Anatomy of a Hog Rifle

When choosing a rifle/ammunition combo for hunting feral hogs, it’s important to first consider the conditions in which it will be deployed.

Anatomy of a Hog Rifle

Wild hog populations are literally exploding in many parts of the country, providing growing opportunities to hunt them. These hunts cover the entire spectrum, from the coast of California to Texas brush country, the swamps of the Deep South to the croplands of the Midwest, the marshlands of the Carolinas to the shrublands of New Mexico, and everything in-between. You can hunt them from blinds over feeders and food plots, follow hounds into cover so thick you have to literally crawl through it, conduct a spot-and-stalk hunt similar to hunting deer or elk, hunt from a treestand over bait like you do with black bears, you name it. When populations demand eradication methods, you might even mercilessly gun them from a helicopter. In some states you can hunt them 24/7, meaning thermal optics or spotlights are required after dark. 

Rules and regulations governing hog hunting vary wildly, too. Some states require pig tags, some don’t. Some states have seasons and bag limits, while in others it’s a 365 days-a-year war. Some require you to salvage edible meat, others do not. Personally, even when not required by law, I save as much meat as I can, given that the flesh of a fat sow is some of the tastiest wild game in all of North America. 

All this is a roundabout way of saying that when choosing guns and loads for wild hog hunting, there is no “one size fits all” answer. While Sus scrofa is a tough hombre, wild boars are not bulletproof. In reality, the spectrum of what works and doesn’t work on wild hogs is so large it is really impossible to say, with any degree of authority, this specific cartridge and bullet weight/design, chambered in this rifle or that, is the ultimate hog rig. That’s because the conditions under which hogs are hunted vary greatly. If everything were peaches-and-cream — a broadside, 150-pound pig at 100 yards with nary a care in the world, a solid gun rest, the sun at your back, a light breeze in you face — you could literally walk into any gun shop in America, choose any centerfire rifle they have and make it work.

The problem is that in hunting weird things just seem to happen on a daily basis. Shot angles are often imperfect. The pigs are often excited and/or spooked. “Hog fever” steps in and gets the shooter all jittery and shot placement is less than ideal. There is thick brush or a steep canyon or knee-deep swamp muck or some other bad terrain feature involved. That’s why when choosing a gun-and-load combination for hog hunting, I try and err on the side of Murphy, that imp who likes to try and mess me up on a regular basis, and make my selection based on the worst-case scenario. That way I know that if everything works out and the aforementioned ideal situation presents itself, I can make it happen with ease. But if it doesn’t and I need to make a shot at the southbound end of a northbound hog, I can do that, too.

There Are Commonalities

There are, however, some firearm commonalities regardless of where and how you’re hunting. These include reliability, accuracy and ease of handling, topped with an optic that can gather maximum light at dawn and dusk, as well as being chambered for a cartridge appropriate for the conditions at hand. 

In terms of rifle action type — bolt action, lever action, pump action, single shot, double barrel break-open action, semi-automatic — it doesn’t really matter, unless you’re in a situation where the goal is to shoot as many hogs as you can as quickly as possible. In that case, the modern MSR is the ticket. They are quick handling, can be suppressed easily, the Picatinny rail allows easy mounting of different optics and lighting options (including thermals,) and, best of all, a large capacity clip and semi-auto design makes for the fastest follow-up shots, a real bonus when you’re in the middle of a herd of hogs and you want to kill as many as possible before they get out of Dodge.

Likewise, lever-action rifles can offer rapid follow-up shots, and are great when shot distances are less than a couple of football fields. Back in the late 1980s — well before the MSR craze — I was hunting hogs on a near-weekly basis in central and northern California, mostly on spot-and-stalk hunts but sometimes following hog hounds into thick brush. My pet hog rifle was a Browning BLR lever-action rifle chambered in .358 Win., a .308 case necked up to .358-caliber that sends a 200-grain bullet off at about 2,600 fps. This short-barreled rifle is easy to maneuver through the brush, very accurate and thumps ’em hard at ranges out to 200 yards or a tad more. It’s great for both spot-and-stalk hunts and the thick, brushy jungles encountered when trailing hounds or sneaking through bedding areas. I still use it to this day. 

A couple seasons back in central California, I used another classic lever action, my buddy Jim Matthews’ old Savage Model 99, also chambered in .358 Win. and loaded with Jim’s handloads featuring the 180-grain Barnes Tipped Triple Shock bullet, to take a massive 300-pound black boar. Nothing really sexy about either of these rigs — except that they are deadly as a heart attack on wild pigs. And with the lever action experiencing a bit of a trendy comeback these days, ammo makers are designing bullets specifically for those with tubular magazines. Examples include the Hornady FTX and MonoFlex loaded in their LEVERevolution ammunition line, the Barnes TSX FN, Swift’s reconfigured A-Frame designed for tubular magazines and various round nose designs. 

Of course, bolt-action rifles are still king across America. I’ve shot wild hogs with bolt actions chambered in myriad cartridges ranging from .223 Rem. all the way up to the admittedly excessive .416 Rigby. And I once used a .470 double rifle on hogs while training for an African safari. 

All this is a roundabout way of saying that when it comes to rifle action designs, it really doesn’t matter. Grab your favorite deer hunting rifle, take it hog hunting and you’ll find success, assuming you place the bullet where it needs to be placed.

The Importance of Bullet Selection

There have been many, many new cartridges introduced over the past several years that are of interest to hog hunters. Also, some 10 to 15 years ago, a few ammo makers jumped on the bandwagon by offering cartridge lines designated specifically for hog hunters — Hornady Full Boar, Remington Hog Hammer and Winchester Razorback XT and Razor Boar XT come immediately to mind. At the end of the day and within reason, though, bullet selection is much more important than cartridge selection.

