I shot my first deer in 1971 with a .340 Weatherby loaded with 250 grain Nosler Partition bullets. Criterion was hit in the chest at 90 meters and fell in his tracks. The reason I used the cannon was that all smart hunters knew that deer were made of steel plate and rawhide and were always shot at long range. Why Nosler divisions? Because this was still the era of rotting bullets (1890-1990), and Partition was the only shot that worked all the time. As if to prove this, the fellow who was with me shot a bull next to mine with a .270, loaded with 150 grain Winchester Silvertips, which was a rotten bullet. The slug exploded in the animal’s throat and we ended up following the poor creature half a mile. He died running on a mountainside and fell to the bottom of a narrow canyon from which it took three days to extricate him.
During the ERB, the conventional wisdom was that if you couldn’t handle a hard bullet, you could shoot a heavy bullet and hope that the mass would make up for the lack of strength. And if you were interested in hitting at long range, you had to send that big bullet fast, which meant a magnum cartridge.
Now the era of rotten bullets is over and we have great, strong bulbs in all calibers. So the question arises, do we still need magnums to hunt deer, which after all have not changed.
Elk are tough
Most hunters turn to deer hunting after they have been deer hunters for a while and take a number of rough shots, some of which they never recover from.
The first is size. A well-fed northern whitetail deer weighs 200 pounds, and a really big one can reach 300. A mule deer goes 250, and a heavy mule deer weighs 50 pounds more.
On the other hand, a deer that hasn’t fornicated and fought or had to run away from wolves as a matter of course brings the balance beam back to 600, and 800 is not at all unusual. And they get even bigger. The heaviest buck I ever hunted (in New Mexico, in 1977) went 1,025 pounds on a game biologist’s scale. It was so massive that it broke the winch on the pickup, so we tried to carry it.
Along with all this size comes heavier and more massive bones and bones and larger hearts and lungs. And there is a change in behavior. Most deer, if shot non-fatally, or fatally but not immediately, will run a short distance and hide, usually within 100 yards of where they were hit. Elk, under the same circumstances, will run and run and run. Hiding is not in their game plan. This means that if you persevere, you will probably find your deer. But a deer can put enough distance between you and it that it will never be found.
And then there’s distance. A diligent whitetail hunter who chooses not to sit in a tree stand can cover a square mile slowly and carefully in a day and consider his task accomplished. But devils live in a big place and you have to travel to find them. A deer hunter must walk 10 miles, or ride a horse 20 kilometers in order to cover enough ground. (Of course, he can pick a spot from which to kill a deer at half a mile and lie there from dawn to dusk, ballistic programmer and anemometer at the ready, but that’s sniping, not hunting.)
How hunting bullets have changed
Bullets took their big leap forward in the early 1970s, when an Idahoan named Bill Steiger began selling handmade slugs he called Bitterroot Bullets. They had soft lead cores and thick, pure copper jackets, and the jackets were soldered to the cores (by hand, no less). Bitterroots came in little plastic bags, ten to a bag, at astronomical prices. They were a revelation. Expansion was great, weight savings was nearly 100 percent, and penetration was awe-inspiring. You wouldn’t want to shoot them at Camp Perry, but who cared? A bolt of fear shot through bullet projectors everywhere. Here was something much better than what they were selling. Gradually, things started to change and now we have reached our present happy state.
I am of the hard lead school. It’s fine if the slugs expand, but they should stay together. Rotten bullets mostly failed because they broke, or because their cores were separated from their jackets. There was a further problem because the manufacturers, in an effort to strengthen them, made them so strong that they would snap right in and not expand at all. Of the modern hard bullets there are three that stand out besides the Nosler Partition. Swift bullets get their strength from the very thick jackets that are bonded to their lead cores. TSX is homogeneous, so it cannot be divided.
- Swift A-Frame: Even stronger than the split, and saves a lot more weight. It is not simple for long range shooting. Usually, they expand and pass immediately. The only ones I have been able to recover are from mega-beasts like the Alaska Moose and Cape Buffalo. You find them, perfect mushrooms, under the skin on the far side.
- Swift Scirocco: One of my two nominees for best all-around big game bullet. It is aerodynamic, very tough and shoots very small groups.
- Barnes TSX: This is my next candidate. They are all copper and will do it all. Reliable expansion and sensational penetration are standard. If tipped versions make you happy, use them. I shoot the simple hollow points and I don’t feel deprived.
Over 40 years of reasonably fanatic deer hunting, I have used a 6.5/284, .270, .280, 7mm Weatherby, 7mm Remington Magnum, .30/06, .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 Weatherby Magnum, .338 ,. 340 Weatherby, and .338 Remington Ultra Magnum.
From what I’ve observed, you can shoot all but the last three between now and Crack of Doom and see little difference. However, the trio of .338s deliver powerful punches that nothing can match and that other cartridges cannot duplicate.
In New Zealand, I shot a red deer—a small deer—with a .338 and it went down with such violence that my guide said, “My God, it looked like someone pulled the ground out from under him.”
On the same hunt I met a fellow who had taken a .340 in Africa and said his trackers called it “boomplop”- the roar of the rifle was followed, as a single noise, by the blows of the animal falling to the ground. Such things do not happen with, say, a 6.5 Creedmoor.
But remember that all this power comes at the price of a heavy rifle and a lot of shots. So can smaller pellets put a deer in your den wall? Yes indeed. And is there a lower limit to the amount of energy you need? Yes. And of these “smaller” rounds, what’s my pick? We will find out.
So what is the best elk hunting cartridge today?
The late Finn Aagaard, who was a PH in Kenya and later came to the United States and did a ton of hunting here, had more big game experience than any of us could dream of, and was a man of great sense. outstandingly healthy. He wrote, in 1983, that he would not trust any bullet with less than 160 grains for deer and elk. In that year we were still in the era of rotten bullets and I think if it were today he would accept a little less weight. I’ve shot deer with 140-grain Winchester Fail-Safes (a great bullet, but very expensive to make and discontinued) and 150-grain Swift A frames and 140-grain splits in 6.5/284, and they all went well.
The bottom of the list of deer cartridges is 6.5mm – whichever you want. .25 calibers are marginal, and under no circumstances would I shoot a 6mm or .22 centerfire.
I think today, the best choice for deer is 0.30/06. It can be used in a rifle that weighs 8 pounds instead of 10. It is better than the .300 Winchester and Weatherby magnums because it hits much less, and I have never seen any evidence that the .30 magnum is more effective than an ’06, although 1000 yard heroes may love them.
The 180 and 200 grain bullets that the ’06 does its best work with are big enough for the job and the 200 grain bullet is, I believe, a sleeper. Few people have any idea how good it is because ammunition manufacturers have never pushed it. (I can handload 200-grain Swift A-Frames to 2650 fps in my ’06, and there’s very little on this earth I wouldn’t go with them.)
Read more: The 10 Best Elk Rifles for Every Budget
So the answer is, at least for elk, the good bullet revolution has rendered magnums useless. There is no longer any compelling reason to use one. If you don’t mind weight and recoil, use a .338 of some kind and rest assured that if you shoot well, your animal will go down in no time. Besides, why take the beating?
Let’s close with Mr. Aagaard: “Good shot is 90 percent killing power…Study the energy numbers and use them to collect fire tokens if you want…and by all means choose a cartridge with enough power. But if you want clean kills, practice shooting. Nothing increases killing power like putting that bullet in the right place.”