Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Simplifying Caliber Choices For The New Hunter

I don't do guest posts here often enough, I need to do a better job of seeking out contributions from people I respect on topics that interest me. Look for that more in the future....

The following is a guest post from Phil Maynard. Phil has helped me a number of times over the years to simplify some of the intricacies and see through much of the mythology with regard to shooting sports. Phil's handloads have taken game all over the US. He specializes in developing loads and calibrating optical drop correction systems for medium to long-range hunting. He is a data-mining geek with more spreadsheets than firearms. By weight.

At Phil's request I am stating that this piece is available for free use, reposting or printing with attribution to Phil Maynard of Montrose, PA.

                                                         Too Many Choices

There have been an incredible number of heated, passionate debates concerning the details of firearm selection for hunting. Caliber and sighting systems dominate, but every little feature has been analyzed ad-nauseam, often with such ferocity that one group will defend a feature or round as God's gift to mankind, while the other side denigrates it at completely, hopelessly inadequate for the task at hand.

How can such debates continue to rage?

To answer that, let's take a step back. Way, way back. Humans have been using something recognizable as a long arm for over half a millennium The basic concepts of trigger, lockwork, shoulder stock, rifled barrel, and sighting systems were figured out before America as a nation was even imagined. Rifles of over 100 years ago are so similar to what we use today that the best, modern ammunition on your local shop's shelves can be fired in those antiquities, and their ammunition can be fired in the best (and worst) modern guns. Yes, the center-fire, bolt-action, magazine fed rifle has undergone exactly zero major revisions in over a hundred years.

To put things in a bit sharper perspective: a rifle from the late 1800's will shoot as well as most hunters in real-world situations, and the century-old ammunition will drop game with complete adequacy. When those rifles were made we didn't have airplanes, tanks, or cars. Telephone, radio, and the electric power grid were just moving out of the labs and into everyday life. Most of our world today would be completely foreign to denizens of that period, yet they could pick up our rifles and ammunition with familiarity.

Certainly there has been progress, but it has been in the form of slow, incremental refinements. For hunting purposes the semi- and fully-automatic weapons invented a century ago are of only minimal use, so the biggest improvement to hunting performance has been the rifle-scope, which itself is fundamentally unchanged since WWII. This lack of change should not be construed as sign of an inferior product, but rather a very well-developed one, nearing perfection.

There is one thing that has changed dramatically in the last century: manufacturing processes have improved to the point where most every firearm made is a precision piece of equipment, and there is a nearly infinite selection of configuration and caliber. For caliber selection in particular, there is a factory round specifically tailored for every conceivable use, and yet wildcats exist to fill in even the smallest gaps between popular offerings. Essentially every reasonable combination of cartridge characteristics has been tried, and many unreasonable besides.

It is this current state of refinement and selection that breeds such discontent and divisiveness. The truth is that nearly every rifle made in the last 100 years is suitable for the majority of hunting tasks. Clearly a .17HMR is completely inadequate for elk hunting, and shooting a squirrel with a .338 Lapua would be an awkward messy affair at best, but there is such broad middle-ground in-between that it's hard to go wrong with any amount of common sense. The venerable .30-06 would have served well the shooter of nearly every woodchuck, deer, elk, bear, moose, coyote, and caribou taken on this continent since its invention over a hundred years ago. Why then does the local sporting-goods store feature something like 50 calibers, each capable of doing the exact same thing? Well, because there's money in it, for one. But also because humans are tinkerers, and since the basic configuration of the firearm has been refined so thoroughly, the creation of new calibers from a nearly infinite field of possibilities is an easier place to exercise those faculties.

To many hunters, caliber selection is a distraction. It's something to discuss and argue about, like baseball or the weather, but really they just want to go hunting and are bewildered by the choices. To make things worse, there is confusion added to the debate because the factors involved in caliber selection are related to killing a living animal. Animals do not make for clean science. The physiological complexity of them means that two identically placed shots from identical weapons may produce dramatically different effects. I personally have made clean heart shots on deer to have them run 100 yards like they weren't touched, or drop on the spot like God struck them down himself when I pulled the trigger. Add in the subtleties of shot placement and angle, and bullet terminal performance. Also, consider the inadequacies of most hunters as medical examiners, the cloudiness to the layman of ballistic coefficients and drop tables, and perhaps most importantly, the ego of the hunter and what a wounded or missed animal means about their shooting ability. The result is very poor data indeed. Caliber and bullet selection is a scapegoat as often as anything, as evidenced by the refrain that "shot placement is everything" by those with some basic knowledge of the terminal effects of hunting bullets.

So what's a hunter to do? Well, if your baseball team is losing and the weather is sunny and mild for the next few weeks, there's no harm in continuing the nearly-pointless debate. If you're a tinkerer and enjoy pouring over ballistic tables and trying the latest powders and crimp dies, keep tinkering with the realization that it probably doesn't matter too much, so it should at least be fun. And if you just want to go hunting - ignore the babble, pick whatever gun you feel like, and just go hunting.

If you really need to know what to buy and are sick of conflicting, biased information, here are my choices. These are calibers that may not be old, but are proven and have shown such popularity that there will always be good availability of rifles and ammunition. They lean towards slightly smaller bullet diameters, allowing light bullets for lighter game and heavier bullets for larger game. They are also selected for maximum flexibility, which is why the .308 features prominently - because of its popularity, factory ammo is available in a wide range of configurations, and this ammo is available almost anywhere. I avoided long cases like the .300 Win Mag, .270, and .30-06 because the felt recoil to energy ratio is poor, although those are three very good rounds otherwise. There are a huge number of other rounds I just skipped completely, many of which are excellent, but the point of this list is to provide a bare minimum of choices for those that just don't really care about nitpicking. As I said above: the importance of caliber selection is incredibly over-blown. If you want to argue with my list, then it's not meant for you, so don't bother getting upset about it. I'll be happy to debate the subtle distinctions of .260 Rem vs. 6.5mm Creedmoor vs. 6.5x47 Lapua with you sometime. Or .338 Edge vs. .338 RUM vs. .338 LM. Or .204 Ruger vs. 20 Tactical vs. 20 Practical. Or . . .

Anyway, if you just want to go hunting, pick something off this list and never, ever look back.

  • Small game: .22LR (within 50 yards), .17 HMR (50yd+)
  • Varmints, predators: .223 Rem (for recoil-and blast-sensitive folks), .22-250
  • Varmints, predators, deer: .243 Win (mostly whitetail and smaller), .308 Win (mostly whitetail and bigger)
  • Deer, elk, moose, black bear: 300 WSM, (.308 if recoil-sensitive, but use Barnes T-TSX, Sierra Game King, or Nosler Accubond)
  • Dangerous game (N. America only): .338 Win Mag with high-quality bullets

No comments:

Post a Comment