazines.

Consequently a bunch of guys hunt deer each year with 7mm STWs, .300 Weatherbys and even more cutting-edge stuff like .30-378s. From what I have seen, many of these sturdy fellows can’t really shoot anything bigger than a .30-06 but won’t admit it. That is also the observation of many professional guides. My late outfitter friend Richard Jackson grew quite morose whenever somebody arrived in his elk camp with a brand-new .300 or .338 magnum. If the rifle had some scars and the guy could sit down and shoot a 2-inch group at 100 yards, Jackson’s melancholy lifted. But many of his hunters carrying shiny new magnums couldn’t shoot their rifles.

So why did they carry such big guns? Several reasons, one being that somebody in a hunting magazine wrote that anything less than a .300 Winchester Magnum won’t kill an elk - or a moose, or a bear. Sometimes such well-read hunters speak scornfully to hunters unfortunate enough to shoot ordinary cartridges, quoting all sorts of foot-pounds and trajectory figures.

After spending time in many hunting camps, however, both in North America and a couple of other continents, my observation is that many who endlessly spout ballistics are often mediocre shots   with more experience reading Elk Whacker Annual in the bathroom than actually shooting game. Such folks tend to believe stories of elk being flipped over by Knock-Down Power because they intuitively sense that more powerful cartridges should kill better, whether the extra power is derived from ultra-velocity or big, broad bullets.

Killing power, however, is both far simpler and more complex than speed or bullet weight. We rifle loonies attempt to crunch it onto formulae, quoting muzzle velocities, foot-pounds of kinetic energy, sectional density and other quantifiable data. But the biggest factor is not foot-pounds or sectional density or any of those scientific-sounding things. The biggest factor in killing power is putting the bullet in the sticking place.

This explains Heidi Gutfrucht, a veteran Canadian outfitter (General Delivery, Hanceville, British Columbia V0L 1K0) whom I recently met at the annual convention of the Federation for North American Wild Sheep. Heidi is not a rifle loony, but nevertheless owns a small collection of big game rifles, acquired as tips from pleased clients, in calibers up to .300 Weatherby. Her favorite is an old Ruger Model 77 .25-06 that she has used with Remington 120-grain ammunition as backup on grizzly and moose hunts for over a decade. Heidi’s lost count of the bears and bulls she’s killed after they were nicked with various .300 and .338 magnums and is quite puzzled when men come to camp spouting foot-pounds. Her experience has been that a 120-grain bullet in the middle of the chest means dead, and says she almost always finds the bullet expanded under the skin on the far side of the rib cage.

During our talk Heidi wondered why anyone would use those darn Nosler Partitions, because the front half flies apart and ruins too much moose meat. I suggested that hunters want to make sure their bullet will penetrate shoulder bones. “Why would anybody shoot an animal in the shoulder,” she asked, “when it’s so easy to hit them in the ribs?” Good question.

This brings up the second most important factor in killing power: penetration. It does no good to put the bullet in the right place if it doesn’t puncture vitals. That’s why before 1950 most hunters preferred big   calibers for big game. The bullets of the day tended to lose much of their weight when they struck bone or even heavy hide. Heavier bullets could lose some weight and still plow onward.

Over the past half-century, however, and particularly the past decade, we’ve been blessed with really good bullets for big game. Though Heidi Gutfrucht would disagree, in heavier weights the Nosler Partition still works as well as any, but we also have such deep-penetrators as the Barnes X-Bullet, Swift A-Frame, Trophy Bonded and Winchester Fail Safe. These turn once-marginal calibers into reliable performers on large game. I have seen quite a few North American and African animals weighing 400 to over 1,000 pounds killed by such bullets, ranging from 130-grain .270s to 200-grain .30-06s. Among the calibers were such “lady’s rounds” as the 7mm-08 and 7x57mm Mauser. If the bullet were well placed, the animal died quickly with no long chases on thin blood trails.

