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Size Matters- Selecting Bullet Weights & Shot Sizes for Success

by Ed Migale

If you’ve spent more than one evening in a hunting camp, you’ve no doubt heard more than one friendly argument about the merits of one rifle caliber versus another or how a certain shotgun gauge is better than all the rest.

No matter what caliber or gauge he touts, the hunter-turned-orator provides a loquacious defense of his favorite and rarely, if ever, allows his audience (you) any chance of rebuttal.

Well here’s the “ammo” you’ll need to counter his claims …. and make better selections in the ammunition you feed your favorite rifle or shotgun:

Bore Diameter: Width Isn’t The Only Consideration

A 12 gauge is bigger than a 20 gauge, and a .338 caliber is bigger than a .308, which is bigger than a .277, right? No question about it, those statements are true as they are based on fact. But where the campfire argument gets cloudy is when statements are made to the effect that the bigger gauges and calibers provide more game killing “power”.

Is bigger always better? Sometimes it is. And sometimes it is not.

Guys, it’s not just bore diameter and chamber length that gets the job done. A lot – make that an awful lot – of how effective a given firearm is has to do with what you send down that bore in relation to 1.) the size and physical make-up of the bird or animal; 2.) the venue (i.e., topography, terrain, amount and density of brush, etc) in which you are hunting, and 3.) the distance at which you are shooting.

These three variables are what you need to take into consideration when choosing ammunition for the hunt.

To illustrate my point, let’s look at the venerable 30.06, which fires the same .308 diameter bullet as all other .30 caliber rifles such as the .308 Winchester, the 300 Winchester Short Magnum, the 300 Winchester Magnum, the 300 Remington Ultra Mag and the 300 H&H Magnum, to name several.

What size and type of bullet should you shoot? Look to the three criteria I cite above and ask yourself… Are you: Stalking elk in the dark timber? Trying to sneak within range of antelope on the prairie or open-country blacktails? Tip-toeing through the manzanita in search of bedded wild pigs at mid-day?

Bullet choices for the different scenarios are important because what works optimally for antelope at 300 yards will be a poor choice on wild hogs at 25 yards in dense brush.

For long range shooting at thin skinned game, light-for-caliber bullets driven at high velocities have merit. In the 30-06, a 150 grain polymer tipped bullet designed to open quickly on impact, such as the Hornady SST or the Nosler Ballistic Tip would be perfect. With a sectional density of .226 and high ballistic coefficient of over .400, these bullets can be launched at a muzzle velocity of over 2,900 feet per second (fps) from the ’06. Zero this load at 250 yards and you won’t have to worry about holdover on any pronghorn, blacktail, or mule deer to 300 yards.

Conversely, those close quarter elk should be stalked with stout, heavy-for-caliber 180 or 200 grain bullets such as the Nosler Partition, Trophy Bonded Bear Claw or Swift A-Frame. True enough, these heavy loads are relatively slower at 2,500 to 2,700 fps but you don’t need laser like trajectory in the dark timber.

In fact, several African outfitters I spoke with recently at the Safari Club International Convention in Reno, Nevada, were adamant about the use of “long, heavy, slow bullets” for African plains game. Their reason? Thick brush.

However, other PH’s liked the 165 grain bullets at higher muzzle velocities in the ’06. Their reason? More open terrain in their locales, which means longer shots.

Of course the high-performance, lead-free bullets – now required by law for hunting in certain parts of California -- like Barnes’ all copper Triple Shock and Tipped Triple Shock, Hornady’s GMX and Nosler’s E-Tip are getting outstanding reputations for superior performance and outstanding accuracy. The trick with these products is to select slightly lighter-for-caliber bullets for the task at hand in order to have higher initial muzzle velocity. For example in the 30.06, pick a 165 or 168 grain bullet instead of the 180 grainer for game like elk or hogs. And don’t believe some of the crap you read in some publications; these products really, really work and are often my choice even when not required by law.

No Shots In The Dark

Bird hunting ammo selections can be just as varied. Take steel shot for waterfowl. There is no one-size-fits-all, not when you might shoot at everything from 8 ounce teal to 8 pound honkers in the same morning.

So what should you do? On average, pick a shot size that is large enough to pack enough energy for the biggest bird you’ll shoot at while providing better-than-adequate pattern density at the range you expect to shoot at. I.e., are you hunting over decoys and trying to call the birds in close or are you pass shooting at extended ranges?

I hunt over decoys, so I use #2 steel for ducks, but switch to #1 steel if I expect to encounter specklebelly geese. There are less #1’s in a given load than # 2’s (100 per ounce vs. 125 per ounce) but the #1’s carry more energy down range and are very effective on decoying specks, as well as large dabbling ducks.

In the uplands, the trade-offs between pattern density and energy are just as important. Shooting at quail as they rocket away from you with #9’s might seem like a good idea because of the dense patterns obtainable with this fine sized shot, but #8’s or 7 ½’s provide good to adequate pattern densities with much better retained energy.

However turkeys, which are hunted in the uplands, are cause for a little different perspective. Safety requirements mandate that we shoot relatively small sized shot at turkeys while trying for head shots. We want dense patterns and enough energy to be lethal out to about 40 yards. Some hunters like #6 lead which throws a denser pattern than #4’s, which some hunters prefer as 4’s carry more energy. I split the difference and shoot #5’s. Some hunters are going with the new #7 sized Hevi-Shot, which carry as much energy as #6 lead but denser patterns.

Use Enough Gun … and Enough Ammo

The late Oliver “Ollie” Rose was a crack shot in his time, an excellent teacher till his last days and a hunter/sportsman from a bygone era when it was simply a matter of driving across the border into Mexico where he and his friends hunted huge swarms of mourning and white wing doves, along with enormous coveys of desert quail.

I knew Ollie in his twilight years when he was the manager at the now defunct Table Mountain Trap & Skeet Club in Oroville. To my good fortune, Ollie took a liking to me from the start and mentored me on skeet shooting and bird, big game, and varmint hunting at every opportunity. “The game you pursue demands your respect,” he would say, “so always use enough gun and select ammo that will do the job.”

The next time you are sitting around the campfire in hunt camp and someone tells you that the “such-in-such-super-dupermagnum” is THE way to go, just smile politely and remember those twenty words from Ollie Rose. It’s what you accurately send down range that matters most.

Ed Migale Articles

While big game, waterfowl, and upland game bird hunting, as well as saltwater fishing for the past two decades Ed Migale has had hundreds of articles published in national and regional publications and has received numerous writing awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of California. Ed has hunted and fished for over 40 years throughout California, as well as in five western states, three Canadian provinces, and in both mainland Mexico and the Baja Peninsula. In March of 2011 he called in and killed an Osceola gobbler in central Flroida, thus completing a ten-year quest to bag all five subspeciies of the wild turkey in North America — the "Royal Slam."

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