|July - August 2000
Volume 32, Number
The Weatherby .280 Remington was produced in the W
Theres 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 writers 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 dont 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
cant 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 Ive tried to do this, which has led to some different conclusions
One is that there isnt 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 dont 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 cant really shoot
anything bigger than a .30-06 but wont 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,
Jacksons melancholy lifted. But many of his hunters carrying shiny new magnums
couldnt 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 wont 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. Heidis lost count of the bears
and bulls shes 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 its 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 doesnt puncture vitals. Thats 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
wont open up on smaller game, especially in smaller calibers, but Ive 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, Ive 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 doesnt go more than 50 yards. While on
average they might not drop deer as instantaneously as a Ballistic Tip, Ive 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. Thats
great. Everybody should have a hobby they enjoy.
Most of us, however, arent
like that. My own tolerance lies somewhere around the .416 Rigby or a fairly heavy .458.
Over the years Ive 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 isnt
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 owners 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 Im getting older. This doesnt 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 dont 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 thats because I rather agree with Robert Ruark, who said
that if youve 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
dont 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 Ill
probably take a 7x57mm Mauser, unless theres 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
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.
Newtons 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
So as Ive 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 dont flinch and so put the bullet in the sticking place. In
some circles it isnt fashionable to shoot such mild cartridges, but anybody who
tells you they dont work has been reading too many comic books, or possibly another