My friend Mike Larsen of Federal Ammunition tells about a customer who called, saying he was taking his son moose hunting in Alaska. The boy normally shot a .270 Winchester. Should he buy him a .300 magnum? Mike advised some of Federal’s High Energy loads for the .270, loaded with the 140-grain Trophy Bonded. In camp the kid received a ton of ballistic grief from macho guys carrying Really Big Moose Rifles. But the condescension ceased entirely by the end of the week, when the kid not only killed a big moose, but was also the only hunter in camp to finish the job with one shot.

I have met many hunters like those macho men. They often assume that the harder a rifle kicks the better it kills, and that hits around the edges with big, hard-kicking calibers result in dead game. This is not so, and here I speak from personal experience, the most recent the three hours spent chasing a blue wildebeest around a good part of Africa, after shooting it too high with a 250-grain Nosler Partition from a .338 Winchester Magnum.

One typical example of the Big Man Who Handles Kick was a New Yorker who showed up in a summer muskox/caribou camp with a cutting-edge 7mm magnum topped by a huge European 3-12x variable. Everybody else in camp had arrived in pairs, so lucky Johnny B. got to be his hunting partner. It was obvious this guy had acquired most of his hunting experience behind a plate of pasta, because he couldn’t walk a lick. Instead he waddled, hampered both by past fettuccine and several layers of miracle fiber, evidently purchased for the 50-degree chill of an Arctic August. Blowing like a humpback whale, he floundered a mile to a bedded caribou and then, at the vast range of 175 yards, shot the poor beast several times before it finally succumbed. Earlier that same day he’d missed a bigger bull at something beyond 500 yards, and naturally blamed the Inuit guides for their poor range estimation. The only guess they’d given was “Long g-damn way!” Which matched my guess precisely.

In contrast, I’ve recently encountered many defunct big game animals taken with cartridges considered by magnum-men to be suitable only for small deer. Foremost, perhaps, are the 13 elk that my friend John Haviland’s teenage boys have taken with the 7mm-08 Remington - with 14 shots. John loads various 140-grain premium bullets, including the Fail Safe, Nosler Partition and Swift A-Frame, and they all work at any range the boys care to shoot. (No, the bullets do not bounce off past 187 yards because they dropped below X number of foot-pounds.) This past year one Fail Safe went through both shoulders of a big cow, ending up under the skin on the far side.

Shoulder bones have always been one reason cited for more powerful cartridges. At least one authority claims that any big game bullet should be able to penetrate the near shoulder and both lungs of the game in question. So far I agree, but then he goes on to suggest a .300 magnum as minimum for game larger than deer. Well, I have seen 140-grain super-penetrators like the Barnes X-Bullet, Fail Safe and Trophy Bonded used on game weighing 600 or 700 pounds. They will all penetrate at least one shoulder and sometimes even exit the far side of the chest after doing so, even when driven by wimpy little cartridges like the 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57mm Mauser and that bane of magnum-men, the .270 Winchester.

Another reason to use Really Big Cartridges is the so-called “raking shot,” where a bullet might have to penetrate hip bones. Supposedly nothing less than a .338 will do the job. Let’s look at a few examples. One was a Burchell’s zebra, weighing at least 600 pounds, taken with one shot from a 7x57mm in the hands of my friend Tom Brownlee; the bullet, a 175-grain Nosler Partition at 2,500 fps. The bullet broke the right hip and penetrated on through the left lung. Tom admits he was trying to place the bullet in the rear of the ribs but missed. The zebra still went less than a quarter mile.

My wife Eileen generally avoids rear-end shots but has taken two in her career, both on animals already lung-shot but still on their feet. The first was a cow elk that started to stumble down a mountain - when we needed to haul the elk back up the mountain. She put a 150-grain Partition through the pelvis and the elk dropped. The bullet broke not only the pelvis but also the femur of the far leg, which isn’t supposed to happen with a .270. The second was a big kudu bull that received a 165-grain Fail Safe from a .30-06 through the right hip. The bullet exited the left shoulder, and that was that.

