written by Daniel Peirce
I have been hunting large game in the Midwest for the better part of 7 years now. I have experimented with many different calibers in short, intermediate, and long actions across a vast variety of both budget and high-end hunting rifles. My experience with Midwestern large game has been white tail and mule deer in Montana, Black-tailed deer, and black bear in Oregon. I have also hunted white tail, mule deer, antelope, and elk in Wyoming. Throughout my time in these areas, experience with different calibers and bullet types; I have learned many things about bullet construction, terminal ballistics, ballistic coefficients, and effective distances for each species dependent on caliber capabilities.
Picking the Right Caliber and Bullet for your Quarry
One of the most important things to having a successful hunt is choosing an appropriate cartridge for the species you plan on hunting. Part of this is due to regulations per your state laws. For example, in Wyoming I can legally use a .22 caliber bullet and cartridge that is a minimum of 60 grains and 2 inches overall length to hunt antelope, whitetail and mule deer. For elk, bison, bear, big horn sheep, one must use a cartridge that is .24 caliber or larger and a minimum of 2 inches. While these specifications are the bare minimum requirement, I cannot recommend shooting an animal the size of an elk with a 90-grain Federal Fusion out of a 224 Valkyrie. Yes, I understand it is legal. When choosing a bullet type and cartridge for your desired game animal, you should do a good bit of research first. This is a list I use to choose my ideal bullet and caliber for what I am hunting for an absolute ethical kill.
1. What am I hunting? Game Type
2. What are my State Laws? Legalities
3. How far will I be shooting? Distance
Answering these three questions can greatly improve your chances of picking an effective, legal bullet type and caliber that will not only provide you with an ethical kill, but can also save meat by eliminating the amount of blood shot you get from the terminal ballistics of said projectile. After all, I would assume that you are hunting primarily for meat, and that trophies, experience, and bragging rights are a far second.
Let us take this coyote in the below photo for example. This was a predator hunt where our average shot distance was 300 yards. I was shooting a 6.5 Creedmoor with a 129 grain Hornady Interlock at approximately 2950 fps at the muzzle. Is this overkill for a coyote that I would want to sell the pelts from? Absolutely, but for predator control on the farm it doesn’t really matter. We could use a .22 LR mini mag out of a Ruger 10/22 with the same outcome, dead coyote. Game animals are a much different story in my opinion. That is, state hunting laws aside, you owe it to the animal as a responsible hunter and outdoors-person to provide that animal with a quick ethical death.
Species and Caliber
Now we finally get to some popular calibers of the Midwest, and some of my personal favorites that I have implemented into my rotation. I would like to lay these out under the species that I have found them most effective for regarding the distance of the shot, ethical killing power (better known as kinetic energy), and the amount of the bloodshot we end up with after the kill.
1. Whitetail Deer / Pronghorn– While we can use 30-06 Springfield, 300 Winchester Magnum, and 7mm Remington Magnum with great success at any range from 50-500 yards, the reward is not as great. A lot is based on the bullet type and how it performs upon impact, but at the end of the day, a whitetail deer on average is smaller and thinner skinned than its cousin the Muley. I have found out to distances of 400 yards and in that a .243 Winchester with an 80 grain Barnes TTSX, 90 grain Hornady ELDX, or 100 grain Winchester soft point, with a clean heart or double lung shot does extremely well with very little bloodshot meat.
This Whitetail was taken at 289 yards with a Ruger American Predator (same as the previously mentioned coyote) shooting a 135 Berger Hybrid Hunter. He took 3 steps and dropped from a high double lung shot. Other 6.5 CM bullets I have had great success with on medium sized game have been the Hornady 143 ELDX, Hornady 140 or 147 ELDM, and Sierra 130 Game Changer. Lastly, by far the best performer was the 127 Barnes LRX BT. My wife shot her first deer at 310 yards and took a very successful heart shot on this 3-year-old mule deer in Eastern Wyoming. He ran 40 yards, but the heart was completely eviscerated, and the blood trail was easier follow than a color by numbers book.
I have only shot one bull and had some closed calls with cows during archery season. The bull I took was at 291 meters with a 165-grain federal fusion out of a Remington 700 Long Range. The round took him through the heart from a perfect broadside shot and he didn’t go a step before going down and expiring. It was a complete pass through, so I did not recover the projectile to provide a picture.
