“Killing Power vs Stopping Power” isn’t a foreign theory to hunters of BG/DG who have much experience, and have educated themselves through literature, videos and conversations/correspondence with “field” professionals. There is a distinction that may be drawn between those two concepts of cartridges and rifles specifically made for big game vs dangerous game, though size of the beasts involved isn’t necessarily the determining factor.
We know any big game and/or dangerous game may be killed with the right bullet to a vital area, where penetration is sufficient “to get the job done”. Still, that says little or nothing about how far that animal may travel after receiving the bullet, or in what direction. Nor does it state its attitude during its demise. It might travel 20 yards or 1/2 mile, both of which may be too far for insurance of retrieval or safety.
For example: Should a mature lion be the quarry, 20 yards/meters could be too far for a lion that could still make tracks coming our direction at only 15 yards/meters distant! And, again far too far, if an elk or bear is involved in a mountainous terrain by escaping 1/2 mile before death ensues. To help insure that doesn’t happen in either case, the goal should be to shoot from a steady position, and at a safe distance without circumstances dictating extreme ranges — whether too close or too far. Of course, by times a large and/or dangerous beast may suddenly appear “out of nowhere”, surprising an unprepared hunter, where the only shot could be a matter of a split-second decision at a few feet rather than yards/meters! In such a scenario, no sane hunter would argue against a powerful “stopping” rifle, whatever that may mean in a given event.
Of course, there will always be “armchair hunters” who will debate the issue to the point of: “total preoccupation with inconsequential results from non-essential minutiae which are only relevant to the participant”.
So my aim is to clarify the issues, not to cloud them with “non-essential minutiae”!
Anything can happen in the field, and does on occasion!
We “all” know (or should) that a PH in Africa who has been qualified to take clients into the field for shooting elephant, needs a “stopping rifle”. Why? And what is a “stopping rifle”? And what about the clients, and the rest of us, do we ever need a “stopping rifle?”
(Would you have taken a shot on this bear? Pic was taken from my tree stand at 85 yards distant. The pic below was taken by the trail cam from only 5 yards. Left click on photo to see the bear more clearly.)
On the outdoor/sportsmen Internet forums, I frequently follow African and Alaskan BG/DG hunting. Some of it you might dismiss as fantasies/fiction/opinion. But, other than that, there are some very real people out there with “tons of” experience and know-how. I also watch hunting videos — good ones. We can learn a lot from honest videos. Of course, you already know that they mostly represent success stories. Yet, sometimes more can be learned from our failures than our successes, as long as we can distinguish the causes over which we had control, and those we didn’t.
That’s our starting point. We have all had some failures in hunting, IF we’ve hunted more than a few years under a variety of conditions and circumstances, and for various animals. In that process we’ve learned something about firearms and loads for the critters we’ve chased — and about the critters themselves.
But, in this dissertation, our focus is on the distinction between a killing shot and one that stops a big game or dangerous game animal dead in its tracks.
A KILLING SHOT
Elephants have been killed by the hundreds using classical brain shots. Rifles made famous for that employ were mostly large bore. On the other hand, Bell made the 6.5 x 54R “famous” as an adequate elephant cartridge with its very modest ballistics. Of course, we “all know”, or should, that Bell was an exceptionally experienced elephant hunter who chose well constructed solids with high sectional densities. He also knew exactly and precisely where to shoot to reach the brain. And, he was more than an expert shot, much more — he was an expert marksman under pressure!
Most, if not all ivory hunters, however, used large-bore rifles even after smokeless propellant was invented. Bullets that weighed upwards of 900 to 1000 grains of hardened lead was common. Later, with the introduction of steel, bronze and copper alloy jackets, that protected the lead from disintegration, calibers were somewhat downsized but bullets were given higher velocities with the result of greater energies.
