The Future of Big Game Hunting is Small, By Ryan Cleckner
Big game hunting used to mean carrying a heavy rifle and shooting a big cartridge. This isn’t necessarily the case anymore.
Lighter and more accurate rifles, along with modern cartridges and bullet design, are making the small big game rifle a reality.
Bigger isn’t Always Better
Grandpa’s big game rifle had some good ol’ heft and it fired a cartridge that tried to knock your teeth out. We’ve all heard that we need to “bring enough gun,” and chances are we’ve all used such a rifle.
Year after year, rifle and ammunition manufacturers introduce us to the latest and greatest cartridge that promises to deliver more energy and “knock down power.” Up until recently, it seemed like a race to who could produce the largest and hardest hitting (and most expensive) cartridge.
Along with these big cartridges came heavy rifles with designs, materials, and manufacturing techniques that haven’t changed in at least 60 years.
There are four drawbacks to big and heavy:
• A heavy rifle limits how far, and where, you’re willing to walk,
• A heavy rifle can be more difficult to hold steady in hunting conditions,
• A cartridge that kicks like a mule can easily induce a flinch in even the most experienced shooter, and
• Monster cartridges can reduce your willingness (and budget) to practice regularly
I get it. In some hunting scenarios, we will need extra energy to make an ethical kill. For example, if you’re hunting a South African eland, or your only shot on a North American elk is 500 meters across the canyon while he’s quartered away from you, you might even wonder if a .300 Win. Mag would be enough.
However, if you have a good 200 meter broad-side shot on that elk, wildebeest, or deer, smaller rifles and cartridges can be very effective.
Advancements in firearm and ammunition design and manufacturing have resulted in fast, efficient bullets and lighter and smaller rifles. Some of these lighter-recoiling cartridges can shoot just as well as (and sometimes better than) heavier rifles with their fast and relatively flat trajectories. With the right bullet, these cartridges can perform very well on big game.
All it just takes one hunt with one of these new wonder-light rifles to see their benefit and to swear that you’ll never go back to dragging a boat anchor through the field again.
Shot Placement is Always Key
Regardless of the size of your rifle/cartridge combination, shot placement is ALWAYS key. For example, a .50 BMG to the tail of an animal will not be near as effective as a .223 Rem to the heart.
Now, of course, with equal shot placement, a larger bullet with more energy will be more effective than a smaller bullet with less energy. Therefore, with some of these smaller cartridges, accurate shot placement is paramount and do not leave as much room for error as their bigger counterparts.
I’ve got some good news: making that perfect shot can be easier with these new lighter hunting rifles and smaller cartridges.
First, these lighter and faster cartridges have better external ballistic properties, meaning they fly to the target more efficiently and retain more of their original speed. A faster bullet will not be exposed to gravity for as long and, therefore, will fall less than a slower bullet, for any given distance. Faster and more aerodynamic bullets are also less affected by wind for the same reason.
How does this help shot placement? A flatter trajectory is more forgiving of errors in range estimation or changing circumstances, and less movement due to wind means you’re more likely to hit where you intend.
Second, you will feel less recoil using a smaller cartridge, and less recoil is a big deal! It has the following two benefits: it will make practicing with your rifle more enjoyable and it won’t encourage flinching (especially for recoil-sensitive shooters).
Practicing with your rifle and having confidence in your abilities can not be over-valued. With less recoil (and very likely less ammunition cost), you’ll be more likely to become familiar with your rifle and ammunition combination.
Third, a lighter rifle is easier to hold. If your arms aren’t shaking from fatigue and you’re able to effortlessly move and operate the rifle, you’re going to be more successful. It’s that simple.
These new modern lightweight wonder-rifles are lighter because of advancements in materials, design, and manufacturing. Not only do these variables result in a light rifle, but they bring something else to the table: accuracy. Premium barrels, actions, and triggers on a well-balanced rifle are a dream to shoot.
Big Games Animals Often Require More Work
You know how a big animal gets big? He’s good at avoiding hunters.
This means that it takes more skill, patience, and maybe even some luck to get to the animal you’re looking for.
It’s very likely you’ll be walking longer distances over more difficult terrain to find the right animal. A lighter and smaller rifle is easier to carry and manoeuvre. Don’t believe me? Try carrying one of these new super light rifles for one trip and see if you go back.
If you find yourself scoffing, thinking of how you’re tough enough to handle a heavy rifle, you might be right. But, please consider how much farther and longer you could go with a lighter rifle, beyond what you’re currently able to do with a heavy rifle. No matter your strength or abilities, a lighter rifle can help you improve.
How It’s Worked For Me
I took a Barrett Fieldcraft rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor on a South African plains game hunt in mid-2018. My Fieldcraft was topped with a Vortex Razor LH. I brought 1 box of Sellier & Bellot 140 gr Soft Point ammunition to try, and a few boxes of premium hunting ammo as backup.
I’ll be honest, I was not confident in my setup before the trip. I was nervous about the ultra-light rifle, the relatively small caliber, and the soft-point bullet design.
Before the Africa trip, I was not yet a fan of 6.5 Creedmoor. It was popular in the long-range shooting world; however, I am extremely reluctant to adopt the newest fad cartridge. Also, being 6’2” tall and weighing 225 lbs allowed me to eschew “those little tiny rifles,” and my past life as a military sniper draws me to larger target-style rifles and modern aerodynamic bullets.
Well, I was wrong.
Four of us went to Africa with the exact same setup and we dropped everything from warthogs, impala, waterbucks, gemsbok, wildebeest, and kudu with one shot. Of course, a couple of the animals needed a second shot out of mercy, but one shot dropped them all (quickly) to the ground. The “premium” hunting ammo was never used and I used some of the extra Sellier & Bellot ammo others brought.
The ultra-light rifle proved easy to carry and super-fast to point. With a low power scope, the Fieldcraft pointed almost as fast and easy as a pistol. I kid you not. . . if I can help it, I won’t hunt with a rifle over 6 pounds again.
I was awestruck and fascinated with the lethality of the system. We all wanted to see what was so devastating, so we spent plenty of time conducting field studies to see what was happening.
I learned a few things on this trip:
First, I’m starting to believe that heavy bullets and retained-mass are marketing hype. Every investigation I conducted showed that the bullets completely disintegrated. After sharing the results with two professional elk hunters back in the States, they’ve confirmed our findings. The most lethal kills on these bigger animals seem to come from bullets that break apart.
Second, maybe what I think is new is really not so new. In the middle of celebrating this miraculous “discovery” that smaller and faster bullets were very effective on African game, we remembered that Karamojo Bell had no problem using a 6.5mm bullet to elephants almost 100 years ago.
Third, a nimble and lightweight rifle that is accurate enough is more lethal than a slow moving and heavy tack-driver. I easily shot one-inch groups at 100 yards with my Fieldcraft at the range, that’s way better than I expect to do while hunting.
I returned home and happily took a 6.5 Creedmoor on a Wyoming elk hunt later that year. With meat in the freezer, I’ve confirmed the small bullet’s effectiveness. However, I strongly believe that it is the minimum for an ethical hunt and you must be proficient with your rifle because a smaller cartridge leaves little room for error.
My challenge to you is to ask yourself and your customers … What could your customers do with a lighter and nimbler rifle, in a lighter cartridge?
Could your customers carry it farther? Would they be less fatigued? Could they move it faster onto target? Would they practice more? If your answer is “yes” to at least one of these questions, you might just want to stock lighter and your customers will better big game hunters.