Too many hunters underestimate both the strength and tenacity of wild hogs, putting them on the same plane with deer. Not good. I think of hogs more as miniature black bears or elk, animals with leg bones like steel pipes, muscles like a body-builder and the toughness of a marine fresh out of boot camp. That means when selecting ammunition for a hog hunt, it’s important to pay close attention not just to the caliber, but also to the bullet. Bullet failure on the tough bones and grass-filled guts of wild pigs causes more problems with carcass recovery than from shooting a caliber deemed inadequate. 

My friend Jim Matthews recounted this story in a very early edition of his newsletter, California Hog Hunter. It was to be his first wild pig, and I had invited him to come to northern California’s Dye Creek Ranch to hunt with Craig Boddington and me. At that time, Craig was editor of Petersen’s Hunting magazine, for which I was the senior staff editor. We were going to field test the then-new .356 Winchester cartridge in a lever-action rifle, a combination that had not been released to the public yet and which Winchester hoped would curry favor with deep-woods deer, black bear and hog hunters. 

To make a long story short, Dye Creek manager Mike Ballew and Jim belly crawled into position on a small group of hogs, one of which was a dandy boar. From a solid prone position at about 75 yards, Jim smacked that big pig right behind the shoulder. He immediately flipped upside down with all 4 feet in the air. When it twitched, Jim asked Mike if he should shoot it again.

“That pig’s graveyard dead,” Mike said. About that time the “dead” pig was up and running across the hillside like a halfback heading for the end zone. Jim looked like Chuck Connors of “The Rifleman” television series fame as he emptied the .356 at that pig, reloaded and shot some more before it crested the ridge. When it was all said and done, Jim had hit the 275-pound boar seven times with the 200-grain prototype Winchester Silvertips. Their performance was explosive. Literally. Those bullets behaved like .22 varmint slugs, blowing great divots out of the pig and causing terrible damage to its meaty exterior, but never penetrating into the vital organs. Those prototype slugs were obviously made with too soft a lead core and/or jacket material that was too thin, and Winchester corrected the problem before the ammunition came on the market. 

This example graphically illustrates both the toughness of wild pigs and the need for a bullet designed for deep penetration as well as controlled expansion. The biggest mistake novice hog hunters make is not using a bullet that will break a front shoulder and penetrate into the vital organs. Most pigs are deer-sized game, so hunters mistakenly believe they can shoot the same lightly constructed bullets they often use for deer and still cleanly kill pigs. Well, they might get away with it for a few animals, but then a slug will come apart on a front shoulder, or it will not penetrate enough into the heart-lung area from a rear angle. Then the hunter has a wounded pig on his hands, and that either leads to an animal escaping or getting shot up with multiple hits to finally anchor it, ruining a large portion of the meat.

Cartridge Selection

Generally speaking, any cartridge that will take deer-sized game cleanly is perfectly adequate for general purpose hog hunting — with the right bullet. Up close in thick brush, following hounds or over feeders or bait piles, something on the beefier side using bullets with a larger frontal section — .30-caliber and up — makes sense.

There are lots of relatively new cool cartridges that lend themselves to hog hunting fun — and success. These include stuff like the current king of “hip” hog cartridges, the .300 BLK, but also rounds such as the .450 Bushmaster, .350 Legend, .360 Buckhammer and .300 Ham’R. For long-range shooting, the new PRC cartridges — 6.5, 7mm and .300 — using Hornady’s excellent ELD-X bullet are great. In AR-platform rifles, with the right bullets and under the right conditions, the .223 Rem./5.56mm NATO will work just fine. Perhaps better choices might include the 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 Rem. SPC, .30 Rem. AR, .350 Legend, .450 Bushmaster, .458 SOCOM, as well as that timeless standby, the .308 Win. 

For general hog hunting and us “old school” types, it’s hard to argue with my old .358 Win. in a lever-action rifle, or a bolt-action rifle chambered for unsexy but very lethal cartridges such as the .243 Win., .25-06 Rem., .270 Win., .280 Rem., .308 Win., .30-06, 7mm-08, the various .244-.300 magnums, or larger cartridges that you just enjoy hunting with.

The bottom line is simply this: Hunting wild hogs should be fun. Using a rifle you love to shoot and hunt with will help make this so. You can effectively use shotguns with slugs, or a muzzleloader, or a handgun, too. I’ve shot a lot of hogs with compound bows and crossbows as well. Opportunities abound, so why not take advantage of them?

Quiet and Deadly: Today’s Top Hog Medicine?

Many modern-day hog slayers turn to the .300 BLK for short-action efficiency.

Sure, you can use whatever on wild hogs. So, then, what’s the ultimate rig? Here it is: An MSR chambered in .300 AAC Blackout, also known as the .300 BLK. This cartridge is essentially a .223 Rem. case necked up to receive a .308-caliber bullet and has been designed specifically to permit a short-barreled AR-platform rifle to employ a more powerful cartridge without giving up any magazine capacity. In most cases you can turn a standard MSR into one using the .300 BLK with a simple barrel or upper receiver exchange. Top it with an appropriate optic for the task at hand — even a thermal optic for night hunting — add a suppressor, load it with subsonic ammo such as Hornady’s Subsonic .300 BLK with the 190-grain Sub-X Polymer-Tipped or Polymer-Tipped bullet, and you’ll end up with about as quiet and deadly a shot as you can achieve. Other solid hog hunting ammo choices include Winchester USA .300 Blackout 125-grain Open Tip Range and Federal Premium 150-grain Power-Shok ammo, among others. And, of course, when not hunting hogs, this same rig makes a heckuva home defense weapon. — Bob Robb.


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