After recovery from the two World Wars, Americans had more disposable income and some were heading off to Africa on Safari. As most Euro produced ammo for their “Big Bores” had dried up, Winchester came up with a home-grown cartridge that would fill that void — the .458 Winchester Magnum. And, it was “off to the races”. But, is a big -bore rifle cartridge really necessary to just “kill” something? The assassin’s bullet is often a 22LR lead bullet (solid) of only 40 grains motoring along from the muzzle of a 4″ barrel at a hair over 1000 fps/89 ft-lbs (or less)! On the other hand, I shot a 6 lb groundhog one day using my Rem 7 in .223 at less than 50 yards. It was a handload that was pushing the 52gr Nos. SB at a tad over 3100 fps/1110 ft-lbs. The bullet remained inside, and I never found the entry, and there was no exit. The critter died on impact but no external evidence of ever being hit was a puzzlement! So much for kinetic energy! Well do I recall another “woodchuck event”, where I shot one in a hedgerow, where it was hiding, from just a few feet! The bullet was an HP 40gr WMR that blew a hole through the chuck that I could stick the toe of my boot in! I could see daylight on the other side! So bullet construction is a fairly obvious significant factor in a “killing shot” — though chucks are not elephant!
A number of years ago, I was asked by a thirty-something year old housewife — hobby farm owner — to terminate her mule! Now, said mule was very strong, big and healthy that beat-up on the smaller critters he was “hired” to protect from dogs, bears and wolves. I had spent at least one evening watching for a bear that had ripped open a pregnant ewe. No success at that. But this mule thing… well, he went 750 to 800 lbs and was indeed ornery! So he got tethered to the fence and I shot him close up behind the left ear and the bullet made exit through the right eye, and the angle was due to not wanting the bullet to end up in someone else’s pasture. He went immediately down but was thrashing about, so I gave him another somewhere — don’t recall where — and that was his demise. I dressed him out, hung him up with some help, and the meat went to an Hungarian couple who paid for it as “horse meat”. I saw the man later at a shop and asked about how much meat they got from this mule — would it qualify for my estimation of live weight? He responded in the affirmative.
What rifle, gun and cartridge? It was a brain shot, but the mule needed a finisher. The rifle and load were chosen for moose hunting in particular, and also for some bl. bear that might go on the XL size. The rifle was Remington’s 673 that replaced the models 600 and 660 in .350 Remington Magnum. The bullet was a 250gr Grand Slam that left the muzzle of the 22″ barrel at 2710 fps/4076 ft-lbs from a slightly compressed charge of RL-15. With brain scrambled, the big mule was thrashing about like it was having a fit! That shook up the small “crowd” of onlookers… except me. I simply viewed the situation as needing a couple more tons of kinetic energy somewhere else than in a brain that had already been scrambled! Over 8000 ft-lbs of KE to “stop” a mule that weighed less than a half-ton?
Then how does one calculate such things, if not by foot-pounds of kinetic energy? Is there such a thing, then, as “stopping power”?
I shot a whitetail buck that was literally “stopped”, and dropped in its tracks. It was a NORTHERN nine-pointer (if that matters). Similar to the chuck story, there was no evidence of an external hit. No blood anywhere. Couldn’t find the entry (for some time) and no bullet exit. Range was 35 yards. Rifle was a .300 Win Mag. Bullet? A 180gr Hornady leaving the muzzle at 3000 fps/3600 ft-lbs. No hit to brain or spine. A heart/lung shot. Deer was dead before it hit the ground. Did I conclude that I should use my .300 Win Mag on chucks, or the mule? What do you think? When I pulled the hide off in our garage, I found the entry, about .30-caliber in size. But under the thick-winter hide, there was a “hole” into the lungs that took out three ribs! The shot was a downhill, quartering-toward me one. The buck never knew what hit ’em, and never knew I was there. A clue: he was relaxed and NOT adrenaline charged! The mule was! He was spooked by me with the rifle (and “the crowd” of on-lookers) while being tethered and unable to run away! I know this from experience: a big-game animal charged with adrenaline is not “bullet-proof”, but often more difficult to kill with a single well-placed shot through heart-lungs… and perhaps even a brain shot! The will of an animal to live often defies logic or calculated foot-pounds of energy.
A STOPPING RIFLE
Does it exist? That depends on a lot of things, some of which depends on the rifle and load, some on the shooter, some on luck, some on physical circumstances, and the rest on the animal itself.
1) The rifle and load: Should be adequate, but what is meant by that? I tend to choose what might be considered by myself even more than adequate — I want something that will do what I want regardless of outward circumstances. I don’t want, or expect, perfection in expectations. The rifle and load can/should compensate for other deficiencies. I don’t want to be able to blame the rifle and load, but I want to be able to commend and even recommend it for conditions that are less than “normal,” or even unfavorable.
