Mick Chapman emphasizes that it’s much more about accuracy than artillery
Many years ago I sat through a lecture by a celebrated deer hunter who advocated a minimum calibre for sambar to be .458 Win Mag. This is a calibre renowned for killing at both ends that would frighten most potential hunters out of participating in one of the world’s greatest forms of recreation.
New hunters enter the sport with little perception of what rifle calibre combination is relevant to the hunting they intend to pursue. They are totally reliant on information gleaned from the people introducing them to hunting. These can be folk who often know only marginally more than our novice. They can be subjective in their opinions, believing because of their experiences with a such and such calibre, it should be the choice for our greenhorn. They give no thought to shooting technique or physical attributes of the neophyte.
If our new shooter is built like a Greek god, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be able to absorb recoil. Similarly, the shooter who is a bit of a beanstalk may handle recoil well. Technique and the riflestock have more to do with absorbing recoil than body shape.
Each state and territory has a minimum calibre requirement for the hunting of game, so before any new hunter settles on a calibre they should check with their region’s SSAA office. They can then try to shoot the calibre they are thinking of purchasing, preferably in the same make and model of rifle they intend to buy. Attending a SSAA rifle range, politely talking to the range officer or officials is a step in the right direction. Tell them you are thinking of acquiring a firearm to go hunting with. Ask the official if there are any ‘club guns’ to shoot in suitable calibres that you may be able to fire to see if you like them or not.
Mingle with shooters at the range, tell them why you are there. Often, someone will be generous enough to offer a shot from their firearm. If there are 10 shooters at the range you will probably have close to 10 different rifles and calibres to choose from. Once you have been granted the opportunity to shoot, listen and do what you are asked.
One of the best ways to gain the feel for a calibre is to shoot it off the bench. By doing this, you will have a good idea of what the felt recoil of that particular calibre is. If the shooter can absorb the recoil while sitting, they certainly shouldn’t have too much trouble with the same calibre when shooting in any of the field positions. By the way, don’t forget to offer to pay for the ammunition used.
The ability to withstand recoil is something akin to weightlifting ‑ to grow stronger, the more weight you need to lift. So, the more you shoot, the more you will harden to recoil. Many new shooters turn up at the range with a flash new rifle and simply splatter a few shots all over the target. Then they blame the rifle for being inaccurate. But really it is their technique or flinching from the expected muzzle blast and recoil that causes the problem.
To harden yourself to recoil is time-consuming and an expensive exercise. But it is not as costly as buying a new rifle, finding out you can’t deal with the recoil and being forced to sell it. If you are considering buying a larger calibre, which could be anything above a .308 Win, find someone you know who has one and shoot theirs. If you can shoot a 50mm group at 100m on different days you may not be recoil shy.
Recoil can cause injuries to the face of people whose eye is too close to the optic lens of a scope, when firing the rifle. A scope with a 100mm eye relief is a real advantage to the hunter who uses standard or heavy calibres. When shooting uphill or downhill, shooters sometimes creep the stock. This means their eye edges closer to the optical bell of the scope. Under recoil the scope periphery edge slams into their eyebrow, cutting the skin to the bone, known colloquially as a Weatherby eye.
Many years ago a fellow I met in Townsville who had crept his stock, on recoil wore the scope above his eye. Unfortunately for him, it had cracked his skull. Unbeknown to him at the time, brain fluid was leaking down through his sinuses triggering a runny nose which at first he thought nothing of. As the day wore on his head began to pound so he took himself to a local doctor who immediately recognised the symptoms, ordering a Flying Doctor plane to rush him to the nearest hospital.
Purchasing a first or even a replacement hunting rifle sounds a simple enough exercise, but it can be fraught with hidden perils. Proceed slowly and ponder some of the following before setting your mind on XY calibre. Consideration of the animal’s welfare should be utmost in any hunter’s mind. Understand that the intention of the hunter is to humanely take their prey. Preferably this should be with one shot.
A .22 Rimfire bullet placed correctly can floor an elephant, if all circumstances favour the shooter. Unfortunately, we live in a world of impediments and the perfect shot for any calibre, let alone a .22 Rimfire, seldom arises. In the perpetual words of Robert Ruark “use enough gun” on big game and good shot placement will hold the key.
Calibres suitable for hunting should be substantial enough to penetrate deeply into the animal, destroying multiple vital organs. But for any calibre able to kill quickly and humanely, the shot must firstly be placed correctly. If the shooter is using a calibre that recoils savagely the shooter may anticipate recoil and develop a flinch, ensuring a miss, or worse, wound the animal and lose it. A well-placed shot from a lesser calibre would be better than a badly placed shot from a behemoth.
The majority of animals are taken at under 50m. It could be argued that a larger, slow calibre with softer recoil would be adequate. That said, there can be any number of obstacles that may and will interfere with a well-placed shot. The hunter might need to shoot through heavy layers of foliage and here lies a conundrum.
We hear of heavy but slow brush bucking calibres yet there is no such thing. Some calibres do handle foliage slightly better than others. But this not due to their velocity but the bullet coefficient (BC) and sectional density (SD). Remember, all calibres’ accuracy can be affected if the bullet hits a twig.
Animals seldom offer a true broadside shot. When seemingly standing broadside the creature is in fact slightly off the position. When the trigger is squeezed the shot hits the animal at an angle, taking a path different from what the shooter planned. So it misses the vital organ the hunter aimed for. What I consider to be a correct calibre is one stout enough to exit the animal being hunted. Should the creature be able to escape wounded, the flow of blood passing out leaves a good trail to follow.
I mentioned that the shot differed from the ‘planned shot’. So any hunter should know the anatomy of the animals they target. When the hunter aims a shot with the knowledge of where the vital organs are, they can visualise the path of the bullet. This allows the hunter to aim for multiple vital organs.
Range practice is the only real place many hunters learn to shoot. If you do attend the range don’t just sit at the bench and fire away. Use field positions such as leaning off a post or tree, sitting or kneeling. I never shoot from the prone position in the bush as the grasses where I frequent are too tall. But I do use this position at a range just to keep myself familiar with shooting prone.
For those more fortunate, living where rabbits abound, hunting/shooting practice could be found in the local bunny population. Rabbit shooting is one of the best ways to learn accuracy, firstly sitting over a warren, dealing with them as they appear. As you become proficient, graduate to walking them up a long creek or gully system, shooting them on the run.
Optics are the most important part of your rig. There is much to learn when looking at scopes, light transmission, field of view, magnification, fixed or variable and the size of the optical lens plus the scope’s weight. “If you can’t see ’em, you can’t shoot ’em,” is an often-heard maxim in hunting circles and it is so true.
Though most animals are shot during daylight the most productive hours are dawn and dusk. When light is limited, a quality scope will help you see things hidden in the darkened shadows that otherwise are invisible to the naked eye. Though dawn and dusk last approximately 10 or so minutes in Australia, it could be deemed appropriate for the hunter to pay a little extra for their scope for these benefits.
When purchasing your scope keep in mind the terrain you will do most of your shooting over. If the country is close, you would need low magnification, starting at 1 but no more than 4. This gives the widest field of view and enables easier target acquisition.
Higher magnifications are used for longer distances, enabling the hunter to place a shot more accurately. None of us hunt the same patch all the time, so adding versatility to the rig on a variable scope is advised. This allows the flexibility for hunting close territory as well as open country, assisting us to be a better and more successful hunter.
So what is more important ‑ ‘shot placement or enough gun’? A rifle you can comfortably and frequently shoot accurately in an appropriate calibre that will humanely despatch the deer you hunt is what I would choose. Happy hunting…