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Big Game Rifle
Rifle Magazine
December - January 2001
Volume 36, Number 6
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 214
On the cover...
In its heyday, the Browning Model 71 in .348 Winchester was considered potent bear medicine. See page 34 for updated loads. Grizzly photo by Jeffrey Rich.
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In a recent conversation with a friend and fellow gun writer, we discussed the countless times we have heard or read about riflemen who were able to knock big game down, such as elk, with a 7mm or .30-caliber magnum. Certainly there is some “push” or energy with bullet impact, but it is not nearly enough to take a large animal off its feet.

Several years ago a friend dropped by and challenged me on this position. After filling grain bags with 700 pounds of sand, about the same as a fully mature Idaho bull elk, they were hoisted into a large tree to hang freely at the end of a rope. I invited him to fire away with any of his magnum rifles and see just how far he could “knock ‘em.”

Obviously the expanding bullets of his 7mm and .300 Winchester Magnums were not penetrating through the bags. In other words, the bags were absorbing all the bullet’s so-called “energy,” and their movement was nil. I watched with a grin concealed (as best I could) as my friend removed the bolt and peered down the bore, probably just to see if the bullets were getting out the end of the barrel, and fired again and again in an effort to get the bags to swing. Several bags were taken down to get the weight closer to that of a deer, but the results were basically the same. If we had a rifle cartridge with enough power to make the bags swing to any appreciable degree, I for one would hesitate to shoot it, as it would produce severe recoil.

What commonly puts animals down instantly is a tremendous shock to the nervous system, which certainly makes it appear as though they have been “knocked off” their feet. While other factors enter the picture, this shock is usually a combination of penetration and the size or diameter of the wound channel. If a bullet fails to penetrate deep enough, or fails to reach the vitals, shock to the nervous system is limited and game is needlessly wounded.

Obviously this is a handgun column and some readers are probably wondering what the above comments have to do with a handgun. Basically, if we are going to hunt the same big game with a handgun that we do with a modern rifle, the same principles of sufficient penetration and size of wound channel also apply.

If we measure hunting handguns’ effectiveness based on foot pounds of energy (ft-lbs), even the big .454 Casull appears rather puny as it develops between 1,600 to 1,871 ft-lbs. This is very similar to the little .250 Savage at 1,765 ft-lbs or the varminter’s favorite, the little .22-250 Remington with 1,654 ft-lbs. This form of comparing is a big mistake and certainly unfair for all cartridges mentioned.

To illustrate why this is a poor example of measuring effectiveness, let’s glance quickly at the .22-250 Remington and the .45-70, two of our most popular rifle cartridges. The standard load in the former cartridge drives a 55-grain bullet at 3,680 fps for 1,654 ft-lbs, while the .45-70 drives a 405-grain bullet at 1,330 fps for a mere 1,590 ft-lbs. The .22-250 kills small game and varmints like dynamite but is a lousy choice for elk, moose or big bears, which is where the .45-70 thrives, as it offers deep penetration and easily breaks heavy bone.

A revolver with a typical barrel between 4 to 7 1/2 inches and firing a straight-walled case cannot pretend to be a bottleneck rifle cartridge. In other words, even if we select a lightweight, expanding bullet for a given caliber and push it as fast as is safe, it is still very slow with a high trajectory when compared to a modern rifle cartridge. And its short, fat shape will shed velocity like it has a parachute attached, at least until it slows to the speed of sound. Worst of all, penetration is usually very limited, which is fine for taking small to medium game but has no practical application when hunting larger species. An example would include a 180-grain jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) pushed to around 1,600 fps from a  .44 Magnum. By comparison, today’s run-of-the-mill rifle cartridges commonly achieve speeds of around, or beyond, 3,000 fps and feature a long, sleek bullet to help retain downrange velocity and assure reliable expansion, which is required to make dependable kills.


Like the .45-70, a big-bore sixgun possesses a couple of qualities that often annoy dedicated riflemen and is what makes them effective on big game - caliber and bullet weight. If we are using a .44 Magnum, .45 Colt or .454 Casull, the caliber is already as large as many .25-, .28- or .30-caliber rifle cartridges hope to expand to, and the bullet weight is generally heavier. So the focus should then be on using a bullet that will offer sufficient penetration to easily reach through vitals and break bone as needed.

Since cast bullets have been around as long as sixguns, it seems appropriate to begin our discussion with them. They are indeed a solid and, if cast hard, will penetrate deeply through heavy bone and muscle like there is no tomorrow. Since the .44 Magnum has become “the .30-06” of hunting handguns, it will be used as our example.

Generally, if we push a 250-grain Keith style bullet to 1,400 fps, cast fairly hard with a Brinell hardness number (BHN) of 17 or 18, penetration is between 28 to 36 inches on heavy game. This will vary depending on bone structure and the type of tissue encountered. For comparison, the .270 Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum or .30-06 with expanding bullets, even super-duper premium bullets, only penetrates approximately 14 to 22 inches on similar bone/muscle structure. If we take the same .44 Magnum with a Keith bullet and decrease the velocity to 1,000 fps, penetration is reduced but not by a big margin. If deeper penetration is desired, a heavyweight cast bullet weighing 300 to 320 grains is the next logical choice.

A cast bullet of proper design, preferably with a generous flatnose or meplat, can best be described as “old reliable,” as it always penetrates deeply, while creating a large, permanent wound channel. This delivers the necessary blow to the nervous system and quickly depletes the blood supply. For these reasons, cast bullets are always a top choice, particularly for larger game.

This brings us to jacketed expanding bullets. Many of the early designs, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, were very poor as they either didn’t expand or fragmented and failed to offer reliable penetration. Today this picture has changed dramatically, and there are several outstanding designs that are worthy hunting bullets.

The magnificent whitetail deer is the most hunted big game animal in the U.S. He is lively and could be described as wiry, as he has been known to travel long distances even after taking a vital hit from a powerful cartridge. Lung shots are never a mistake, and expanding bullets seem to anchor them faster than cast bullets. For this application the Hornady XTP is a top choice, as it will generally penetrate completely on broadside shots and destroy large portions of soft tissue. The Speer Gold Dot softpoint is also a good choice but is limited to .44 and .475 calibers.

When the game becomes larger, such as elk or moose, tougher bullets must be used to assure adequate penetration. The Nosler Partition, Barnes X-Bullet and Speer Plated Soft Point are all worthy choices and were designed with such applications in mind. Penetration is generally about two-thirds as deep as a comparable cast bullet but will usually open a slightly larger wound channel.

Whichever bullet style is selected, just make certain it offers enough penetration to easily reach and pass through the vitals of the game being hunted. It will surprise your rifle-toting friends at just how reliable your pet sixgun will put down big game.

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