What Is The All-Around Rifle Cartridge Continues To Stir Debate.
Ever since the invention of self-contained ammunition the debate about the best all-around rifle cartridge has regularly cropped up in hunting camps, sporting goods stores, and gun magazines. The argument now appears regularly on Internet websites such as 24hourcampfire.com, demonstrating just how far we’ve come since the invention of the actual (not virtual) campfire.
These cyberspace debates are interesting in some ways, and not so much in others. Anybody who can type can express their opinion. Many hunters jump right in without reading any other posts, often stating exactly the same thing as 17 other posts. It’s kind of like a New England town meeting with several thousand people wearing earmuffs.
“Threads” on more concrete questions such as “What’s a reasonable price for a used Marlin 336?” end pretty quickly, but all-around cartridge threads come close to defining infinity, especially when somebody actually reads all the posts. In fact one general rule of Internet forums is the more trivial the question, the longer the debate. A seemingly innocent question such as “Should I buy a .270 or .280?” can generate more heat and repetition than any presidential debate.
When discussing the ideal all-around North American big-game cartridge quite a few hunters split their answer, suggesting one cartridge for all North American game except “the big bears,” and another including those bears. (“The big bears” means grizzly, brown and polar bears, even though many black bears are bigger than the average grizzly.) Many of the answers begin with some disclaimer, such as, “I’ve only hunted whitetails…” or, “While I can’t afford to hunt the big bears, from what I’ve heard….”
Hunters who haven’t hunted (or even seen) a brown bear, elk or any other game bigger than deer, often suggest much larger cartridges than most local hunters use for the same game. This is particularly true of elk. Many hunters from east of the Rockies apparently think elk wear armor, so feel anything less than a .300 Magnum bullet might bounce off, while most residents of elk states use the same cartridges used for whitetail hunting back east, such as the .270 Winchester or .30-06.
This custom rifle is chambered for the 6.5×55 Mauser, often used as an all-around big-game
cartridge in Scandinavia, even for moose. It’s worked fine for generations.
I’ve only taken one of the big bears, an average mature grizzly, but my friend Alaskan Master Guide Phil Shoemaker has, for several decades, produced some of the biggest brown bears in the state for his clients. He’s not only guided hunters to a bunch of really big bears, but finished off many after his clients annoyed the bears with poorly placed shots.
Despite those experiences, Phil’s comfortable with clients using a .30-06 with deep-penetrating bullets. In fact he sometimes uses a .30-06 as his backup rifle with 200- or 220-grain Nosler Partitions, and never been touched by a charging bear, and last spring two of his clients used the .270 Winchester and 7mm Remington Magnum, taking big bears with no backup shots from Phil.
When it comes right down to it, Phil’s not so hot on hunters who bring brand-new “big bear” rifles purchased just for their hunt, because so many hunters are as afraid of their rifles as they are of the bears—and he’s not the only Alaskan guide with this opinion. Yet many hunters who’ve never seen a brown bear know a .300 Magnum is marginal (whatever that means) and some sort of .338, .375 or even .416 much better.
Oddly, the people who argue about the ideal all-around rifle almost always own a bunch of different big game rifles. Often they’ve been hunting for decades and are still searching for the single perfect round. Meanwhile, the hunters who own only one big game rifle go hunting and don’t worry about it much. I’ve known a bunch of these here in Montana. Many use the .30-06, including one semi-hermit who’s hunted with an unaltered 1903-A3 Springfield since he was a teenager and never seen any reason to change. Apparently he’s one of the few Americans impervious to advertising.
When I first started hunting big game in the late 1960s quite a few Montana hunters used the .303 British, because “sporterized” .303 Lee Enfields could be purchased for $20 or even less. A couple of older guys had .300 Savages, one a Remington Model 722 and the other a Savage 99. None of them had any problems taking elk, and looked puzzled if anybody asked if they had.
These days a lot of single-rifle local hunters have .270 Winchesters and 7mm Remington Magnums, but some use the .243 Winchester or the .25-06 Remington. (If this sounds like a list of the most popular big-game cartridges in America, well duh.) A few carry .300 or .338 Winchester Magnums, but not nearly as many. The percentage of rifles chambered for non-magnum rounds may be due to more hunters becoming aware of so-called premium bullets, though many guys have never used anything except the least expensive factory ammo they can find at local stores.
Some eastern deer hunters only use a .30-30 lever action, or maybe a .32 Special or .35 Remington. A few still carry Savage 99s in .250-3000 or .300 Savage, though when hunting back east I’ve run into many hunters who’ve traded in the old lever gun for a bolt-action. Remington pump actions are still pretty popular, especially in Pennsylvania. The list of chamberings is pretty much the same as for Montana’s 1-rifle hunters.
All of this indicates several cartridges work for all-around hunting in most of North America. My wife Eileen took her first handful of deer and pronghorns with the .257 Roberts inherited from my grandmother, but after that purchased a real elk rifle, a .270 Winchester. Over the next decade she used it to take half of the state’s 10 legal big game animals, including elk and moose, all with one shot.
When hunting black bear and bighorn sheep, however, she borrowed one of my .30-06s. Her .270 would have worked fine but she felt better carrying a “big” rifle, as the area where she drew her sheep tag is also grizzly country. She felt better packing out sheep meat with a bigger rifle in her hands. Since then she’s acquired a few more rifles, but none more powerful than the .270 Winchester—and used a .270 to take a cow bison a few years ago, also with one shot. Meanwhile her husband’s bounced from cartridge to cartridge like a supermodel going shoe-shopping.
The .375 Ruger is a great round, but hasn’t taken over from the .375 H&H among hunters
living in Africa because ammo and handloading components are so expensive over there.
