Gear > Ammunition

Who Needs A Magnum?

Magnum cartridges certainly have their place, but are they really required to take most game? Keith Wood evaluates their purpose and necessity.

The big kudu bull was standing on the ridge acting very much like an elk. As his thick spiraling horns flashed in the sun, my hands began to shake with excitement and my breathing grew heavy. I slipped down behind the fork of a small tree that looked like it grew there for just that purpose and used it as a rest. My nerves calmed by a few deep breaths, I slowly squeezed the Model 70’s 3-pound trigger and sent a 200 grain Swift A-Frame 235 yards across the canyon. The bull didn’t flinch. I cycled the bolt and found his shoulder again with the same result. As I made ready to shoot for a third time, he shook his massive headgear and walked behind some thick thorn, which obscured my target. After an agonizing minute, he re-emerged and I sent shot number three into his shoulder- he finally collapsed. When we traversed the canyon and got to him, I could cover all three shots with the palm of my hand—all were vital hits (if a bit high); he just didn’t know it. No one must have told him that he’d been shot with a .300 Win. Mag. For my first African safari, I knew that I needed a powerful rifle. I was relatively new to big-game hunting at the time, but I’d read so much about the tenacity of Africa’s game animals that I had to have more horsepower.

Fast-forward seven years and once again I’m after a big kudu bull after a day spent trying to locate a poacher-wounded elephant. We’d blown two stalks on a bachelor herd when we came around a corner to find them standing in the open in the grey dusk. I jumped out of the truck, grabbed my little 7x57 Mauser and shot the bull stone dead. Is the 7x57 a better cartridge for elk-sized game than the .300? Is the Partition a better bullet than the A-Frame? Not necessarily. The difference between the two bulls was several years of experience shooting animals big and small and steel and paper targets near and far. The difference was shot placement—put a decent bullet through the heart of any animal and it will die.

I don’t care who you are or how much you shoot, recoil and muzzle blast are not contributors to better shooting. I don’t count myself as recoil shy, but I’m not immune to the laws of nature—its OK to be afraid of explosive forces near your face. I can shoot .338s and .416s with precision, but it takes far more concentration than it does to hit the same target with something like a .270 or that little kudu-slaying 7x57.

The term “magnum” can mean a lot of things (the term comes from extra large bottles of wine) but it generally refers to a cartridge with additional powder capacity that pushes bullets faster than its standard counterpart. Lets take the American standard .30 caliber as an example. If we assume that the .30-06 is the baseline, with most 180 grain loads producing muzzle velocities of 2,800 fps, we move up through the various magnums and watch the velocities (and recoil levels rise).

Clearly, the .30-caliber magnums produce faster velocities than the traditional .30-06 loads. But what does that mean in the field? If we can agree that the .30-06 is an effective cartridge for most big game animals using well-constructed 180-grain bullets at 300 yards, we have a means of comparison. At 300 yards, that .30-06 bullet is moving at roughly 2,200 fps (many premium bullets such as the Nosler Partition and Accubond are designed to expand at as little as 1,900 fps). Lets examine at what distance the various magnums meet that same velocity threshold.

Once again, we see an advantage to the magnum cartridges when it comes to impact velocity. How about trajectory, don’t magnums shoot “way flatter?”

This is where we start to see reality hit. The mighty .300 Ultra, producing nearly 1.5 times the ft.-lbs. of recoil of the .30-06 only gives you 7 inches less bullet drop at 400 yards.

OK, I know what you’re thinking, speed kills right? Within the bounds of reason, my experience tells me that bullet velocity does not have a dramatic effect on the lethality of a cartridge. I’m not saying that velocity doesn’t matter: If it didn’t, rifle cartridges wouldn’t be more impressive on game than handgun rounds. I’ll even concede that velocity can result in a faster kill due to rapid bullet expansion and more violent tissue damage. That said, I’ve never seen an animal that either died or got away wounded because of a few hundred fps of bullet speed. Animals die when bullets strike vital organs and the brain’s oxygen supply is cut off. So, the most important factor in ensuring the game animal’s demise is making sure that the bullet reaches the anatomical target and destroys it. That means a) shot placement, and b) proper bullet construction.

What’s the difference between the big-bodied whitetail that dropped last year with my .260 and the big bull elk that I shot but didn’t recover with a .300 WSM? It obviously wasn’t speed: It was bullet placement. Whether my bullet was deflected in the thick timber or I simply made a bad hit, the magnum headstamp on the cartridge didn’t make a difference on the elk. If I could get in a time machine and take that shot over again, I wouldn’t bring a bigger rifle, I’d take a second longer to pull the trigger.

