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Article: Rifle Cartridge Power - How Much is Enough? (Written in 2000)

Rifle Cartridge Power - How Much is Enough? (Written in 2000)

I wonder when the laser-guided bazookas will show up?”—– anonymous

The subject is hunting rifle “power”. We seem insatiable for more and more of it. Remington’s new 300 Ultramag sales are brisk. Lazzeroni cartridges are getting a lot of press. Weatherby finally has legitimized the cavernous 30-378. And so on. A customer phoned me recently and asked for advice on getting a muzzle brake installed on his new 300 Ultramag. Said he just can’t handle the jolt. And his is not a light rifle.

Muzzle brakes are mandatory on the new mega-calibers. What’s that you say? ( Can’t hear like I used to since firing a few unprotected rounds from my own braked .300 Weatherby ). They’re worth it to get the extra power?

Are they? IS the extra power worth it?

Let me tell you a story. It’s about my deer hunting foray with my earliest Thompson Center handgun. It was equipped with one of their lovely 10 inch octagon barrels in .357 Magnum. Beautiful piece—TC has not made such guns since. I had the works—screw-on shotshell extension, 2 ½ power scope and wonderfully sculpted Herrett grip and forend. Nice little hunting rig. I developed a handload for big game consisting of 180gr. Corelockts ahead of … I forget the exact powder, probably H110 or W296. Anyway, I think I was launching these bullets at about 1400 fps. Maybe 1500 ( I remember getting near 1800 fps. with these same bullets in a later .357 Maximum load, so let’s settle on close to 1500 fps. for the .357 Magnum load). Found me a deer eventually, up in the Flattops, 100 yards out. Put the shot right at about the second rib from the rear—it was an angled situation. Deer ran 50 yards and expired. Bullet exited at the first rib on the opposite side. Big hole. Broken rib going in as well as coming out. Very dead deer. End of story.

How many foot pounds of energy do you suppose arrived on target on the ribs of that full grown mule deer? What was the TKO value? I’m not even in the country as I write this so can’t get the figures. (Perhaps an energetic reader would be interested in computing the data and posting it on the site.) My point is this: the numbers aren’t going to be high. In fact, they will look ridiculously low by the standards we have created “by the numbers”. They will look so low that, by the accepted “numbers” of today, what happened couldn’t have happened. That deer should still be cavorting around out there somewhere ( well, it would have to be with a deer-adapted walker by this date ). By the numbers, I suppose the bullet should have shown more respect for our modern scientific…( wishes?) and politely bounced off.

But that cartridge assembly DID kill that deer and did so as cleanly and as mercifully as any I’ve ever used. I am pretty certain it would have done the same thing on an elk. How come then?

Well, a scientific theorist of the heavy, fat bullet school ( Kiethians, pay attention ) would joyfully tote this event up on their ledger. I’ll give you guys the fat bullet part– .35 caliber is that, relatively so. But the heavy part? Come on, by 35 caliber rifle standards a 180gr. bullet is small game grade. “Yes, but this was a pistol”, you say. “Heck, you can’t even get a 225 or 250 grain bullet to work in that little .357 Mag. case.” Well, excuse me. Therefore, by this logic, we must conclude that 180 grain 35 caliber bullets are OK for a pistol, but not for a rifle? It would dutifully bounce off then, right? Two sets of standards—one for rifles and another for pistols?

Hmmmm. The edifice of accepted “scientific” logic regarding firearm power falls apart. It always does. Whether the school of thought be fat/heavy/high sectional density bullets, or high velocity/lightweight bullets or the phase of the moon, it always does. My conclusion is that within very generous boundaries of speed, bullet diameter, sectional density and all that wonderful technical stuff we love to talk about, shot placement remains the holy grail of game shot success. Nothing else matters nearly as much.

