Big Game in the Off-Season

Big Game in the Off-Season

Late winter and early spring can create a real sense of doldrums for many big game hunters. It’s cold, windy and muddy, the tags are all expired and new ones are not available for several more months. It sounds a lot like we’re a bunch of football fans entering into a “post-season depression”.

Need a pick-me-up? The off-season is a great time for varmint hunting! Varmint hunting is an excellent way to hone your skills and practice for certain scenarios that you may have found yourself in, or heard about while sharing stories of victory, defeat, and “Wow, you wouldn’t believe it”.

So what do varmint hunting and crazy stories have to do with big game hunting? Well, In addition to predator control, which protects many of our big game species, varmint hunting is a great way to: 1) get more time on the trigger 2) shoot in adverse weather conditions 3) gain the benefit of shooting at a much wilier quarry and 4) test bullet performance. Some of you might be throwing up a flag right now, saying “I hunt varmints with a 22-250, 243, or even my 25-06, but I hunt big game with bigger calibers like 277, 308, 323, 338 or even larger.

Yeah, so what? What’s wrong with shooting gophers with a 338 Lapua? Nothing! In fact, it can be a lot of fun (expensive, but a lot of fun). A new hobby if mine is shooting gophers with my 375 H&H Magnum. It’s not to be macho or anything else. It’s quite simply that I absolutely fell in love with the CZ 550 375 H&H when I took it to Africa. Not because its so pretty, but because I felt just as comfortable shooting that 375 H&H at 300 yards as I did my Winchester Model 70 - 300 Win Mag. I loaded that 375 H&H with 260 grain AccuBond bullets (B.C. of .47+) with a muzzle velocity just over 2,850 ft/sec. Take just a minute and compare that velocity and B.C. to a hunting grade bullet fired from a 308 Winchester, 30-06 or 270.

Now that I’m home from Africa, I want to shoot elk, moose and even hogs with that same 260 grain bullet loaded in my 375 H&H. I’ve been in the off-season for a few months now and practicing with that load only makes sense if I want to use it this fall, doesn’t it? Well, It’s just that simple and I love it.

Now on the other side of the coin (varmint hunting to prepare for big game), many people might ask, “Who hunts big game with a 243 Winchester, 25-06 Remington, a 260 Remington or the likes?” Well, a lot more people than many of us might think. While I was living in Alaska, I hunted with a gentleman who shot everything with a 243 Winchester. The exception was grizzly and brown bear, but he said he would kill those with his 243 as well...if it were legal. He was very comfortable with the rifle and he could place the bullet exactly where he wanted it at any distance, from 10 feet to 300 yards. I think the second best thing he recognized is that he used what he called “the right bullets for the right animal” (speaking of projectiles). I must give him credit; in the time I lived in that area of Alaska, he took several very nice moose, blacktail deer and black bear with that 243 Winchester.

Speaking a little more on the subject of killing moose, if one looks at the Scandinavian countries or Europe, well over 100,000 moose are killed each year with 264 and 284 calibers (primarily with the 6.5x55 Swede and the 7x57 Mauser). Many would consider these cartridges to be too small, underpowered, or just plain inadequate for large game such as moose. However, it’s hard to argue with the statistics racked up by these two cartridges for almost 100 years running. Now this should start to give us a better appreciation for these “middle” calibers.

So what does shooting gophers with a 338 Lapua or 375 H&H, or shooting Scandinavian moose with a 6.5x55 Swede have to do with hunting big game or hunting varmints in the USA? Here it is! First, get past foot-pounds of energy for a moment and consider the benefits of sectional density and good positive mass-retaining bullets. This drives penetration, correct? Now couple this with a good ballistic coefficient and sufficient muzzle velocity. What does that give you? It gives you a great cartridge combination for any kind of hunting.

Below is some of the data you will find in the Cartridge Comparison Guide


The larger 308, 284, and 277 calibers, relative to the 264, 257, and 243 calibers, have surprisingly similar sectional density, ballistic coefficients and velocities to those offered by the heavier 243, 257, and 264 caliber bullets. Therefore, their trajectory, velocity, and depth of penetration should be very similar We cannot dismiss energy from the total hunting equation (that would be madness), but oftentimes too much emphasis is placed on energy and we neglect these other drivers that determine lethality. With the chart, we can see the similarities many of these cartridges will have based on depth of penetration, velocity, and overall trajectory. This is where varmint hunting in the off-season becomes an excellent resource, giving us real world conditions with great results on anything we may want to test out.

Now what do you think? That’s good stuff, isn’t it? Next, I hope you consider felt recoil and the cost of components…the wheels should be turning.

Many of us may be looking for a good performing long-range rifle. However, building up an “ear gesplitten lauden boom” rifle might not be our preferred method of getting there. I’ve talked with many people who think a 300 Win Mag. is the most punishing cartridge they are willing to shoulder. They also feel that it doesn’t offer enough velocity to get them out to the distances they would like to shoot. I’ve suggested looking at some of these smaller caliber cartridges, because they just might prove to be the solution they are looking for.

Just as there are much larger 30 caliber cartridges than the 300 Win Mag, there are much bigger 6.5 caliber cartridges than the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser (the same goes for the likes of the, 257 and 243 calibers). It’s all relative and when you understand the benefits of sectional density, positive mass-retaining bullets and a good ballistic coefficient, you can do just about anything you like.

So, break out the note sheets and ballistic charts again, and start thinking about bullet performance and depth of penetration. Don’t forget to test for bullet failure by over expansion. Bullet selection really becomes a major factor in determining success or failure once you have done everything you can to get into the position to take that shot. Whether you decide on a 243 Win vs a 6mm-06, a 257 Roberts vs a 257 Weatherby, or a 30-06 Springfield vs 300 Remington Ultra Mag, 270 Win or any other caliber or cartridge choice you are looking at. Whatever you decide is what you want for your next big hunt,., there are plenty of varmints running around. Shooting varmints gives you a great chance to get loaded, get out in the field and start shooting with real results. So get moving! Be safe and good hunting!