Pick the right calibre for the hunt
Image Via: Mark Raycroft

Pick the right calibre for the hunt

For specific game and terrain, you can find just the right calibre to get the job done right

The largest grizzly bear ever shot in Alberta was taken back in 1953 by a 63-year-old Native woman. As the story goes, Bella Twin was picking berries near Slave Lake when she encountered a huge bear that had obviously decided the berries were his for the taking, and his alone. Defending herself the only way she could, Twin lifted the rifle she always carried, pointed it quickly and fired. The great bear fell to the ground, stone dead, a single shot to the brain. To this day, Twin’s grizzly stands as the longest-reigning provincial big-game record in Alberta, and it may well never be broken. There are varying accounts of the incident, but all agree on one thing: Twin did the job with the humblest of rifles, a single-shot .22.

The story of Twin’s bear illustrates an unfortunate fact that some hunters push to impractical and unethical extremes-that a lucky or expertly placed shot from virtually any firearm is capable of downing even the largest big-game animal. From a practical hunting standpoint, however, few are the times that Lady Luck enhances our shooting prowess, and fewer still are those who can honestly claim to be expert marksmen.

With that in mind, nimrods through the ages have searched for a rifle cartridge that will do it all, in all hunting scenarios. Invariably, however, what they have found has been anything but perfect for all purposes. This is especially so here in Canada, given the wide diversity of game and habitat. The best advice for hunters looking to select the best possible cartridge, then, is to forget about finding one that will do it all.

Instead, hunters should consider the animals they will be hunting and where they will be hunting them. That’s the very thought process that went into the following recommendations to assist in your next rifle purchase. No doubt my choices are subject to debate, but that’s in part what makes for lively campfire discussions after the day’s hunt.

Elk

Pound for pound, elk are about as tough a game animal as most of us are ever likely to hunt. Hit them in the right place and they’ll go down, but make an error in shot placement and you’re in for a long day of tracking. Whether shooting from extremely close range (when calling elk) or shooting across mountain valleys, the message here is the same: select the largest mid-range calibre that you can shoot well. I know plenty of elk have been taken with .270s and smaller, but I recommend the 7mm magnums as a preferred minimum, with the .300 magnums, .340 Weatherby and .338 Win. Mag. as even better choices. If you don’t have a broadside shot and have to punch your bullet into an elk from an angle, you’ll be thankful for the extra power. These animals demand premium bullets designed for deep penetration and controlled expansion, regardless of the calibre selected. I once shot an elk at more than 300 metres that went down with one shot from my 7mm Rem. Mag. loaded with 160-grain Nosler Partition bullets, but I had a solid rest and a broadside shot. Anything less and I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger.

Mule deer

Large mule deer are as big or bigger than large whitetails, though from my experience they aren’t quite as tough. Typical mule deer habitat means long shots are often the rule, whether hunting the open prairie or mountain foothills and valleys. Again, hunters should select a cartridge in the .270 to .300 Win. Mag. range. The new breed of “short magnums” in this calibre range, first introduced to the hunting community with the .300 Winchester Short Magnum, are ideal for mule deer hunters who hunt at higher elevations or in prairie river breaks. These cartridges are designed for short-action rifles, meaning they can be built lighter-a definite advantage for those who are going to be walking up and down hills all day.

Note that the West Coast subspecies of the mule deer, the Columbian blacktail, is significantly smaller in stature than its inland cousin. As well, it is typically hunted in rolling country with thick, forested cover, so shots beyond 200 metres are rare. As a result, ideal calibre choices start with the .243 and include the 6mm Rem., .25-06 and .257 Roberts, though you won’t have too much gun with anything up to a .30-06 in your hands.

Moose

There is no better single descriptor for moose than massive, as anyone who’s ever had to haul one out of the bush can certainly attest to. Simply, 1,200 pounds is not uncommon for a big bull moose. And while moose are generally not as tough, pound for pound, as elk, they still demand plenty of punch, especially in conditions where shots may exceed 200 metres.