I thought you might like to see my 5 Principles For Game Shot Success. So here they are:


  1. Shot placement
  2. Shot placement
  3. Shot placement
  4. Use enough bullet
  5. Use enough gun

The first three “principles” all relate to hitting where you should. Using a gun that recoils so hard FOR YOU that you flinch when you shoot does not bring home the bacon. Guides mean it when they insist you bring a gun you shoot well versus one with extra “power”. Installing a muzzle brake tends to substitute one kind of flinch for another: kick induced vs. induced by concussion and noise. Whenever I let the hammer down on my Weatherby from prone I have to remember to close my mouth else it fill up with leaves, twigs, dirt or snow from the incredible concussion around the muzzle. And I absolutely will never, ever shoot that thing again without ear protection even if I AM shooting lion and want to hear my guide. We’ll either pantomime or I simply won’t have that rifle.

What to do? Well, for sure learn to shoot whatever you shoot. Practice, practice, practice. I think that a lot of the mania surrounding power-madness is associated with gun nuts like us who don’t get to shoot their guns enough. So we THINK about guns. Uh-oh, then come the theories, the schools of thought, the power trips. If we could arrange our affairs so that we get out in the field and shoot we would do better. And do it with power levels that we can handle better and be thoroughly successful with—methinks MORE successful with. ( It would seem to me that the whole power mania frenzy is an elaborate attempt on our part to make up for poor shooting with power. But it doesn’t work. Read on. )

I seriously advocate learning to handload your big game rifles for small game and getting out there and hunting whatever is in season. It’s the best off-hand practice you can get. When nothing is in season try this: scatter some foot-square white cardboard “targets” at various unknown distances off a trail. It helps if you have a partner—one partner can go ahead of and place the targets, then the “shooter” or “hunter” can proceed. This exercise is based on my experience as a contestant at the Keneyathalon ( Greek for Hunter’s Test ) a few years back at the NRA’s Whittington Center down in New Mexico.

As the “hunter” proceeds along the trail he must spot the targets, shoot them within a prescribed time limit, OR decline the shot. Here’s the way the scoring works: a hit equals one point; failure to spot and identify the target equals MINUS one point; and a miss equals minus one point. It’s easy to wind up with a negative score! The value of games such as this is inestimable to improving one’s field shooting skills. You have to spot the target, set up, maybe range it, shoot in a timely manner ( long range shots should get more time ), all from a variety of field positions. And you have to know when to pass on the shot—all real world skills well worth acquiring. The best part is you can do this field game anytime! You can vary it by carrying a full pack ( which I highly recommend ) such as on a scouting trip. You can even set out your own targets, just do so without starting from the “trail” so you don’t compromise yourself by knowing the approximate distance from the trail to the targets, or where exactly they are.

Another practice option is to simply shoot rocks. Estimate how far they are from your position, or range them, set up and shoot. Then go see where you hit the rock. Pace off the distance if you didn’t range it. If you hit, say, an “elk size” rock in the “guts” you’ll have learned a lot without real world horror. Any time spent shooting in the field as opposed to the bench is the absolute best practice you can give yourself. And a whole lot of fun because it’s anticipatory and practical to the real thing. And don’t forget dry-firing! If it worked for Mr. Bell, the famous African ivory hunter, it’ll work for us. I confess, I like to “shoot” bad guys on the TV screen ( you obviously will want to make VERY sure you have an empty piece here folks ). It’s neat. The bad guys don’t stand around much so you have to acquire a site picture quickly and get the “shot” off. Remembering where the crosshairs were when the pin fell will tell you whether you produced a hit or a miss. ( One thing about me sharing this fun practice—the P.C. police are bound to read these words sooner or later and try to arrest me, so you guys be ready to come and bail me out, OK?)

All of the above practice will make you fine riflemen, I promise you. You’ll learn to shoot straight, learn reams about range estimation, and learn to pass on shots you shouldn’t take. And you CAN learn to shoot cleanly with a very light rifle that doesn’t need a muzzle brake yet still provides plenty of “power” if you place your shot on target. If that is your goal. It is mine.

