Dawn broke cold over the high country, with a threat of snow hanging in the air. Twelve cow elk grazed in a meadow at 11,500 feet, one small five-by-six bull still sleeping off his night of debauchery. I crept into place, rested my .300 Winchester Magnum atop a lightweight tripod, and squeezed the trigger. The bull never regained his feet.
Two years later I approached the same meadow, this time with a friend who carried a 6.5 Creedmoor on her shoulder and an elk tag in her pocket. Fresh elk tracks showed the way and we flushed another, bigger 5X6 bull. I cow called, my friend pressed the trigger, and another bull lay still in the snow. Both elk succumbed to a single shot. Only the duration of the kill was different. Mine died almost instantly; the other bull stayed on his feet for almost a minute, even though he was hit perfectly.
IS BIGGER BETTER?
For decades big, hard-hitting calibers held court across America’s hunting grounds. Recoil wasn’t considered the detriment it is today, indeed some shooters and hunters acclaimed hard-kicking rifles as superior, and accused those chambered in more mannerly cartridges as being sissified. This opinion was created by the projectile performance of the day. Simply put, the then-new high-velocity cartridges of the 20th century generated so much speed that traditional bullets struggled to maintain their composure when impacting heavy hide and bone. Bigger, heavier bullets had a better chance of holding together and penetrating deeply.
Today the pendulum has swung, and many hunters and shooters opine that bigger, harder-hitting calibers belong with folks of limited intelligence. According to these same hunters and shooters, anyone with enough electronic devices and high enough projectile BC (ballistic coefficient) can kill a mastodon at 1,000 yards with a 6mm Creedmoor. The one thing they do have right is that things have changed. Coming full circle, it’s all about bullet performance. Today’s premium projectiles are incredibly accurate and consistent. More to the point, they penetrate deeply and perform reliably at a wide variety of impact velocities. What this means is that today’s small, recoil-friendly calibers can kill as cleanly as yesterday’s bigger, harder-hitting calibers.
IS SMALL AND SWEET SHOOTING BETTER?
Smaller calibers and cartridges kick less. They tend to be accurate and are certainly easier to shoot well. Loaded with a premium bullet they penetrate deeply and create a devastating wound channel. They do everything a big, hard-kicking caliber can do, right?
Wrong. There are two things they can never do as well:
Hit Hard: Two elements affect how hard a bullet impacts. The first is frontal diameter. The greater the frontal diameter, the more surface area and tissue the bullet impacts directly. Remember; surface area in a circle increases exponentially as diameter increases. The second element is weight. The heavier a projectile is the harder it hits. Consider the difference between getting hit by a pencil eraser traveling at 100 feet per second (fps), and a softball traveling the same speed. Neither will penetrate your skin, but the softball will hit much harder due to greater weight and diameter.
Penetrate Deep: In a nutshell, bigger, heavier bullets penetrate deeper than smaller, lighter projectiles of the same design. That said, modern-day bullet design has leveled the scale, to a degree. Projectiles such as Barnes’ TTSX, (a monolithic, solid copper/alloy bullet), and Federal Premium’s Terminal Ascent (built with a rapid-expanding jacketed lead front and a solid copper rear portion) maintain weight and drive deep, even in lighter, more friendly calibers.
The final word, though, is that a 200-grain bullet from a .300 Win Mag will out-penetrate a same-design 130-grain bullet sent from a 6.5 PRC.
Light/sweet-shooting calibers are easier and friendlier to shoot, and now (with premium bullets) perform and penetrate admirably. Bigger calibers kick harder, but also hit harder and penetrate better. So what is best? The answer is, of course, situation and species specific. The light/sweet crowd will say, “It’s all about shot placement. Just wait for a good broadside shot and place your bullet right in the boiler room”.
To an extent that’s true. But what if your quarry never offers you a broadside shot? Let’s consider a common elk-woods scenario: You’re on a dream hunt in the Rocky Mountains. You’ve hunted hard, and you want to kill an elk in the worst way. On the last day of your hunt, you finally find a bull, a good one with heavy six-point antlers. You’re set up on a little rocky outcropping, using your pack as a dead rest. The bull is going over a thick timbered ridge and isn’t giving you a shot at all.
You keep your crosshairs on him, hoping against hope that he steps into a clearing and gives you a shot. Finally, it happens; 350 yards away he stops, turns, and bugles back down the canyon. You can see his shoulder clearly between tree trunks, but he’s steeply quartered toward you. Your crosshairs are steady, your finger on the trigger. But you subscribe to the “wait till they’re broadside” strategy, and inside your rifle’s 6.5 PRC chamber rests a rapid-expansion 140-grain bullet. What do you do?
If you’re honest and ethical, you let the bull walk.
The chance that your soft, rapid-expansion bullet will make it through the many inches of hide, flesh, bone, and sinew protecting the vitals at this angle is remote. You pull that trigger, and you’re likely in for a long, heart-wrenching recovery effort. But if you continue to wait for that broadside shot the bull will likely walk over that ridge and out of your life forever.