I’m not saying that magnum cartridges don’t have a purpose, I own many and use them when they’re needed—if you can honestly shoot them well, they have their advantages. My point is that if you’re hunting deer- or elk-sized game at ranges of 300 yards or less, you’re far better off with a less-powerful cartridge that you can shoot well than a boomer that punishes you every time you pull the trigger. Next time someone tells you that your .30-06 is no good for elk but their .300 Wby. will smoke them out to 500 yards, show them the math.

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15 Responses to Who Needs A Magnum?

theconsultant wrote:
November 30, 2013

I know plenty people who shoot whitetails with a .243... its all about shot placement. I'm also seen guys stoke their ego and walk out into the field with a Weatherby .338-378. Is the cannon really necessary?? No, but you also would not shoot a mature bull elk at 468 yards with a .243. Its all about what you are most comfortable and accurate with.

GAYLE WENTLING wrote:
November 13, 2013

I have not shot enough elk to prove whether a 7 mag is adequate or not - it did work on them. But, I have 2 friends with lots of elk hunting experience. One has shot 55 elk, 20 bulls 6 x 6 or bigger. All but one with 150 gr (mostly pointed core lokt factories) 30/06. The only one he had trouble getting killed was shot with 100gr bullets out of a 250 Savage - not enough penetration, but finally got it. This guy's dad outfitted in NW Wyoming from the late 40s to the early 60s. They thought the 06 superior to the 270 and 300 H & H. They thought those two were too fast for the bullet construction. The other guy has killed about 30-35 elk, also with a 30/06 and also with 150 gr pointed core lokts. He also killed 5 bulls with an 18' barreled 6.5 x 55 with 140 gr Sierra spitzer boattails. I have to tell you that I would not be confident shooting elk with bullets of relatively low sectional density (150-30s). In fact, I would shoot premium bullets in almost all calibers/weights. You don't shoot so many that they will break you. Also, in spite of these credible accounts - as well as Harry Selby's story of a Rem 721 30/06 killing around a thousand African animals reliably: I think a person should shoot the heaviest caliber he can shoot JUST AS WELL as a lighter caliber. If that is just a 270, then load it up with premium bullets and it will probably work very well. Maybe a person can shoot a 9 1/2 lb 338 as well as he can shoot a 7 1/2 lb 270. Decide which is more important, weight or power. Probably not an easy decision.

Jerry Trowbridge wrote:
November 07, 2013

I remember Jack O'Conner and his 270; but when he went for larger game (Elephants and Cape buffalo) he said he would borrow his wife's 30-06....He died of old age !!! I bought my md 70 featherweight 30-06 in 1958. Killed my first Elk in 59. One shot 6 point bull. I have killed 43 elk in my life, all shot with the 06 except for 13 that were killed with my 243 Featherweight md 70 100gr. Remington kor lock. I am 68 and still wonder after reading about all these new bullets and magnums how I ever got anything on the ground. I now use my Md92 Browning 357 mag for deer, and my Md92 44 mag Browning for Elk. I have not bought hamburger for 50yrs. Not bragging just facts ...Nuf said.

Doug Gary wrote:
October 31, 2013

the reason i like the bigger magnum rifle is for more engergy at longer distances and if you happen to miss your marj by a inch or so that bigger rifle will take him down faster than if you miss your mark with a smaller calibur.

Larry Michels wrote:
October 28, 2013

Keith, your article mirrors what I have, through experience, learned over the last 50 years of hunting. The majority of whitetail hunters in America don't have the financial resources to book an African safari and therefore don't really need a 'magnum' rifle to take whitetail-sized game. The 25-06 is more than adequate for whitetails and the recoil is quite moderate which usually enhances the accuracy of any shooter. Selecting the proper bullet and shot placement is the key to success.

RB wrote:
October 22, 2013

Good article. The bullet does the work. A magnum just ups the delivery system a tad. So match the bullet to the game, and the cartridge to the hunting situation. That said, I do like larger diameter, heavier bullets than typical 30-06 180's. So if one wants the same huntability as the 30-06 at 2800fps, then a 338 needs to be a WinMag, and when buffalo are in the area a handloaded 416Rigby can be comforting. But for deer and antelope, the 270 and all its cousins are a 'magnum delivery system'.