In my opinion, the “pounder” rifles, as my friend Bill Krenz terms them, are for dangerous game. These are essentially the above 30 caliber rifles Elmer Kieth was so adamant about using for anything bigger than a coyote. To me, they are for those ” I hope this will dissuade him from chewing on me if I don’t outright kill the bugger on the first shot, especially if he charges and I have to shoot him again” situations. But don’t count on it. Better, they are the rifles one hopes will give dangerous game such an extra jolt with the first shot that a charge never occurs in the first place. I KNOW that all other big game succumbs just fine to standard , relatively low recoil calibers. Jack O’Conner proved that by stacking up just as many big game critters as Elmer did using 27, 28, and 30 calibers versus Mr. Kieth’s 33, 35 and 40 caliber favorites. I have immense respect for both men. But it has occurred to me more than once that old Elmer, curmudgeon that he was, so enjoyed jousting with Jack that he stuck way harder to his “guns” than may have otherwise been the case. For sure their debate made for wonderful reading, and sold a lot of magazines and magazine stories for both men. One more thing in Jack’s favor—until pretty recently, when power mania hit, just about everybody EXCEPT Elmer Kieth took all their big game: deer, elk, moose, whatever on this continent with 30 and below calibers.

In any event, there are plenty of instances of Cape Buffalo ( switching the scene to Africa ) being whacked multiple times by everything from 460 Weatherbys to the big Nitros and STILL raising much mayhem for many minutes before going down for keeps. ( Of course there are plenty of similar stories concerning our own great bears as well. ) Nevertheless, I believe Pondoro Taylor when he claims a “stunning” effect on pachyderms with a “close” brain shot attempt from a large caliber rifle, and that that helps the hunter in getting off a second, finishing, shot by temporarily sort of immobilizing the beast. Mr. Taylor has every right to be an authority on this subject by virtue of killing a whole bunch of elephants! “Close” is very instructive. Big animals shot in the wrong place by ANY rifle don’t go down. Taylor actually meant REAL close on his elephants. And as near as I can tell Cape Buffalo were and still are problematic, not having the spongy tissue surrounding the brain that elephants do, which may have helped transmit the “stun” Taylor speaks to. Unfortunately, I have the same suspicion about our big bears.

It’s important, by the way, to recognize that the big guns Taylor developed his TKO ( Taylor’s Knock Out ) formula in response to were not high velocity numbers. He, and many other experienced riflemen including Elmer Kieth, conclude that around 2200 fps. is something of an ideal velocity for penetration, THE factor all of them say is the most important in bringing down dangerous beasts. Go figure. Taylor touts the desirability of modest velocity yet uses velocity as an integral factor in computing his own TKO formula—as velocity goes up so does the relative “power” according to his formula. Same thing with Kieth’s Pounds-Foot formula, even though Elmer too sides completely and repeatedly on modest velocity for better penetration.

Which gets us, dear reader, back once again to my starting point regarding all such formulas: they break down. We are forced to fall back on common sense and experience. Shot placement still rules. You all know by now I think a .308 Win. will clobber any game anywhere short of the big bears, cats, rhino, Cape Buffalo and elephants ( notwithstanding that Karamojo Bell would clobber ALL of them with my .308, but Mr. Bell was well-nigh supernatural as a rifleman ). For the dangerous critters heavier fatter bullets just make sense because they create bigger wound channels. And moderate velocities are best for penetration.

A few more words about Elmer Kieth. One man creating all this hoopla about heavy, fat bullets for EVERYTHING not just the big and dangerous stuff. When it comes to dangerous game I am in the Kieth camp. But I don’t believe elk and such are as tough as big bears and they sure don’t rip you asunder so you can count me in the O’Conner “camp” too! But I would like to remind once again about the second half of Mr. Kieth’s advice: modest velocity for better penetration. What we see today are so-called Kiethians clamoring for large bore, big bullets but also clamoring for launch speeds in the stratosphere! And, they’re perhaps missing another Kiethism, also repeatedly stated by the man—NO shoulder launched firearm will “stop” a charge from a dangerous large animal unless spine or brain are hit, killing the critter outright on the spot.

So. Yes, I’m a Kiethian when it comes to dangerous game. Completely so. That is, I believe in big bullets, but launched at modest speeds, which will not only do a better job of penetrating but will also, and even more importantly, allow me to shoot straighter in the first place! Very good idea don’t you think? And, you know me, I want to carry a lot lighter rifle. For non-dangerous game and long range I’m an O’Conner man. Makes sense to me.

