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WELCOME to the August, 2011 edition of the 24hourcampfire newsletter.  You will find John Barsness's latest Campfire-exclusive column, "OLDER HUNTERS, SMALLER RIFLES" below.

As a Campfire member, you can take the opportunity to ask John Barsness questions about "OLDER HUNTERS, SMALLER RIFLES."  He will give it to you straight!


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     by John Barsness

    John Barsness AROUND 1990 I HAD TWO friends, both about a decade older than me, in what's known as the shooting industry firmly tell me that as hunters gain experience they tend to use "bigger rifles," by which they meant more powerful cartridges.  At the time both guys were in their late 40's.

    One of these guys and I hunted in South Africa in 2002, and his rifle didn't show up at the airport in Johannesburg.  (His fault, since he hadn't understood that when switching airlines in Washington, D.C. on the trip over, he had to personally transfer his luggage.)  I'd brought two rifles and said he could use one, but he's a real rifle loony and wanted to use his own custom rifle.

    He was also pretty sure it would show up soon, so decided to just observe for the first day or so, since he's hunted plenty in his life.  But by the third day with no rifle he became somewhat restless and took me up on my offer.  I'd brought a .30-06 but, at the last minute, also decided to bring a .375 H&H.  This was a plains game cull hunt on a huge ranch, with nothing bigger than gemsbok on the list, but Nosler had just brought out the new 260-grain Ballistic Tip for the .375.  I decided that a cull hunt would be the perfect place to wring it out.

    At the beginning of the hunt I shot the .375 to get the bullet-testing done.  The animals ranged from 100-pound springbok to gemsbok, and one of the gemsbok was the largest bull I've ever taken, both in horn and body weight.  His dressed and skinned carcass, minus the head and lower legs, weighed exactly 300 pounds (actually 136 kilograms) on the scale in the ranch's slaughterhouse.

    In South Africa game meat is legally sold in supermarkets and restaurants, and they've developed precise formulas for figuring out how much animals weighed on the veldt, helpful information for game management.  They told me that a gemsbok carcass weighing 300 pounds meant the bull weighed around 540 pounds.  It would be virtually impossible for a gemsbok to grow that large in the Kalahari Desert, but we were hunting the Karoo region of South Africa.  This looks just like parts of eastern Montana and Wyoming, except the sagebrush has thorns.  Called Karoo bush, it's exceptionally nutritious, the reason the region is a great sheep-ranching area just as eastern Montana and Wyoming used to be.

    By the third morning the 260-grain Ballistic Tip had taken more than enough game to prove itself, so when my large-rifle-liking friend decided he'd take me up on the loan offer, I told him he could use the .375.  He didn't look exactly overjoyed with this, and looked even less joyful that evening: The point of impact turned out to be different for him, and several rounds were required to get it zeroed.  He was even less happy the next day after missing a couple of animals, and ended up not taking any game on the entire trip.

    In the meantime I'd switched to the .30-06.  My original theme for the hunt was to demonstrate that a factory .30-06 (in this instance a Remington 700 picked up used at a local gun store) with a typical 3-9x,scope, shooting boring 180-grain Nosler Partitions at 2700 fps, was adequate for African plains game.

    Of course, I already knew this from watching other people use the .30-06 successfully on two other safaris, but there's an unwritten rule that gun writers must personally pull the trigger to come to any publicly presentable conclusions.  This is arrant nonsense, of course.  Who would you rather believe about, say, elk cartridges?  An outfitter who's only taken two elk himself (because he has an unending supply of elk meat from clients more interested in antlers) but sees dozens of elk killed each fall or a gun writer who's taken half-a-dozen elk, all with magnums of at least .33 caliber, and never seen any other elk killed with any other cartridges?

    Still, unwritten rules must be obeyed, so I spent the rest of the cull shooting the .30-06.  Of course it worked fine on the same variety of game as the .375.

    By the end of the cull the PH in charge (my now old friend Kevin Thomas) and I had gotten along so well that he invited me to stay another week at his home in the Eastern Cape and do some more hunting.  I couldn't refuse, and took several more animals with the .30-06, including a very nice Cape kudu that also had a large body for its subspecies, weighing around 500 pounds whole on the scales of the ranch where we hunted.  The kudu was crumpled with one shot at around 350 yards, the second-longest shot I've ever attempted in Africa.

