Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pick the Proper Caliber for Your Game

This week I am going back to an old topic and an even older picture of a trophy that hangs in a place of honor on my wall.  If you run into me today it has been a long time since I looked like the hunter in the picture.  The Desert Mule Deer in the picture was taken with a .243 at extreme range and it took multiple shots to anchor him.  All were fatal shots, but because of the long range, bullet expansion was non existent.  Remember with small fast bullets that you will need enough velocity for the bullet to perform properly.  If you plan on long shots use enough gun to maintain down range velocity and bullet expansion.  I get the same question over and over from new hunters and even from experienced hunters that should know by now what calibers to use on specific quarry. The questions usually go something like the following. Is a ____good enough to hunt_______? You can fill in the first blank with whatever caliber and the other blank with whatever animal you wish to and the answer should still be the same. Use enough gun to humanely take the quarry you are hunting at the distance you should expect to be shooting. It should also have enough energy to cleanly kill if your shot is off just a little bit. Bullet placement and type is so important in a clean kill. I am not going to get into arguing the merits of all the calibers. I usually rank them as light caliber, standard calibers and magnum calibers. I have harvested surplus doe and exotics on a game ranch where we used small fast varmint calibers and out of hundreds taken, all were killed cleanly. The key was taking only good, standing shots from a solid rest at reasonable ranges. I have also spent hours trailing deer for clients that had been shot with the latest greatest magnum on the market. The difference was bullet placement. If you shoot a super magnum and the recoil makes you pull, the shot it would be much better for you to shoot a lighter less powerful round that you could precisely place the shot. I guided Desert Mule Deer hunters for many years and carried a lightweight .243 for my backup rifle. That little gun put down many a wounded deer that had been shot by a large magnum but hit badly. The .243 did not usually drop big Mule deer on the spot, but very few ran more than a hundred yards. In wide open country that is not a problem. If you are hunting in thick brush country where a deer disappears in 10 yards you might need to shoot a caliber that will anchor them on the spot. Bullet placement was usually very precise as one can shoot the .243 with ease and the rifle is light enough to shoot very well off hand. Step up to the .308 and the result will be more knockdown with just a little more recoil if you need the power. If you are on a high dollar trophy hunt and can handle the recoil shoot whatever you feel you need to put your trophy down on the spot. You alone can really decide what amount of recoil you can handle. The key is to be honest with yourself. When a hunter asks me if I will sight in their rifle for them I can assure you most of the time they are afraid of the recoil and just do not want to suffer the pain of recoil. Lots of people can’t handle a hard-kicking rifle and you should not have to. There are too many good choices of calibers that will get the job done without excess recoil.

These days a lot of people are shooting an AR-15 platform in .556, .223 and other short cartridges that fit the platform. Some want to hog or deer hunt with the guns because they are accurate and fun to shoot. Many have been told by others that the .223 is too small to hunt deer or hogs. It depends on how big the deer are in your area and at what range you will be shooting them, the type of bullet you will be using and at what speed it is moving. It also depends on whether you can place your bullet precisely and if you are willing to pass on a shot if you do not get a good standing shot. My wife dropped a large Hill Country buck last year with one shot from her little .223.  She has often passed shots when bullet placement would have been questionable due to brush, angle, distance or when the deer would not quit moving. I have culled hundreds of hogs, whitetail does and exotics through the years with a .223 and love the little round. The key is bullet placement. If you make a bad shot with a .223 you will have problems as it does not have extra power to blow things up if you are off target like some of the larger more powerful cartridges. On the other hand do you need a large magnum caliber to hunt 75-100 pound whitetails? I think not. If you are hunting 700 pound Nilgai Antelope on the coastal plains of South Texas or Wild Feral Bulls along the Rio Grande you will need the most rifle you can effectively shoot with all the recoil you can stand. Just fit the caliber and velocity to the game.

If you wish to use a marginal caliber be sure and use the best bullet and power cartridge available and practice so you can put the bullet where it goes. A feral hog hit in the crease behind the ear with a .22 or .17HMR within 50 yards will go down like a sledge hammer hit it. Shoot it in the shoulder with the same load and all you have done is wound an animal. It seems a lot of people want to hunt coyotes and other predators with a .22 LR or .17HMR. Those calibers will work but they are by far not the best to use. How many of us shoot everyday, once a week or even once a month and have enough skill to precisely place those calibers?  Would it not be better to hunt them with one of the fast .22 caliber centerfires that will anchor them for sure?  I have guided many self-proclaimed expert shots that must have had something wrong with their rifles or just had bad luck because they could not shoot a decent group at the target range with their guns, and missed shots at game within normal distances. It is funny but experienced guides can usually tell which clients will be able to shoot well and those who cannot. It is not some psychic sense but mostly how someone carries themselves. A truly good shooter pays attention to the guide and does not have to tell everyone what a good shot they are. The guns and scopes have been taken care of but show some wear. They carry shooting sticks or shooting bags for a rest. The rifle stock and strap fit them. The brands of ammo they carry all match and are the same bullet weight. They do not tell me their rifle was bore sighted when I ask if they checked the zero on their rifle. They don’t tell me their last kill was made at 375 or 450 or 600 yards. If you think you can shoot that far tell me how far your bullet drops at 450 yards without looking at a ballistic chart. Then tell me you have a laser range finder and trained for several months or even years in long range shooting and I might start to consider you did make that shot if you have a tactical ranging scope on your flat-shooting, well-worn, sniper rifle. Now if you can find a 400 yard range within a few hours driving time of your location go try to hit the target when you finally get time to practice. I usually smile when a hunter that tells me he can shoot the long shots tells me we need to try and get closer to a 250 yard deer.  Remember shooting off a steady rest and bench is not like making a shot in the field. If you really want to train for long range shooting go on some prairie dog hunts. It is one of the best teachers of long range shooting I know of, if you take advantage of the long range targets and learn how to hit them. Most people will be amazed at the holdover and wind drift that takes place on really long shots. I love hunting with experienced prairie dog hunters as they can buckle down and make a long shot when it counts. If you question your firearm or caliber, go shoot it awhile before the hunt and you will know if it is enough gun or maybe even too much gun. Like I always tell my hunters, you can validate your man card with the shot you make and the game you hang on the meat pole. The caliber of rifle you carry means very little about what kind of shooter you are. Good Shooting, Wild Ed

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