Overgunned in the Northeast?

By Mike Hudson

OK, I'll say it: In the Northeastern United States, far too many hunters take to the field each year carrying way too much gun for the job at hand. Thousands of white tail deer, black bear and boar are literally shot to pieces by hunters using rifles more suited to stopping a charging grizzly or sniping at elk 400 yards away than to the relatively modest ranges, heavy cover and smaller game typical of the east.

Venerable old standards like the .30-30, .30-40 Krag, the 6.5mm Japanese and .303 British have been pushed aside as cheerleading gun writers assist rifle makers and ammunition companies in selling their latest flavor of the month to once-a-year big game men for whom the word "magnum" has some sort of magical connotation. In reality, 300 yards is a phenomenally long shot for the Northeast and the killing of a 500-pound animal would be a thing talked about for years to come. The short ranges and minimal energy requirements typical of the region can be inferred by the large and growing number of big game animals taken every year with handguns, shotguns, muzzle loaders and bows and arrows in the region.

But in deer camps from West Virginia to Maine, it's not uncommon to see hunters armed with rifles chambered for 7mm, .300 and even 8 mm magnums, the .450 Marlin or the various short magnum cartridges developed in recent years by both Winchester and Remington. Most of these are topped with 3x9 variable scopes, apparently in anticipation of the pronghorn antelope or mountain goat suddenly taking up residence in Connecticut.

The .30-06 and .270 are often seen as the bare minimum by guys who learned all they know from today's gun magazines, which often serve as little more than the public relations arm for the major firearms corporations.

Some of these tyros collect their trophies, but many more do not. And there are a number of reasons why, although the ear-splitting muzzle blast and brutal recoil are probably the chief culprits. It is precisely these characteristics that can lead to less range time and an increase in flinching on the part of the shooter. These, of course, result in missed opportunities and, even worse, wounded game animals.

In his excellent article on the effects of recoil, Chuck Hawks argues that 15 ft. lbs. of recoil energy represents the upper limit of the average shooter's comfort level. Crank that up to 20 ft. lbs., and serious flinching problems begin to occur. As torturers have known since the Spanish Inquisition, the anticipation of pain can often be worse than the pain itself.

Hawks' calculations confirm that rifles firing standard velocity cartridges in the .243-6.5mm range fall generally in the 9-to-13 ft. lb. class, very mild in comparison to the 7mm Remington Magnum's 15.5-to-21.7 ft. pounds, the .30-06's 17.6-to-20 ft. lbs. or the .300 Winchester Magnum's savage 23.5-to-30.9 ft. lbs. The slippery slope between somewhat uncomfortable and downright painful is a steep and swift one, regardless of what the hairy-chested magazine pundits tell you.

In the hilly and wooded country of Warren Co., Pennsylvania, the run-up to deer season was always an adventure. It began the night before the day before Opening Day, with the hunters arriving from Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo, and forming long lines at the various beer distributorships, taverns and liquor stores.

Area residents spent the evening making sure that all the dogs, cats, cattle and horses were safely indoors, because the next morning, starting maybe a half an hour before first light, a crackling fusillade began that didn't let up until after supper. Now, any seasoned hunter will tell you there are better times to zero in your scope than the day before the season opens, and when you're hung over to boot, but that was the way this invading hoard did it and many in the district had the bullet holes in the siding of their houses and automobiles to prove it.

Although the booze played its part, you had to wonder why these guys' rifles weren't sighted in to begin with. Although you could never get them to admit it, there's little doubt in my mind that the muzzle blast and recoil generated by the cannons they were lugging around eliminated much of the enthusiasm they might have had for visiting the range and getting some practice in during the off season.

The ascendancy of the magnum calibers for general use in the Northeast has also corresponded with the rise in statehouse initiatives to ban the use of rifles altogether, leaving hunters with nothing better than a slug-loaded shotgun with which to hunt.

A 180 grain slug from a .300 Magnum will indeed travel a lot farther and retain a lot more energy than a bullet of similar weight fired from a more practical rifle. And if, after missing its target, the bullet flies unencumbered, it may eventually hit a house or a car, a cow in the pasture or, God forbid, another hunter. The man who fired it might never even know about this unfortunate result. Next season, when he is forced into the deer woods using a gun better suited for duck hunting, he can grouse to his buddies about how the damned politicians are ruining the country.

