Do I Need a Magnum Rifle?

By Chuck Hawks

Winchester Model 70 Safari
Winchester Model 70 Safari rifle. Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co.

Let's start by stating that for the purpose of this article the term "magnum" refers to a big game rifle cartridge of .270 or larger bullet diameter based on a standard size belted magnum case (such as the .338 Win. Mag. case) or a non-belted case of similar or greater capacity. Standard belted magnum cases have a rim diameter of .532".

Cartridges like the .44 Remington Magnum, even when fired from a rifle, do not qualify under this definition. Neither does the very cute and effective .240 Weatherby Magnum ultra-long range cartridge, which is based on what is, in effect, a belted and blown-out .30-06 case. This article is about magnum calibers that begin with cartridges along the lines of the .270 Weatherby Magnum and go up in power and performance from there.

Some gun writers detest all magnum rifles and use a title like this article has to inveigh against the use of magnum calibers in general. Other writers never saw a new magnum cartridge that they didn't like. I'd better state at the outset that I don't fall into either of those camps. I own both magnum and standard caliber rifles, and I shoot both types regularly.

My position is that a magnum rifle should be used when a magnum caliber is appropriate for the game and hunting conditions. If a magnum caliber is not required, I'd rather use a standard caliber and save what is left of my shoulder and ears.

It is rare that a magnum rifle is required for hunting CXP2 game. These are, by definition, thin-skinned, non-dangerous, medium size animals like antelope, deer, sheep, caribou and goats. North American black bear and cougar are also usually classed as CXP2 game. Live weight of a CXP2 game animal seldom exceeds 350 pounds, and is usually considerably less.

No CXP2 game animal is beyond the capability of standard cartridges on the order of the 6.5x55, .270 Winchester, 7x57, .30-30, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .303 British, or 8x57, and most can be humanely taken with a .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington or .257 Roberts. The 6mm Remington, .25-06 and .270 Winchester shoot as flat as most popular magnum calibers, so a magnum isn't necessary to flatten trajectory for long shots at CXP2 game, either. It is a matter of principle that no shot should be fired at a game animal beyond the maximum point blank range (MPBR) of the cartridge used.

If an ultra-long range cartridge is required for hunting CXP2 game, small caliber magnums such as the .240 and .257 Weatherby Magnums will reach beyond the MPBR of even the .270 Winchester and 7mm Rem. Mag., which is about 300 yards. They extend the MPBR by about 20-30 yards. These are magnums, sure, but they are not the magnums with which this article is concerned. (For more on MPBR, see the "Expanded Rifle Trajectory Table" on the Tables, Charts and Lists Page.)

Where the magnum calibers really start to come into their own is for CXP3 game, particularly if they must be taken at longer than normal distances (beyond, say, 200 yards). CXP3 game includes large animals such as alg, elk, moose, kudu, eland, muskox, and similar size animals worldwide. Dangerous game of the same approximate size, in particular the great bears, are at the upper limit of standard cartridges like the .30-06, so powerful calibers like the .300 and .338 Magnums are definitely warranted.

CXP4 game (buffalo, rhino, hippo, elephant) is not only huge, it is potentially dangerous. The most powerful rifles and calibers are required, and almost all of them are magnums in terms of cartridge size and power, even if the word "magnum" is not part of their nomenclature. The .375 H&H Magnum, .416 Rigby, .458 Winchester Magnum, .450 Nitro Express, .470 NE and other cartridges of that ilk are definitely magnums for our purposes.

I hope that this little piece has helped to clarify, at least somewhat, what has become a murky subject. The print gun magazines, whose outside covers and inside articles become ever more gaudy and shrill and whose strangle hold on the reading public is threatened by electronic media like Guns and Shooting Online, are prone to tout every new magnum cartridge as if it were the answer to every hunter's dream. This has fostered the illusion among newer and less experienced hunters that magnum cartridges are desirable for hunting even the most innocuous creatures, like whitetail deer.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Let me summarize the utility of the big magnum cartridges this way:

For deer and other CXP2 game, including caribou and black bear, they are very seldom required or desirable. Stick with standard cartridges. For elk and most CXP3 game under about 200 yards they are not required, but the .270 to .338 caliber magnums are acceptable. For shooting CXP3 game at distances beyond 200 yards, these magnums are generally desirable. And for hunting dangerous CXP4 game the most powerful medium and big bore magnums, usually .375 and larger caliber, are practically required.

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