Any load practical for deer hunting will drop a fox, a coyote, a bobcat or a mountain lion. You don’t need special ammunition. On the other hand, you might be just as well served by lighter bullets, which hit you with less recoil. If yours is the most powerful rifle in your deer camp, you’re smart to throttle it back for animals the size of aunt Emma’s schnauzer. If you count pelt damage a cardinal sin, changing bullet type might also make sense.
Of course, you could buy another rifle, bored for a cartridge specific to small carnivores. Far be it from me to keep you out of gun shops! But even if you have a rack full of scoped rifles, sticking with a favorite has merit. Practicing with one rifle brings quicker results than drills with a battery of rifles. In competition, the old saying, “beware the one-gun man” still holds. Use one rifle with one load for all your hunts, and it becomes an extension of your will. You won’t recall pressing the trigger, only that the reticle paused at just the right moment, and the animal slumped. Familiarity might breed contempt — it surely makes you a better marksman!
With life comes hard times; a new yacht or children in law school can lift from your shoulders the burden of choice. I was once in such a sorry state, my only centerfire was a battle-bruised infantry arm with iron sights. One frigid Michigan morning, threading a thicket in fluffy snow, I bounced a red fox from its bed. The SMLE flew to my cheek and fired itself. The fox somersaulted.
I learned three things that day: First, a 180-grain .303 Winchester Power-Point will kill a fox right away. Second, a rifle that points naturally can hit even when there’s no time to aim. Third, shooting a fox while still-hunting deer is just like shooting a deer.
Decades later, as dawn brightened Wyoming desert stiff with frost, I watched my Mil Dot hop about a distant coyote. Some seconds later, those gyrations capitulated to sling tension and the .243’s considerable weight. The coyote collapsed to my shot, then struggled to its feet.
“Hold the same,” hissed my pal, eyes to his binocular.
I did as he said. The coyote fell again and did not rise.
My bullet that day was a 107-grain Sierra MatchKing, an exceedingly long boat-tail best paired with 1:8 rifling. Some hunters use it on big game, though in my view, the world is full of better options. Few hunters say it’s their top pick for coyotes. But that day, with a truly ambitious wind keening across the sage and hundreds of yards to the mark, the sleek Sierra was my friend.
Hitting is your top priority. Bullet weight, shape and speed must first help you hit. Terminal behavior counts for nothing if you miss.
A deer load that kills with heat-seeking certainty is hard to beat for predators. A predator load that nips one-hole groups is, by the same token, a temptation come deer season. Last autumn, I stuffed a Savage .243 with Federal ammo launching 95-grain Ballistic Tips. That load dropped three hefty bucks. Ordinarily, I would have picked a less frangible bullet, but one-hole groups came so effortlessly I didn’t switch. Confidence that you’ll hit where you look is a seductive mistress.
Coyotes are no thicker than plastic milk jugs and not much harder for bullets to penetrate. Still, the lightest, speediest bullet might not be your best choice. Pelt damage is the obvious reason. At Mach 3, only bullets designed to drive deep in big game will give you exit holes smaller than bomb craters. Fast, flat-flying bullets can rupture so violently on impact as to tear small animals apart and keep you up nights patching pelts from the biggest coyotes — even wolves and lions.
Another strike against lightweight bullets has been their oft-middling accuracy. Rifling in deer rifles is, broadly speaking, a bit steeper than needed for one-hole groups with bullets on the low end of the weight range. There are exceptions, however. My first .264 was not among them. I rejoiced when this rifle spit 140-grain Power Points into nickel-size groups. Expecting the same from 100-grain spitzers, I was stunned by 3-inch spray. Handloading would have improved my lot, but I was a student then, living on tomato soup and still doubting a Herter’s press would ever justify its $15 price.
Decades later, I find factory-loaded polymer-tipped bullets not only more accurate than softpoints of the past, but more accurate across a wider weight range. That is, with standard twist rates, many very light missiles shoot well. One of my 6mms sends even 58-grain Hornady V-Max bullets into acorn groups. Another nips one-hole knots with 70-grain Sierras.
