During the recent uptick in the popularity and sales of ARs for hunting, there has been another revolution in hunting rifles, albeit a quieter one. In many states—my native Ohio included—deer hunters have traditionally been limited to shotguns, muzzleloaders and handguns during the firearms season. The theory was that a flat landscape, a lot of deer hunters and a burgeoning human population could spell trouble if every hunter was carrying a magnum centerfire rifle capable of launching a projectile several miles.
But the Buckeye State’s banishing of all centerfire rifles for deer hunting came to a halt in 2014 when the Ohio Division of Natural Resources announced that a limited number of straight-walled centerfire cartridges would be legal during firearms deer season.
And Ohio was not alone in this. Southern Michigan hunters were allowed to use straight-walled cartridges as well, and some other traditional shotgun states including Indiana have looked to loosen regulations surrounding centerfire rifles.
This has created a new interest in a platform that was long in the tooth, but it doesn’t mean straight-wall cartridges are ineffective. On the contrary, they present a fantastic option that works well for a variety of deer and big game hunting applications. Furthermore, new(er) straight-wall cartridges like the .460 S&W Mag. and .500 S&W Mag. offer more power and flatter trajectories than many older choices and take pistol-caliber rifles into previously uncharted territory.
To be fair, slug gun technology has improved dramatically as well, and today’s rifled-barrel shotguns and ammo are a considerable step above what was available a few decades ago, but there are some real benefits to straight-wall cartridges. Here’s a look at the different pistol- and rifle-caliber cartridges that can open up a world of opportunity for former slug gun hunters.
There are a number of rifles chambered in traditional pistol cartridges that are now legal for hunting deer in eastern states. Ohio allows the use of rifles in .38 Special, .357 Mag., .357 Maximum, .41 Mag., .44 Special, .44 Mag., .45 Colt, .454 Casull, .460 S&W Mag., .475 Linebaugh and .500 S&W Mag., among others, and most of these cartridges overlap with the new allowance for the Lower Michigan units.
Many of these handgun cartridges are effective deer killers, but the boost in velocity and energy offered by a longer barrel and an increased sight radius further enhances the potential of these rounds. Take, for instance, the .357 Mag., legal now for use in Ohio and parts of Michigan. Hornady’s 158-grain XTP bullet, when fired from an eight-inch barrel, has a muzzle velocity of 1,250 fps—ideal for personal-defense applications. The brand’s 140-grain .357 Magnum LeverEvolution load, by contrast, leaves an 18-inch rifle barrel at 1,850 fps. Perhaps more importantly, the LeverEvolution load produces better than 1,000 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle and 660 ft.-lbs. at 100 yards, significantly more than the XTP’s 548 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy.
The same is true for the list of straight-wall pistol cartridges, including the .44 Mag., .454 Casull and .460 S&W Mag.. The .460 S&W Hornady FTX load has a listed muzzle velocity of 2,200 fps from a 8.375-inch barrel, but when I tested it in a Big Horn Model 90 with a 22-inch pipe, average velocity was 2,883 fps. Winchester’s Partition Gold 260-grain load is listed at 2,000 fps, and the average velocity from the Model 90 rifle was 2,452 fps.
In short, these new laws allow for calibers like the .357 Mag. to become more efficient deer-killing rounds to be used at greater distances, and brutes like the .460 S&W Mag. increase effective range to hundreds of yards.
There are several advantages to the use of short single-shot or lever-action carbines for deer, and the primary one is weight and dimensions. The Winchester Model 92—which is chambered in .44 Mag., .357 Mag. and .45 Colt—has an overall length of just 37.5 inches and weighs a mere six pounds, the perfect gun for hunting in thick cover at moderate ranges.
The Marlin 1894 in .44 Mag. weighs just a half pound more and has the exact same overall length. As an added bonus, says Ohio game warden Trent Weaver, these guns offer very little felt recoil, especially compared to a light 12- or 20-gauge slug gun.
“There’s very little kick,” says Weaver. “The .44 Mag. and .45 Colt rifles are great guns for kids.” Weaver says that since the law was passed in 2014 allowing these centerfire cartridges for deer hunting he’s seen an uptick in the number of people carrying rifles for deer, and many of them are new shooters who are less intimidated by the moderate recoil. This, in turn, allows them to make better shots and that accounts for less wounded game.
The average-weight .357 Mag. rifle pushes back with about five pounds of recoil—less recoil than a .243 Win. The .44 Mag. is still under 10 pounds, and depending upon gun weight, a .454 Casull will likely recoil with less energy than a typical .270 Win.
As an added bonus, laws allowing the use of pistol-caliber carbines make it appealing to own a handgun and a rifle since the chambering is the same. Now those who own a .44 Mag. handgun can purchase a centerfire rifle that extends their effective range without purchasing new ammunition. Accordingly, those who purchase a pistol-caliber carbine for deer hunting can opt to buy a handgun in a matching caliber later if they want to dip their toe into the world of big-game hunting with a handgun.
