How Big Is Big Enough? The Caliber Debate Reprise.

August 26, 2014

There’s been some interesting discussion going on lately amongst a couple of the gun writers I follow, as they delve into the hotly debated question of “enough gun”.  Although Dave Campbell comes at it one way, his fellow gun writer and author, Richard Mann takes a different tack.

Now both of these guys know their stuff.  That’s pretty much beyond question, and they have the masthead credits and bylines to prove it.  Whenever I read anything they’ve written, I seldom come away without gleaning some nuggets of valuable information.  So, of course, this topic got my attention because it’s such an active conversation.

Dave’s blog column takes a look at whether or not the .223 (5.56) is a valid deer cartridge.  This is a controversial argument (.22 caliber firearms are not even legal for deer in every state), and one that has grown with the increasing use of the AR platform as a hunting tool.  There’s not a lot new in Dave’s piece, at least not to anyone who’s ever participated in this particular discussion.  It boils down to the conclusion that yes, the .223 can be a viable choice for deer under the right conditions (range, bullet construction, shot placement).  What I inferred, whether or not it was implicit, is that Dave still doesn’t necessarily think it’s a great choice.

I don’t know about the intent, but Richard Mann’s blog reads like a rejoinder to Campbell’s commentary.  As he rightly points out, there is no definitive answer to the question of, “what is ‘enough gun’?”  Unfortunately, while it’s hard to argue with any of his points, he boils his commentary down to the banal and badly abused argument that it’s really a question of shot placement and penetration.

It’s absolutely true, of course.  A bullet that penetrates well and hits the vitals will kill.  Disconnect the central nervous system, upset the cardio-pulmonary functions, or deflate both lungs, and the majority of animals will expire post-haste.  And there’s no doubt that a .223 with a good bullet can deliver these goods on deer-sized game at appropriate distances.  Hell, a .22 magnum can deliver these goods… all else being equal.

But now I’m going to repeat something I’ve said so many times I’m sick of it… but I bet I’ll be saying it again soon.

It is NOT all about shot placement.

Yes, of course we all strive for perfect placement every time we shoot at game.  Yes, of course, a little deviation from perfect is, usually, still adequate.  But until we start hunting with self-guided, smart bullets that always find the heart from the ideal angle, we’re not always going to make perfect shots.  It just doesn’t happen.

Sure, we practice.  The most conscientious of us practice a lot.  We hone our skills, tune our weapons, and remove as much of the element of chance as we can before we hit the field.  That’s great.  It’s the right thing to do.  But here’s the caveat…

There’s no one out there teaching that buck to freeze, slightly quartering away with his near-side leg stepping forward to expose the “pocket”.  Nobody taught the brush to move aside, or instructed the wind about the appropriate time to gust.  Nobody hipped you to the possibility that, despite the near-religious ritual drills of the top three offhand shooting positions during every range session, your shot opportunity will take place as you balance flat-footed on a 40-degree, rocky slope with the animal appearing at approximately five o’clock behind you.

There are a handful of hunters with the restraint and composure to pass all but the ideal shot opportunity.  I don’t think I know any of them.

We take chancy shots… too far, no rest, bad angle, off-balance, nervous, breathless, and so on.  We get excited.  We over or under-estimate range and wind drift.  We blink and flinch and jerk the trigger.  These aren’t just my observations of other people… I’ve done all of these things myself.

While I may not have the experience of some of the widely-published gun writers, I’ve done a lot of hunting.  I’ve shot a lot of animals (and shot at some as well).  I’ve accompanied scores of other hunters as they took their shots too. Beyond that, over the past couple of years working in the processing house, I’ve disassembled more than my share of game animals.  So trust me when I say, unequivocally, that for every perfect heart/lung shot I’ve seen, there are at least five or six marginal hits (probably more, but I don’t keep records).  I would estimate that at least two thirds of the animals brought in to be processed required multiple shots to bring them to hand.  If it really were all about shot placement, many of these guys would be eating tag soup.

Enough rambling.  The point is, hunting is not an exact science where you can perfect a formula and get identical results every time.  The perfect shot happens, but it’s not something that I think a hunter should count on.  The better bet is to prepare for the imperfect… and part of that preparation includes selecting a caliber that provides a little extra leeway.  There’s nothing wrong with a little bigger wound channel, a bit more kinetic energy, or that extra oomph to pass through a hindquarter and still plow its way to the vitals.

Like Dave Campbell and Richard Mann, I cannot define “enough gun,” because the truth is, almost any gun can be “enough”.  But if nothing else, consider this. With all of the quality, proven options available on the market these days, why would any hunter purposefully handicap himself with something that is, at best, adequate?