Lead-free bullets, of lower sectional density than their jacketed counterparts, now come in weights once thought too light for big game. Still, they drive deep and yield the high retained-weight percentages hunters want. They can be driven fast without kicking you hard. They’re long enough (credit the modest density of copper and cupro-nickel alloy) to fly well from barrels rifled for heavier lead bullets. Shank grooves relieve pressure; driving bands between seal gas, ensure near-perfect alignment. In sum, these bullets, aggressively marketed for big game, can be smart choices for hunting predators.
Building a custom rifle, you can match twist rate to a bullet. Scott Harrold, who fashions long-range rifles under the shingle of Quarter Minute Magnums, told me he prefers twist “on the slow side.” He said that’s the way to get top accuracy with rifling that doesn’t over-stabilize bullets. If you’re using a factory rifle, or building one for deer as well as predators, you’ll do well to stick with a standard twist. Only in the case of the .223 and a few specialty cartridges will you have much choice. In my view, you seldom need it.
Some handloaders trim powder charges to reduce recoil or limit pelt damage. A bullet designed to open reluctantly in tough game might behave like a solid in fragile predators. To ensure against upset, you’d have to limit impact speed of most bullets to under 1,600 fps or so — that’s pretty slow. Starting that bullet at say, 1,800 fps, you’ll get a rainbow arc and marginal killing power at distance. Accuracy? You’ll find out only by shooting.
At sub-sonic speeds (under 1,120 fps) bullets won’t shred pelts, but pencil-path wounds caused at .22-Short velocity by lightweight missiles won’t kill quickly either. Even cartridges designed for sub-sonic use might not deliver acceptable accuracy. A pal with decades of experience as a ballistician says the .300 Blackout, now having its day in the sun, “is delightfully accurate with 110-grain spitzers at 2,375 fps, but 208s at 1,020 can be problem children.”
To avoid the headache of drastic speed reductions, try loads developed to pamper deer hunters. Federal, Hornady and Remington have offered soft-shooting recipes for frisky cartridges like the .300 Ultra Mag.
OK, so you don’t hunt with an Ultra Mag. Remington’s Managed-Recoil line also includes a 140-grain Core-Lokt for the .260, a 115 for the .270, a 140 for the 7mm Remington Magnum, a 125 for the .30-30, 125s for the .308 and .30-06, a 150 for the .300 Winchester Magnum. Core-Lokts all. Figure velocity drop at 10 to 15 percent. Excepting the .30-30, all these loads clock at least 1,600 fps out to 350 yards.
Hornady’s Custom Lite ammunition is similar. The 150-grain .30-30 bullet at 2,100 fps is a conventional jacketed round-nose. The others feature poly-tipped SSTs: an 87-grain in .243, a 120 in .270, a 120 in 7mm-08, a 139 in 7mm Remington Magnum, 125s in .308 and .30-06, a 150 in .300 Winchester Magnum.
Ammo from both of these sources has shot well for me.
If lightweight bullets and reduced charges help you shoot more accurately, you’ll need a compelling reason not to use them. If conditions where you hunt deer require less horsepower than you can wring from Ol’ Betsy, firing hotrod loads makes no sense anyway. One gentle load that sets you up for both coyotes and whitetails, offers bonuses like reduced barrel fouling and wear and quicker recovery from recoil. Most appealing in my view is that fact that you needn’t change scope settings. The less you fiddle with the sights, the more confidence you’ll have in your rifle.
The one time I found stiff heavy-bullet loads a boon on a predator hunt was when, after a stock-pestering lion died to a single shot, I fired three 180-grain softpoints from a .30-06 to sever the limb holding the cat in the tree.
Limiting yourself to one rifle shouldn’t be a permanent sentence. When Junior graduates law school, your fortunes should improve. On the other hand, using one rifle and one load might end up spoiling you. Hitting is a hard addiction to break.