Because We Can
Part of the reason American rifle loonies debate the all-around rifle question is because they can. Despite inroads into the Second Amendment, we’re still allowed to own a bunch of firearms. This isn’t true in other countries. My friends in South Africa are very restricted in the number and types of firearms they can own, and must apply for a separate license for every firearm. Each license requires another licensed shooter’s endorsement, a background check, a fairly hefty fee, and a demonstrated need for the firearm, whether for self-defense, target shooting or hunting. There isn’t any controversy over whether AR-15s make good hunting rifles, because civilian ownership of semi-auto rifles is outlawed.
This situation might seem to encourage the all-around rifle debate, but most people stick to common cartridges, especially the .30-06, though there are quite a few 7mm Remington Magnums, .308 Winchesters and .300 Winchester Magnums. This is partly because ammunition and handloading components are much more expensive than in America, and doubly so for uncommon cartridges.
If they hunt a lot they might also have both a lighter and heavier rifle. The light rifle will probably be a .243 or .270 Winchester, though the .22-250 Remington is also popular, especially among commercial hunters who shoot game for the marketplace. As in Europe, wild animals are the property of the landowner, and game meat is legally sold. I’ve done some of this culling myself when over there, and a .22-250 works fine on 75-pound springbok or even 400-pound kudu—if you put the bullet in the right place.
For non-professional hunters their heavier rifle is almost invariably a .375 H&H, though a few 9.3×62 Mausers still show up. Any caliber smaller than .375 (in some places 9.3mm) isn’t legal for dangerous game, so there aren’t many .338 Winchester Magnums or .35 Whelens. It’s also impractical to own any other .375 than an H&H, whether a .375 Ruger or .378 Weatherby, due to problems in buying ammo or components.
Not so oddly, a similar situation exists in Africa with the .375 H&H and dangerous game as exists in North America with elk. All but one of the African professional hunters I know are happy when their clients bring a .375 H&H for Cape buffalo, or even elephant. In fact, many use a .375 for their personal buffalo and elephant hunting. Sometimes they carry a bigger rifle when guiding clients for big stuff, since wounded animals are usually harder to kill and may be charging, but I also know very experienced PH’s who prefer the .375 H&H when backing up buffalo hunters—obviously because it works. Yet a great many American safari hunters are convinced the old .375 Holland really isn’t enough gun for any African game bigger than kudu.
Something of the same situation exists in Scandinavia, where the 6.5×55 is considered plenty for any big game, including moose. But you’ll rarely find North American moose hunters carrying a 6.5×55 or any similar round, because they know they’re too small. My personal experience with bull moose includes one Alberta bull taken with the 7×57, as close to the 6.5×55 as you can get without it being the same round. The bull went 19 yards before falling, about as far as the bull moose I’ve killed with the .338 Winchester Magnum and 9.3×62 Mauser. (Of course, some of our moose are much bigger than Scandinavian moose, and live in grizzly country, making a difference in what rifle we carry.)
Over the decades I’ve actually come to dislike being asked about all-around cartridges, because too often the question is obviously the gateway to an argument. My usual answer (because I believe it) is dozens of cartridges work fine on big game. This is because I’ve used 42 different cartridges on big game in various places around the world, if we’re willing to include 20- and 12-gauge slugs from rifled barrels, and any problems encountered were caused by the nut behind the bolt, not by the cartridge.
But lots of hunters like to argue with gun writers, even if the gun writer doesn’t want to argue. A few years ago Eileen and I rented a table at a local gun show to sell our books, some excess firearms and other gun stuff. A guy in his 60s walked up to the table and examined all the gun books, then noticed my nametag. He immediately went into a red-faced rant about “all you gun writers saying the .270 isn’t enough for African plains game.” I said my African experiences with the .270 Winchester had all been positive, but he was already off in a separate universe, far beyond the boundaries of normal conversation.
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a meeting of the local rod and gun club about my hunting experiences outside Montana in various places from Africa to Europe. Instead of telling only hunting stories I threw in some amusing cross-cultural incidents. The audience liked the stories, but I could see a few guys looking pretty serious even when everybody else was smiling or laughing. Afterward was a question-and-answer session, and one serious guy immediately raised his hand and said, “So what cartridge do you advise for hunting in Montana?”
Well shoot, I thought, or something like it, and said, “A bunch of cartridges work great on any big game we have here.” The guy didn’t like this answer, and a few others joined in, demanding something specific. (Not so oddly, no women did, even though many in the audience were long-time hunters.) Finally I grew weary and gave my other stock answer, “In my experience the .30-06 works fine on any Montana big game.” This was of course immediately greeted by groans and protests from two guys. One had used the .270 Winchester for Montana hunting for 40 years. The other was a recent immigrant who claimed to have taken both his deer and elk that fall at over 1,000 yards with the .338 Lapua Magnum, finding anything less unacceptable.
The big problem with the .30-06 and other old-time rounds such as the 6.5×55 and .375 H&H isn’t the cartridges themselves, but their lack of sex appeal to the guys who extend Internet threads about “Should I buy .270 or .280?” to hundreds of posts, many dealing with an additional 138 foot-pounds of energy at 500 yards, or a few decimal points in ballistic coefficient. Oddly enough, in shooting quite a few big game animals I’ve never noticed 138 ft-lbs (about the muzzle energy of a high-speed .22 Long Rifle hollowpoint bullet) to make any difference. The same can be said about 100 feet per second, or any of the other minutia quoted in discussions long enough to encircle the earth.
Those old-time rounds may not be enough in the “virtual” world, but in my experience they’re plenty for anything in the real world. Whether they’re all-around cartridges depends on which part of the planet we’re hunting, and whether we’re an all-around hunter.
By John Barsness
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