If such relatively light-kicking cartridges can do such an admirable job, why are we suddenly deluged with dozens of new rounds with even more recoil? One answer, of course, is that we finally have bullets that can stand up to muzzle velocities of 3,500 fps. The old Nosler Partition, fine bullet that it is, will occasionally come apart if it meets enough resistance at close ranges. I’ve seen it perform just fine at 3,200 fps, when a 180-grain bullet from a .300 magnum cracked the shoulder knuckle of a big elk only 50 yards from the muzzle, but know of instances where it came apart at higher velocities.

Bullets like Barnes X-Bullets, Trophy Bondeds and Fail Safes simply do not come apart at any velocity level now practical. So we can crank them up to warp speed and shoot at astounding ranges. Well, maybe. While all three of those bullets are often capable of good accuracy, say three shots in an inch at 100 yards, it is difficult to get them to shoot into the tiny, tiny groups needed for consistent shooting at 500 yards. This is why real long-range experts tend to use softer bullets like the Nosler Ballistic Tip, though I have recently heard very good things about the tougher Swift Scirroco.

High velocity has virtues, mainly flatter trajectory, but when applied to bullets that can withstand extreme velocity, the amazing quick-killing power popularized by Roy Weatherby tends to disappear. That was the by-product of bullets that acted like varmint loads on big game. A tougher bullet, especially one of the super-penetrators, does not provide the same explosive effect, even at striking velocities well over 3,000 fps.

Many of these new boomers kick so viciously that their owners feel compelled to use muzzle brakes. If you have a brake on your favorite magnum, fine, but be aware they raise muzzle blast by 30 percent or even more, endangering your hearing even when using ear protection. (Many cite the fact that brakes only raise the decibel level a few points. They are unaware that the decibel scale is logarithmic, like the Richter earthquake scale, which means that 140 decibels are approximately twice as loud as 130.)

For most mortals 300 yards is a long shot. At that distance ordinary cartridges with extraordinary bullets will do the job on anything smaller than Cape buffalo. Many hunters seem to be leery of using such bullets when they might run into a variety of game, whether mule deer and elk in the Rockies, Dall sheep and moose in Alaska or impala and kudu in Africa. They theorize that tough bullets won’t open up on smaller game, especially in smaller calibers, but I’ve tried all three on game lighter than 200 pounds with fine results.

Last fall I took a 7mm-08 to an Arkansas farm where several gun writers were assigned the task of culling whitetail does. The biggest weighed 130 pounds on the hoof, and quite a few weighed less than 100, so these were not big, macho deer. My load was a new Federal factory round using the 140-grain Trophy Bonded. Early in its life the Trophy Bonded did have something of a reputation for erratic light-game and low-velocity expansion, but Federal now makes them at its Minnesota factory and has evidently overcome the problem. I took two does out of one field on the second evening of the hunt, with just about the same bullet placement. One dropped at the shot, while the other ran about 80 yards into the woods, which was no problem since the bullet opened up wide to provide an excellent blood trail.

In fact, I’ve found all three super-penetrators to provide a reliable blood trail more often than any other type of bullet, which can be helpful even when game doesn’t go more than 50 yards. While on average they might not drop deer as instantaneously as a Ballistic Tip, I’ve never had any animal go more than 100 yards after taking a Barnes X-Bullet, Fail Safe or Trophy Bonded through the ribs - and a good percentage dropped where they were hit.

What this means is that we now have such fine bullets, both in handloads and factory loads, that light-kicking calibers will provide all- around big game performance. So why shoot hard-kicking calibers? Some people like to get kicked. I can understand this to a certain extent, since when I played football in my teens I liked to hit people hard enough that I gained a reputation as perhaps the surest 130-pound tackler in town. And when I fired my first .338s and .375s in my mid-30s, the back-thump seemed rather satisfying. I know no women who profess to like hard-kicking rifles (though some shoot .375s and even .416s when they feel it necessary), but some men evidently do enjoy an almost unlimited level of big-bore pain. That’s great. Everybody should have a hobby they enjoy.