Minimum ideal moose cartridges start with the 7mm magnums, though again I’d certainly prefer to see more hunters tackle them with rifles in the .300 magnum to .338 Win. Mag. range. With their tough hide, dense meat and thick bones, moose require premium bullets designed for superior penetration.

Caribou

There are considerable differences among the recognized varieties of caribou in Canada, with the tundra versions generally having smaller bodies than their woodland or mountain cousins, and with average weights ranging from 250 pounds to more than 400. The similarity between them, however, is their penchant for inhabiting relatively open country, leading one to think that the 7mm magnums, .30-06 and even .300 magnums would be among the best-suited calibres (and they are certainly not out of place in any caribou camp). Caribou, however, are not usually as tough as a similarly sized deer, and despite their open habitat, they can generally be stalked to within a reasonable range. That makes cartridges such as the 7×57, .270 Win. and .280 Rem. ideal for caribou, and a good deal easier to shoot than the bigger magnums.

Goats and sheep

Hunting goats and sheep offers a true challenge. Common shooting distances can be anywhere from 30 to 300 metres-depending on whether the terrain allows for a stalk-and wind can often play a confounding role. Then there are the animals themselves: big Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep can exceed 300 pounds, with goats and sheep (Stone’s and Dall’s) weighing somewhat less on average. Though magnum power is not a necessity for these animals, it can provide an advantage when hunting in extremely rugged habitat that demands an animal be anchored (and thus avoid the risk of being unable to retrieve it). Popular effective calibres include the .270, .280, 7mm magnums and the .30-06; all can carry sufficient energy out to the extended ranges a hunter may face. The short-action magnums in the .270 to .300 range are well suited for hunting these animals, as they offer ideal ballistic properties and can be chambered in relatively light rifles.

White-tailed deer

Among all of Canada’s big game, the whitetail is hunted by more people and in a wider variety of shooting scenarios than any other animal-and that means there are plenty of opinions out there about the best cartridge. Those who hunt Saskatchewan’s open prairies, for example, would scoff at what is an ideal cartridge for northern Ontario’s thick bush, and vice versa. With that in mind, what follows are cartridge recommendations for three different types of habitat: close, dense cover allowing maximum shots of less than 100 metres; mixed cover where opportunities can extend from your lap out to roughly 225 metres; and open cover where shots out to 350 metres and beyond are not unexpected.

In close cover, particularly in broad expanses of forest, shooting opportunities can arise quickly, and the habitat dictates that every extra foot you have to trail a wounded animal greatly increases the odds of losing it. Hunters, therefore, should select a cartridge with considerable power at short range. The renowned .30-30 is an excellent choice here, and its flat-nosed bullets transfer energy quickly. Other good choices include the .444 Marlin and the .45-70 Govt., with any rifle in the .270 to .300 Win. Mag. range offering plenty of punch-despite the fact that the spitzer-style bullets typical in these calibres are not as well suited for short-range conditions. (For more on bullet options, see “Bullet basics”)

In mixed cover, shooting will range from close shots in brush to shots across hillsides and down cutlines. Minimum calibres here start with the .243 and 6mm Rem., with the .25-06, .257 Roberts, 7×57, .270 Win. and .280 Rem. all great choices. All are relatively mild-recoiling rounds that offer excellent bullet performance on deer at medium ranges.

As you move to more open country, as is typically found in the Prairies and parts of B.C., you’ll find a whole new set of variables. The deer here are among Canada’s largest, for one, and there’s the potential for shooting opportunities at extended range. Accordingly, hunters should opt for flat-shooting calibres that pack plenty of wallop. These include everything from the .264 Win. Mag. through to the .270 and 7mms, all the way up to the .308, .30-06 and even the .300 magnums. You won’t often need the power afforded by those at the upper end of the scale, but when the occasion arises, you’ll be thankful you’ve got a cartridge capable of carrying energy a long way.

