Choosing An Expert

By Chuck Hawks

I have been a recreational shooter for a long time (over 45 years--I must be getting old!), but never a professional shooter or professional hunter. I am not a gunsmith or a gun dealer; I do not distribute guns or shooting accessories, or derive any part of my income from the shooting sports. I have no financial stake of any kind in any of the views I express. I know a little bit about ballistics (interior, exterior, and terminal) because I have done some reading and some experimenting, but I am not a scientist. I am also not a "computer person" or much of a typist, either, which (believe me) is a big handicap.

Don't be intimidated by anyone's experience, including mine. There have been and still are a few good writers with vast experience in the firearms field. There are also plenty of plain old fools writing about guns and shooting and plenty of younger fools, as well. Gun writers, especially those who have to produce a regular column, love controversy. That column becomes a beast that must be fed every month, so the columnist is always hungry for something to write about and controversial ideas generate reader interest and response. Perhaps it is understandable if they sometimes go overboard. Just don't go overboard with them. "Buyer beware" is especially valid in the arena of ideas.

I hate to say it, because there is so much excellent information and original research published on the Internet, but there is also some atrociously bad information, distortions and outright lies. Especially in chat forums, bulletin boards, and the like. (Never accept anything you read in such places.) Be particularly wary of sites devoted to a particular, usually controversial, point of view. Test all opinions and allegations against known, verifiable data. Just because someone can write like an angel does not mean they know what they are writing about. Use common sense and your own experience as a "BS" filter.

Gun writers sometimes fall into the trap of believing so fervently in a particular concept (heavy bullets, high velocity rifles, .45 pistols, etc.) that they lose their objectivity. The big bore enthusiast, for example, may write (and believe) that any caliber less than .33 is incapable of killing anything larger than a deer cleanly, and "deer calibers" like the .270 or .308 are marginal even for those innocuous critters.

Some of the inflated prose written by the ultra-high velocity boys makes me want to snap my lunch. To the true believer a bullet traveling over 3000 fps when it hits the target kills like electrocution. The animal just stiffens and dies on the spot, his entire circulatory system blown by "hydrostatic shock." Bullet placement doesn't seem to make much difference, anywhere in the body will do. Intentionally gut shot deer die quicker than those shot squarely through the lungs with a standard velocity caliber. (These guys never accidentally put a bullet too far back, of course.) I wonder how many people believe this stuff, and how many deer run off to die a miserable death because of it?

Both the high velocity guys and the big bullet boys write that their favorites will stop a deer (or some other game animal) when the bullet isn't properly placed. That line of reasoning goes something like this: "Let's face it, not all bullets hit exactly where we aim them, and in those cases the ___ will anchor the animal where a lessor caliber will let him escape."

The problem is that one "expert" is arguing that it takes something like a .257 Weatherby to perform this miracle and the other "expert" is claiming that it takes at least a heavy medium bore bullet over .33 caliber to accomplish the same miracle. These are mutually exclusive claims.

I will tell you what I think. Disruption of vital functions kills animals. Massive destruction of organ tissue immediately necessary for life kills quickly. With any reasonable deer rifle caliber from .24 to .45, good bullet placement is what kills deer. If an adequate bullet that expands properly penetrates deep into where an animal lives he will stop living. If you shoot him in the guts, or the ham, or break a leg you are liable to have a problem regardless of the caliber with which you wound him. A good shot with a .30-30 will run up a long string of one shot kills, hardly ever requiring a finishing shot. A careless shooter with a .257 Weatherby or a .45-70 (both fine calibers, you understand) will litter the woods with wounded animals that are never recovered.

Be wary of any writer who uses some arcane "Formula" (rather than recognized standards) to estimate the killing power of big game rifles or the stopping power of self-defense pistols. Oddly, these formulas always seem to support the writer's particular prejudice, which is often contrary to the real world experience of mainstream shooters.

These writers generally belittle the usual standard of comparison, which is kinetic energy (normally expressed in "foot pounds," easily computed, and published in virtually every ammunition catalog), as a way to compare cartridges. They also typically ignore reams of real world data, an example of which would be the statistics on handgun stopping power based on the results of thousands of actual police shootings compiled by Ed Sanow and Evan Marshall.