Most of us, however, aren’t like that. My own tolerance lies somewhere around the .416 Rigby or a fairly heavy .458. Over the years I’ve found anything much bigger tends to jam my grip-hand thumb back into the right lens of my eyeglasses, resulting in a semicircular dent in my cheekbone and nose. This hurts. The solution is to lay my thumb alongside the grip, but that isn’t the best way to control a real hard-kicker, and I tend to forget anyway. So over the same years I have gained enough sense not to shoot anything much bigger than a .416.

The biggest rifle I ever fired was a wildcat variation of the .505 Gibbs weighing about 10 pounds. The owner’s handloads started a 525-grain bullet at over 2,500 fps. It did not feel good. Last fall I had the chance to shoot a Rigby double in .600 Nitro Express. At first I wanted to, in much the same way I wanted to tackle 190-pound running backs when I was 17, but after some reflection I decided life would be complete without the experience.

Part of the reason for that unusual bit of rational thought is that I’m getting older. This doesn’t necessarily mean we grow wiser, but I suspect it means we enjoy recoil less. My friend Dave Petzal, rifle columnist for Field & Stream, warned me of this about a dozen years ago, when I first got into shooting big “magnum” rifles. At the time I was in my mid-30s, Dave in his late 40s. Now I am in my late 40s and find it true. I still don’t mind the kick of my 7 1/2-pound .338 but am finding less reason for shooting it at game, especially with 250-grain bullets. Partly that’s because I rather agree with Robert Ruark, who said that if you’ve done it once or maybe twice, shove off and let the other fellow at the game. I have a nice Alaskan moose and a nice African eland, both taken with the .338, and don’t really feel the need for more moose or eland. What other nondangerous game really requires more than a .30-06? The next time I go to Alaska or Africa I’ll probably take a 7x57mm Mauser, unless there’s a brown bear or Cape buffalo involved.

Back when I was more enthusiastic about magnum-type rifles, I used to snort at the mention of “efficient” cartridges. Bob Milek, the late gun writer from Wyoming, was especially fond of such rounds, often hunting elk with a .257 Roberts or .25-06, citing both their light recoil and money saved through smaller powder charges. I just shook my head. Even at $16 a pound, how much does another 25 grains of powder cost? Another nickel a round, a whole buck per 20-round box?

Now I know what Bob meant. The 75 grains of powder we pour into a .300 Winchester Magnum case results in a lot more kick. Newton’s law does apply to recoil, but much of the kick we feel does not reach the game we shoot. A lot of magnum recoil comes from the rocket-effect of all that powder. A .300 Winchester Magnum kicks twice as hard as the little .308 WCF but only adds 10 percent more velocity, and a .308 loaded with the right 165-grain bullet will take any nondangerous game in the world, even moose and eland. I have friends who have done it with one shot.

So as I’ve grown older and bullets grown better, efficient little cartridges seem more attractive. The best are those with the smallest powder capacity when compared to their bore. Among these are some of the oldest smokeless cartridges: .250 Savage, 7x57mm Mauser, .375 H&H. All kick relatively mildly for the results they achieve, whether on deer, elk or buffalo. Part of the reason is the hunters who shoot them don’t flinch and so put the bullet in the sticking place. In some circles it isn’t fashionable to shoot such mild cartridges, but anybody who tells you they don’t work has been reading too many comic books, or possibly another magazine.

Propellant Profiles
Home  |  Magazine Subscription Information  |  Shopping / Sporting Goods  |  Back Issues  |  Loaddata  |  Advertising  |  Contact Us  |  Gun Links
Wolfe Publishing Company
Wolfe Publishing Company 2180 Gulfstream Suite A Prescott, Arizona 86301    Call Us Toll-Free 1.800.899.7810