Proving many game department officials know little more about firearms for hunting than politicians who think a rifle that “looks military” is fully-auto, here are a few gun hunting laws from the odd to the absurd. This little waltz in the world of words is mostly for curious conjecture. But maybe, just maybe, a reader will examine rules in his or her state and pass this on to the authorities who “make this stuff up,” for made-up, a lot of it, certainly is, with little basis in ballistic fact.
Many states demand .40-caliber as minimum for a big game muzzleloader. Lawmakers must have thought: “Wow! Forty caliber. That ought to pack a wallop. The .30-06 is only .30-caliber.” We have to deal with lead round balls because most states do not prescribe spherical or conical bullet. A 93-grain .395-inch round ball in a .40-caliber rifle, 28″ barrel, earned 1,860 feet per second muzzle velocity with 50-grains volume GOEX FFFg blackpowder and about 968 fps at 100 yards.
A .25-20, absolutely illegal in many states, generates 1,930 fps MV with an 80-grain spitzer or spire-point bullet burning 14.0-grains H-4198. This bullet is clocking 1,640 fps at 100 yards. This not to champion the .25-20 for deer, but rather to show the .40-caliber round ball is pretty small peanuts, only a cut above “squirrel rifle” authority. Having written these words I would warm up the frying pan if Don Carlos, a Mexican cowboy I hunted with in Sonora, had a .40-caliber muzzleloader. His only rifle: a bolt-action .22-rimfire. Single-shot because the magazine was lost long ago. His range for deer: veinte yarda (20 yards). One shot. One deer.
Eastern leather stocking hunters were deadly marksmen, be it buck in brush or Redcoat on the march. And so the .45-caliber ball succeeded (most popular caliber I saw in a New Jersey collection of over 300 original Kentucky rifles). Question though: Is any caliber rifle or handgun adequate in the hands of a fine hunter/marksman? Perhaps so. “During the General Season: There is no rifle or handgun caliber limitation for the taking of big game animals. Muzzleloaders, shotguns, archery equipment and crossbows are legal. The possession of a firearms with silencers while afield is illegal.” Montana.
Sam took this buffalo with one shot from a .30-06 with a Barnes 220-grain Solid. A shoulder injury prevented shooting a heavier rifle and Sam had permission to use his .30-06. Penetration: over 40″ with a rifle deemed inadequate on Cape buffalo. This is not to encourage the .30-06 for Cape buffalo, but to acknowledge bullet placement. And no game department can legislate bullet placement or hunter ability.
Faced with a charge, which would you prefer — the super high energy of a .300 Magnum loaded to maximum bullet speed, or a .45-70 with 540-grain Garrett ammunition? Interestingly, in this case the .45-70 would be allowable and the .300 not — a matter of caliber only.
The .44 Magnum?
How about the .44 S&W Magnum cartridge? It’s a whacker for sure. It’s legal in one state I checked for elk, moose and even bear. Oh, I forgot. The rule is — legal in handguns. It’s illegal in a rifle, even with powerful Garrett .44 Magnum ammunition. The supposition may be a handgun hunter knows his limitations and will get closer than the rifleman? But all in all, the .44 Magnum is more lethal in a rifle than a handgun. Period.
How about this game department rule? The conical bullet in a muzzleloader for big game must not be twice as long as its caliber? So a .50-caliber front-loader firing a bullet of 1 1/16″ length would be illegal. Well, you say, the chap who dreamed this one up knew the shorter projectile had less extreme range. So the shorter bullet is safer. Uh, not quite. In the exact same area where the muzzleloader hunter cannot use a bullet twice as long as its caliber, the .300 Magnum is perfectly legal.
Dispersal of bullet energy is another important factor in what has become known as “killing power.” Here, Hornady’s factory load with 200-grain bullet in .35 Remington destroys its target. It is very difficult to assess such energy delivery. Bullet construction always plays a role. Did a .30-caliber bullet make a 2″ exit hole in that chest-hit buck deer? Of course not. No .30-caliber big game jacketed bullet expands to two-inch diameter.
Illegal as taking money from the church collection box, these two cartridges have dropped wagonloads of game all the same. Below, the .25-20, above, the .22 Hornet. Both are legal for elk-size game where “any centerfire cartridge” is the law. Right or wrong. The hunter will have to decide for himself as to the use of small rounds such as these on big game.
Hot .22 centerfires have always been controversial. I came into the .220 Swift in a curious way. A big-hearted reader sent a supply of beautiful new-brass handloads, plus a plethora of shiny cases. To this day I still feel sick that I could never thank him, for I found no address. I shot the Swift as a long-range varmint rifle only at the time. Then a grandson finishing gunsmithing school presented me with his first finished rifle — .220 Swift, Mauser lockup, 26″ barrel, Timney trigger, Nikon Prostaff 5 3.5X-14Xx50mm scope combining fine-tune reticule focus with parallax-defying side adjustment. The twist: 1:7.7″ for “long” bullets.
