By Clair Rees
"That treeline is just over 150 yards away," said Gerald Melnychuck, pointing to the left of the blind. "If a buck shows up on the far side of the field to your right, you might get a shot at 250 or even 300 yards. Our Saskatchewan deer run pretty big. I hope your .308 is enough gun for the job."
Gerald and his wife, Marilyn, have owned Hudson Bay's Overflow Outfitters for many years. "I've guided a lot hunters," Gerald stated. "Nearly all of them used magnum rifles." I'd already noticed the other rifles in camp included a couple of .300 Weatherby and .300 Winchester Magnums, a .338 and at least one .300 Remington Ultra Mag. My Model 84 Kimber .308 was the only non-magnum in the bunch.
When I told my guide I'd killed more deer with the .308 than with any other cartridge, he remained skeptical. "Why not use a rifle with a lot more reach?" he asked. "That's what .300 magnums were invented for."
North American hunters love .30-caliber rifles, and "magnumania" has gained a real foothold in the U.S. and Canada. In the first half of the 20th century, not all that long ago, .30-30 lever carbines reigned supreme. Even with all the .30-caliber belted magnums, short magnums and "kill 'em in the next county" super magnums in use today, it's probably safe to say more deer have been taken with the antiquated .30-30 than with any other cartridge.
The only challenger to that claim could be the century-old .30-06. This hoary World War I veteran has taken every kind of critter on the planet. It continues to be a first-class choice for all but the very largest game. I've successfully used '06 rifles on moose, deer, elk, caribou, pronghorn - you name it. While I draw the line at Alaska's giant grizzlies (which I feel safer hunting with a .375 H&H), the .30-06 has plenty of mojo for anything else walking this continent.
The same could be said for the .308. While throwing bullets 100 feet per second slower, the .308 does pretty much everything the '06 can do. The advantage the .308 has - and the reason I love this cartridge - is it fits wonderfully light, short-action rifles like the Kimber M84, Remington's Model Seven and classic lever rifles like the Savage 99 and Winchester's late, great Model 88.
My first store-bought deer rifle was a Model 110 Savage .308, and I've since added another half-dozen .308s to my collection. The .308 is my all-time favorite choice for deer, and so far it's never let me down. The big-bodied white-tailed buck I killed on that frigid Saskatchewan hunt took a single mighty leap before collapsing in a heap. The 165-grain Barnes Triple-Shock X-Bullet smashed completely through the animal's barrel-sized chest, exiting the far side after instantly putting the deer's boiler room out of commission. No magnum could have done a better job.
I'm not anti-magnum. Far from it. Years ago, not long after the .300 Winchester Magnum was introduced, I bought a .300 H&H Magnum and took it to deer camp. Compared to the .30-06 I'd carried the previous season, the .300 magnum started a 150-grain bullet some 270 fps faster and gave me an extra 200 foot-pounds of energy at 200 yards. The big belted magnum gave me extra confidence when I dropped a mule deer buck at 220 paces.
That's what any .300 magnum gives you - extra confidence to take long shots at deer and larger game. The .300 H&H Magnum has all but disappeared from the scene, replaced by a growing number of short- and medium-length magnums, along with oversized rounds like the .300 Remington Ultra Mag and Weatherby's big, bellowing .30-378.
During a Weatherby writer's seminar a few years back, I had the chance to shoot a .30-378 before it was officially introduced. When I fired the rifle from prone, the Hammer of Thor pounded my shoulder, my ears rang in spite of the plugs I wore, and dirt kicked up by muzzle blast momentarily blinded me. I didn't find it a pleasant experience and wondered how many masochistic elk hunters could be talked into purchasing Weatherby's new king-of-the-hill .30. As it turned out, shooters lined up around the block to order one the instant the .30-378 magnum was announced. Want to shoot a royal elk at 500 yards? Factory loads put a full 2,500 foot-pounds of punch on tap at that rarified distance. If you want a really serious long-range rifle, the .30-378 Weatherby Magnum is it!
Remington's .300 Ultra Mag is only slightly less potent, throwing 180-grain bullets just 200 fps slower than the .30-378 launches them. Both represent the last word (so far) in .300 magnums. Designed for serious long-range hunting, these cartridges are for the tiny handful of riflemen capable of consistently hitting the vitals of a deer, sheep, wapiti or other game a quarter of a mile or more (sometimes a lot more) away. After a long lifetime of hunting and countless hours at the shooting range, I don't profess to have that kind of skill.
Admittedly, others do. I've watched Randy Brooks, who invented the Barnes X-Bullet, punch 6-inch groups from a sandbagged rest at 1,000 yards! A superlative marksman, he's used a .300 Weatherby Magnum to cleanly take a handful of trophy animals - sometimes at ranges exceeding 600 yards.
Why didn't he use a .300 RUM or .30-378 Wby Mag instead? He didn't need the extra power, and he didn't want the extra recoil. The harder a rifle kicks, the harder it is to control. Precise bullet placement is always preferable to extra oomph.
