Small-Bore Centerfire Performance on Big Game

February 20, 2009 by  

By Burl Johnson

Using small-bore rifles for hunting big game is always a hot topic for discussion

Using small-bore rifles for hunting big game is always a hot topic for discussion

I am, and have been for a very long time, an avid reader of hunting books and magazines. You know those things you wish you had the money from? Mine is to have invested that magazine money in energy stocks in the last three years. But many of the sporting magazines offer truly good reading, brilliant authors, and occasionally spawn great adventures for us readers. Opinions on myriad subjects are as varied as the topics themselves.

The subject of appropriate cartridges for deer sized game has been covered backward and forward, by some of the best and worst gun writers who ever committed thoughts to paper. Of the best, Finn Aagard, Craig Boddington, Ross Seyfried, Wayne VanZwoll, John Barsness, even the venerable Elmer Keith and Jack O’Connor, have written reams of pages on the subject of minimum suitable calibers for deer and the like. Some have conducted detailed experiments, involving several different cartridges, calibers and bullet weights. Others draw from life experience, sometimes as a result of simply shooting what they had, or what was available for a particular hunt. Their conclusions on what is or is not suitable vary quite a bit. But to a man, they agreed that when shooting the .22’s and .24’s at big game, only well constructed bullets should be used.

With the vast variety of varmint and target bullets available to today’s shooters, finding an appropriate bullet can be a sometimes confusing exercise. When choosing a bullet, eliminating anything with a “varmint”, “target” or “competition” designation is a good start. The learned authors all agree that a good big game bullet for the smaller calibers should be of Spitzer (pointed) design and be constructed to retain as much weight as possible while still offering good expansion at reasonable velocities. Varmint bullets are designed to expend all their energy on impact. Target and competition projectiles are designed to shoot small groups at distance, with no regard to their performance on game. There are currently many offerings, from virtually all of the major manufacturers, which qualify as “good” deer bullets. Barnes makes a homogeneous, largely copper solid, designed to “flower” on impact and retain virtually all of its initial weight. Nosler offers the always excellent Partition. Sierra makes the big game performance oriented Game King bullet. Many others offer their basic version of the old reliable spire point bullet, in both .22 and .243 calibers. Most of the latter will work, but before use it might be prudent to contact the manufacturer to determine whether or not they are considered “big game” bullets. When some spire point, jacketed lead core bullets are driven to normal velocities for the fast .22’s and .24’s, they become very explosive upon impact. If this is the case, such a bullet should be eliminated from consideration for deer hunting.

Bullet weight is another serious consideration when choosing an appropriate projectile. In the types of bullets we have been discussing, choice of weight may be determined by availability. It would be fair to say though, that most factory rifle barrels are of the proper twist rate to stabilize bullets that fall in the mid to upper-mid range of available weights. .22 center fire barrels, encompassing the .220 Swift, .223 and .22-250 Remington’s, will usually stabilize bullets from 45 to 65 grains very nicely with their standard rate of twist. Heavier and lighter bullets can be a bit touchy. A different rate of twist might be required to stabilize anything from 70 grains and up. It seems that the newest rifle offerings in .243 are very versatile indeed, usually doing a good job with bullets weighing between 55 and 100 grains in many factory loadings. Older rifles in .243 Winchester and 6mm Remington can exhibit a marked preference for certain bullet weights and some experimentation might be necessary to find a load that will shoot with an acceptable degree of accuracy.

Most of these details are, admittedly, focused on the reloader. There are however, many cartridge offerings, from all of the major manufacturers which are perfectly suitable for deer and pronghorn hunting. One simply needs to be forearmed with the knowledge of what type of factory loading is appropriate for the task at hand. Peruse the shelves of your local sporting goods store and choose, perhaps, two or three boxes for a serious evaluation of accuracy in your rifle. If you get lucky, you might find the jewel in the first box. Sometimes perfection will take a longer path. But keep after that one load that’s going to shoot little tiny groups from your gun. Modern factory loadings are so good these days, that it’s difficult, even for a seasoned hand loader, to better their performance in an off the shelf factory rifle.