The physical conditions of regions where I’ve mostly hunted whitetails have been second growth mixed forested areas with ridges, ravines, swamps, streams and small lakes surrounded by alders and brushy conditions. Usually, I pick a spot where a game trail can be viewed from 50 yards or so. At times it’s been on the rim of a ravine where there are signs of a deer trail below. At other times I look for scrapes, etc. The point being that I don’t want a deer to be running off for 1/4 mile after it’s shot! It could end up on someone else’s property or into a swamp, deep ravine, etc, where retrieval might be impossible at its worst, and very difficult at its best! I’ve had it happen, even when using a 165gr from a .30-06! A steady hold, a good hit that broke bone, and a 400 lb buck that crossed a swamp to the other side where it was off the property I had permission to hunt on… and was “finished” off by another group of hunters! And it was one of the largest deer I’ve ever had in my sights! Had I been using a .45-70 loaded with a 405gr Remington at 1800 to 2000 fps that deer would have been mine from the exact same hit… I’ve no doubts about it! But a “stopping rifle” isn’t necessarily a big bore either.
A lot has been written on this theme, and a lot more could be, including my thoughts and experiences. But let me add this one thing: Being “over-gunned” is far better than being “under-gunned” as long as we are comfortable with that.
(That was my CZ550 in .458 Win Mag in the Haliburton Highlands. Bear was its main objective. I was alone, with no partner or guide, and 25 miles/40 km from the nearest small town and 58 miles/93 km from my home. I had walked back on this old logging trail for over a mile from my parked van off to the side of the dirt road, which in its day was a road for logging trucks.)
2) The shooter: The main challenge for the shooter is to master such a rifle so he/she isn’t intimidated by its recoil. As before stated, that demands practice of a kind that is somewhat realistic. Waiting until one is face to face with a dangerous beast is too late by far! There is, however, one exception and that is in the case of a hunter who through constant use has become habituated to stopping rifles. But, in these days, that’s extremely rare except possibly in the case of PHs and guides regularly involved in the protection of clients who hunt dangerous game.
3) “Luck”: There’s little doubt that experienced hunters, and even professional guides/outfitters and PHs, have on some occasions realized that “luck”, or fortuitous circumstances played a significant role in their personal protection and/or success. There are too many variables to single out an individual one, but let’s give it a try:
On my last “successful” bear hunt, a number of individual bears were hitting my personal bait setup. My tree stand was located in a line of maples that separated two fields. The bait was at 85 yards from my location, and up-against a dense wooded area with thick underbrush. I didn’t see many bears while I was in my stand, but knew about a dozen were in the immediate area, hitting the bait, according to the trail cam situated fifteen feet from the bait barrel. At least a couple of the adults were sows with cubs. Excluding those as targets, that left a possible four other single adults since one of the females was accompanied by two cubs, and the other by one or possibly two. Of the four remaining adults, they appeared to be males and therefore possible targets. At least one of those, however, only came to the bait after darkness had settled in. That left three, and they were coming to the bait at variable times that suited them — when other male adults, or sows with cubs, were not in the immediate area. One of those three was coming “in” regularly around 4:30 pm, at least each time that I was in my stand, but would lie down in hiding within 30 yards of me, and await my departure!
How did I know these matters? Thirty plus seasons of hunting bear over bait in a variety of physical conditions in Central and Eastern Ontario has trained me to be quietly observant of sights and sounds while scouting, or in a blind or tree stand. Add to that the use of trail cams over the past eight years or so, has made possible a near exact science in analysing such data so that we know what’s going on in the woods around us – and who or what is in the immediate vicinity, and I mean within a hundred yards or so. One important fact that I’ve learned over time in various locations is that bears are very sneaky, at least in our area, and mature males don’t show up at baits just walking in boldly, or on our schedule. If there are many mature bears in a given remote area, where competition is strong with little or no human encounters, that might happen. But, in the areas I’ve discussed where there may be some human activity and possibly encounters, such as near or at cottages on lakes, abandoned farm land, provincial or national parks that border private land, and Crown Land that is used for recreational purposes, adult bears are more skittish and less bold in approaching a bait setup. The following has happened too many times to ignore its significance.