These writers would have us believe that they have discovered the TRUTH, maybe a Magic Caliber Bullet, and their Formula proves it. The Formula is usually based on the mathematical manipulation of some combination of two or more factors such as momentum, diameter and weight, or the linear distance a bullet moves a pendulum or some other device when it strikes it. The result of the calculation is usually expressed using some arcane (and scientifically meaningless) terminology such as "pounds-feet," "KO units," "relative stopping power," "Incapacitation Index," a numerical "form factor," or something of the sort.

Dozens of these formulas have come and gone over the past 100 years or so and most of them have proven to have no particular correlation with any external reality. However, to the writer and his disciples--and some of these writers can be very convincing--the Formula is the only true method of comparing the power of cartridges.

Some gun writers are in the firearms business selling a product or a service, so you know where their sympathies lay. This doesn't mean that they are necessarily wrong, but they have a vested economic interest in promoting their ideas. I am skeptical of anyone offering opinions and advice from which he profits.

These guys are forever running "tests" to prove their point. If some writer selling, let us say, a proprietary .470 single shot pistol kills every species of antlered game in North America with an example of his handiwork, what does it really prove? Daniel B. Wesson did the same with a .357 Magnum revolver back in the 1930's when his company first introduced that caliber. Dan and our writer both probably put a reasonably adequate bullet into a vital area and the animals died. Big deal! The same animals would have also died from hits in the same places with similar bullets from a 7mm T/CU, 10mm Auto, .41 Magnum, 44 Magnum, or .454 Casull pistol.

Gun "field tests" in general prove nothing. Particularly the "tests" conducted during a single hunt on a game ranch somewhere. The usual scenario goes something like this. A gun writer for Hunting & Killing Magazine takes the latest Remchester .32 Super Magnum to a ranch with an over supply of exotic deer that weigh about 100 pounds on the hoof. He proceeds to blow away one or two of these pretty little animals at ranges between 100 and 200 yards with lung shots. He writes that the .32 Super Magnum kills deer like lightning. Golly! So does a .270 Winchester, .260 Remington or .30-30 with the same hits at the same range. The writer in question neglects to mention that.

He also forgets to mention that the 39 ft. lbs. of recoil generated by the new .32 Super Magnum in the light 7 pound synthetic rifle Remchester provided dislocated his shoulder when he tried to sight the thing in at the range and deafened him for 3 days after the hunt. What he wrote was that the recoil was "surprisingly tolerable." Sure it was!

If he had written the truth, that the new .32 Super Mag. wasn't a whit better deer killer at practical ranges than the 70 year old .300 Savage and that the flyweight, muzzle light new rifle kicked so hard that not one shooter in a hundred could hit anything with it in the field, the gun writer in question would be looking for a job in a different line of work about an hour after that issue hit the street.

One element in typical handgun tests has always amused me. The writers (who generally are fine shots) engage full-size cardboard cutouts that are shaped vaguely like people and shoot holes in them from about 7 yards away. Usually they time themselves and they invariable conclude that whatever pistol they were "testing" shot swell groups and passed with flying colors. Imagine that!

Most magazines have never met an advertiser that they didn't like. If you bought all of the products they hawk you not only would own every gun known to man, but you would also have a lawn tractor, a full head of hair, several prefabricated steel buildings, a library full of books on sniping and bomb making, a Nazi infantry helmet, some tasty beef jerky and a genuine Samurai sword with which to chop it up.

Some gun writers have such specialized areas of interest that they care little about recreational shooting in general. I know of one writer and authority on double guns, and a fine writer he is, who cares so little for autoloading rifles that he once stated that he would not care if they were all banned and confiscated by the government, as long as the authorities left his doubles alone! He knows little and cares less about modern rifles or handguns, and his opinions on subjects relating to these are practically worthless.

For myself, I enjoy guns and shooting, reading about guns and shooting and researching the subject. I have done a fair amount of these things. I own and shoot rifles, pistols and shotguns. I am uncomfortable with the idea of being considered an "expert" on guns and shooting because it is a very large field and I simply don't know enough about some areas of the subject to qualify as such.

I like to think I have an average amount of common sense and I try to keep my opinions reasonably logical. I research the articles I write. I do my best to present factual data in what I hope is a readable style. I try not to ride a particular hobbyhorse or wander out in left field with my views. In addition, I choose my experts wisely.

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Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.