It has taken many years, but my experience, research and analysis have compelled me to choose particular cartridges and rifles for the pursuit of game from small to large, and in some cases, dangerous.
Notice, I said “cartridges and rifles”, as I have believed from the beginning that is the proper order — first, the cartridge is chosen, and then the rifle in which the cartridge is to be chambered and fired. The cartridge, of course, determines the caliber, and the caliber defines the bullets.
A .30-caliber rifle cartridge — of which there are many — is defined as .308-inch in diameter, though the length of the bullet is determined by its weight and the material used in its construction. We know, for instance, that a lead-core bullet with a guilding-metal jacket will be shorter than one of equal weight constructed of pure copper/copper alloy assuming profile is the same or similar. The reason being that lead is heavier than copper. So, a .30-cal rifle, whether chambered in .308 Winchester or .300 Winchester Magnum will be limited in bullet weights from about 110gr to 200gr in the .308, and 110gr to 220gr in the .300 Win Mag. Yes, I’m aware that one could load a 220 in the .308 but that would hardly improve its usefulness due to limited case capacity. The upper end in useful bullet weight is usually considered to be a 200gr SP or RN at about 2500 fps max. On the other hand, a 220gr (Nosler Partition in particular) at 2800 fps is a very practical load for the likes of Alaska/Yukon moose, grizzly or brown bear. The .308 Win would be making 2775 ft-lbs at the muzzle whereas the .300 Win Mag would be putting out 3890 ft-lbs at the muzzle and 2760 ft-lbs at 300 yards if using the 200gr AccuBond! The .300 Win Mag has a 300 yard advantage over the .308 Winchester!!
The foregoing is presented to demonstrate that CARTRIDGE and CALIBER are distinct entities! They are NOT synonymous! For example: we could have a larger CALIBER, such as a .44 Rem Mag, that would be less effective on a mature bull elk, say at 250 yards, than a smaller CALIBER like a .280 Remington. So, I mention CARTRIDGE as of first importance, then the RIFLE in which it is to be chambered.
Many seemingly “fall in love” with a rifle without much thought going into the cartridge for which it has been chambered. Several years ago I had a very dear friend (now deceased). We often visited gun shops together. One shop in particular seemed to have a large number of good lightly used rifles — it was there that I purchased my first .458 Win Mag – a nearly new Ruger 77 at a bargain-basement price! My friend spied a beautiful Sako FS carbine, with a 20″ barrel — chambered in 7mm Rem Mag! He would have bought it on the spot had I not intervened and convinced him that it would be a very LOUD .270 Winchester! I mean, he was so captivated by its beauty — in his view — that any pragmatic considerations flew out of his head! He simply “loved” beautiful wood and metal!
I put CARTRIDGE first because in the end game that is what determines results in the field, whether we are hunting rabbits or Wood Bison.
Next in importance is the rifle.
There are multiple choices. Actually too many to identify here in our limited space and time. But once we have settled on the CARTRIDGE, then we can begin our search for the BEST RIFLE from which the bullet is to be fired.
The “best rifle” may mean several distinct things to different sportsmen or women. Among styles/forms of rifles there are: Bolt-action repeating magazine rifles; single-shot, break-action; single-shot falling block; lever action repeating with rotary clips, and lever-action repeating with tubular magazines, and finally: semi-autos military style, or semis of sporting style — they are repeating with magazine clips, usually.
Then the aesthetics: form should follow function, but often the reverse drives the bus — as in all biz, looks sell products! That’s why my friend almost desperately wanted the 7 Rem Mag in a Sako FS carbine. I know, because I’d done the same exact thing a few years earlier in choosing a Sako FS carbine in a .338 Winchester Magnum with its 20-inch barrel! What I had in ballistics was the equivalent of a 24″ .35 Whelen that would burn fifteen grains less powder, be much softer in recoil, and not as obnoxious in muzzle blast! But I thought I had the answer to any ballistic question by saving four-inches of barrel! Put your hand before your face, with eyes wide open, spread your thumb and index finger by four inches! That’s how much we save in overall rifle length, and that is supposed to make a meaningful difference in a hunt? If it were today, I’d pass on the Sako FS carbine in .338 WM and choose what I did later: A 26″ Browning in .338 Win that would easily shoot a 250gr Nosler Partition at OVER 2800 fps! My son’s 24″ Rem 700 would fire the same bullet at over 2700 fps with ease.