In terms of trajectory, these pistol-caliber carbines can’t touch modern centerfire magnums, but they are perfectly functional to 100 yards or more. With a 140-grain bullet and a ballistic coefficient of .169, the Hornady .357 Mag. FTX, when sighted in at 50 yards with an 18-inch-barreled rifle, will be 1.7 inches low at 100 yards and 7.6 inches low at 150, where it retains 522 ft.-lbs. of energy.
The 225-grain .44 Mag. FTX load leaving a 20-inch barrel at 1,870 will be 1.8 inches low at 100 yards when zeroed at 50 yards and will be eight inches low at 150 yards.
That’s a reasonable distance for hunting whitetails with these type of rifles, but if you want to extend the potential of your pistol-caliber carbine, you can up your game with a gun like the Big Horn Model 90 I mentioned. It can launch a 200-grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,883 fps, and when zeroed at 100 yards, a bullet falls just 5.2 inches at 200 yards and 21.7 inches at 300 yards. So whether you’re looking for a light, short, low-recoiling rifle for moderate ranges or a thumper that will take game out past 250 paces, there is a pistol-caliber rifle that will suit your needs.
Calibers like the .38-55 Win., .444 Marlin and .45-70 Gov’t have taken a backseat in popularity to hotter modern centerfire loads in many states, but by allowing hunters to use rifles chambered in these calibers, there is a whole new generation of hunters who are learning to love these cartridges.
Likewise, they’re learning that the potential of these calibers far exceeds what many would believe. There’s a reason cartridges like the .45-70 were so effective as military and hunting rounds in the black powder era, and their potential as hunting rounds has only increased with the advent of advanced powders and bullets.
On a deer hunt in Texas a few years ago, I was carrying a Uberti 1885 High Wall chambered in .45-70. In the scrub thorn and ocotillo flats, shots were commonly within 200 yards, and a Burris scope with stadia lines in the reticle was a perfectly reasonable range for the Uberti.
My opportunity at a deer came in the last moments of the hunt when a big, mature 10-point stepped into view with less than 20 minutes left before we had to pack our bags and travel to the airport. The deer appeared at just over 300 yards and came to a grunt call, but at about 150 yards he promptly hung up and seemed to lose interest.
That was my only opportunity for a shot, and when the trigger broke, the buck arched into the air and made it less than 20 yards before piling-up, the bullet hitting just behind the shoulder. The 325-grain Hornady Flex Tip passed through both sides, leaving an exit hole that was only a bit larger than the entry wound. No magnum could have accomplished more.
The .45-70 cartridge isn’t the only round from that era that’s seeing new life in the deer woods. Ohio is allowing the use of other historic black powder cartridges as well, including the .45-90, .45-110, .50-70, .50-90, .50-100 and .50-110.
These older cartridges are available in a number of classic rifles and are currently available in Sharps replica guns, the very same hammer rifles that were the peach of late 19th-century long-range shooters and buffalo hunters. Needless to say, they offer more than enough oomph to put down a whitetail, but the ability to hunt with these rifles makes them more appealing. And for the collector who’s been dying to own one, there’s now a very legitimate and practical reason to do so.
Cartridges like the .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin (not currently listed as legal in Ohio) and .45-70 also offer plenty of potential for game other than deer, and in fact, there are few animals in North America that, when engaged at reasonable ranges and with properly constructed hunting bullets, won’t succumb to the power of these rounds. They will work well for deer-sized game and even elk and moose, and hog hunters will appreciate the solid hit that these rounds administer to even the largest, toughest boars.
They work perfectly for black bears over bait. A pass-through with a .45 caliber bullet leaves a prodigious blood trail that’s easy to follow, and since the velocities are so mild, there’s very little chance of bullet blow-up and excessive meat damage. Plus, if you are hunting in black bear country, both of these calibers have the capabilities to stop the rare but not unheard of black bear attack.
In terms of trajectory these cartridges vary from strictly short-range rifles to 200-yard and even 300-yard guns. For instance, the Winchester 255-grain softpoint .38-55 load will be 2.3 inches high at 50 yards when sighted in dead-on at 100 yards, and by 200 paces the bullet has dropped almost two feet.
The faster .40s can do better if you want to extend range and don’t mind the recoil. Hornady says both the 265-grain .444 Marlin and 325-grain .45-70 FTX loads will be zeroed at 200 yards when sighted in three inches high at 100, making longer shots simpler.
Straight-wall rifle cartridges have been around for more than a century, and they’re seeing renewed buzz. And with better bullets, better powder, modern machining and the addition of newer, hotter straight-wall offerings, it might just be worth taking a look at these older cartridges.