During my hunt on private land in 2015 that bordered a Provincial park (the one described above), I knew a bear had arrived at its staging location, each late afternoon around 4:30 pm. It was immediately to the left of my stand, in thick underbrush, at about 30 yards. The bear knew both my location and when I was present. I knew that because a red squirrel gave him away every time by its constant chattering. The squirrel also knew where I was, and chattered a little bit when I arrived around 3 pm, then it was quiet except for running around on the ground for a time. Then it settled down in the trees to my left, and was quiet until the black bear arrived — then, WHAT A COMMOTION!
It became a waiting game — I knew that bear would not present himself at the bait until I got down out of my stand and left. So, that’s what I did around 5:30 pm. (By the way, I’d done that on previous occasions and upon returning caught bears off guard at the bait or in time to see them running away — sometimes showing up on the trail cam just before I came in view of the bait site.) So in 2015, I left my stand and walked across the open field on the opposite side of the stand, and went to my van for some refreshment and a sweater to go under my jacket. I returned around 6:20 pm, removed the clip from my Tikka in 9.3 x 62 with its three cartridges loaded with the 250gr AccuBond, putting it into my jacket pocket, tied my rifle to the pull-up rope through the sling, and started to climb the ladder. From ground level, I couldn’t see the bait barrel until I reached 2/3 of the way to the top. At that point I turned to look over my shoulder (with the rifle dangling from the pull-up rope and the clip in my pocket) and there was the bruin on the bait! The body language of the bear showed it was nervous and in a hurry. I finished the last couple of rungs on the ladder to the top, turned and sat down, pulled up the rifle (all in a hurry), yanked the clip from my pocket, jammed it into the rifle and chambered a round (with the rope still tied to the sling), aimed and fired! (It took much longer to write that than do it!) The bear was in a hurry — I’d caught a glimpse of him running past the bait when I turned on the ladder. He scurried back and got into the bait just in time for me to shoot him! He took off in the direction from whence he came — but slowly — making 20 yards and died in stride without bawling.
While that may, or may not, have anything to do with a “stopping rifle”, yet I think we could see that a rifle and its load may have plenty to do in a split-second situation where a killing or stopping shot is the only option! I didn’t have time to make an analysis of the situation, or think it over… I’d already done that prior to the event! It was all reaction time based on knowing this was the bear that had been playing mind games with me, and was very intent on accomplishing its goal before the man-predator returned! The use of the weapon and it’s load within thirty seconds was “muscle memory”, so-called. And, in a dangerous-game scenario, it must take place like that without reflection! We can ill-afford to be worrying about marksmanship, recoil, the load or the rifle! ALL of it must be automatic!
4) Physical conditions: Being in shape physically AND mentally are the main issues, regardless of the rifle we’re handling or shooting. Yet there are other physical conditions that may help or hinder. Some examples might be: being able to improvise a rifle rest where an offhand shot would be unwise. “Unwise”, or even dangerous when “buck fever” may inhibit a fatal wound on a Cape buff or grizzly! Or, tired arms and legs should dictate restraint on pulling the trigger on a trophy animal during the closing minutes of the final day on an expensive hunt!
Also, being aware of the limitations imposed by bullet choice and caliber.
(See where the 250gr Accubond hit high in ribs. It was a downward, angling-away shot that took out lungs and heart. Exit was just in the left-front side of ribs at the bottom, between chest and left front leg. Blood loss was massive.)
5) The animal: its body language (mood), angle and distance. Is it still or on the move? Its stature, age and physical condition. Such details need be processed by the hunter, and in the case of a “paid” hunt, the outfitter/guide will do that, and probably control the situation as to whether a shot should be taken or not.
In a dangerous animal hunt, whether by accident or intention, a suitable rifle and load that the hunter is experienced with should be the ONLY option! NEVER depend on the outcome becoming the result of a partner, guide or outfitter bailing us out of a bad circumstance! That may eventually happen, and surely does at times, but it should NEVER become a crutch for our poor handling of a potentially hazardous situation!
You’ve noticed, no doubt, that I’ve not described a “stopping rifle” other than to say it must be “adequate” for the situation… but more importantly, so must we.
All for now…