My .220 Swift is illegal in all states calling for .23-caliber or larger for big game, such as deer. In one state, the cartridge must be .23-caliber, as well as “two-inches long as normally loaded.” Comparing: the .25-35 Winchester cartridge is legal under this ruling — over .22-caliber, case length alone 2.043″. I can’t toss dirt on this cartridges since my brother and I have cleanly taken whitetails with rifles so-chambered in thicket conditions — shots around 20 to 25 yards.
Plus, the largest grizzly recorded in Utah, Old Ephraim, was put to rest by Frank Clark with seven shots from a .25-35. However, a 117-grain bullet delivers 2,300 fps MV in front of 28.0-grains IMR-4320. At 100 yards, this flat-nose bullet (due to tubular magazine) still goes 1,800 fps.
I have a 70-grain Barnes TTSX-BT (Triple Shock Technology bullet) flying at 3,700 fps MV with a handload I carefully worked up for my Swift rifle. This bullet is clocking well over 3,000 fps at 200 yards and 2,800 fps at 300. I have every confidence deer at around 200, antelope out to 300, will go down cleanly to one shot from my Swift. An Arizona game warden commissioned to dispatch deer and elk struck on the highway assured me his Swift never barked twice. These were incapacitated animals at close range, of course, but P.O. Ackley, King of the Wildcatters, had this to say about the Swift: “It has proven to be extremely deadly on deer in spite of what some authorities want to think.”
At 200 yards, the streamlined T-Shock bullet with my personal handload delivers 1,400 foot-pounds of “energy”. Some states demand 500 foot-pounds remaining energy at 100 yards to be big game legal. The “illegal” Swift so-loaded has almost three times that at 200 yards. Even before the popularity of the heavier .224″.22-caliber bullet, hot .22 centerfires with “varmint bullets” cleanly took deer-sized game at reasonable ranges where velocity remained high. Now we have the new 64-grain Nosler solid base; Winchester’s 64-grain PSP, Sierra’s 65-grain GameKing and Hornady’s 75-grain A-Max, with apologies to other fine “big game type” .224 bullets not mentioned.
The “any centerfire” rule in many states makes the .22 Hornet legal for deer. A ranch owner in Texas told me he has lost count of the deer he put into the freezer with his .22 Hornet, promising: “I never had to shoot one twice.” I have never put a deer down with a .22 Hornet and doubt I ever will. However, under certain circumstances (stand hunting) even this little popper is deadly.
But caliber rules alone make little sense. In one state .22 centerfires are legal for deer, bear and cougar. But .24-caliber is minimum for elk. Under this regulation my .220 Swift is illegal for elk, but my .25-20 is legal. I won’t hunt elk with a .22-caliber. But if forced to carry the Swift or the .25-20 for elk, it would be the fast-twist Swift with a stout bullet.
Today’s ammunition is the best the world has ever known. Improved powders, factory loading techniques, and good bullets have elevated some cartridges from so-so to pretty darn good.
An example of a modern load is Federal’s Premium in the High Energy package. The High Energy .30-06 load chronograph at 2,950 feet per second in multiple witnessed tests. Considering that the original .300 H&H load that caused a stir so long ago offered no more potency than this load, clearly shows where the ammo companies have gone. Regardless, it is impossible for game departments to make distinctions between “regular” and more powerful factory ammo.
I find no argument with shotgun-only for wild turkey ruling. Although I find the reason cited by the Wild Turkey Federation mildly startling. They feel hunters mistaken for gobblers have a better chance of survival with shotgun over rifle! My two favorite haunts for Ben’s Bird in my home state, Wyoming, are both wide open territory. I am the only hunter on the first spot, a closed ranch, and I have never seen another hunter on the other location along the Wyoming-Montana border in rolling hill country. Last season my scoped Savage bolt-action .25-20 filled my two fall wild turkey tags. However, proper bullets in any of the .22 centerfire would work here where the .22 Magnum and new .17’s and .20’s are also legal.
When the reason for classifying guns for hunting is safety, I am all for it. In certain more populated regions, shotgun-only makes sense. Most of the rules, however, have nothing to do with safety. They are simply dreamed-up concoctions bereft of ballistic backing. How about a handgun must shoot a .243+ caliber for big game and the cartridge has to be at least 1.29+” long? Rifle .22-caliber limitation. The .223 is legal in this state even for elk. One state allows subsistence hunters to use the .22-rimfire for “swimming caribou.” May sound odd, but it’s a matter of putting meat in the larder when that meat is swimming alongside a boat.
Another law: Any centerfire cartridge .22 caliber and up — no .17’s or .20’s in this state — and must be “soft-point or other expanding bullet”, no full metal jacket (FMJ) missiles. Seems like common sense would eclipse the FMJ rule. In another state, the .40-caliber muzzleloader is legal for big game. But if it’s a smoothbore, no,no, no — must be .45-caliber. Reason? Who knows?