Vice President Dick Cheney, a well-known sportsman, believes American foreign policy should operate based on a pet theory known as the "One Percent Doctrine." As he may want to include a chapter on it in his upcoming treatise on wing shooting safety, I won't go into it too deeply here, except to say that its basic premise is that if something has a one-in-a-hundred chance of occurring, it should be treated as though it were a mathematical certainty.

In the real world, this is a practical impossibility. You couldn't afford it, and even if you could, you couldn't lug all the stuff around that such a policy would require. Still, Cheney's theory goes a long way toward explaining why someone would think of the 7 mm Magnum as a woodchuck cartridge or the presence of the .300 and .338 Magnums in the deer woods.

A third problem is the growing misconception, promulgated by many gun writers, that big game in the region has somehow become bigger, harder to kill and more wary than it was a century ago. In fact, the opposite is true. Northeastern deer and black bear populations are far greater than they were in 1907, when the moose was near extinction and wild hogs were taken only rarely. The large eastern coyote, shown recently to actually be a wolf-coyote hybrid by wildlife biologists in New York State, was unknown.

My grandfather's deer gun is a .30-06, built on a 1909 Argentine Mauser action with a 22" barrel, full-length Mannlicher stock and military issue sights. He shot his last deer with it when he was 72 and, when he died 20 years later, the rifle passed to me. It is a beautiful thing to look at.

Shooting it is another matter altogether. The recoil combined with the thunder and flame emanating from the abbreviated tube when the trigger is pulled, provide an unpleasant distraction and my already questionable iron-sighted marksmanship most certainly suffered as a result.

Don't get me wrong, Grandpa's rig will most definitely kill deer. He proved it himself, many times. But having spent his formative years in Idaho, where Elmer Keith and Jack O'Connor also did a lot of their hunting and shooting, his ideas about what constituted an ideal big game rifle were formed in country where a shot at a 600 lb. elk or grizzly was a distinct possibility, and 300 yard shots were fairly common. After the mines closed during the Depression he came back east with a heavy carbine and an argument for anyone foolish enough to suggest that he might be a bit over-gunned.

Factory loads for the various 6.5 mm Mannlicher, Mauser, Swedish, Japanese or Carcano cartridges throw a round nose, 156 or 160 grain bullet with unbelievable sectional density (.328!) at between 2200-2600 fps, with minimal recoil and muzzle blast. Out to 200 yards and on game weighing up to 500 pounds, this gives all the power, punch and penetration needed so long as the hunter does his part.

But like Grandpa, Keith and O'Connor, many of today's sportsmen feel these numbers are inadequate. Not sexy enough. Perhaps dreaming of a hunt in Alaska or Africa, they arm themselves with rifles and ammunition more suited to the Serengeti Plains or the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies than the brushy slopes of the Allegheny foothills.

At the close ranges and heavy cover typical of the Northeast, the big game hunter can put himself at a considerable disadvantage by choosing many of the souped-up magnums, most particularly the wildly popular 7mm Remington. As O'Connor himself wrote:

"One can make a rule about this: the lighter the bullet, the higher velocity, the sharper the point, the thinner the jacket, the more the bullet is deflected by brush."

And if the 7 mm Magnum, with its 140 grain bullet screaming along at 3150 fps, isn't deflected by brush, the recoil and muzzle blast are likely to cause the shooter to miss. While it may be just the ticket for Western applications, the 7mm Remington Magnum is a poor choice when it comes to hunting in the Northeast. And we see more and more of them every year.

The two most successful deer hunters I've ever known, Ron Elmquist and the late Bill Hudson, both of Warren County, Pa., used a .243 Winchester and a .257 Roberts respectively and often filled their buck and doe tags on the first day hunting was allowed. Bill, it was said, would then spend the rest of the short season filling other hunters' tags, just for the sport, and was known as the top black bear man in the neighborhood.

As is always the case, proper bullet placement was the key to their success. When they weren't after big game, or fishing, they honed their skills on woodchucks, coyotes and other varmints. They were men of supreme confidence in the field, due in part to the manageable recoil, friendly report and deadly accuracy that resulted each time they pulled the trigger.

The .270 or .30-06 might make sense in the Northeast for the hunter specifically going after trophy black bear of exceptional size or a moose. And, if you feel you need one to drop a 175-pound buck or a 250-pound blackie at a range that might better be measured in feet than in yards, go right on ahead.

But please do us all a favor and, until you actually get to Nairobi, leave that .300 Magnum at home. You might dislocate your shoulder, or deafen the guy next to you at the sportsman's club range.

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Copyright 2007 by Mike Hudson. All rights reserved.