Inside the Outdoors: It’s the caliber of the hunter, not the gun
Commitment, effort and the judgment that eventually comes from it, are what makes a high-caliber hunter.
Over more than a half century of peering down the rib of a shotgun barrel, or through the sights of a rifle, I’ve witnessed some major changes in sporting firearms and their ammunition. Changes like rifle and shotgun stocks of molded space-age composites, instead of traditional—and still favored by the romantics among us—real walnut. Telescopic sights have largely replaced the open iron sights that were still common on rifles when I began hunting.
Most new shotguns have interchangeable “chokes” at the business end of their barrels, short tubes that constrict shot pellets as they are leaving the barrel and determine whether the pellets disperse quickly for close range shooting—for grouse, for example—or are concentrated for more distant shots—as you might want when pass shooting ducks or geese.
Toxic lead shotgun pellets have been replaced with steel or more advanced multi-element compounds for waterfowl hunting, in response to the poisoning of ducks and geese that occurred when they mistook spent shot pellets on the bottom sediments of wetlands for grit, ate them and died. The search for a perfect substitute for lead continues.
Ammunition for both rifles and shotguns has steadily followed a trajectory of rising power; an arms race, you might say. The objective—at least from a marketing standpoint—has been greater killing power. The advertised result of using the most powerful rifle cartridge or shotshell is ostensibly a deer, elk or moose that drops in its tracks—at longer ranges, to boot—or a duck or goose that can reliably be downed at 60 yards or more, which is beyond the reliable accuracy range for most hunters.
This is typically accomplished by putting more bang behind the bullet in a rifle cartridge or the pellets in a shotshell; more of—or a more powerful—propellant. This generally requires more volume in a rifle cartridge or a shotshell. Compared to some “magnum” rifle cartridges of today, many widely-used big game rifle calibers of the mid-20th century now look puny. Most shotguns were once chambered for a standard shell 2-3/4” long. Today, the 12 gauge shotgun you buy is likely to accept 3” shells, or an even higher capacity shell 3-1/2” long.
My first whitetail was harvested in the near-wilderness of Minnesota’s Lake Superior North Shore. It was taken with a lever-action rifle I had purchased second-hand; not so unusual for a cash-challenged young adult. Its caliber—.35 Remington—was already fading in popularity. Not because it was incapable of bringing down a deer, but due to the greater glamor of more powerful and popular cartridges, like the .308 Winchester or the 30-06 Springfield.
In the end, I was no more immune to magnum-itis than the next hunter. When I could accumulate enough cash that wasn’t earmarked for tuition or rent, I said goodbye to my first deer rifle. I traded it in on a brand-new, scope-sighted, Browning semi-automatic rifle in one of the more powerful calibers. As expected, it was more than equal to the task of bringing down a deer. But in an ironic counterpoint, on my first hunt with my “improved” armament, another hunter in my party killed the largest buck my deer hunting group had ever harvested. His rifle was chambered for the old-fashioned sub-magnum Winchester 30-30, a cartridge similar in vintage, design and killing power to what I used to take my first deer. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
My friends and I were passionate about deer hunting, but the shotgun sports would prove to be my most enduring connection to firearms, hunting and shooting. Interests may wax and wane across the span of a lifetime, but ruffed grouse and waterfowl have been the two types of hunting that have most enduringly claimed my devotion.
Ruffed grouse are a challenge in all of hunting’s dimensions. Except in the most remote places, they’re thoroughly wild and elusive. They defy taming, and will never be served up on a shooting preserve. They’re often found in dense cover that can be a nightmare to navigate, adding to the difficulty of making a shot when a bird explodes in a thunderous, unnerving flush. Each grouse is a trophy. But a grouse is a lightly-feathered bird, typically harvested at close range, so there is no need for heavy or specialized armament. If anything, grouse hunting lends itself to traditional methods—many use vintage double-barreled shotguns—and light shotshell loads.
Waterfowl hunting is another story altogether. Ducks and geese can sometimes be harvested at close range. But there are many times—especially late in the season after much exposure to hunting pressure—when waterfowl refuse to come in to decoys, or skirt them at the outer limit of shotgun range or hunter skill. This has made waterfowl hunting fertile ground for experimentation in firearms and ammunition design, the objective being to improve a hunter’s odds, especially under unfavorable conditions.
The simple answer is to throw more shot pellets, and—ideally—at higher speed. The escalation began with the so-called “baby magnum,” a standard 2-3/4” shotgun shell into which as much as an ounce and one-half of shot pellets were squeezed. This gradually evolved into a 3” length for 12 gauge shells, and now a 12 gauge shell that is a full 3-1/2 inches in length, with bigger payloads of shot.
But there is a downside to this. More power—whether in a shotgun shell or a rifle cartridge—means more punishing recoil, the backward kick of the gun at ignition that is felt by the shooter. Too much of this can lead to “flinching,” the unconscious and imperceptible drawing away from the anticipated jab of the gun’s buttstock against the shoulder. This can cause misses, or worse, crippled game.
I recall a shot taken while I stood on a duck boat seat—not recommended, I might add—to get a better angle and dispatch a duck that my first shot had not killed. With my feet too close together on the narrow seat, the recoil of the magnum shell made me momentarily lose my balance, which only by good luck did not lead to a worse mishap, and me in the water. That’s recoil!
The other potential downside to unduly high-powered ammunition is that it can cultivate a mistaken belief on the part of some hunters that power alone can be a shortcut to success in bagging game. This often leads to ill-advised shots, and wounded game that escapes to die unrecovered, and undeserved. The real keys to success are intimately knowing the behavior of the game you pursue, knowing one’s weapon and what it can and cannot do, and knowing one’s own shot-making capabilities. These are only discovered through practice and more practice to sharpen skills, and experience under actual hunting conditions.
This commitment, effort and the judgment that eventually comes from it, are what makes a high-caliber hunter. And at the end of the day—or the hunt—that’s likely to be more important than the caliber of the gun.