February 18, 2022
Using a rifle that’s too powerful has consequences. Tasty venison may be damaged, and you’ll withstand more recoil than needed. Maybe worst of all, your hunting buddies will ridicule you. Using a rifle that isn’t powerful enough also carries risk: greater potential for wounding. The ideal solution is to use a cartridge that’s “just right” for the job. Not too much recoil or muzzle blast, not so much power that your buddies make fun of you, but enough that a reasonably placed shot will quickly have the desired effect.
The problem is, nobody can say with certainty exactly how much power is “just right.” There are too many variables. Bullet performance and shot placement are big ones. We have better and more reliable hunting bullets than ever before. However, the selection is so broad it’s easy to make unwise choices, and today—as in times past—popular trends can influence us in the wrong direction. I’ll touch on these trends as I go.
Certainly, it would simplify things if somebody could come up with a formula: W pounds of animal requires X grains of bullet weight at Y velocity delivering Z foot-pounds of energy. There are some guidelines I’ll get into later, but such a never-fail formula is impossible because some species are “tougher” and more solid than others—and no two creatures react exactly the same upon receiving a bullet. It also makes a difference if the animal is unaware, alert or already pumped full of adrenaline.
These days, few of us gather a lot of experience on game using various combinations. Most hunters simply find a combination that works and thus acquire little knowledge of how other cartridges work. But some hunters do.
I just got a letter from a reader in his 80s. He figured he’d killed 250 deer and elk using 20 different cartridges. Most of his deer hunting was in the Texas Hill Country on medium-size whitetails. Texans love .25s, so it’s not surprising that his list included .250 Savage, .257 Roberts and .25-06—or that the .257 Roberts became his favorite for Hill Country deer.
In thicker brush in east Texas, “the most effective killer was the .35 Rem. with 200-grain bullets.” Larger cartridges used for elk included .338 Win. Mag. and .358 Win. Smaller cartridges used for deer included .222 Rem. and .32-20 (“just one”) and even .22 Short.
“Deer season was open, but I was hunting squirrels,” he wrote. “This little six-pointer stood 30 yards away, and I shot him in the center of the forehead. I was nine years old.”
Nobody is arguing for using .22 rimfires for deer, but it wasn’t so long ago that .22 centerfires were illegal in most jurisdictions. The popularity of the AR platform—plus the development of heavier bullets—changed that. Today, .22 centerfires are commonly legal, and there are lots of heavy bullets designed for deer.
There will always be differing opinions about .22 centerfires, but they are within the broad range of suitability for deer. With proper bullets, I’m okay with the .22 centerfires for deer and hogs. However, my experience is you must pick your shots, and you might have to do extra tracking.
Fortunately, nobody has tried to make a case for the .223 for elk. I don’t think it’s as fashionable to hunt big game with the .22 centerfires as it was a while back. For sure, there are better hunting cartridges sized to the AR frame. I’m impressed by the versatile 6.5mm Grendel, but both the 6.8mm SPC and 7.62x39 Russian are excellent medium-range hog and whitetail cartridges. Or you can step down in caliber to the new 6mm ARC. If you want more bullet weight and frontal area, you can move up to the .350 Legend or .450 Bushmaster.
There’s one thing you can’t get out of any AR-15 platform or cartridge: range. You can get accuracy, and you can ring steel and snipe prairie dogs way out there. But the action isn’t big enough to house cartridges that play in the extreme-range shooting that is very much a current trend. The larger AR-10 frame houses the .308 and Creedmoor families—as well as standard long-action cartridges from some boutique rifle makers—and is more capable on game out to longer distances.
So if the AR platform and its cartridges are one trend, long-range shooting is another. If I were serious about extreme-range shooting, I’d probably choose something on the order of a .338 Lapua, a .338-378 Weatherby or 8.59mm (.338) Lazzeroni Titan. The biggest .33s combine high velocity with bullet weight and frontal area, and they have access to super-aerodynamic bullets with off-the-charts ballistic coefficients. The problem is rifles that harness such cartridges need to be large and heavy, and muzzle brakes are almost mandatory. Even then, recoil is considerable—some might even say ferocious.
Serious long-range guys use them to good effect, but most shooters compromise by using 6.5mms, 7mms and .30 calibers at various velocities, which are much more pleasant to shoot. We take advantage of modern high-BC bullets that stretch trajectories and, with higher retained velocity, also retain more energy.
This is a trend, but so is our increased reliance on technology to get the bullet in the right place. We use magnificent optics with precise and repeatable dial-up turrets and computer ballistics programs to provide near-perfect knowledge of the bullet’s flight path. With distance and trajectory known, making consistent hits at incredible distances becomes a simple matter of holding ’em and squeezing ’em—provided we can dope the wind and factor in the other atmospherics. However, as range increases and all factors become more critical, it isn’t always possible to ensure first-round hits.
I grew up with the previous generation of gun writers: Askins, Keith, O’Connor, Page and Whelen, most of whom were still active when I began writing. These guys all started long before World War II. They were hunters, but through the 1930s American big game populations were still at a low ebb, and these writers did more shooting than hunting, and most participated in formal target competition. That reflected the rifle world in general, where most folks hunted when they could and shot when they couldn’t. And while there is more hunting opportunity today than there was back then, or when I was young, I actually don’t think hunting is as important a role as target shooting for today’s sporting rifle.
There are obviously major differences between target shooting and hunting. Steel targets don’t care how hard or where they are hit, and it doesn’t take much energy to penetrate a paper target. Bullet energy is essential on game, as the bullet must penetrate into the vitals, and energy is needed for bullet expansion, but exactly how much energy is elusive.