My own experience with small caliber deer hunting began in the transverse range of the Ventura Mountains in Southern California. There, the quarry was the Coastal Black Tail, a diminutive cousin of the Mule Deer. A good buck, would go 100 lbs after a hard rain. While not particularly hard to bring down, they required no less accurate shooting than any other species of deer. I was able to take two, when I was still in my teens, a one and a half year old spike with ten inch swords and a three year old fork without eye guards. The spike was taken with an ideal standing shot, at about two hundred yards across a small canyon. He dropped at the shot and rolled to the bottom. The fork was taken running, at about eighty yards. One shot in the neck and he took a spectacular gainer into the Manzanita brush. (No, I wasn’t aiming for his neck) Both of these deer were taken with a 50 grain bullet from a .222 Remington. I remember cleaning the spike vividly, as it was my first big game. The inside of the chest was blood soup, and there really wasn’t an organ left that could be identified. The bullet didn’t exit, and no portion of it was recovered. Good performance? You bet. The forkie wasn’t really a fair test of bullet performance, but I do remember that after he was skinned, the spine had been completely severed by the bullet from that little round. It however, did not penetrate the neck all the way, and a large, maybe 50% sized piece of the copper jacket was stuck under the hide on the opposite side. At the time, I did not contemplate whether or not the rifle I was shooting was sufficient for deer hunting. As a teenager, I knew that it was thunder and lightning in a walnut stocked, Weaver K-4 scoped wonder. Sadly, that rifle became the victim of a foolish trade, several years later.

Things change, and in the mid ‘70’s I found myself in North Dakota. Deer hunting had taken a back seat to trying to earn a living and raising a family. I did manage to get out a few seasons though, carrying a Remington 742 in 6mm Remington.

I had inherited the rifle from my Mother. I’m not sure if Mom ever shot anything with that rifle, but at the tender age of 16, I killed a bull Shiras moose with it in Wyoming. A neck shot at twenty-five yards. I know I used a 100 grain bullet from the familiar yellow and red box. But the rest is for another story. This is about deer hunting!

I took several head of deer with the 742. Mostly does, but a medium sized buck or two also fell along the way. I’m sure I used either 80 or 100 grain bullets, but to be honest, during those years, my focus had little to do with deer hunting. I only recall one deer that I needed to shoot more than once. She was a big Mule deer doe running across a dry dam in Southwest North Dakota. I emptied the clip at her and managed to make a real mess of the hams. The bullet used escapes me. The one thing that sticks with me from those years is that if I was patient enough to take only a good broadside shot, I made meat without much muss or fuss.

In 1981 I purchased a Ruger M77 MkI in, what else, 6mm Remington. Actually, I had first purchased the same rifle in .243 Winchester. Unfortunately, it was a victim of quality control problems, and wouldn’t group any factory load I could find into a cowboy hat at 100 yards. The basement gun dealer I bought the gun from was an understanding fellow, and offered to trade for another MkI on his rack, in 6mm Remington. At about the same time, I began to do a little reloading. I found that the little 6 was a real shooter with 70 grain spire points from Sierra. I couldn’t get the 80’s or 100’s to do better than two to three inches at one hundred yards, so stuck with the smaller bullet.

Over the next decade or so, I shot all my big game, consisting of Whitetail or Mule deer and several Pronghorn, with either the 6mm, or a Husqvarna in .270 Winchester which I inherited from my Father.

Most of my hunting with the 6mm was unremarkable and quite satisfactory, until a hunt in 1991. I had been practicing quite a bit at the range, mostly from a bench. I had a little more disposable income, so shooting a hundred rounds in an afternoon seemed a great way to not only spend time, but brush up on my marksmanship as well. In any case, when I saw the Whitetail does feeding in a field waaaaay out there, I thought, “no sweat”. I was never more wrong. I hit the deer, but she took off, with a noticeable gimp, into a large grassy pasture next to the stubble where she had been feeding. I flushed the deer, still very much alive, after two and a half hours of scouring that pasture for any kind of sign. I never did find as much as a drop of blood. After I settled her troubles with a shot behind the shoulder, I was able to see what had transpired as a result of the initial shot. The bullet had penetrated the forward section of the right ham, and stopped in the paunch. The entry wound was no larger than bullet diameter, and the deer had bled only enough to cause a silver dollar sized patch of blood on her coat.