    In the years since I've noticed that the normal lifetime cartridges-curve goes something like this:

    A new hunter starts out with whatever rifle his family provides, often (but not always) chambered in a relatively mild-recoiling round such as the .243 Winchester or 7mm-08 Remington, or even a .30-30.  After a while many young men (and they're almost always men) grow dissatisfied with their unmanly rifle, and buy something fiercer, often with the money from their first job.

    This is because they're convinced that deer, elk and whatever other animals they hunt will tip over much quicker when thumped with a larger cartridge, usually some sort of magnum.  Often the convincing is due to claims from older hunters, but often it's due to reading gun writers who have killed half-a-dozen elk with cartridges like the .338 Winchester Magnum.  Sometimes these gun writers even quote muzzle energy figures, or some other mathematical combination of velocity and bullet size to "prove" their point.

    Instead, quite often the animals do not fall over quicker, because the young man starts flinching from the extra recoil.  This doesn't always happen, of course, and sometimes the young man does very well but just as often he becomes convinced that his new rifle still isn't big enough.

    One typical example is a friend I met when he was just out of high school, and I was still going to college at the ripe old age of 25.  He grew up in far western Montana, where shots aren't all that long due to thick timber, and killed his first few big game animals with the family .257 Roberts, put together on a military Mauser action one of his relatives brought back from WWII.

    When the .257 wasn't out in the woods, it hung on a couple of pegs over the back door, so if a game animal showed up in the back yard of the family's country home somebody could whack it.  It had killed dozens of deer and elk over the decades, but it didn't kill suddenly enough for the young man.  So at age 15 he bought himself a real rifle, a .308 Norma Magnum.  He used it for a number of years, but apparently never noticed that many animals had to be shot several times, despite the magnum having almost twice the muzzle energy and bullet weight of the .257.

    His conviction also spread to shotguns.  A few years after meeting him, he and I and another guy spent opening morning of duck season on a pothole pond in a glacial valley.  The other guy (my age) and I started killing ducks pretty quickly as they came innocently into our decoys, and I was using a 20-gauge.  But the young man couldn't hit a bull in the ass with a baseball bat.  He used up all his 12-gauge magnum ammo, which he'd handloaded with extra powder to give it even more "power," and had to drive to the nearest town to buy more.  By the time he got back we "old" guys had filled our limits and the ducks had stopped flying.

    This young man is now in his early 50's.  I hunted whitetails with him last fall, and he had a new custom rifle chambered for a cartridge even more powerful than the .308 Norma.  He managed to kill a button buck with it, though I didn't inquire about how many shots were required.

    Some other hunters can handle harder-kicking rifles when young, and start using ever-larger rifles as their hunting horizons expand.  I was one of these, and by my 40's was hunting a lot with the sort of rifle's the British call "medium-bores," in the middle .30's.  These worked quite well on a lot of big game, because I could shoot pretty well.

    But after age 50 many hunters find they can't handle recoil the way they used to or simply don't want to, partly because they've noticed that smaller cartridges can kill game sufficiently dead.  My friend on the African hunt, in fact, had been doing most of his hunting after age 50 with a wildcat he designed, essentially yet another version of the 6.5-06 with minor dimensional differences in the case.  With this wimpy round he'd slain a pile of animals, including several Canadian moose, all with one shot.  In the meantime I'd started using sub-.30 rounds myself, especially the 7x57 Mauser, also finding it adequate for Canadian moose, as well as mid-sized African plains game such as gemsbok, wildebeest and kudu.

    We'd both also fallen in love with the 9.3x62 Mauser, certainly not a mild little round but one that proved to be capable of the same things as many medium-bore magnums with less recoil.  In fact I even developed my own wildcat 9.3, an utterly redundant round that duplicates the 9.3x62 in a "short" action.  I used both 9.3's on a bunch of big game from Alaska to Africa, finding they killed just fine but didn't beat the snot out of me like my 7-1/2 pound .338, even though my wildcat rifle weighed exactly the same and was built on an identical after-market synthetic stock.

