Many hunters worry that they have erred on the side of “underpowered” in their caliber choice, and it can cause some uneasiness with their hunt. But more often than not, the real question most hunters should be asking is, “Did I bring too much gun?”


What Will It Take to Ensure a Clean Kill on Your Chosen Animal?

Hunters are now using the .223/5.56 just about everywhere in America to harvest deer in casual hunting environments. This is an animal that has historically been stalked with the .270 caliber—so it’s clear that it’s possible that less can be more—or at the very least, the same. A 30 caliber bullet could also be used, but it may represent overkill on all but the largest deer species. Even then, only the largest deer would require that kind of firepower under most conditions.

A 30 caliber bullet in a mainstream load is more than enough firepower for elk in close and moderate range scenarios; you can push the boundaries with a hot .30-06 or .308 if you need the extra ballistic values. However, it wouldn’t be overkill to utilize the mainstream loads for the .300 Winchester Magnum, and by extension you could justify a .338 Magnum and the .7mm Magnum, but they are borderline overkill unless you need range-defying, flat-shooting characteristics. Of course, this presumes you are in normal atmospheric conditions that don’t degrade the ballistic performance.

In the spectrum of the Magnums listed briefly above, you are also into the dangerous game calibers for North America. You can kill just about any type of bear with a .300 WM or a .338 (of any variety), all of which should bring enough performance to the table for a well-placed shot, and most of which are secure providers of emergency stopping power in the case of a charging, angry animal.

One interesting option here is just about perfect for bison/buffalo—the .45-70 Government load. It also happens to be one of the more versatile rounds for MOST North American game because you can not only kill medium and large deer with special load variants, but also the largest bears with heavy bullet and powder configurations. And, the .45-70 is extremely versatile regarding the difficulties of overkill specifically because you can custom-tailor the load to match the game, and the huge projectile keeps the velocity within a range that won’t cause hyperstatic conditions—which can be detrimental on many game types.


Modern Ballistic Improvements are Game Changers

The concepts of load modifications and load-out options are probably the biggest contributing factor to the basis of this article. The fact that modern ballistics allow for huge variations in velocity and energy on target is key. Similarly, you can find a load in so many different projectile sizes allowing for rounds like the .30-06, the .300 Winchester Magnum and the .45-70 to be tailored to animals from 300 lbs. to 1000 lbs. pretty easily under the right conditions without too much detriment to the meat-harvesting aspects of the kill.

Tough Animals

Mountain goats, rams and other tough hide, craggy animals will require more kinetic energy that cannot easily be delivered with smaller caliber rifles—even if the regulations say a minimum is acceptable. Although the laws regarding minimum caliber specifications for a hunting region are generally good baselines, you will want to use a larger caliber on animals with tough body or hide compositions since hides are generally the major obstacle in ballistic limitation—especially at longer distances. Hide/skin is elastic and represents a huge obstacle to certain bullet types and load styles—much more so than muscle or bone, which is significantly more predictable regarding bullet deflection/momentum.

 Dangerous Game Areas

When in bear country, you cannot afford to be without absolute stopping power. When running into an angry or protective bear, you will want to know that you can get out alive. Many guides in Alaska use lever action .45-70s or very large magnum caliber rifles to ensure they have safety in unexpected situations. They prefer fast follow-up shot capabilities and the mass in the bullet. Keep in mind that in a bear incident, you aren’t shooting at a charging bear at 300 yards, so the large looping ballistic arc of the .45-70 Govt. can also more than handle the job. Similarly, when utilizing a fast, heavy energy bullet like the .338 you get the type of instant stopping power you need against a massive, angry animal.

And, when in dangerous game areas, it is (of course) completely appropriate to bring magnum rifles for smaller (large) game. Your safety trumps the adverse effects of overkill.


Why Do You Not Want Overkill?

It might seem smart to bring more gun than you need and use standard loads for a variety of reasons. But an important concern will be the harvesting of usable meat and the unnecessary destruction of hides. Using a .338 Lapua Magnum on a 175 lb. deer at 100 yards will yield a largely unusable carcass because of the immense amount of energy delivery and velocity. It simply destroys the meat under conditions like that.

A .223, .243, or .270 would be an ideal caliber under those conditions. Even a .22-250 might begin to be too fast for certain conditions, though it could still be appropriate. These rounds will easily service up to 300 lbs. of game with normal hides in favorable environmental conditions.

Difficulty in placing a shot because of flinching or anticipation of shooting a rifle can also cause a detrimental effect—and can be likely to happen with too much firepower in a magnum rounds.


Do You Have Enough Gun?

As long as you are taking responsible shots and you are using the minimum requirements, it’s pretty hard NOT to dispatch a given animal, but a great rule of thumb is to follow the regional sentimentality of experienced hunters. Talk to several hunters as well as take a composite reading about caliber for game. If they are saying you need a .30-06 for small deer in the area, and all of them are saying the same thing—they likely know something that creates that anomaly. It could be wind, difficult tree lines, altitude adjustments or simply the species.

The overarching concept here is “less is more” if you understand the anatomy of the animal and have practiced with your rifle to gain experience. Ironically, “bigger is better” is more often associated with inexperience when hunting, because without that experience to reassure you of your capabilities, you can at least rely on the extra stopping power of the larger load.

Chances are, if you are looking at the minimum calibers and staying within reason of those specifications in your area, you will have more than enough gun to have a fun, successful, and safe hunt.

-Benjamin Wortham