Townsend Whelen theorized that it required 1,000 ft.-lbs. on impact for deer-size game. Nice rule of thumb, but not absolute because otherwise the .44-40 (625 ft.-lbs. at the muzzle) would never have killed a deer. It’s reasonable to assume we need more energy on elk, which are three times the size of deer. So, with due respect to Col. Whelen, let’s say for the sake of argument, we should have 750 ft.-lbs. on impact for deer and twice that—say, 1,500 ft.-lbs.—for elk.
These days, a good example of a popular long-range load is a 143-grain Hornady ELD-X 6.5mm bullet starting at 2,800 fps. Mild in recoil, this load remains supersonic to almost 1,300 yards and delivers a whopping 2,489 ft.-lbs. at the muzzle. At 1,000 yards it still has 678 ft.-lbs., so I guess we could say it’s as effective on deer at 1,000 yards as the .44-40 is at the muzzle.
Because of unreadable downrange wind and my preferences, I’m not gonna shoot at a game animal at 1,000 yards with anything, but if we accept my 750 ft.-lbs. minimum, we could theorize that an aerodynamic 6.5mm bullet of around 140 grains started at 2,800 fps—which could be a .260 Rem., 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5x55 or 6.5-284—is adequate for deer at just about any distance all the way to 900 yards, where it would have 797 ft.-lbs. of energy.
What about elk? An elk is a larger and more visible target than a deer, and they’re often seen ridge to ridge or at distance in the high alpine. So from what I gather, elk are a prime target for long-range shooting.
This makes me nervous, the main reason being that many hunters are using cartridges that cannot and do not project adequate energy far enough downrange. Again, this isn’t steel, where a “ping” anywhere on the target is all you need.
Cleanly killing an elk requires power as well as placement. While my 1,500 ft.-lbs. at impact for elk is just a guesstimate, it takes a lot of bullet at high velocity—and a lot of recoil—to go the distance with that much energy.
Let’s go back to our 6.5mm bullet at 2,800 fps. At 400 yards its energy yield is 1,589 ft.-lbs., and at 500 yards it’s down to 1,402 ft.-lbs. Frankly, I’d rather have more bullet and more energy for a 400-yard elk, but we could say, hypothetically, that a 140-grain 6.5mm starting at 2,800 fps is theoretically adequate for elk to 400 yards.
You could push the same bullet faster—let’s say 3,000 fps, which could be a 6.5-06, 6.5 PRC or .264 Win. Mag. You gain some ground, but at 600 yards you’re still below 1,500 ft.-lbs.
Step up to a 175-grain 7mm ELD-X and push it to 3,000 fps—like in a 7mm Rem. Ultra Mag or 7mm STW—and you have 1,532 ft.-lbs. at 800 yards.
A 212-grain .30 caliber ELD-X at 3,000 fps muzzle velocity holds my theoretical elk-killing energy to 950 yards, and a 270-grain .338 from a Lapua, started at 2,800 fps, holds 1,500 ft.-lbs. past 1,000—but no lesser cartridge/bullet combinations do it.
In time, common sense will probably prevail, and it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen caliber preferences go up and down the scale. When smokeless powder was new, hunters went nuts over the newfound velocity. Early military 6.5mms were used for game up to elephant, but by World War I the most strident smallbore voices had quieted when it came to those big beasts.
In 1912, the .22 Savage High-Power was introduced with a 70-grain bullet at 2,800 fps. It was intended for deer-size game. Savage followed in 1915 with the .250-3000, breaking the 3,000 fps threshold—but only with a very light 87-grain bullet. Bullet technology wasn’t quite there, and both cartridges were cursed as much as praised. The .22 High-Power dwindled, but the .250 Savage persisted, albeit with heavier bullets at lower velocities.
After World War II the bolt-action rifle became more popular. Clear into the 1950s, the .30-06 was America’s most popular sporting cartridge. A great elk cartridge, it was always excessively powerful for deer—generating more recoil than shooters need to withstand.
Then came the first magnum craze. Roy Weatherby started it just after World War II. In the mid-1950s Winchester joined in, followed by Remington with 1962’s 7mm Rem. Mag. American hunters were definitely not under-gunned.
The word “magnum” eventually lost its magic, and there were market failures. Hunters returned to the .270 and .30-06 and welcomed the .25-06 (1969). The efficient little .308 Win. took off, as did most of its progeny. The mild, efficient 7mm-08 (1980) was a rapid success, and 1998’s .260 Rem. seemed destined for greatness.
However, that same 1998 saw the beginning of a long procession of Remington Ultra Mags and Short Action Ultra Mags, Winchester Short Mags and Super Short Mags, and Ruger Compact Magnums—15 new fat-cased unbelted “magnums” in a decade. Bewildering, confusing and reckless. Not all could possibly succeed, and not all did.
In the aftermath, is it really any wonder so many American rifle shooters have downsized, preferring conservative cartridges that do their work efficiently, with little blast and recoil? But as a hunter, if I can’t get it “just right,” I’d rather have too much power. So it bothers me that so many are ignoring time-honored energy requirements, especially as our range envelopes expand.
This is a trend, but it may not last. Current cartridge development—which includes the 6.5 and .300 PRC, 6.8 Western and the Nosler cartridges—is slanted toward long, heavy-for-caliber, low-drag bullets that are fast enough, yet carry the freight. Hunters seem to be accepting more recoil to gain performance. I hope that becomes a trend.