Do We Really Need .300 Magnums for Hunting Foreign Game?

By Chuck Hawks

I was recently informed by a Guns and Shooting Online reader that many younger, less experienced hunters were purchasing magnum caliber rifles, particularly .300's and sundry Ultra Mags. This was confirmed by the manager of a local sporting goods store. Our reader wrote that:

"I see many of the younger guys buying the heavy guns. They don't buy the big bang because they are enamored with recoil, or even to be able to reach out and touch an animal at farther than normal ranges. Rather, some buy them because, with the price of guns today, they don't have the opportunity to have guns of differing calibers. In addition, some of the younger guys I talk to say, 'You know, I can go to Africa for the price of a good elk hunt in the states." For that reason, they look to buy a gun that suffices for more than one continent. This past week I went to a hunting convention and several of the guys are looking to go to New Zealand to hunt red stag. With the magnums they feel adequately gunned and can shoot reduced power loads for smaller game at home."

I had never thought of that as an explanation for the current run of magnum popularity, because it is based on incorrect assumptions about the size and toughness of foreign game, not to mention the suitability of big cases for reduced power reloads. However, a less experienced hunter might think that this line of reasoning makes sense. So, let's take a closer look, beginning with the size of foreign game compared to North American game and appropriate rifle cartridges for each.

The red stag is hunted primarily in Europe, but also in New Zealand, Australia and South America. It is a smaller relative of our North American elk. Stag can run from about 250 to 600 pounds, with a mature bull stag probably averaging about 400 pounds on the hoof. That makes them about 25% smaller than the average Rocky Mountain bull elk and perhaps 33% smaller than a mature Roosevelt elk. Standard cartridges along the lines of the .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .308 Winchester and .30-06 are virtually perfect for such game. Of course, that is assuming proper bullets and good shot placement, but those are required regardless of what caliber rifle is used. No end of North American elk have been killed using these calibers, so there can be no question that they are more than adequate for harvesting the smaller red stag.

The largest European hoofed animal is the Scandinavian moose (alg). This is a smaller cousin of our North American moose, about the size of our Shiras moose or Roosevelt elk and noticeably smaller, on average, than our Alaskan moose. A great many of these animals are harvested annually in Scandinavia, usually at moderate range, by hunters using 6.5x55 caliber rifles. Other popular alg calibers include the 7x64 Brenneke, .308 Winchester, .30-06, 8x57 and sundry other European 8mm cartridges. A .300 Magnum cartridge, and certainly an Ultra Magnum, is simply unnecessary.

Over the years, I have read a lot about the size and durability of African game and I believe that, in the minds of many North American hunters, African game has achieved nearly mythical status. Many African outfitters and professional hunters, as well as their thoroughly impressed clients, perpetrate this legend by vociferously proclaiming the toughness of African animals. Unfortunately, very few of these African PH's have ever hunted in North American and they have no basis of comparison for reaching such a conclusion. It is just a self-perpetuating myth.

The truth is that most African hoofed game is no larger than equivalent North American game. There are many species of African antelope, ranging in size from 10 pound dik dik to 1400 pound bull eland. The latter is as big as an Alaskan bull moose. Kudu, perhaps the most sought after of the large African antelope, are about the size of North American elk. Oryx/gemsbok are about the size of European red stag (already discussed above). The majority, however, are no larger than the various species of North American deer and feral hogs. The famous impala, for example, is about the size of our pronghorn antelope.

Suitable "all-around" African hunting cartridges are the same as suitable all-around North American cartridges. Standard numbers such as the .270 Winchester, 7x57 Mauser, 7x64 Brenneke, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .303 British and 8x57 Mauser are popular with resident African hunters. One of my South African PH friends, for example, regards the 7x57 as the best of the all-around African hunting cartridges.

Another little known fact (in North America) is that the .243 Winchester is very popular with hunters who live in South Africa. It is one of the best selling cartridges in that country, just as it is in North America. The ubiquitous .223 Remington and 7.62x39 Soviet are also widely used to harvest animals all across Africa, although neither is particularly suitable for hunting either African or North American big game. These are facts that should speak volumes to anyone who chooses to listen with an open mind.

