Hunting Tactics: Select The Correct Calibre

Your definitive guide to selecting the correct calibre for the game you hunt.

 

Undoubtedly, the question of which calibre may be the optimum choice for this or that big game animal has generated more debate and campfire discussion than all but a few topics — a subject, perhaps, even more hotly debated than what specie is the most difficult to hunt!

While recent figures from the Boone and Crockett Club indicate that the .300 Magnums were the most utilized calibres over the past three years in harvesting record book trophies, does that mean they are the ultimate choice? The .300 Magnums occupied top spot with 18 per cent. While not an earth-shattering percentage, in today’s world of unlimited choices, it is still noteworthy. I certainly thought so back in the early ‘60s when, the year after Winchester first introduced their .300 Winchester Magnum, I bought one. I used it for every thing from moose to coyotes. What a fine cartridge! I was able to load grain sizes from 130-grain mega speedsters for coyotes to 220-grain heavy weights for moose and bear. But alas, coyote hunting was its ultimate downfall, as the barrel began to erode with all the rounds I pushed down it. But that wasn’t its only downside because, as a predator rifle, I was totally over-gunned leaving many of the hides all but beyond repair. Consequently, I soon began to ponder an alternative.

During the ensuing years having hunted a multitude of species with an array of calibres, I concluded that while there are any number of quality calibres out there, no one calibre is perfect for every situation. And, conversely, there are a goodly number of calibres that will do a very fine job on a wide range of species. Accompanying this epiphany was the additional realization that there exists on this subject as wide a range of opinions as there are hunters. From hunters who believe that big and slow is the way to go to those who are convinced that when velocity is combined with the right bullet, you need look no further. A good example of the latter philosophy was Roy Weatherby who, in the mid-1940s, contributed to ushering in the era of the modern magnum rifle. He believed that lighter bullets pushed at super speed combined to create hydrostatic shock that resulted in instant one shot kills. The eventual outcome was the many fine Weatherby Magnum cartridges that exist today, of which I have owned my fair share.

The phenomenon of hydrostatic shock is not something that Roy, or those who follow in his wake, dreamed up in their spare time. It is a reality that I have witnessed on many an occasion.

At this point, you may ask, “where is this all leading?” The short answer is that a variety of factors contribute to an effective kill. We all know about foot-pounds of energy and that 1,000-foot pounds of energy is generally accepted as the minimum required to effectively kill a deer; a reasonable minimum number that big game calibres readily attain. For example, even a .243 can deliver twice that level of energy at the muzzle. Two other factors form critical building blocks in this equation of calibre selection and they are shot placement and bullet performance. Both, in my view, are every bit as important as calibre selection and, in many instances, may outweigh the size of the hole at the end of the barrel. I will, however, qualify this by adding that the size of the animal being hunted, the terrain they are being hunted in, and the danger one may face in hunting that animal must also be factored into the selection process.

In my opinion, there is no better place to gain an understanding of all these elements than Africa. Based on access to sheer numbers, variety and size of species, tenacity, and last, the potential risk associated with hunting a number of African species, makes for an ideal location to analyze calibre performance.

On my first African safari I took a dozen species of plains game ranging in size from the small duiker to kudu (an elk sized animal) with nothing more than a beloved and accurate .270 Winchester. During that entire safari I never felt under gunned other than on one occasion when we encountered a herd of Cape buffalo and was offered the opportunity by the Professional Hunter to have a go at a fine bull, which I quickly declined for lack of firepower. On my next safari I packed both a .30-06 and a .458 Winchester magnum. The ‘06 handled all the plains game with nary a hiccup and the .458 put a fine Cape buffalo on the ground with a single shot. On a follow up safari, the ‘06 was all I needed for game as diverse as the bush loving nyala to the open plains and desert dwelling gemsbok. On another, I used a .375 H&H for the entire safari taking a variety of plains game as large as an eland bull and as potentially dangerous as a cantankerous old bull hippo and a leopard. I would be remiss, however, if I did not add that not all went well with the eland bull. (That despite the use of a .375 H&H Magnum, which one would assume was more than sufficient for an eland bull.) Unfortunately, because of the heavy foliage, the shot was a tad further back behind the front shoulder than I would have liked and, as a result, we tracked that bull for the better part of a kilometre before I was able to pile it up from a number of additional direct on point shoulder shots. That was one tough critter — .375 H&H Magnum or not. The lesson here was that despite the best of calibre choices, precise shot placement is still critical.

