Oct 7, 2010

Hunting, Part 3: The Gun

In part 2, we discussed getting your license.

Alright, you've got your hunting license. For the sake of argument, we'll presume you intend to hunt deer, since that is probably the most-pursued game in North America, and we'll assume you're going to be hunting with a firearm.

How do you choose what gun to use? The very first bit to consider is what is legal where you intend to hunt. In New York, there is an odd mix of legal tools for hunting, based upon what county you are hunting in. Aside from a few small (metropolitan) areas that are bow-only, shotguns, handguns, muzzleloaders, and bows are legal everywhere in the state. The less-densely-populated counties also allow rifles.

As an all-purpose gun, it's VERY tough to beat a solid pump shotgun. It is legal statewide and can be used for every animal that's legal to hunt, simply by changing the shells you're loading. Small game? Load up a #6 shell. Turkey? #4s. Ducks? #2 steel. Geese? BB steel. Coyotes? #4 buckshot. Deer? Foster slugs, or even swap to a rifled barrel and shoot sabot slugs. If you can only afford one gun for hunting, my hands-down recommendation would be either a Mossberg 500 or Remington 870. 12ga or 20ga doesn't matter; either one will handle any game in New York with aplomb.

If you're a rifle hunter, the options are almost limitless. New York states that ANY centerfire rifle is legal for the hunting of large game. While that does include things like the .17 Remington and .218 Bee, those aren't exactly ethical choices. A hunter is responsible for the cleanest, most humane kill possible. Using an appropriate caliber is one of the best ways to do that.

Don't compensate for poor marksmanship by using a larger caliber. Get something you can shoot well, and practice with it. Know your limits. A gut-shot deer will go just as far whether it's shot with a .243 Winchester or a .338 Lapua Magnum; the LapMag will just destroy a lot more meat on the way through. In my opinion, the .243 is the minimum ethical caliber for whitetails. It's a mild-recoiling, accurate round, and premium hunting loads are readily available. In states where it's legal for youth to hunt large game with a firearm, the .243 is widely considered a great "first deer gun".

Want bigger? .30-30 Winchester, .270 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield are perhaps the best-selling hunting rounds in North America. If you wander into a general store in Smalltown, USA and need a box of hunting ammo, you're likely to find at least one of these three. The .30-30 in a lever-action carbine is a wonderful woods and brush gun; it's light, fast handling, and accurate. Its downfall is the long shot; the maximum point-blank range* of a .30-30 is about 200 yards.

The difference between the .270 and .30-06 is small. They are both powerful cartridges (in fact, the .270 is based on the same case as the .30-06) and capable of handling nearly any game in North America. Both have a maximum point-blank range of about 300yd, and both can be effective well beyond that distance when used by an experienced hunter. Which is the better cartridge? That's entirely up to you. Try asking that question at deer camp some time, but be prepared to argue about nothing else for the rest of the night. (Personally, I use a .270 with 130gr bullets.)

There are plenty of folks who hunt successfully with even more powerful rifles. Things like the 7mm RemMag, .300 WinMag, .338, and on and on. They absolutely work. I think they're overkill for whitetail. For things like elk, caribou, or brown bears - by all means, use a larger cartridge. Just practice with it and learn not to flinch.

Back to the shotgun. Slugs (a big-ass bullet) fall into two categories: "foster" slugs and sabot slugs. Foster slugs are one step above a musket ball; they are big chunks of lead with horrible ballistics and mediocre accuracy. From a smooth barrel (as most shotguns are), a 4" group at 50 yards is pretty normal. Given that the vital area of a deer is 6-8" in diameter, a shot much beyond 75 yards is questionable. Inside that range, however, a foster slug is absolutely devastating. If you expect to be shooting further, it's time to upgrade to a rifled barrel and sabot slugs.

Sabot slugs wrap the slug in a plastic wad that is discarded shortly after leaving the barrel. This wad engages the barrel's rifling and imparts the spin to the slug. Much like throwing a football, the spiral allows for much great accuracy, and sabots are often more aerodynamic than foster slugs in order to extend their range. A properly sighted-in rifled barrel on a shotgun can print a 2" group at 100 yards, but the ballistics of the slug effectively limit the sabots to 150-200 yards.

So, to recap:
One gun hunting: Shotgun.
Rifle for large game: .243 to .30-06, take your pick.
Rifle for larger game: Go magnum.

* Maximum Point-Blank Range is defined as the farthest distance at which a dead-on hold keeps the entire ballistic path inside a given radius. The radius is usually on the order of 3-4", as the vital area of a deer is about 7-8" in diameter. A MPBR of 200 yards, for instance, means that if you hold your sights dead-on at that range, the bullet will be no more than 4" above or below the line of aim all the way to the point of impact.

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