Now, hit rewind and change your chosen bullet to a 130-grain Federal Premium Terminal Ascent. Suddenly, you’ve completely altered this scenario. You’re not going to hit a massive old bull elk very hard with a 130-grain bullet at 350 yards, but an accurate shot with this deep-penetrating bullet will kill him, even through the point of the shoulder. And that’s what has changed. That’s the new difference.
Rewind the scenario again, and change your rifle to a .300 Win Mag. Shooting a 200-grain Federal Premium Terminal Ascent bullet, you will hit that bull very hard and kill him very quickly. No doubt about it, this is the better elk round. If you can handle the kick and shoot it well, by all means use it. But if the recoil loosens your fillings and crosses your eyes every time you squeeze the trigger, you better lighten up.
This scenario changes dramatically, of course, if the primary species you hunt is deer, pronghorn, or sheep. For smaller, lighter boned members of the big game family the 6.5 PRC and similar cartridges are optimal. Loaded with one of the premium bullets mentioned above they will penetrate into a deer’s vitals from any angle. Recoil is civilized, and terminal performance all you will ever need. But what if you use one rifle to hunt a broad spectrum of big game – elk one week, deer the next, and moose the third?
In my opinion, the ideal solution for an all-around rifle is a mid-level cartridge like the .280 Ackley Improved, .30-06 Springfield, or 7mm Remington Magnum. Recoil generated by these cartridges will not rattle your teeth or cross your eyes, yet they hit hard enough and penetrate admirably. Loaded with premium bullets, they’re cheerfully adequate for everything from coyotes to Alaskan moose.
Shooting is the perfect mesh of gross and fine motor skills. However, there’s a seldom discussed component of shooting, and that’s the mental aspect of being a good shot.
Sure, you’ve been pounded, prodded, and pestered about stance, grip, and trigger press by instructors. You’ve probably even had the difference of sight alignment and sight picture explained to you to the point of nauseum. But one thing rarely covered, and one I believe to be as important to the fundamentals of marksmanship is mental attitude.
It’s All In Your Head
Mr. Bolgiano was my junior high physical education teacher. Back then, during the Paleolithic Period, gym was separated by sex, there being only males and females. You were required to dress in issued gym shorts, a T-shirt and jock strap. During roll call, you responded “Here, dressed and marked” after your name was called, followed by the snapping of your jock strap. Marked meant your issued T-shirt had your name written on it with a laundry marker. The snap? Proof that you had on your emotional support unit.
Every class started with a half-mile run, followed by pull ups, monkey bars and dips on the parallel bars. Then, the class did whatever activity was scheduled by Mr. “B.” During basketball, Mr. “B” went over free throws. He explained a study was done years ago involving free throws. A group of men were tested on how many free throws they could make for 20 attempts. Scores were recorded and the men were randomly split into three different groups.
The first group practiced free throws daily. The second did nothing. The third group visually practiced every day, by mentally picturing themselves making basket after basket without ever touching a ball. They did this for a month and all groups were re-tested. The ones who did nothing showed no improvement. The ones who practiced daily improved. The interesting thing was the group who only mentally practiced improved just as much as those who actually practiced.
Mr. “B” called it Positive Mental Attitude, explaining it would carry you through any task at hand in life. Just visualizing a positive outcome and things naturally turn out for the better.
Pretty heady stuff coming from a middle-aged muscleman to a bunch of seventh graders during the 70s. But the lesson stuck, with me anyway, and I’ve always used it.
Back To The Future
As I got older, I read more about the topic in the form of warriors and was introduced to Zen. Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word, ch’an, which means thought, absorption, or meditation. And meditation is at the heart of Zen, along with an emphasis on self-control and insight. Dag gone! Ol’ Mr. “B” knew what he was talking about!
I started using these methods when shooting. I realized I was always more successful when picturing myself making the shot, mentally rehearsing every phase of my shooting sequence, including stance, grip, sight alignment, sight picture, breathing, trigger press, and the ever-important follow-through. I still do it!
Have you ever noticed after an intense shooting session all your previous problems or worries seemed to have disappeared? This is because shooting can be a Zen experience unto itself. Shooting is a form of meditation. While focusing on the front sight and trigger press the way we’re supposed to, nothing else can enter your mind.
This flow of thought is cyclic. While thinking about stance, grip and trigger press, we’re also focusing on the front sight, sight alignment and sight picture. We try maintaining sight picture during trigger press. It happens in milliseconds, but we’re thinking about it.
As the thought process becomes automatic, we picture where we our bullet to impact. With practice, it all becomes automatic, a beautiful blending of fine and gross motor skills orchestrated by a well-rehearsed mindset. To my way of thinking, this is the best form of meditation there is.
So, my advice? Don’t overthink the process. Simply enjoy it while picturing yourself chewing out the center of your bullseye or shooting that big buck. Make the experience fun and before you know it, the shooting will become the form of meditation there is for you.