In sport fishing, I understand the allure of fighting big fish with little tackle.  It’s challenging.  It’s exciting.  Likewise, I recognize the challenge and expertise required to consistently kill big game with a little bullet.  Kudos to the marksman who succeeds unfailingly.  But when the fisherman loses, the fish swims away, little the worse for the experience.  This is not the case when you shoot an animal.





6 Responses to “How Big Is Big Enough? The Caliber Debate Reprise.”

  1. How Big Is Big Enough? The Caliber Debate Reprise. | on August 26th, 2014 22:14

    […] How Big Is Big Enough? The Caliber Debate Reprise. […]

  2. Dave on August 27th, 2014 07:49

    Can’t add anything to that. My thoughts exactly. Why take a chance of wounding an animal or making it suffer before it expires?

  3. Dane on August 28th, 2014 08:26

    “Why handicap with adequate” , Exactly what I have said . Don’t over gun , meaning a gun you are afraid to fire , or don’t shoot well . I have shot deer with 30-06,7mm,338,300win.308, all equally dead . I have taken 20+ deer with a rifle and only 2 required a follow up shot . Have I passed poor angles or wind and range conditions , Yes . I am not a fan of the 22cal. or the auto loader for big game for the reasons , (1) easy to go with the wrong ammo (2) may entice some to spray and pray(3) the point where projectile energy is insufficient , because of range or angle is harder to calculate in the field than the desk . Just my thoughts . My Dad handed me a 30-06 with 180gr spire points at 14 to start deer hunting .

  4. Phillip on August 28th, 2014 09:22

    Dane, I think we’re pretty much aligned on everything you said here.
    When I suggest using “more” gun, I would never propose that someone pick up the heaviest magnum on the market. Recoil… or rather, perceived recoil… is the enemy of accuracy. Most hunters will tell you, “I never feel the kick when I’m shooting at game,” and that’s generally true. But if they felt that kick at the range before they shot at game, it’s very possible that they picked up some sort of flinch reaction as a result. So not only do they not notice the recoil, they don’t notice their flinch either. I wonder how many times a hunter has placed a shot on an animal, and then was surprised when the impact was actually several inches away from the intended point of aim. It’s certainly happened to me, and that can almost always be attributed to unintentional movement… either jerking the trigger, flinching away from the stock, or similar issues that are all caused by recoil aversion.

    There is a median point. I think a lot of folks can handle something in the 6mm to 7mm range with 90 grain or heavier bullets. I think there’s a lot to be said for practicing good shooting form as well, because that can go a long ways toward reducing felt recoil. There are other factors too, including rifle design, muzzle brakes, and add-on recoil pads. Hornady and (I think) Remington offer reduced recoil ammunition in standard, big game calibers. So if recoil is the driving issue, there are other options than going down to a .223.

    But I also know there’s an attraction to the AR platform, and those rifles are most readily available in .223. The industry has made some positive steps towards improving the “sporting” utility of these rifles, including reducing weight, improved trigger mechanisms, and upgraded accuracy. I’m not crazy about them for a lot of reasons, including the ones you listed above… but this isn’t about me.

    The bottom line (and this is why I write posts like this one) for anyone considering a rifle for hunting big game is to consider the conditions under which you’ll be hunting. Factor in your own abilities. Figure on the size and tenacity of the game you’ll be hunting. Think about the environment, such as the likely distance of your shots and what the game is likely to be doing (feeding, watering, bedding down, or just passing through). Then think about the most extreme scenario… the longest shot, or the biggest animal. Err on the side of caution, within reason, and you’re far less likely to be disappointed in the outcome.

  5. Dan on August 30th, 2014 06:10

    I LOVE this topic! Can’t say I have had sufficient bad experiences to teach me any grand lessons on the subject – but I’ve heard a few stories, seen a few shots muffed up, passed up a few opportunities and had the odd bit of bad luck to make a couple of good decisions:

    1) if I’m out for a day of hunting when bringing home a sack full of steak isn’t critical and tagging a dream trophy is not on the agenda – I go out happy to pass up any shot that isn’t perfect, then I might head out with my .220 Swift, the Hornet or even a .22 Magnum. These are fun days, no pressure;

    2) when bringing home the bacon really matters – be it a fallow buck, a bristling boar, a glossy black sable or a cape buffalo – I carry a stick that’s going to push a big bullet, end-to-end regardless of what gets in the way. With this in mind, I’ve come home a happy hunter when it would have been somewhere between disappointing or disastrous had I taken a marginal calibre.

    Great chat Phil. I like this one. Especially with a drink by the fire!

  6. Phillip on September 2nd, 2014 06:57

    Dan, I think most of these “conversations” are made better with a nice fire and a glass of whisky close to hand.