How to choose factory ammo for hunting

Don Caswell

So, you already have your rifle and scope in the calibre you have chosen. Now you need to find suitable factory ammo to go hunting with. By hunting, I mean you are after medium-sized game, like deer, goats and pigs. This is where time and money spent at the range testing a variety of factory ammo will pay dividends later.

Selecting the style of projectile

For hunting medium to large game, I test heavy-for-calibre premium projectiles that offer controlled expansion. There are reputable makers of such projectiles and your choice will depend on what you’ve read and what your buddies think about these.

Factory loadings of premium projectiles do not come cheap. To make my dollars stretch further I look to swap some of the ammo I have bought with other shooters at the SSAA range (more on that later).

The following steps apply just as well to pest or varmint shooting, except you would want to choose light-for-calibre, highly expansive bullets for such application. This differentiation between game and varmints is important, particularly in what I consider the crossover calibres of .224 and .243.

Being methodical and keeping notes

I draw cross lines through all my 100m targets. When I pin them up on the frame, I use a plumb-bob to ensure they are truly vertical. This is a simple and vital step to ensure long-range accuracy during sighting-in. Then, with a large marking pen, I clearly number each target with a large numeral that I can see through my scope from the shooting bench.

Before starting firing, I adjust my bipod to ensure the vertical cross-hair of my scope lines up with the vertical line I have drawn on the target. Then in my notebook, I log the date, location and weather conditions and record just what ammo was used on every target I shoot at. This guarantees that when I arrive back home, processing as many as 36 targets, I am not relying on memory – I know exactly what each 3-shot group represents.

Accuracy testing

I am assuming here that you already have the rifle roughly sighted-in. That is, you can expect it to place its shots within a few inches of the aim point at 100m. That is good enough for accuracy testing. Sighting in for hunting will come after you have chosen your preferred ammo.

For hunting rifles, I limit my groups to three shots. If the rifle delivers a 3-shot group larger than 2 MOA, I put that packet of ammo aside. Next, I let the rifle cool down. Bolt-actions are rather invariant to wander as the barrel heats, but I still like to duplicate as near as possible a typical hunting situation – one to three quick shots from a cold barrel.

Single-shot rifles are notoriously prone to stray as a barrel warms, after as few as two or three shots, so be extra dedicated to barrel cooling. This is where it pays to have a rimfire, or some other rifle, with you to help while away 10 minutes or so while the hunting rifle cools down. It is also a good opportunity to stroll along the shooting line and see who is shooting what. You might spot somebody testing factory ammo in your calibre who might be interested in swapping rounds with you.

Honing in on the best ammo for your rifle

Once you have worked your way through the first series of 3-shot groups for each factory ammo you have, it is time to start again. Here I begin with the ammo that shot better than 2 MOA. In fact, I open with the best performer from the first group. Say you tested 10 varieties of factory ammo on the first pass. There is no need to test them all again. It may be that only two or three of those shot tight groups while the rest delivered larger groups.

If the good performers from round one produce equally acceptable results on the second round, then it is time to zero the rifle for the chosen ammo.

For any calibre to be used on medium game, I sight the rifle to group 1.5” (40mm) above the point of aim at 100 yards/metres. The trajectory will peak a smidge higher as the bullet passes on through 150-odd yards but will not exceed 2” (50mm) above your line of sight. Out at about 200 yards/metres (depending on the muzzle velocity), the projectile will drop back through the line of sight and, after travelling about 50 more yards will start to drop off below 2” under the line of sight. That is the dead-flat range of your rifle.

For any game animal within that dead-flat range you just put the cross-hairs on where you want to hit and squeeze the trigger. I only ever consider sighting variations when taking long shots on varmints, where I will aim higher to allow for extreme distance. I do not shoot game outside of the dead-flat range of my rifle – that’s a personal choice intended to avoid the chance of wounding my quarry.

Revisit the range regularly, especially before a hunt

You might not finalise your choice of ammo and sighting-in on the first trip to the range. It might require subsequent visits. Even if you have found the ammo that your rifle prefers, it pays to go to the range regularly, and/or do some varmint shooting with your deer rifle. The more practice you manage, the more familiar you will become with the handling and shooting of your hunting rifle.

Now, you will have a collection of factory ammo featuring partially used packets. Some will have 17 rounds left, some 14 and so on. These are the types that did not shoot well in your rifle. This is why you need to test a variety of factory ammo. The combination of rifle and ammo is always different. The fact that brand X shoots well in your buddy’s rifle does not mean it will shoot well in yours.

On my visits to the local SSAA range, I try to swap some of my also-ran ammo for types I have not yet tried. Six rounds are plenty to test. That is two 3-shot groups. If it is not a performer, cross it off your list. If it looks promising enough to consider changing over to that specific type, then buy a packet or two and do some more testing.

Accuracy expectations

I hunt by stalking game with a light sporting rifle. I am not a subscriber to the school of long-range sniping at game animals. Varmints yes, game animals no. Again, that is a choice based on my personal ethics which I do not seek to impose on others.

So just what is acceptable accuracy in a light hunting rifle to be used for game stalking? As has been said by many acknowledged experts over the years, 1.5 MOA is a fine benchmark for accuracy in a light hunting rifle for use in stalking. There are few riflemen (or women) who can shoot better than that under field hunting conditions, even if the rifle is amazingly accurate off the bench. I’ve had great success and many fond hunting memories from a pet rifle that only grouped around 2 MOA. It was less than impressive at the range but, in the field, it was one of those lethal, instant kill rifles that instil great confidence in the hunter. Any game within 250m was in dire jeopardy when I was carrying the rig.

So, make some choices from the wide array of excellent factory ammo available and find the one that your rifle shoots best. Zero your rifle for that and good hunting.

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