    Still, a 9.3x62 doesn't kill very well when the bullet doesn't land in the right spot.  So far I haven't made a bad shot with my 9.3's (knock on wood) but I went back to South Africa for another cull hunt in 2007, and a friend brought along exactly the same rifle combo I did, a 7x57 and 9.3x62.  After a couple of days and a dozen animals, however, he realized he couldn't shoot the 9.3 very well anymore.  He switched to the 7x57 and animals started dropping nicely, even such supposedly super-tough game as gemsbok and blue wildebeest.

    In fact, several other hunters on the same hunt also brought two rifles, and ended up making a similar switch as they grew weary of getting pounded by their .300, .338 and .375 magnums.  They found their .270's, 7mm's and non-magnum .30's also worked.  The animals might have gone a few more yards than if shot with a bigger rifle, but then again they might not have.  (A couple of other guys shot a .338 Winchester Magnum and a .375 H&H for the entire hunt, and did very well too.  But they were the exception, not the rule.)

    Even my old friend Craig Boddington, a couple of weeks older than me and for many years a hard-core magnum-booster, has mellowed considerably in his late 50's, thanks in part to taking his daughter on many hunts over the past few years.  She did so well with the 7mm-08 Remington on so many big, tough game animals that the dinky round started changing Craig's attitude.

    However, some of this also has to do with Craig having to obey The Unwritten Rule and actually hunt trophy bull elk with the .270 Winchester.  For years he'd insisted the .270 was "marginal" for big bulls, but hadn't acquired any personal trigger-pulling evidence.  So he took a .270 and some 150-grain Nosler Partition handloads to the Whittington Center in northern New Mexico, and killed a big bull with one shot at over 400 yards.  The bull went down quicker than any bull elk he'd ever taken with a wide variety of larger rounds!  I still don't expect Craig to give up his medium-bore magnums anytime soon, but when he writes about which cartridges are suitable for various animals these days, he does have a modified attitude about "little rifles."

    Right now I'm planning to go elk hunting this fall with some sort of little rifle, possibly the .257 Weatherby but maybe the 6.5x55.  It will mostly be a cow hunt, but there's also a possibility of running into a bull.  I won't have any worries whatsoever, because of seeing too many elk and similar animals killed neatly with "little" cartridges.

    In the meantime I'm going back to Africa on a hunt that involves Cape buffalo and hippopotamus, as well as several species of plains game.  My "big" rifle will be a .416 Rigby, because a big bull hippo weighs several tones, but my "little" rifle will be my 9.3x62.  This isn't because plains game is exceptionally tough (none of it's any harder to kill than North American game of the same size) but because a medium-bore might be a smart thing to carry when a truculent buffalo could be encountered when out after sable.  But taking the 9.3 instead of the .375 H&H I probably would have taken a decade ago is the same sort of down-sizing many older hunters make as they grow less recoil tolerant and more experienced.

    Of course, there are guys who like to hunt with big rifles and do it throughout their lives.  I've noticed that many of these guys also like hot cars.  Another of my companions on that 2002 cull in South Africa makes his living building hot cars, and his rifle was some sort of mid-sized Weatherby Magnum.  I don't remember exactly which cartridge, but it was enough to kill the expensive scope on top of his rifle.

    He happened to be near me and my PH when the scope died, and watched me shoot my big gemsbok with my .375.  He wandered over and mentioned his scope troubles as the PH took my hero photos.  As we finished the photography another band of gemsbok came by, and I told the hot-rodder to pick up my rifle.  He also shot a good bull, with one bullet through both shoulders.  It was the biggest rifle he ever fired, and after the bull went down he looked at the Ruger admiringly and said, "I just might have to get one of these!"

    Perhaps not so oddly, far fewer women have the same fascination for sheer horsepower, or go through the typical lifetime cartridge curve.  If they start off with a .243 or .270 and it works, they don't see any reason to try a bigger round.  As my wife has pointed out, more than once, "Why can women kill game with smaller cartridges than men can?"  Even she, however, is down-sizing as she grows less recoil-tolerant.  She'll also be hunting cow elk this fall, probably with her .257 Roberts.  Based on her past results with various "little rifles" I wouldn't bet on the elk.



    Ask John Barsness Questions About "OLDER HUNTERS, SMALLER RIFLES"

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