The right calibre selection for any given big-game species is of little value if you haven’t selected the right bullet. I still recall the dread I felt in moose camp one year when a hunter showed up with a 150-grain, rapidly expanding bullet loaded in his .300 Win. Mag. The bullet was clearly not a good choice in this calibre; the high velocity and rapid expansion would likely have resulted in poor penetration and a wounded and, quite possibly, lost moose. Fortunately, he didn’t get an opportunity to expose the weakness in his bullet selection.

The choice of bullets within any given calibre has never been greater than it is today, which can pose a problem for hunters unfamiliar with bullet properties. Fortunately, the quality of factory-loaded ammunition has never been better; the problems associated with inconsistent bullet performance are long behind us, and today’s premium factory loads all but equal the best handloads. When selecting your bullet, start by reviewing what the manufacturers recommend-most offer suggestions for specific bullet weights and styles for the various game species.

Style

Rifle bullets are typically made from a lead core encased within a copper/zinc jacket, designed to protect the lead, reduce fouling in the barrel, ensure stability in flight and control expansion upon impact. In most bullets, the lead at the nose is exposed to initiate expansion, a process that can also be initiated through hollow-point or plastic-tipped varieties.

Bullets come in two basic styles: rounded or flat-nosed versions and pointed, or spitzer, models designed to enhance aerodynamics. Flat- or round-nosed bullets initiate expansion more easily and typically expand more consistently. They also tend to penetrate on a straighter path and are less likely to veer off course if they strike an obstruction, such as grass or twigs, during flight. These bullets are best suited for close shots coupled with thick cover and/or large game.

As for the spitzer-style bullet, the advantages centre on its improved aerodynamic penetration, or ballistic coefficient (a higher ballistic coefficient means better velocity retention and energy at long ranges, and a flatter trajectory). Even more aerodynamic is the boat-tailed spitzer, which features an inward-tapered base; this bullet is at its best when extended ranges in relatively open cover are the norm.

Penetration

Another measure of bullet performance that hunters should be aware of is “sectional density,” or SD. This is calculated by dividing the weight of a bullet (in pounds) by its diameter (in inches) squared; the higher the resulting number the better. For example, a 100-grain .24 calibre bullet has an SD of .242, whereas a 100-grain .30 calibre bullet has an SD of .151. In essence, the formula is based on the premise that a long, narrow bullet penetrates better than a short, fat bullet of equal weight-and that penetration is the most critical performance measure when it comes to sure kills. As a result, SD can be a valuable measurement in helping determine which calibre and bullet weight is best suited for any given game species. It’s generally recommended that hunters should opt for an SD of .230 or more when hunting deer-sized game, and .260 or more for larger game, such as moose, elk or bears.

Thanks to the quality and performance of today’s factory ammunition, premium bullets designed for increased penetration are generally not required for deer-sized game if you’ve selected an adequate calibre-bullet combination. Consider these bullets, however, if larger game is on the ticket. In that case, there are a number of factory-loaded premium bullets designed for enhanced penetration, including the Nosler Partition, the Swift A-Frame, the Barnes X, the Winchester Fail Safe and the Remington Core-Lokt Ultra. Another important rule of thumb to keep in mind when hunting elk- and moose-sized game is to select heavy-for-calibre bullets rather than light ones. They will provide deeper and more reliable penetration and expansion, which is key when it comes to ensuring a full freezer.

A word about guns

Although it is generally acknowledged that the bolt-action is the strongest and, therefore, the most reliable of the repeating-action styles, I’ve been around or shot enough pump-action, lever-action and semi-automatic rifles in my time to know that hunters should select the one they feel most comfortable with (if it’s available in the calibre and make of their choice). All will perform reliably if properly maintained, and a hunter’s familiarity with-and confidence in-his or her rig is far more important to success than is action style.

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