By Eric Christensen
Having worked at a gun store for several years really helped me understand why there are so many calibers available. Like most of today’s hunting products, technology and evolution have expanded manufacturer’s standard productions of traditional calibers to explore calibers that can deliver extreme muzzle velocity with accuracy. Walking up to the gun counters at Sportsman’s Warehouse really splits the crowd into consumers who are caliber specific and the overwhelmed novice firearm consumer.
When it comes to selecting the proper rifle caliber for your hunt, there are plenty of choices.
With such a vast selection of calibers to choose from, how do you know what direction to take? Do you stick with the tried and true or jump all-in with a long range setup that users can dial-in with a turret system. I always seemed to ask the customers the same set of questions: What type of shooting are you going to do and what experience have you had in the past with certain calibers?
There is nothing wrong with calibers that have emerged as consistent, accurate and affordable. I grew up shooting .270 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, 7 mm, .300 Winchester Magnum, down to a small .22-250. I remember walking into a gun store when I was 18 and looking at a .338 Lapua round, thinking that it must be a military round because of the size. These traditional rounds are successful for multiple reasons. The .270 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield suit a variety of hunting situations. They offer a wide variety of bullet weights and tips for a reasonable price.
Getting a comfortable and steady platform to shoot from is essential for down range accuracy. I like prone for the overall best position for long range shooting. The steadier the rest the easier it will be to make an accurate shot.
For these traditional calibers you must ask yourself what type of hunting you’re going to be doing. Are you buying a .270 caliber to hunt a specific animal or to cover a variety of different types of animals? These mid-range calibers can be okay for versatility. Sure you can kill a coyote with a 150 grain .30-06 and an elk with the same caliber. These animals are completely different and if you place the bullet in the boiler room, both will fall.
It really comes down to your needs and wants. But, if you have no idea what performance your load is going to achieve at certain distances, then you’re not maximizing crunch time. I was recently on a late cow elk hunt with some good friends. They were both shooting a .30-06 in 165 gr. SST, but with rifles from different gun manufacturers. They had hunted with the same guns for decades. They liked the caliber and they could share rounds if needed while out hunting, along with a few more reasons.
Like most of today’s firearm crowd, they didn’t do enough research and range time to really learn what their calibers would do. If you don’t’ know the drop at 400 and 500 yards, then by all means you can’t take the shot with confidence. We had cows at 478 yards and couldn’t get any closer. Both shot at cows and both missed. After the excitement settled down I asked them where they held and how it felt. Both men answered with a guess. Not knowing their guns would drop well over three feet at that range, they wasted a lifelong experience of harvesting two cow elk at the same time and adding a successful hunt that would have filled their families’ freezers.
I good set of shooting sticks can be used when you can’t use mother nature to get a proper set up. Be sure to practice at several distances with your shooting sticks prior to heading into the wilderness for your hunting trip.
This experience is not an isolated one, as even I have fallen into this trap when I was younger. I would dust off my .270 and go and shoot at 100 yards with a good group, then move out to 200 yards and call it a day. I had no idea then why ballistics were so important to helping me become a more successful hunter. If you think about it, does it make sense to finally draw a tag and then scout and hunt hard only to have to guess where to hold your crosshairs in the moment of truth? All the time and money we spend on getting us to the moment is completely wasted if we are unprepared.
Having learned this skill the hard way paid off for my daughter recently. She drew a late cow tag in the same area as my two friends. We chose to go with a 7mm-08 Weatherby with a 140 grain Nosler partition. We chose this round because it fit her 110-pound frame with the size and weight of the gun. Also, the recoil was a little lighter. We sighted in at 200 yards for our zero and practiced out to 500 yards. As a proud father, she managed to be pretty efficient at 300-400 yards! But, 500 seemed to be a struggle, so we realized that 400 yards was our maximum distance. This being her first big game hunt, I wanted to make sure she had a hunt that would hook her love for hunting to last her lifetime. She missed a cow at 250 yards, but that same evening she harvested another cow elk at 335 yards.
I mentioned this story for an example of selecting the right caliber for the situation. Too many times at the gun counter I saw customers purchase guns for themselves that someone else would be using. If the shooter is going to be recoil shy or they haven’t grown into the caliber, then why would you spend money on a setup that doesn’t fit your shooter.
Working for Mike Deming and Sportsman’s News has given me an opportunity to try my hand at long range rifle setups and I can tell you I’m hooked. There is nothing like sitting on a bench and rattling a metal plate at 700 yards. You can squeeze the trigger and think you completely missed, only to hear the bang on the metal plate an entire second later than you expect. It has changed my entire outlook on long range shooting. It has made me become a much better shooter by making me understand what the load I’m shooting is doing every time I squeeze off a round, giving me a shooting mindset. This type of preparation has also made me understand that this type of discipline is not only going to make me a more successful marksman, but also fairer to my prey. No one wants to injure or wound an animal they are intending to harvest. By knowing exactly where your bullet is going to travel at a given distance, it will minimize missing a shot. Had my two friends learned and spent more time with their old, seemingly reliable .30-06’s, they might have brought home a freezer full of meat instead of coming home empty handed.
Hunting big game like this Alaskan Brown Bear requires an extremely accurate shot placement. Most hunters and guides use a large caliber and bullet for smashing through bone and penetrating thick hide. The last thing you want is to guess where your bullet is going to hit on a large Bear like this one. Mike Schafer used .338 Winchester Magnum to down this trophy brown bear.
So how do you select a caliber that fits your needs? You need to decide what you are wanting to accomplish. No matter what caliber you decide fits your hunting preference, learning as much as possible about your gun and your ammunition is crucial to becoming a more confident marksman. I’ve learned that some guns don’t like some types of bullets. I would recommend that you try a few different manufacturers and grain weights to see what groups the best out of your setup. It may seem like overkill to buy a few different boxes of ammo in the same caliber, but I promise, you will not complain one bit once your gun is pin-point accurate and performs at its utmost.
And of course, the topic of optics is an entire discussion of its own, but also should be thought about before topping your gun and heading to the range. I would highly recommend you invest in a performing rifle scope to fit your shooting goal. Optics are just as important as your traditional or specialty caliber. Practice, practice, practice and you will not be disappointed. Learning your caliber and what it can do will help fill your scrap book and memories with more successful hunting trips.