That experience caused me to re-think the 6mm as a deer gun. After all, if I can hit them at an acceptable angle, but the bullet won’t penetrate far enough to kill the deer, I should be shooting a bigger gun, or at least a bigger bullet, I reasoned. So, until I found the 95 grain, Combined Technologies Ballistic Silvertip almost a decade later, the 6mm was relegated to varmint duty.

The 95 grain CT Ballistic Silvertip has proven itself to be a terrific medium game bullet. Its basic construction is that of the original Nosler Ballistic Tip, known to be a very accurate bullet, due to the streamlined shape, and boat tail base. A thicker jacket allows it to perform better on larger game, retaining more weight after impact yet still expanding reliably. In spite of the greater weight, it is a solid inch to inch and a half shooter in my rifle. It has taken several deer cleanly for me. In 2004, my son took a nice pronghorn buck at a laser ranged three hundred six yards. The bullet took the buck high, behind the shoulders and exited after splintering a two inch section of spine. I am confident that there are other bullets out there that can equal the performance of the CT in my rifle, but I have always tended to stick with what works, until I have proven otherwise.

I owned a nice rifle in .22-250 during those early 6mm years. I still do. It is a 788 Remington heavy barrel that was rescued from a shelf in my brother-in-laws Quonset. I had it reblued, refinished the stock and glass bedded the tang and action. I topped it with a 4×16 Weaver and it shoots itty bitty groups with 50 and 55 grain Nosler Ballistic tip bullets. I never considered it a viable deer rifle. As a matter of fact, somehow, I had developed a tendency to look down on those who used the fast .22’s on deer and Pronghorn. This outlook may have transpired as a result of seeing and finding several deer over the years which had survived shoulder or gut wounds, for a time anyway, only to be taken by another hunter, or found dead much later, having suffered an agonizingly slow death. I unconsciously attributed these findings to the fast .22’s. However, they could certainly have been caused by any number of other rounds, with either poorly constructed bullets, or having been launched at an unreasonable distance, had lost too much energy to be immediately fatal. So, as I said, I didn’t consider the .22-250 as a deer round……until just before the 2005 season.

Having read two articles on deer hunting with the fast .22’s, one from Finn Aagard, the other from Wayne VanZwoll, I began to think about how much fun it might be to hunt deer with my wonderfully accurate little rifle. If only I could find a suitable bullet. As it happens, Nosler introduced a 60 grain version of their wonderful Partition bullet in the last months of 2004. I had some experience with the bullet in the 150 grain .277, and knew it to hold about 30% of its weight encapsulated in the rearmost portion of the bullet. Its performance on big game over the last thirty years is legendary. Now, if it would only shoot accurately in my rifle!

About two weeks had passed, when I got a package of several hundred bullets, and a few other goodies from Midway USA. In the box was a pack of fifty of the diminutive 60 grain Partitions. I carefully prepped fifty new Winchester brass cases, and loaded the cases with a slightly lower than maximum load of IMR 4895 powder. I seated the bullets at .005 off the lands, and chambered each one to be sure they would function reliably in the 788. I don’t own a chronograph, but the manual indicates that these loads should achieve somewhere near 3300 fps in my barrel.

After seeing the leaves on the trees in the yard lying perfectly still a few mornings later, I headed for Coop’s range. After settling in at the 100 yard bench, I fired three rounds, about as fast as I was able to singly chamber a round, sight and fire. I thought I could see the group, slightly to the left of center but walked up to the target board to be sure. Wow! I had what amounted to a three-quarter inch group, with two of the rounds touching, and the last, slightly to the right. I adjusted the group, with four more rounds, to two inches high at that distance. I re-checked the load at 200 yards, and found it to be well centered, about four and a half inches high. All three shots clustered into slightly less than an inch. I was going hunting.

I filled my Whitetail buck tag on opening weekend while hunting with my son. I didn’t use the .22-250 though, saving it for the next weekend when I would attempt to fill my bonus, third season Mule Deer doe tag.