There are, of course, some very large and dangerous animals in Africa, in particular the hippo, rhino and elephant. Unfortunately, most African safaris no longer include these animals, as they are scarce in many areas and licenses are very expensive. When available, these animals are properly hunted with very powerful cartridges along the lines of the .375 H&H (the usual minimum recommendation) or .458 Winchester Magnums. They are definitely beyond the purview of even the largest small bore magnums.

The most commonly hunted of all large, dangerous African game is the Cape buffalo. A mature Cape buffalo bull (weighing around 1000 pounds) is a big bovine, but quite a bit smaller than a full grown North American bison or Asian water buffalo (both run around 1600 pounds). All of these big and potentially dangerous bovines should be taken with powerful medium and big bore rifles such as the 9.3mm, .375, .40 and .45 calibers. The small bore magnum cartridges, including all of the 7mm, .300 and 8mm numbers, might get the job done (so have the 6.5x54, 7x57 and .303 British!), but they are not really suitable, recommended, or even legal in most African jurisdictions. The idea of using a .300 Magnum on outsize dangerous game is therefore a non-starter.

That leaves the dangerous African big cats, principally lion and leopard. The South American jaguar would be in the same general class, as would the Asian tiger, although the latter is a protected species almost everywhere. The leopard is about the size of our North American cougar and an average jaguar weighs about 200 pounds. An average mature male lion might scale 330 pounds and a very large male lion or tiger might weigh as much as 500 pounds.

None of these big cats are nearly as large as the bears of North America. An average male black bear weighs about 300 pounds, larger than a lioness, while a large male can weigh as much or more than the biggest lion. An average mature male grizzly bear weighs about 700 pounds (about twice the size of the average mature lion), while giant brown and polar bears can run from 1000 pounds up to 1600 pounds in extreme cases. No African predators even come close to the larger North American bears in size.

All of these dangerous predators should be hunted with powerful rifles. The 7mm Remington Magnum and .30-06 are perfect for leopard and jaguar, and reasonable minimums for the others where legal. The .300 Magnums are suitable for hunting the big predators, so at last we have stumbled upon game for which they make sense. However, this is a rather specialized application, far removed from most big game hunting, and in many African countries a .375 is the legal minimum required for lion hunting. Granted, such laws make no sense, but the bottom line is that .300 Magnums are often not allowed for hunting the king of beasts. They are legal for hunting grizzly, brown and polar bear in North America, but this is domestic, not foreign, game.

While the .300 Magnums are adequate for the big predators (where legal), they are not necessarily ideal. Even better are medium bores such as the .338 Magnums and the various 9.3mm and .375 calibers. The medium bores are more effective than the small bore magnums at the moderate ranges (50-150 yards or meters) at which dangerous predators should be shot. Dangerous predators should never be engaged at long range, as the chance of a wounded animal escaping is too great. Therefore, the single biggest advantage of the 7mm, .300 and 8mm magnums (their flat trajectory) is not applicable to this class of game.

The reality is that the various .300 Magnums are actually rather specialized cartridges. They kick too hard to allow most hunters to do their best shooting and it is bullet placement, not raw energy, which results in quick, clean kills. The hunting "window" for which .300 Magnums in general and Ultra Mags in particular are very well suited is actually rather small.

They can be loaded down to reduce recoil and increase versatility, but it is more difficult to produce reliable and consistent reduced power loads in a big case than in a smaller case. This is because the reduced powder charge leaves in too much empty space in the big case, which leads to erratic ignition and powder burn. An Ultra Mag is actually the worst candidate for reliable and accurate reduced power loads. Standard capacity magnum cases, such as the .300 WSM or .300 Winchester Magnum, are better candidates for reduced power loads than the larger .30-378 Weatherby or .300 Ultra Mags. Likewise, it is easier to work up reliable and accurate reduced recoil loads in a .308 or .30-06 size case than in a standard length magnum case. The bottom line here is that if you anticipate loading down to control recoil, start with the smallest possible case.

In conclusion, upon examination, none of the arguments in favor of the .300 Magnums mentioned at the beginning of this article actually hold much water. The hunter seeking a versatile big game cartridge suitable for hunting all over the world would do well to look elsewhere.

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Copyright 2008 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.