The RIFLE; the best one: Let’s circumscribe it by the following set of parameters. And let’s keep in mind that this one rifle is to adequately serve for ALL big game on our “bucket list” — with THE EXCEPTION of African DG, and even then it might prove its worth!
Of the five most important characteristics that should be found in a big-game rifle for all hunting of soft-skinned game from 200 lbs to 3000 lbs, including DG, within that very broad potential world-wide list, let’s list them in a descending order of significance:
1 > the CARTRIDGE
2 > the RIFLE (including barrel contour & length, stock, sights, recoil pad, etc.)
3 > the STYLE (bolt-action, lever-action, single-shot, semi, etc.)
4 > the ERGONOMICS (how it fits and feels in handling and shooting)
5 > the WEIGHT (contributes to ergonomics)
Anything else is overall appearance, cosmetics, and non-essentials.
CARTRIDGE: My criteria for the cartridge of a single hunting rifle is (as already described) that it must be fully capable of cleanly dispatching any big-game animal I intend or hope to hunt on the North American Continent, or any other continent if I do my part.
It also must be reasonably priced and have sufficient components for handloading.
In addition to all that the cartridge must be versatile enough, through choices of bullets and powders, to be reasonably useful on the lightest of big game as well as the largest and toughest, within their potential ranges and conditions.
That’s a VERY tall order! And I have intended it to be because those are my personal expectations and goals for any BG rifle I own.
That’s why I earlier stated (in P1) that a .300 magnum would be a starting point for myself.
While I don’t necessarily subscribe to all of Phil Shoemaker’s gun philosophies, I do agree with the sentiment he has so aptly applied to inquiring brown bear client’s question: “What rifle should I bring?” His invariable reply is: “Bring what you already have and are comfortable with.” He’s thereby NOT suggesting a .223 Remington! But Phil is an expert shooter of anything in handguns or rifles! Few, if any, can compete with him! That’s why I think he should temper some of his statements and recommendations.
(That’s the late Dr. Don Heath, PH and Doctor of wildlife biology who is^ shooting a large bull elephant with his 9.3 x 62 Mauser. He would have preferred his Big Bore in his hands at the time, but he was as comfortable with it as if using it on the smallest of antelope – a 25 lb duiker.)
The world’s large soft-skinned game animals have pretty much all been harvested in using a .30-06! And all of it in using a .300 Weatherby! HOWEVER!!! That isn’t saying ANYTHING about ranges or other physical conditions! Then, were those experts alone or accompanied by backups in PHs, scouts or friends? That would make (and has made) a HUGE difference for what single rifle cartridge I’d choose! It has never been (and will never be) a non-magnum .30-caliber! And even then a .300 magnum, if that’s all I had, would not be my FIRST choice!
I’d want a bigger bore, one that could at least throw a 250gr at not less than 2700 fps. And more is better in my view if we’re talking one rifle for the whole-wide world! When I had the .340 Weatherby, that came close — but my 9.3 x 62 will equal it in momentum all the way to 500 yards and makes a bigger hole!
The main issue being: to LEARN to shoot something like that without fear or developing a flinch! (And that’s another subject.)
One thing I’ve learned from experience: A bigger hole going in and coming out pumps a LOT MORE blood on the ground in a much shorter time than ANY .30-caliber or .35-caliber!
But a “bigger hole going in and coming out” assumes a cartridge potentially capable of throwing that big bullet fast enough to accomplish that feat at WHATEVER range we decide to squeeze the trigger; and the bullet must be not only fast enough, but tough enough to break big bones in the process!
I’ve therefore chosen the 9.3 x 62 as a MINIMUM; and the .458 Winchester Magnum as OPTIMUM!
Let me tell you why: In summary, it’s because no other cartridge can match its versatility! And I’ll prove that in P3.