Congratulations, you’ve decided to get out there in the great outdoors and try your luck at hunting! Good for you! Maybe you’re new at this sort of thing. Maybe you consider yourself an expert in one area, and now you’re willing to try something different. Or perhaps you’re just picking up where you left off thirty years ago, when the realities of life got in the way. Whatever your situation, an important question arises: What in the world should I use? With a dizzying array of cartridges out there, many of them new, which one is best?
For now let’s assume you’re doing the kind of hunting that requires a rifle, as opposed to “wing shooting,” which requires a shotgun. Deer hunting comes to mind first, but you might be after rabbits, elk, prairie dogs, moose, ground squirrels, bear, caribou, coyotes,… well, you get the idea. There are several important questions to be considered in choosing the right cartridge in general terms (we will discuss specific bullet types and construction at a later date):
First of all, you have to match the caliber to the prey. Typically, the bigger, badder, and tougher the critter, the larger and more powerful the cartridge must be. For example, most small game animals like rabbits and squirrels are effectively taken with a.22 Long Rifle, .17 HMR, or .22 Mag. Larger calibers will definitely kill the little things, but, as in EVERY hunting situation, safety has to be your main concern. Where will that 30-06, or the .22LR for that matter, go, if it whizzes past the rabbit in the woodlot? “Collateral damage” must never be a factor in this sport! High-power rifle bullets can travel for miles!
For varmints like prairie dogs and coyotes, light, accurate 7.62×39 hunting ammo , high-velocity rounds are ideal for the typically long ranges involved. The .223 Rem, .22-250 Rem, and similar loads are great. For the larger coyotes, bobcats, and even up to medium-sized deer, the .243 Win, 6mm Rem and similar rounds work very well, and are sometimes known as “crossover” calibers.
For deer, the variety is huge. The 7mm calibers, .270 Win, .308 Win, 30-06, etc. are all great choices. For elk, bear, moose, etc., the.300 Win Mag, .300 Weatherby Mag, .338 Win Mag and similar rounds get the nod. For the really big and/or nasty stuff like elephants, lions and Kodiak bears, oh my!, the heavy .416 Rem Mag, .375 H&H, and .458 Win Mag calibers are recommended or even considered necessary.
Here’s where the next two points listed above come in. If all I have is Dad’s 30-06, do I really need to buy a few more rifles if I decide to hunt antelope, coyotes, deer, and an occasional prairie dog? And then what if my rich, eccentric uncle (I wish) decides to take me moose hunting next year? Realistically, that 30-06 will do just fine for all those animals, provided you can shoot it well and the proper bullets are used. But remember–the best rule of thumb is to be a little over-gunned rather than under-gunned. What about potential over-kill, you ask? I don’t believe such a thing exists. If something is dead, it’s not going anywhere. And that deer is no more dead after being shot with a.338 Win Mag than with a.257 Roberts. But what about wasting all that meat? For argument’s sake, let’s say you obliterate an unrealistic total of twenty pounds of meat using a bigger-than-needed rifle on a deer. If too small a caliber were used, with the result that the wounded deer vanished and could not be found, then you just wasted one hundred pounds of meat! You do the math.
So, the answer is to use a .460 Weatherby Mag for everything and call it a day, right? Not so fast. Can you effectively shoot that concussion-dealing, mule-kicking cannon and still manage to hit your target? A common fallacy nowadays is to listen to the ads, buy into the hype and shell out zillions of dollars on cartridges that “can kill like a ray-gun.” Accurate shot placement is still the key, and, contrary to popular myth, a hyper-power cartridge does NOT compensate for a poorly placed shot. And that’s just what you’ll get if you tremble in fear, turn your head, and close your eyes every time you yank the trigger on that thunder-stick you got suckered into buying. And when that .460 connects with Bambi’s front knee, he will run away as surely as if shot by a BB-gun. The .460 definitely has its place, like when an enraged bull elephant is bearing down on you. The recoil, if even noticed, will come as a comfort. But such a huge gun for a deer 200 yards away, where a controlled, precise shot is needed for a clean kill? No way.
The answer, then, is to use as much gun as is needed for a humane shot, while being manageable enough for you to handle comfortably and effectively. Neither factor can be compromised, so don’t even try. Pay no attention to the blow-hard who claims the .606 MaxoThunderMag is the only one to use for deer, “since the shock will kill ’em even you hit ’em in the back leg.” No, it won’t. And don’t fall for the advice of the guy who swears, “You don’t need a gun that kicks, since Great-Grandpa shot elk and bear all the time using nothing but .22 Shorts.” Maybe he did, but when all was said and done, a hundred Guardian Angels probably went to the Pearly Gates to demand hazard pay. So don’t do it.