The following Saturday found me stalking around the hilly edges of the Little Missouri Breaks in Southwest North Dakota. The weather was truly wonderful. Just enough wind to establish a direction on a wetted finger, and almost too warm, at a balmy sixty-five degrees. Making my way up a dry wash, I spotted several deer feeding in the open grasslands about four hundred yards away. I slowly made my way to the edge of the wash. I had covered about two hundred yards, but the broken terrain didn’t offer me a clear shot at anything but an ear tip or two. I started to drag my over-sized frame closer to the deer, using the low and infrequent sage for cover. At about one hundred fifty yards, I rested my rifle on the gnarled sage trunk in front of me, and began to choose a target. There appeared to be three good sized does in the group feeding in front of me, one of them standing, with her rump to what I can only describe as the nicest three by three Muley buck it has ever been my pleasure to see. I placed the crosshairs behind her shoulder, released half a breath and caressed the two pound trigger. At the report, the doe dropped straight down, and the others stood still, wondering what had just happened. Only after I got to my feet and started moving toward them did the group decide that it was time to put some distance between them and me. Bullet performance was awesome. The rear of both shoulders was penetrated, and the spine was broken. It seems that in the excitement I had forgotten that the gun would shoot high at medium distance. No matter. The deer was cleanly down with a single shot and complete penetration. The load was a genuine success.

Using small-bore rifles is more common for smaller predators

Using small-bore rifles is more common for smaller predators

Fast forward to the 2006 season, when I possessed three antlerless deer tags, one Whitetail and two Mule deer. Again, I was hunting in the Southwest. The area had been in drought most of the Summer, but late rains had returned at least a little green to the landscape. I was carrying the 788 once more, with a newly installed sling and swivels. A sling is unnecessary on most varmint rifles, but a real pleasure, particularly when heading back to the truck after a long walk.

I hadn’t traveled far, when I rounded a hillside to find three Whitetail does standing in a small depression ahead. I raised the rifle, sighted and fired in an instant. The chosen doe turned directly away and trotted to the top of the hill, about fifty yards, and fell. Although it happened quickly, I must have done everything right. The bullet had taken her cleanly behind the shoulder and penetrated completely. Both lungs had been centered. Another success for the fast .22.

The next morning brought me to the cattle ranch of a friend, close to the Little Missouri Breaks. The hunting part was pretty easy. As a result of several open winters, the deer have almost over run the place. A good early alfalfa crop, Badlands type cover and reliable water are the best recipe for mule deer. Somewhat unfortunately, the area is almost devoid of decent bucks. It seems that while most of the guys who draw Muley buck tags want that big wall hanger, they are willing to settle for that fat forkie after a day or two of humping the hills. You just can’t grow big ones if you shoot them when they are teenagers.

After a short walk, I came upon a herd of Mule deer; all does and fawns except a small three by three. At 80 yards I crouched by the side of a round bale of alfalfa and sighted on a large doe. Bang. Down. Reload. Bang and this one ran up a little rise and into a small tree planting at the outside edge of the ranch property. The first deer had been hit high behind the shoulders, clipping the bottom of the spine, and penetrating the top of both lungs. The bullet penetrated completely, making an exit hole about the size of a nickel. The second deer had run about fifty yards, having been shot through both lungs. Again, complete penetration, taking out a rib and creating an exit the size of a soup can lid. She had expired in the time it took me to walk to her. Hands down, complete success for the .22-250/60 grain Nosler combination.

After reflecting on my seasons with the small-bore centerfires, I’ve drawn a few conclusions.

We live in a society where almost everything in our lives has become smaller, faster and in a lot of cases, better. Modern ammunition and components have become very good indeed. “Ultra light” is seen, increasingly, in everything from fishing and aircraft, to shotguns and clothing. One might view the fast .22 centerfires as “ultra light” and the .24’s, perhaps, “medium light”. As good as they are, caution and consideration is still important when using the smaller bore cartridges. I have used them successfully, and will continue to do so, but only when adhering to these few guidelines.

  • Practice with your chosen rifle until your confidence in accurate shot placement is second nature.
  • Shoot only bullets that are designed for, and have proven to be reliable performers on the game animals you intend to take.
  • Keep your shooting distances within the range at which your chosen bullet will deliver sufficient energy to expand and penetrate as designed.
  • And lastly; strive to shoot only when you are completely sure of hitting your target animal in a vital area. The biggest, fastest bullet/cartridge combination can not make up for poor shot placement. It matters little whether the animal is running, walking or standing in a position where it is difficult to reach the vitals. A wounded animal is potentially lost game. As sportsmen and women, our goal should be for the unthinkable to never happen.


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