September 23, 2010
When it comes to hunting cartridge selection, some rules aren't made to be broken.
The Browning BAR, chambered to .308 Winchester, grouped well with 168-grain Winchester Ballistic Silvertips, but in the end the author felt he would've been better off with a tougher bullet.
Unlike most other sports, which have definitive and fairly rigid rules about equipment, in hunting we have relatively loose guidelines--as in fairly low minimum calibers for big game, prohibitions against non-expanding bullets and so forth.
Over time, most hunters have further qualified these guidelines. Most of us agree, for instance, that the .243 is effective for deer and pronghorn but a bit on the light side for elk and bear.
Bullet choice is harder to define. I have written that, with some of today's "super bullets" it is possible and even practical to step down a bit in caliber and cartridge choice.
Conversely, I have also written that I think too many of us go afield with tougher bullets than are necessary, especially for deer-size game. There is nothing wrong with bullet expansion because it creates a larger wound channel and kills more quickly.
I'll stand on these two pieces of advice, but I need to temper them because recently I carried them a bit too far. The first instance took place on a nilgai hunt in Texas.
Nilgai are extremely tough as well as quite large. My wife, Donna, was with me, and for her we chose her .270 Winchester, firing a 140-grain AccuBond. Good bullet, good cartridge, but marginal for nilgai. This was my error, not hers.
She knew she needed to place the bullet tight behind the shoulder, and she did. Everything looked good, including the first few drops of blood. An hour and a half-mile later and we ran out of blood.
The animal was eventually found, and her shot was indeed perfect and perfectly fatal, but with their thick skin nilgai don't bleed much and can travel amazing distances even when they're perfectly hit.
Regardless of bullet choice, the .270 is marginal for such a beast. "Marginal" means that you might get away with it many times, but sooner or later there will be a problem.
The other problem was my own. I was on a free-range aoudad hunt in the Davis Mountains of west Texas with Browning, and the company sent me one of the first left-handed BARs in the only chambering then available, .308 Winchester.
I was (and am) delighted to see a true left-hand semiautomatic sporter, but the .308 wouldn't have been my choice. Not for lack power but because I would have preferred something with a flatter trajectory.
For sheep and goats, I've come to prefer a fairly soft bullet that will open up and do some damage--just possibly preventing a final tumble that might ruin the animal or put it in a place where recovery might be impossible. I'll hold to this advice, too, but I carried it too far.
I chose a 168-grain Ballistic Silvertip load that grouped well in the rifle, but I didn't fully consider that a big aoudad ram in North America can weigh more than 300 pounds. I was aware of their legendary toughness, but after all, a .30 caliber is a .30 caliber, right?
I shot a tremedous ram at a range of 275 yards, and at the shot he bucked like a bronco, swapped ends and ran downhill into thick brush. The sound of the bullet hitting came back with a satisfying "whack."
The other rams milled and stared downhill, waiting for their buddy. Guide Ross Hunter and I did "high fives," waited a few minutes, then climbed up to retrieve our ram. And that's the end of the story. The hillside was littered with aoudad tracks, and in two days of searching we never found a drop of blood or any clear evidence where this ram had gone.
Could I have missed and hit a rock? Perhaps, but we found where the ram had stood for the shot, and there was no evidence of this, either.
I'd love to write it off as a miss, but I can't. The reaction was so definitive that we initially believed it was a perfect shoulder/heart shot. Also, the ram went almost straight downhill, which unhurt aoudad almost never do.
Like nilgai, absent an exit wound aoudad don't bleed much. Since the animal wasn't recovered, no conclusions are possible, but my belief is the bullet hit the center of the shoulder, opened too much for this size animal and failed to penetrate.
The unbonded, tipped bullets do open quickly, but that isn't always a bad thing. They shoot well, and in several calibers I've had good luck with them on deer-size game. Chances are I'd have gotten away with it at least nine times out of 10, especially if I'd stayed off that massive shoulder. This time I got caught.
In the end I did take a beautiful ram; as an exotic on private land, aoudad aren't governed by tags, seasons or bag limits. So the bullet/load combination did work, as it will most of the time even if you skirt the edges of cartridge and bullet adequacy.
But when in doubt, whether for lack of knowledge of an animal or the hunting conditions you might encounter, I'm certain it's best to err on the side of a bit more power and/or a tougher bullet. It isn't necessary to go overboard, but the old rule of "use enough gun" definitely hasn't changed. Inextricably linked should always be a second adage: Use enough bullet.