Magnum Madness
By Ron Spomer


Magnums can be fun or madness.

I shoot magnums. But I shoot non-magnums better. And the deer don't know the difference.
This is the big truth about magnums, whether rifle or shotgun: they aren't mandatory for cleanly and quickly killing game.

This, I think, is news to most hunters. Somehow we've all grown up thinking MAGNUM means increased killing power, as if a 140-grain bullet from a 7mm Rem. Mag. at 3,200 fps is going to vaporize a whitetail while that same 140-grain from a 7mm-08 Rem. at 2,900 fps is going to bounce off.

Some famous cartridge families from L. to R. include the 308 Winchester clan, 30-06 Springfield tribe and 375 H&H belted magnum group. Outlier on far right is Remington's 300 Ultra Mag based, like many of our fat magnums, on the 404 Jeffery case.

Some famous cartridge families from L. to R. include the 308 Winchester clan, 30-06 Springfield tribe and 375 H&H belted magnum group. Outlier on far right is Remington's 300 Ultra Mag based, like many of our fat magnums, on the 404 Jeffery case.

Friends, that's just 300 fps difference in speed, less than one-fourth the velocity of a common .22 Long Rifle. Put another way, the 7mm Rem. Mag. generates 2,770 fp (foot-pounds) of energy at 100 yards. The 7mm-08 carries 2,270 fp. A foot-pound of kinetic energy has the potential to lift one pound a foot into the air. Do you think 2,270 fp are insufficient to discombobulate the vital organs of a 200-pound deer?

No common, shoulder-fired cartridge is going to pick up a deer and hurl it ten feet backward or even knock it off its feet unless you strike a major bone or the spine/brain central nervous system. So why bruise your shoulder trying?

So what are the fun parts about a magnum? Well, they cost more. They're heavier. They're longer and bulkier. The ammunition is more expensive. They kick harder. They make more noise. And they sound MACHO. Dude, I'm shooting a MAGNUM. Swagger swagger.

This leads to the hunters' arms race, which goes something like this: "I shoot a 180-grain Pulverizing Pandemonium bullet through a .300 Win. Mag."

"How quaint. I shoot the same through a .300 Weatherby Mag, which is 200 fps faster!"

"Big deal, I'm shooting the Remington .300 Ultra Mag. Leaves your Weatherby in the dust."

"So what! I shoot the .30-378 Weatherby Mag."

"Boys, boys, boys. Wipe the drool off your chins and quiet down. I'm shooting a .416 Barrett. It spits a 400-grain bullet 3,250 fps and churns up 9,381 foot pounds of Tyrannosaurus rex terminating power."

This is important if you have a T. Rex tag.

Meanwhile, back in the 21st Century, we're looking to put about 200-pounds of venison in the freezer. Poachers have been doing that with accurate .22 rimfires for at least 150 years. The old .30-30 Win. with a 170-grain bullet and a tail wind might get 2,200 fps and 1,800 fp of energy. A few deer and black bears and even elk and moose have been sent to the taxidermist by the old .30-30.

So why all the Magnum Madness?

Aside from bragging rights, magnums are useful for shooting farther with less hold-over. That's their big benefit. All bullets begin dropping once they leave the muzzle. So we aim slightly up through our line of sight. This puts the bullet an inch or three high somewhere along its flight, usually around 100 to 200 yards, after which it drops through the line of sight and continues dropping until the ground stops it.

With ordinary non-magnums like the 7mm-08 Rem. above or the .243 Win., .270 Win. and .30-06, the bullet doesn't fall more than 6 inches below your sight-line until 300 yards or so. It all depends on your initial zero distance. When you know this trajectory line of your bullet, you realize you can hold on the middle of the 16-inch deep (top-to-bottom) chest of a whitetail and hit the vital organs anywhere from the muzzle out to about 300 yards. This covers 90 percent of your shots and makes shooting simple.

Compared to the 30-06, the 45-70 Govt. and 450 Marlin are shorter, thus faster to cycle in a shorter-length action. They throw 300- to 500-grain slugs -- and bears reportedly don't like them.

Many cartridges that propel heavy bullets with lots of punch are not magnums. The old 45-70 Govt. (left) and 450 Marlin (right) throw 300- to 500-grain slugs. But the 30-06 (center) shoots flatter and carries more energy father downrange, thanks to its higher initial velocity and more efficient bullet shape. Magnums improve on this even more.

What the increased velocity of magnum rounds does is extends that Maximum Point Blank Range. Your bullet, because it's starting its journey 200 fps to maybe 400 fps faster, flies farther downrange before dropping more than 6 inches below your line of sight. This is a good thing. Depending on the magnum, your "dead-on" shooting distance can increase as much as 50 yards. So you could hold center chest on your deer at 350 yards instead of 300 yards. If you have a huge need or burning desire to do this, get a magnum (or just aim slightly higher with your non-magnum.) If you never have a chance to shoot that far, or don't think you can hold steadily enough to be accurate at that range (smart thinking!) and don't relish the added recoil of a magnum, stick with the standard cartridges.

It's really that simple.

Now if you're talking shotguns with slugs, same difference. More powder pushes the same weight bullet faster, thus is shoots slightly farther. But very slightly because slugs are rather aerodynamically inefficient anyway. You'll gain more range by switching from a flat-nosed slug to a narrow, longer, sharp-nosed slug than by increasing velocity.

If you're talking magnum shotshells for birds, pay attention because some magnum shells are actually slower than some non-magnums. In shotshells the word Magnum can mean an increase in pellets rather than speed. Or vice versa. Or both. Yikes. So read the box/catalog/literature closely and figure it all out. Magnum shotshells can be 2 ¾", 3" or 3.5" in 12 ga., too, and your gun might not be chambered to handle the longer versions. Carefully check that, too. Count on any magnum shotshell to recoil more than standard loads. But also check to see if the magnums blow your patterns. The extra pellets and sometimes extra velocity can result in pellets flying wild or clumping at distance, resulting in gaping holes in distribution through which a small bird could fly. In shotgunning, it's all about putting an even spread of pellets over the bird. Barrels, wads, shot material (steel, lead, tungsten) and especially chokes play a bigger role than Magnum designations.

Are magnums a joke? Are they worthless? Certainly not. They can improve performance. But you have to understand why and how and evaluate your needs before deciding whether a magnum is right for you.