I'm a big fan of the .300 Wby Mag. Dating back to the mid-1940s, this once-proprietary round is largely responsible for the popularity .300 magnums enjoy today. More than once, I've packed .300 Wby Mags into high-mountain country when long shots seemed likely. Most of these times, a .30-06 - or a .308 Win - would have proven more than adequate. I've rarely shot a deer much farther than 200 yards, and most have been a lot closer.
As a case in point, when I traveled to Brian Beisher's Big Buck Outfitters in Montana to hunt trophy deer a couple of years ago, I was told to be prepared for long-distance shooting. I used this as an excuse to try the then-new .300 Remington Short Action Ultra Mag in a Model Seven AWR (Alaskan Wilderness Rifle) from Remington's Custom Shop. The idea of a full-fledged .300 magnum that could be fired in light, short-action rifles really appealed to me. I appreciate magnum power, but hate the extra heft a full-length magnum action adds.
The Model Seven AWR tipped the scales at barely 6 pounds. Once I'd shaved a bit of fiberglass from the forward part of the barrel channel, the little rifle rewarded me with tight half-inch groups when fed handloads of 168-grain Barnes XLC boattails ahead of 64.0 grains of Big Game powder. Velocities from the 22-inch barrel were a respectable 3,015 fps. Recoil was surprisingly mild. I equated it to the kick of a featherweight .308 carbine I own. I've always thought a properly designed fiberglass stock reduced apparent recoil, and this rifle proved it.
I sighted the rifle to allow a dead-on hold out to 350 yards. Borrowing one of Randy's long-range shooting tips, I figured the trajectory out to 650 yards in 50-yard increments, made a chart of these numbers, and taped it upside down on the right side of my rifle's buttstock. Simply tipping the rifle to one side showed me the holdover needed at any specific range. A Bushnell laser range-finder and a Stoney Point Steady-Stix bipod completed my outfit.
As it turned out, I passed up some long shots and finally killed a nice buck when he emerged from a thick stand of aspen barely 60 yards away. I didn't really need a magnum for this kind of shooting, but it was comforting to have that long-range capability at hand. I liked the .300 SAUM well enough to write a check when Remington wanted the rifle back. The .300 Winchester Short Magnum offers virtually identical performance. Right now, my .30-caliber battery includes .300 Win, .300 Wby and .300 SAUM rifles, along with an embarrassing number of .308s and .30-06s.
While .300 magnums offer some very real advantages, nearly all the game I've shot with them could have easily been harvested with one of the several .30-06s I own. The first time I hunted in British Columbia, I carried a .30-06 loaded with 180-grain Federal factory ammo. That rifle accounted for a fine mountain caribou shot at 330 yards, as well as a 58-inch moose standing 95 yards away in a driving rainstorm. There was a grizzly in the area, and I would've cheerfully tackled it with the '06 if I'd had a chance.
When it comes to trajectory and long-range punch, the .30-06 gives up very little to some of its magnum brothers. At 400 yards, a factory-loaded .30-06 throwing 180-grain Power Point bullets still has 1,350 foot-pounds of power. Zeroed to strike dead-on at 200 yards, this bullet drops some 261⁄2 inches below the aiming point at twice that distance. In comparison, the same bullet from a .300 Win Mag hits with 175 foot-pounds more punch, with 4 inches less drop. The .300 WSM, .300 Wby and the even larger .300 magnums shoot harder and flatter yet, but at the cost of progressively greater recoil.
I've used a number of .300 magnums, mostly with excellent results. But since I seldom shoot game much farther than 300 yards, I find myself depending more and more on my battery of .308 and .30-06 rifles.
Come to think of it, there are still no flies on the old .30-30 as long as you don't try to stretch its range. A few years ago, I hunted the 56,000-acre Nail Ranch near Abilene, in west-central Texas. I carried a Thompson/Center G2 Contender .30-30 and Winchester 150-grain .30-30 factory loads.
While the Contender's 15-inch barrel sacrificed some velocity, the .30-30 pistol dropped the largest whitetail I've ever taken. The 14-point buck dropped in its tracks after the 80-yard shot. The rack scored 163 and change.
For hunting in heavily wooded areas, .30-30 saddle rifles remain a great choice. Most of the deer I've taken in high aspen forests have fallen less than 100 yards from the muzzle. At that range, magnum rifles are superfluous, and scopes aren't really needed. Neither of my .30-30 lever carbines are scoped, making them exceptionally light, fast and handy. They're a joy to carry on foot or on horseback, and a well-placed .30-30 bullet will drop the largest deer if it's not too far away.
Ignore the joy and pride of ownership they bring, and rifles are simply tools. As any craftsman knows, it's important to have exactly the right tool at hand for any given task. That's why I have so many .30-caliber "tools" in my safe. Like a carpenter with just one hammer, I could handle most hunting chores with a .308 or .30-06. But when an 8-pound sledge is needed, it's great to have bigger, more powerful tools on tap.
Reprinted from the December 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.