CJV wrote:
October 20, 2013

I do not agree. Which would you pick for Cape Buff- a 30-06 or 416 Mag? Plus every animal/situation is different. Yes in a perfect world everything can be killed with standard rounds- but not always right away and even with good shot placement. When I hunt I intend to finish what got started. Otherwise do not pull the trigger. I once shot a rut crazed moose 5 times with a 375 Mag at 30 yards as he refused to go down despite correct placement. Other moose go down at the shot, even with a 30-06! Some linger around several minutes. My longest off-hand shot ever, the moose was hit in the heart at 400 yards with a 300 Mag the last morning of the hunt. I would not have even tried with a standard round. Respecting game along with a decision to harvest them, for me they need to go down quickly! The last thing I want is to wound! I say practice shooting, know your gun/game, pass on questionable shots and when you do shoot, use more than enough gun for the worst and unexpected situations. I've hunted the North Country and Africa, and from experience choose to use Magnums. They hit harder and shoot flatter and usually drop game quicker. Recoil means little in the field- more so at the bench. Sure, I could hunt elk with a 25-06. What fun to think I'm always that good of a shot! But I have to tell you, a 338 Win Mag really smacks them! Funny, some guys in my group seem to have to shoot their elk multiple times with their 06s. They think the 06 is a great elk gun- I don't. The 338 Mag is. For an all-around big game hunting rifle, I want a cartridge for close and far shots on all sized animals. One that can take game in tough situations if called upon. And one that could protect me if needed from some angry beast afield. I like most cartridges, but the Standards just do not cut it. Magnums do and provide an edge. Lately I've become fond of the 325 WSM, a cartridge not popular. It should be because it smacks game good, kicks like a lesser round and drops game quickly from deer to moose! Give me a Magnum!

Buckbuster wrote:
August 21, 2013

Great article and emphasis on shot placement is the ticket. I'm trying to get my buddies to dump the 12 gauge slug guns for the 20s. More than enough killing power for deer. Same with the .50 muzzleloaders. Both are peddled to sell more lead and powder. That's all.

faultroy wrote:
August 20, 2013

I completely agree with you on pretty much everything. For the average blue collar worker, these new designer 'gucci' calibers and rounds really don't make much sense. I use the 30/06 and have studied the ballistic tables. As a rule, there is a direct correlation with the diameter of a bullet; its velocity and the amount of powder and pressure it handles. The smaller the bullet, the faster the bullet usually travels. The bigger the diameter, the slower the bullet travels. Both velocity and bullet diameter will kill animals. The joy of using a round like the 30-06 is its tremendous versatility. You can go from 110 grains up to 250 grains. You can also reduce load and even shoot cast bullets to get more enjoyment out of your gun. It saves a lot of money by using reduced loads and even casting your own bullets. I've never understood this magnum caliber focus--why? It's not like animals have not been cleanly dispatched with traditional hunting methods. Even the new designer bullets are enormously expensive. I get you might want to play with them if you are on safari, but for hunting deer sized game? What for? The old bullets killed just as well. It appears to be a solution to a problem that does not exist. Like so many things in life, shooting and hunting have become metrosexualized and effeminized. Its not what is and isn't but how it sounds and how it feels. Pretty soon our purchases of bullets will be coming with doillies--you know so we can color coordinate.

Joe Hawkins wrote:
August 20, 2013

Lot's of dear killed with 22 long rifle,so placement means something!

JeffK wrote:
August 20, 2013

Keith, Great article! I am glad someone has addressed this subject. But I have a question. How does the .308 rank on your chart?

CWD wrote:
August 19, 2013

Keith, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hit the enter button. Anyway, I started talking about pistol rounds as I am an avid hunter with handguns. But, I totally agree with you concerning Mag. rifle rounds. I love hunting and my favorite round is the 3006 Win. bullet weight depends on what type game I'm hunting. Your article is great. Thank you for writing it.

CWD wrote:
August 19, 2013

Keith, Most states require a mag size cartridge ie; 357 mag with a required amount of velocity and grain wt. for hunting big game.

Brian Bode wrote:
August 19, 2013

Great article. Just returned from SA safari. Eland at 250 yds, Gemsbuck at 300, Waterbuc at 60, and Blue Wildebeest at 150. All with 30-06 and 180 grain Barnes bullets. All now with the taxidermist. Used 300 WinMag last safari, can't tell difference except for easy recoil and handling of Ruger Mdl 77 in 30-06. So much easier and more fun.

RAP wrote:
August 19, 2013

Same goes for slugs thrown from a shotgun in MI farm country. I quit using magnum loads years & deers ago.