The Gut-Wrenching Nightmare of Caliber Worship

By Randy Wakeman

There is a trend of touting calibers, cartridges and gauges for their own sake. Not based on any empirical evidence or scientific basis, but emotional knee-jerk attempted defense of what we own or, more likely, just bought. All too often, what is attempted to be defended is indefensible.

The optimum caliber cannot not be precisely defined anymore than we can define the optimum cubic centimeter cylinder is for a motor vehicle. Many variations have worked, and worked well. Beyond successful completion of a task, there is little else that matters.

Part of the human condition is that we make an emotional investment in our hardware. We allow a caliber, cartridge, or specific firearm to define us rather than the other way around. It is understandable, as many of us are happy to say we are a "Bud-man," a "Harley-man," a "Swaro kind of guy," or a variety of other tenuous ways of describing nothing in particular. Though we talk of "inherent accuracy" (a dubious concept, indeed), few would attempt defining it, only parroting that it exists.

We take the same path in using unsophisticated terms to describe sophisticated events. "Knock-down" is one, a physically impossible concept that is never the less widely used. The same strained, tortured approach is used to define "kinetic energy" and "energy transfer." Autopsies are not fun reads; nor are obituaries. We will search long and hard to find a medical report that lists "kinetic energy" as the cause of death.

Surely, after all these years, there must be one recorded instance where a human being lost his life to a sudden gust of kinetic energy? Yet, medical journals are generally void of energy and velocity as causes of death. Perhaps it is because neither ever is. Those waiting for the Surgeon General to alert us to avoid kinetic energy exposure are in for a very long wait, indeed.

There are an estimated 30 million deer in North America. Hunters tag some 5-6 million every year, so we must be doing something right. There are another 1.5 million deer-vehicle accidents per year; I'd imagine the Buick / Bambi lethality percentage is quite high. We have another 1 million or so deer that are poached every year. (There are no official numbers on that, obviously.) We have yet other, unclaimed, wounded or gut-shot deer in North America that die due to wanton waste. More deer are taken by depredation permits in certain areas.

Some 9-10 million deer a year dying from causes other than "natural." Still the deer populations grow, as does the average annual deer harvest. Every year, we intentionally kill over 6 million deer. Most rational people would call this more than a trivial sampling, or simple phone survey. By now, we should certainly know what causes a deer to die--and, we do.

Unfortunately, it is not the one word answer that everyone seems to want: "velocity kills, energy kills, expansion kills, sectional density kills, caliber kills., bullet weight kills." We really should know by now that there is no simplistic answer to a complex question.

Anyone that has taken a first year biology course can identify the vital organs of a mammal. Remove or destroy a vital organ, the animal perishes. From the medical autopsies on deer, the videotaped killing and subsequent medical autopsies on live deer, hogs, mules, goats, we have learned a few things. We know that no two wild animals are exactly alike. Animals are individuals, with wide variances in strength, health, and the will to live. What may instantly drop a certain deer may not do the same on a deer of similar size and shape.

Not only are all wild animals different, but no two wound cavities are identical. Same rifle, same range, same bullet, same shot placement, yet a different wounding profile. Always.

It should strike us as a bit silly when the tissue simulants we use are concocted to be the SAME as that living tissue, whether calibrated ballistic gelatin, soaked phone books, putty, soap, soil, water, and the endless variants. None of them have circulation, respiration, or even bones. It is never enough; have you made a "Ballistic Buffalo" yet? No tissue simulant known yet can approximate the elastic characteristics of living tissue, or can accommodate health, age, and the individual will to survive into any precise model.

We will continue to worship velocity, expansion, energy, section density and other fragmented parts of the equation as always. We should really know better. It is not that there aren't trends associated with all of these components; there are. That they are components of a far broader, more complex picture is what they must be logically understood. This may be confusing the issue with common sense; but so be it.

Little distinction can be made between a .257 caliber diameter projectile expands to 140% of its original diameter (.3598 in.), penetrates ten inches vs. a .308 caliber projectile that expands by only half that amount (becoming .3696 in.) and penetrates the same distance. Except the crushed tissue cavity formed by the .308 would be a small bit larger, and more effective.

To be more dramatic, a .223 (.224 in. diameter) bullet that doubles in size to .448 still is smaller than the old 45-70 begins at: .458. Repeatable expansion of the exact percentage shot after shot essentially never exists. The simple fact is that no two shots are alike, and no two animals are alike. Therefore no two wound profiles can possibly be alike.

For as many spectacular (read, "surprising") anecdotal kills by the .220 Swift there are far more unsatisfactory results, both anecdotal and documented. It is an amazing cartridge, though, and the "fastest commercial cartridge in the world in 1935" is still the fastest today, if only by a few fps. There is a limit as to be what can reasonably expected from a 55 grain pill, regardless of how exemplary its refinement.

Ex-battlefield surgeon Martin Fackler, M.D., Duncan MacPherson, Elmer Keith, Jack O'Connor, Charles Askins, the FBI-Quantico Ballistics Engineer Paul Von Rosenburg, and Dr. Gary "Doc" White, have all universally embraced longer, heavier bullets as producing more reliable, repeatable results, given satisfactory penetration.

What we are left with at present is the spectacularly boring concept of adequacy. It is has been said in different ways over and over again over the last 100 years, and proven for at least that long as well on the game fields, that the entire genre of .270 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .308 and variants, and the 7mm Rem. Mag. all do pretty much the same thing. The difference is more our own ability to accurately place a shot based our familiarity with rifle, cartridge, trajectory, our own self-control, and our attention to proper bullet selection for specific game size, toughness, and impact velocity.

There are very few recorded instances out of tens of millions of examples where an appropriate bullet with proper shot placement from anything in the .308 to 7mm Rem. Mag. genre has failed to do its job on anything with hooves.

The romance of the caliber can be enticing, but as the ghost of Jack O'Connor would affirm, they all do just about the same thing. It is all in how you use them.

Anyone who believes that a short magnum, ultra magnum, or any other cartridge variant automatically yields any substantial benefit in the field is taking severe liberties with history, physics, and common sense. The touting of a specific caliber or cartridge for normal big game hunting use is indefensible; it has never been supported by solid empirical evidence. Bullet selection and shot placement have always dwarfed the touting of individual cartridges; this remains demonstrably true today.

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Copyright 2006, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.