These days, no matter which way the wind is blowing, civil discussions between two parties always seem escalate to bloody, knock-down, drag-out fights in the street. The hunting community is far from immune to this, but few topics will get us foaming at the mouth quite like this classic: Is caliber or accurate shooting more essential to hunting success?
I grew up in the accuracy camp. My grandfather taught me to shoot with a .22 rifle, telling me that it was all the gun I’d ever need. He taught me to breathe, stay calm, and shoot straight. He had me practice my aim on nails he drove into the wall of an old barn, where I tried to quite literally hit the nail on the head. Later, I started throwing head shots at squirrels and rabbits. I was deadly accurate with that .22, and I believed that accuracy was everything. Then, when I was 13, I started going out for my first deer. With a new/used .243 in hand, I hit the woods every day of the season hoping to find a buck, and when I finally did, I forgot everything I ever learned.
I jumped him in thick brush while walking through the woods. Seeing only a flash of brown and a pair of antlers, I fired in sheer panic—hitting the buck too far forward in the shoulder. There was a little bit of blood in the leaves, so with the help of my father we tracked the deer for a while, but ultimately ended up losing the buck. I told my dad where I hit the deer and he shook his head. “You should have been using a bigger gun,” my dad said. It was true: Had I been using a larger-caliber rifle, I would have likely broken the deer’s shoulder and dropped it in its tracks. It was on that day that I finally understood both sides of the argument.
While success in all shooting comes down to hitting your target accurately, in the hunting world you often do not get a perfect opportunity at said target. Animals run away, they don’t always turn broadside, brush and tree branches get in the way, etc. Hunters rarely get that perfect shot opportunity, so many look to larger-caliber rifles to give them a leg up. These larger-caliber rifles—ones that hit harder, break large bones, and simply create more trauma upon impact—are often viewed as more reliable hunting weapons. However, using larger rifles, while perhaps more efficient in delivering a killing blow, is not always the best way to hunt. Big-bore rifles can cause a lot of tissue damage, which equates to wasted meat. In addition, having that confidence in the potency of a larger rifle can cause hunters to rush or make careless shots. Now, I’m not arguing for going into the field under-gunned, because using a weapon too small to ethically and quickly take down the game you’re after isn’t morally right. But don’t assume strutting into deer camp with a .375 H&H is going to suddenly make you an infinitely more lethal marksman, either.
In the end, it comes down to finding a middle ground. Hunting with a weapon that is powerful enough to take down game, but not so large that it disrupts accurate shooting, is the best way to hunt. When hunting with the right gun, even one we have confidence in, we are forced to slow down. In so doing, we stay calmer and pick better shots. By concentrating on making more accurate shots, we become better hunters.
I think about that first buck a lot, and I often wish I’d had a bigger rifle in that moment, but mostly I wish I had adhered to those early shooting lessons from my grandfather—staying calm and shooting straight. That’s the key to ethically taking game.