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Big Game Rifle
Rifle Magazine
August - September 2000
Volume 35, Number 4
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 206
On the cover...
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
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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 guy nuts?!?

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 shooter’s, 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? I’m 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 of physics.

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 Weatherby’s 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 doesn’t 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 Dave’s 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 Dave’s 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.

Awesome Art
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