Some very popular calibers for elk for out to 1000 yards and in have been 300 Winchester magnum, 7mm Remington magnum, 300 PRC, 338 Winchester Magnum, 28 Nosler, and 280 Ackley Improved. I would highly recommend any of these calibers with expanding bullets ranging in 150-230 grains. Some very solid companies to look at for ammunition for hunting purposes are Remington, Federal, Barnes, Sierra, Hornady, Norma, and Nosler. If you do not reload and would like to start trying out some more loads not commercially available off the shelf, I would tell you from personal experience to get ahold of Unknown Munitions or Graf N Sons. They do a wide variety of single stage, hand loaded cartridges and can help you tune a specific load for your rifle.
What To Look For In Terminal Ballistics
As seen in the below photograph, a good blood trail is always appreciated if you do not drop your target animal with a single shot. Shot placement is a huge part of that. It is my opinion that the average rather experienced hunter should not take game outside of 500 yards because the vast major of the time you can stalk to well within that distance by using the wind and terrain to your advantage. I prefer to take a high shoulder shot because the kinetic energy causes a ripple effect that will destroy the lungs, and occasionally, spine just in front of the backstraps. Four out of five animals I have taken this exact shot on have dropped without taking a single step. Making, locating, and recovery substantially easier. When we look at good blood trails, we can see that a full pass through provides the best results. Poking more holes means more blood, and elk typically need a second shot.
Achieving this is best done with a broadside shot and using a bonded bullet to avoid jacket separation after impact. Retaining the bullets structural integrity and holding as much of the initial weight of that bullet gives us the deadliest impacts. If we shoot a non-bonded bullet into an animal’s shoulder or hit a rib, the chances of jacket separation and lack of penetration are exponentially increased. Resulting in what could be a non-lethal hit and wounding of an animal, making our day and chances of recovery to drop substantially.
Any way you look at it, it’s not a fun experience. I once shot a ten-point muley at 390 yards with a 6.5 Creedmoor using a 120 grain Hornady GMX. I took a quartering towards me shot and got a full pass-through bullet did not open and essentially punched a pencil hold through that animal’s body missing vitals and not causing the necessary damage required to put that deer down. I tracked the animal for four miles before losing the blood trail. I felt awful, and never again will I use that bullet for hunting purposes. The following spring, I saw that deer alive and moving fine not 1000 yards from where I shot him the previous season.
These animals are much heartier than we think, and we must understand our equipment’s capability and limits when using it on another living thing. As hunters, it is our responsibility to do the research and make ethical shots on our prey. I hope this information has helped you make some changes or at least feel some validation towards your current set up for this upcoming season! Good luck to you all, happy hunting, and stay safe!
Written by @fshnmndan
Great article, written by a true American hero! ???
From one of the best that’ means a lot man! Stay safe and shoot straight!
I’ve been a Guide in Colorado for over a decade, guiding for elk, mule deer, whitetail, pronghorn, and bear primarily. This article is great info. I personally prefer the Barnes TSX and TTSX in most calibers, but recently have used the federal fusions and been very happy with the overall performance in my 300WinMag.
That’s awesome man! Best of luck to future success!
Rife with nuance & subjective preferences, this topic is (Yoda Voice) 🙂 Whenever I’m asked which caliber is best…its up to the hunter, in observance of ethical standards & those of state law prescribed. We owe the animal the most humane conclusion possible. What round? It always depends. Whichever caliber is legal & further, that which matches a hunters capabilities to produce an accurate and lethal shot. Other hard points are unpopular yet robustly relevant, know, your own limitations. Each time I hunt, be it Squirrel to Elk, two simple questions are demanded of me, can I shoot & should I shoot. Unless both those answers are yes, I do not. These are endless conversations & that is why we pursue game in the outdoors ethically & passionately. Excellent article!!
It’s merely a solid baseline for those wanting to get into hunting the western states. I try to be subjective as possible in my experiences because I’ve tried so many different rifles and calibers. Of course everyone’s experiences will vary, that’s why this is as you said just a subjective preference and only my opinions.