Let’s talk about Jeff Cooper. Can’t talk about all these other “authorities” without talking about Mr. Cooper. Jeff has espoused his Scout Rifle concept for as long as I can remember, a concept very dear to my heart because it’s almost the same concept as my own Rambling Rifle concept, with a few ( forgivable ) “errors” on Jeff’s part ( this is a joke Jeff, don’t come gunning for me). Mr. Cooper uses two rifle calibers on everything– .308 Win. and .350 Rem. Mag. See why I like this man so much? And I do mean everything: Jeff even takes Cape Buffalo ( down in South Africa where they don’t insist on the .375 minimum bore rule ) with Fireplug, his beloved .350 RM in Scout Rifle configuration. And why not? As I pointed out in Rambling Rifle II the 358 bore is so very close to the legendary 375 that it simply has to be very nearly the same in effectiveness. And so it is. Jeff clobbers lion at will with this potent rifle too. We are kindred spirits: we believe in short action, lightweight handy rifles that have the power to produce just like the big honkers. Thirty caliber has proved itself for a century, beginning with the great 30-40 Krag and continuing with the fabulous 30-06 and also the equally fabulous .308. Along in the 20’s came the wonderful 35 Whelen, giving us a “pounder” for dangerous game, followed by the 350 Rem. Mag. and the equally wonderful little 358 Win. Even though the 358 bores never caught on with the masses, they, combined with the terrific standard 30’s, will do whatever needs to be done in North America. Let me make one more point about the 358/375 phenomenon. It’s this: Peter Capstick ( there, I managed to get him in here too ) opines that there is something about the diameter of the 375 that is sort of “balanced”; that it is big enough to create the right sort of very effective wound channel, yet not so big as to be impeded in penetrating ability as it displaces tissue. Interesting theory, isn’t it? The 358 bore is very close to that magic diameter and must participate in this magic nearly completely. And consider this: my 358 Win. with 250gr. bullets is pretty much a ringer for the 375 H&H with its legendary 270gr. bullets in terms of sectional density. With 275 gr. bullets my 358 is a ringer for the 300 grainers in the H&H. At this point my 358 hasn’t quite the range as the 375 but its penetration value is even greater by virtue of being a little slower! I could close the gap in speed somewhat if it had a 24 inch barrel instead of the 20 ½ incher I’ve installed. But that isn’t either necessary or even desirable from the perspective of being a dangerous game slayer of first rank.

I think I missed a theory debate: the one about “clear thru for blood trail” vs. “dump all the energy inside”. Doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to me—I somehow always manage to find my downed animal. Using premium controlled expansion bullets will usually ensure complete penetration, and I suppose I come down on the side of the clear-thru crowd because I always do use controlled expansion bullets. But even these bullets don’t cut it if you’re an ultra-high velocity nut. For example, I swatted a sable in Zimbabwe at about 80 yards with an X-bullet ( which I really like ) from my 300 Weatherby and failed to get complete penetration. In fact it didn’t put him down for the count; I had to go find him and administer a finishing shot. All the petals on the first bullet were stripped off, leaving a very short little stub of remaining projectile. It was one of those point- of- shoulder shots. Same bullet/rifle on an equally sized elk here in Colorado, but at long, long range, hit the point of the shoulder and went clear through. No, African animals are NOT tougher than other animals, this just shows that high velocity has serious drawbacks at short range even with the very toughest of modern bullets. Imagine if that close shot had been at a charging bear! For that very reason I load the 220gr. Noslers I carry along in the magazine of my Weatherby when in bear country way down—so I’m ensured of good penetration should I get attacked. These big 30 caliber bullets out of my .308 at 2250 fps. have produced some amazing examples of penetration.

My .358 has more paper “power” than any handgun in the world, and about three times the effective range, getting back to where we began this story. Anyone who has hunted large game with genuine handgun calibers ( as distinct from rifle calibers in certain “handguns” ) understands the extravagance of “power” inherent in the lowly .308 ( or 30-06 or many other “standard” rifle calibers you can name ). Yet these handgunners have taken every category of game on the planet cleanly. So. How much power in a rifle is enough? Think about it. And don’t forget to weigh your thoughts against the ingredients that go into getting your first shot where it needs to go. Well, and I guess the second ( and third? ) shot too

Patrick Smith
From Japan

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