The Rifle Caliber Complex

By Randy Wakeman

It has been my pleasure to be involved in shooting sports since I was five years old, with a Mossberg .410 bolt-action as my entry point. Over the last forty years or so of hunting, shooting, reloading, and traveling I've tried to glean what I can from the wizened veterans of the art of propelling projectiles. At one time, I could sit and listen to the sagacity of those who were around when smokeless powder was in its infancy, and hunting for market was a reasonably common endeavor for the farmer / hunter / enthusiast.

Now, the numbers of those among us with sixty years or more experience than I have dwindled, yet there are still many who keep the art alive by their passion and perspiration, and will no doubt continue to do so. The topic of this minor missive is the rifle as a hunting machine. Like most firearms, the hunting rifle is a story of evolution, not revolution.

While many of us will nod in complicity that "every rifle is an individual," it still does not stop us from asking for the "best" loads for our guns. We all know, or should know, that consistency is a synonym for accuracy, yet one's personal accuracy standard can vary widely. I've heard factory reps brag that their rifles can "ring the gong" at 300 yards all day long at gun shows. Perhaps, but is that a 36" gong, or a more generous 48" gong that they are cackling about? There is no line forming to buy guns that group into at 48" at 300 yards!

In the velocity / energy combination, we know the US military wanted the .30 caliber M-1 carbine to break the magic 1900 fps mark, a mark (apparently) arbitrarily chosen. Never accepted as a big game cartridge, the 600 or so ft. lbs. left at 100 yards has made the .30 carbine round rarely chosen deer medicine. I concur.

Flipside, the pathetic .30 caliber carbine is remarkably strong compared to what was once touted as the "most powerful handgun in the world," the .44 Magnum. With factory loads in a 4" vented barrel, the .44 magnum with standard velocity factory loads barely manages at 50 yards what our "under powered" .30 carbine can do at 100 yards in terms of energy on target. Pistoleers have cleanly bagged whitetail since the inception of the .44 Mag. out to 100 yards with no more energy and less velocity than a .30 Carbine. Doesn't that give some cause for pause?

We hunters are a peculiar lot. Though the .30 WCF (.30-30) has been one of the most successful whitetail baggers in North American history, we still question its effectiveness. With either 150 grain or 170 grain bullets the muzzle velocity of the .30-30 is double that of a .44 Remington Magnum revolver, and packs as much punch at 300 yards as our .44 Rem. Mag. pistol can give us at 50 yards. With close to a half-ton of Power Pointed pop at 200 yards, is there really any wondering why a whitetail or similar sized game animal can be dropped so well at 100 yards or so? Yet, the thutty-thutty is considered only a medium power rifle cartridge.

We still wonder. The .30-06, around for close to a hundred years, still is not viewed as a high-performance round by many. Up the ladder we go again, delivering the same .30" hole as the .30-30, with a clean 3/4 ton (1507 ft. lbs.) at 400 yards, with similar velocity at 200 yards as our .30-30 has at the muzzle.

Phrased differently (but, alas, no more eloquently), just what do we think is walking around on hooves in North America that cannot be dropped by a .30-30 pressed against its fur? The point of all these pixels is not to denigrate any caliber, or personal choice of hunting equipment. I have a friend who shoots a .338 Win. Mag. at whitetail at 40 yards. He gets his deer!

The point (whether ballistic or soft, partitioned or bonded) is that for most hunters, most deer-family game, and most hunts the range from .308 / .270 / .30-06 / .300 Win. Mag. / .338 Win. Mag. has little relevance as to what animal we can take, and at what range. We debate over 10 grains of projectile weight, 100 fps, and thirty thousands of an inch. The merit of this is, of course, "debatable."

Accuracy is also an interesting topic. Like the crazy aunt locked in the attic, we all know she's there, but nobody wants to talk about it. We like safe, vague terms like "accurate" and "not very accurate." It means different things to different people. Hunting accuracy is naturally what it takes to cleanly take our animal where we find it. Often, it is off-hand shooting that tells the tale, and correctly allowing for distance and windage, not the gun at all. We rejoice in flat trajectory, yet the projectile's movement due to a 15 mph crosswind at 250 yards should get more of our attention. Gravity is repeatable, wind movement infinitely more variable. During a casual shoot at the range, you might hear comments about how easy it is to shoot accurately. When asked to "stand up and try," you might get grumbling to the effect of "that's not fair!" Yet, it is a rare mountain that has "bunny bags" at the ready. It is easy to find a .270 Winchester load giving us 305 yards "Maximum Point Blank Range" with a 6" vital zone. No thinking required, or so it seems. However, that same wondrous load has some 13" of drift at that same 305 yard range, given a 15 mph crosswind.

We all have our favorite splendidly salty hunting sagas; I have mine as well. But, contingent on where that next big hunt is, we are better off talking to professional guides. They know what does what to game. We like to think our ten or twenty animals taken proves something, when the pros who make a living in the woods see hundreds of big game drops per year. After the first few hundred dropped and dressed animals, I think most of them can tell you what gets the hooves in the air.

As for caliber, there is very little a .270 or .30-06 cannot take until we hit brown bear class game. To alleviate boredom, calibers are introduced and re-introduced annually. Sometimes, it seems, the truth can be boring. Rather than sniffing cartridges, we are all sometimes better off snorting the breeze!

Note: All of the cartridges mentioned in this article are covered in detail on the Rifle Cartridge Page.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.