On my most recent safari I harvested a half dozen species of plains game as large as a Mountain zebra with a .280 Remington. None required a follow shot. Leaving me to conclude that for the majority of African species of 700 pounds or less, where no danger to the hunter is involved, the .270, .280, .30-06-class cartridges with the right bullet and shot placement were certainly adequate and because I felt comfortable and confident shooting them, deadly.

One may conclude that this is well and good — but what about our critters here in North America? I have used a goodly number of calibres to take the majority of North American big game. Calibres that range from a .243 Winchester to a .416 Remington Magnum and would have to conclude that the same general principal applies here as well as it did in Africa. However, somewhat surprising, is that despite owning and using a variety of fire breathing magnums from a .257 Weatherby to the .458 Winchester Magnum, I have never felt the need to take most as my weapon of choice to the far corners of the globe. That is, of course, except for the big bores on dangerous game but I used them quite extensively here in North America. So let’s take a look at my calibre recommendations for North American big game. They are based on a number of factors that include their size, their danger to you the hunter, the type of terrain they inhabit, bullet selection, and availability of ammunition.

Antelope

Shots can be long so my recommendations here are going to favour a number of flat shooters. I would put the .243 Winchester at the short end of a list that includes the .25-06, .257 Weatherby, .270s including both the .270 Winchester Short Magnum and the .270 Weatherby Magnum and the 7mm Magnums.

Bears

We have access to a variety of bears and bear hunting including black, Alaskan brown, polar and grizzly bears and one thing they all have in common is that they can kill you. Polar and Alaskan brown bear can also exceed 1,000 pounds and all should not be taken lightly. So, my calibres of choice are going to tend to be of sufficient firepower to get the job done and are as follows:

  • Black bear: .30-06 or .338 Federal
  • Grizzly bear: 300 Winchester Magnum or .338 Winchester Magnum
  • Polar and Alaskan brown bear: .375 Ruger or 375 H&H Magnum

Bison

Because of their sheer size that can exceed a ton, they should be categorized separately. Here I would opt for a .375 Ruger or a .416 Remington Magnum.

Caribou

Depending of the terrain and subspecies, my suggested options include: .270 Winchester, .270 Winchester Short Magnum .280 Remington, 7mm Magnums, .30-06 and the .300 Magnums.

Deer

Because the terrain can vary so greatly from dense woods to open alpine vistas, I will broaden my suggested options for deer. They include the .25-06, .270s to 7mms (including the Magnums), .280 Remington, .308 Winchester, .30-06 and the .300 Winchester Short Magnum. Specifically for whitetail in heavy cover and out of sheer nostalgia, I might add the .30-30.

Elk

Because to the terrain they inhabit I like a calibre that can reach out across an alpine meadow and put a bull on the ground. Options include: 7mm Magnums, .300 Magnums and the .338 Magnums .

Musk Oxen

Musk Oxen are often shot at close range but because of their size I would suggest a .300 Magnum or a .338 Magnum.

Moose

Despite being a large animal they generally don’t go that far if hit properly, so my options are a bit more diverse. Don’t get me wrong, a trapper buddy of mine was almost killed by a wounded moose so they still can’t be taken lightly. Suggested options include: 7 mm Magnums, .30-06 with 180-grain bullet, .300 Magnums and the .338 Winchester Magnum.

Sheep & Mountain Goat

Mountain terrain that can test the conditioning of any hunter suggests a rifle that can readily be carried in and out of sheep and goat country. So opt for a mountain type rifle of a calibre that you can shoot effectively. I like either a  .270 Winchester Short Magnum, .280 Remington or the .300 Winchester Short Magnum for this hunt.

This is by no means intended to be a complete list of the many fine cartridges that can be used to hunt the varied species we have on this continent but are those I would not hesitate to utilize for the species listed. Then, lastly, during the selection process bear in mind that while calibre selection is important, pick one that you are comfortable shooting because at the end of the day a misplaced shot, no matter what the calibre, and you will not bring home those elk steaks.

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