I’ve been a bit under the weather for the last several days; it appears I’ve finally fallen victim to the winter cold. Between sneezing and trying to empty a Kleenex box within one hour, it’s hard to get a decent night’s rest. So, I pulled an old book from a shelf. The Hunting Rifle by Jack O’Connor was written in 1970 and is considered a classic. I was never really an O’Connor fan; our birthdays and an appreciation for the 270 Winchester is about all we have in common. Still, it’s solid research for a book project I’ve just started.
In first chapter of the book—Picking Your Expert—ol’ Jack essentially lambasts all of his gun writing brethren with regard to their opinions and suggestions with regard to hunting rifle cartridges. If you read between the lines you can see O’Connor took shots at all of his living contemporaries, but the only writer named was his late friend Townsend Whelen. I got no problem with airing disagreements but find it tad bit ungentlemanly to call out a dead guy who cannot defend himself. (Doing so invites and justifies the same when you kick the bucket.)
There’s no aspect of the hunting rifle more controversial than the cartridge. Ironically, of all the features of a hunting rifle, the cartridge is very likely the least important. Obviously the caveat of “within reason” applies; only a fool would consider hunting an elephant with a 223 Remington or prairie dogs with a 470 Nitro. However, gun writers tend to build their persona around cartridges. You cannot argue O’Connor’s indelible link to the 270 Winchester, Ron Spomer’s seemingly love for anything that shoots a 7mm bullet, and Bryce Townley’s infatuation with cartridges that kick hard enough to cause brain damage over time.
These infatuations with cartridges or cartridge characteristics are mostly an expression of human nature and individual personality; some guys like blondes, some like red heads, and some prefer Guinness to Bud Lite. The reality is that for the most part, there is very little difference in modern big game cartridges. For example, if you were to conduct an autopsy of two elk—one taken with a 308 Winchester and the other with a 300 Winchester Magnum, which were both killed with the same bullet—you would have a 50% chance of guessing which cartridge killed which bull. And guess what, a guess would be exactly what you would make.
Though few folks will agree, the terminal performance differences between bullets is much broader than the terminal performance differences between cartridges. Lethality is better measured by how a bullet interacts with hide, cartilage, muscle, and bone, than what is written on a headstamp of a cartridge case. On the other hand, if one of those elk were shot with a 180-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip and the other with a 180-grain Barnes Triple Shock, I’m 90% confident I could match the dead bull to the bullet.
Admittedly, I’m partial to a variety of cartridges, but there is nothing magic about any of them. I’ve always liked anything that shoots a bullet in .257 diameter. This is because bullets for this caliber tend to span the bullet weight needs for the critters I want to shoot; there are 75-grain bullets for little critters, and 110-120 grain bullets for the bigger stuff. And, none of them generate excessive recoil. My current infatuation is with a .25 caliber cartridge I wildcatted from the 6.5 Creedmoor. I’d not suggest you get one because you’ll have to handload for it. (There’s nothing wrong with handloading until you must to do it in order to shoot.)
I’m also very fond of using the 308 Winchester for big game because, it will do 95% of anything I will ever need done, it will do it from a short action, and with not too much recoil. At the same time, I do not like the 308 because it is rather boring and ubiquitous. (By the way, ubiquitous is a favorite word of gun writers and one that I’ve tried to avoid using. This may be the first time I’ve written it in 20+ years and I’m quite sure I’ve never spoken it–hillbillies don’t say words like that.)
I also have a soft spot for the 35 Remington, particularly when hunting the hills of West Virginia where shots are generally close, and a fast handling lever gun seems about ideal. With the right bullet/load, like the Buffalo Bore Heavy 220-grain jacketed flat nose, this 114-year-old cartridge will handle anything in North America as long as the shot distance is consistent with a shot a reasonable man would take with an open-sighted lever action rifle.
I do not like the 280 Remington, the 30-06, or anything in .338 caliber. With the exception of the 45-70, I do not like anything over .375 caliber. And those facts should mean absolutly nothing to you. (I don’t like Ford trucks either, but who cares.) The 280 can do anything the 270 can, and the 30-06 can do anything you need to do. I just do not like either and have stated my reasons in print before. I once wrote such an article for NRA’s American Hunter magazine and not only did some demand I be fired from the magazine; my manhood and life were threatened.
And there we have a perfect example of all of this cartridge stupidness. Some seem to be of the mind that cartridges have feelings and can be disrespected. Others believe certain cartridges have near magic like qualities that allow them to perform better than others; bullets, ballistics, and facts, be damned. And, for just about every mainstream cartridge there’s a gun writer somewhere singing its praises. Why? Because he likes it and it worked for him, which is a very pragmatic and practical reason to sing the praises of, well, anything.
Some also argue we have way too many cartridges, and that some are an answer in search of a question. I very much disagree. Every cartridge was created for a specific reason and given the perplexities of all of the humans who hunt with rifles, if we keep making new ones maybe someday everyone will have their very own. And maybe, most importantly, this hoard of rifle hunting cartridges and the associated debates they inspire will keep gun writers like me working. It also allows you, as O’Connor suggested in the first chapter of his book, to pick your expert. Well you’re not really picking an expert, what you’re really doing is finding someone who’s published word just agrees with what you already believe.
I’m not a rifle hunting cartridge expert. In fact, I’m not sure how that qualification could even even be obtained. I am however often asked for advice when it comes to cartridge selection. Because of its nonpartisan stance, my answer—my standard answer—never satisfies. I simply suggest you should select a cartridge you like, pick a good bullet, and learn how to shoot.
It’s important to like the cartridge you’re hunting with because you’re going to have to defend it at the campfire. And fortunately, the good bullet you have chosen, and the excellent marksmanship skill you surely possess, will make up for most any cartridge selection mistakes you might have made.