Looking back on almost five decades of shooting and hunting, I can honestly say that it took me way too long to come to this realization: you’re never going to shoot well with a gun that you’re afraid of.
Any firearm that kicks you back into yesterday and splits the stratosphere with its muzzle blast is going to mess with your delicate nervous system. Once you’ve been beaten and battered by a particular firearm, your subconscious is going to scream every time you repeat that horrific experience.
In anticipation of the upcoming smackdown, your mind will signal to your upper body muscles that it’s time for them to tighten up. Next, you’re going to cringe and scrunch your eyes closed. And finally, you’ll yank the trigger just to get the nasty business over with. As you might imagine, none of these shenanigans are particularly conducive to accurate shooting.
The good news is that with disciplined practice, you can train yourself to overcome these exaggerated responses. But the questions remain: Does your particular style of hunting really require you to use a hard-kicking, fire-breathing magnum cartridge? Is it possible that a more modest cartridge might still fulfill all of your ballistic requirements?
One of my least favorite annual range sessions used to involve a lightweight Remington 870 and a handful of those nasty 3 ½-inch, 2-ounce turkey loads that the gun magazine writers crow about. Every time that I was about to touch off one of those bad boys, my shoulders would stiffen, my eyes would cross, and I’d brace my whole body in anticipation of that obnoxious cheek and shoulder-thumping recoil. As you might image, follow-up shots only made matters worse. Eventually, I saw the light and repented of my folly. I starting using Remington’s excellent 2 ¾-inch Express loads topped off with 1 ¼-ounce of No. 5 shot. To my utter amazement — and despite the lack of magnum bite and bark — turkeys at the receiving end of this payload give up the ghost with little fight.
I attribute my magnum mania to the fact that I am a child of the ‘50s. Here in America, the magnum craze really took hold in the early ‘60s. It seemed that a calendar year wouldn’t pass without the introduction of yet another belted magnum wonder or two. Suddenly, all of the traditional standard cartridges that had been laying game low for well over a century became passé. Several noted gun writers of the day (think Elmer Keith, Col. Charlie Askins here) even mentioned in print that if the brass case didn’t wear a belt and have the internal volume of a thermos bottle, then it was inadequate for anything but the smallest of deer.
Of course, I willingly surrendered my will to the incessant tug of this market-driven propaganda. Through the succeeding decades, a bevy of belted beauties passed through my quivering, sweaty hands. I bought and shot 7mm Magnums, .300 Magnums, 270 Magnums, and .338 Magnums. More than one shoulder-pounding 3 and 3 ½-inch shot-slinger accompanied me to the duck marshes and goose blinds.
In truth, I did slay a truckload of deer, antelope, elk, and waterfowl with these boomers. But if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I bet that most—if not all of these animals—could have been cleanly taken with any of a number of more moderate rounds.
Over the past decade, there has been a renaissance of sorts in regards to the efficiency of yesterday’s standard, non-magnum cartridges. Experienced hunters have rediscovered what knowledgeable bow hunters have known all along. If the projectile, be it a broadhead or a bullet, is able to enter and disrupt the animal’s vital organs, the critter is going to die in short order. Death comes as a result of massive internal hemorrhaging, not shock. So, if your rifle cartridge has enough velocity to get a well-constructed bullet into the animal’s vitals, it’s going to end up in your freezer. Bullet construction is critical; in most hunting scenarios, magnum velocities are not required.
This is not to say that magnum cartridges don’t have a place in the sporting world. They do, in fact, fill a highly specialized niche. A magnum of some ilk might be just the ticket if you’re wading around in thick cover after large, dangerous game. Or it might be ideal if you need to reach out with authority to anchor an animal at extreme ranges.
Magnum class cartridges are not unlike high performance automobiles. Both have wide appeal to the masses, but very few individuals possess the skills to capitalize on their specialized performance. Certainly if you have need for the ballistic advantages of a magnum cartridge or shot shell, and are willing to put forth the effort to master it, by gosh, have at it. But for the vast majority of recreational hunters, a mild-mannered .243, 7mm-08, .308, .270, 30-06 or 6.5 Creedmoor rifle and a 2 ¾ or 3-inch chambered shotgun might be just the ticket.