Another state: No caliber limitation, centerfire only with “mushrooming” bullets, which puts the .17’s and .20’s right in the saddle. Another state: No .22 rimfire for deer, but it’s okay on non-game animals. Elk: Bullet must be 85 grains with 1,000 foot pounds of remaining energy at 100 yards “as determined by the manufacturer.” I wonder if game wardens check handloads?
Game departments have expressed legitimate concern over underpowered cartridges for big game, such as the .30 M-1 round shown here with a .401 Winchester on the far right. The .401, aka .401WSL, Winchester Self-Loading, pushed a 260-grain bullet just shy of 1,500 feet per second, Winchester factory load. The .401 slithers in just under the wire for states calling for cartridges 2″ long “as normally loaded.” It runs 2.005″ as normally loaded (depending on the bullet).
The .38-72 blackpowder cartridge, left, remains legal in most states due to its dimensions. But with some loads it is far less potent than rounds in the .30-40 and .303 British class, which actually have less powder capacity.
.17’s And .20’s?
And how about those .17’s and .20’s with super fast bullets? The only report I have from a hunter using a .204 Ruger was — “I don’t shoot that far with the rifle, but it’s so easy to shoot well that so far I have not had one deer move out of its tracks after the little bullet hits home. It’s a very deadly cartridge.”
A Montana hunter reported several one-shot kills with a .17 Remington, all but one doe dropping instantly. Another state calls for a .357″ bullet 1.16″ long, but not longer than 1.625″. Another state says okay to any centerfire, but the bullet must weigh 55 grains or more. That eliminates the .17’s and .20’s, which may be the reason for the rule. But it lets in varmint bullets on deer.
Then there is a rule that demands a cartridge case 1 ¼” long at minimum. The developers of this rule may not have recognized the .22 Hornet is over that length, as is the .25-20, and many other rounds considered too light for big game in many other states. The rule calling for a cartridge delivering 500 “foot-pounds” at 100 yards in one state goes to 900 FP in another state, where handguns must provide 400 FP at 50 yards. The .223 and its ilk remain illegal here, and the muzzleloader must be .44-caliber — unless it’s a musket. Then it must be .62 caliber. The reason? Who knows?
Game department officials cannot be troubled with checking a hunter’s ammunition. Meanwhile, a handloader can turn a .30-06 into a .30-30, as shown here, or reduce it further into a small game load. This is one more reason why enforcing gun rules is difficult to do.
This is an example of how a handloader can turn any centerfire cartridge into something it was not originally intended to be. These .30-06 cartridges are “loaded for rabbit” with 110 grain bullets. And yet, by appearance alone they are still .30-06 rounds and “by the book” legal wherever the .30-06 is legal for big game, which is essentially everywhere.
In an experiment to determine remaining energy at 200 yards using the large Oehler Skyscreens, the .30-06 case was necked all the way down to 6mm (right) and all the way up to .375 caliber — standard .30-06 round in the center for comparison. The highest remaining energy at 200 yards by actual chronograph velocity was achieved by the .375-06, with the .338-06 close behind. Some game departments use retained energy, usually at 100 yards, to admit some cartridges and deny others. They use standard ballistic tables for this. While remaining downrange is important, it varies even with different bullet profiles in the same cartridge.
How about: No caliber limit, centerfire only with “mushrooming bullet.” That leaves choice in the hands of the big game hunter in this state. No .22 rimfire for deer — that is the rule in another state — for big game. Non-game animals (cougar, coyote, etc.) any caliber okay, including the .22 rimfire. In another state .24 caliber or larger for big game with an expanding bullet of 70 grains or heavier. That’s for deer and antelope. For elk and moose it must be an 85 grain bullet with 1,000 foot-pounds of remaining “energy” at 100 yards “as determined by the manufacturer.” Again, I wonder if game wardens check handloads?
How about this one: Any centerfire cartridge of .22 caliber or larger for big game. Here is the .22 Hornet again. Another state: Caliber must be .23+, overall cartridge length “at least 1″ long.” That old man Ackley thwarted the .23-caliber minimum with his .230 Ackley, “brought about,” he wrote, “since some states have enacted laws requiring a minimum of .23.” The .230 Ackley was a shortened .30-06 case with bullets of “heavy jackets in 60, 70 and 75 grain weights.” A 75-grain bullet cut the air at 3,500 fps MV. A fellow in Oregon trumped P.O. with the .243 Winchester necked down to .23-caliber and a 70-grain bullet at 3,733 fps MV.
Deer, pronghorn, and bear (yes, bear) are okay with .40 caliber muzzleloaders in one state; but elk and moose must be .50 caliber. But there’s a difference — no round balls. Bullet weight limit is 170 grains in 40 caliber and 210 grains in .50 caliber.
In another state the .40 caliber muzzleloader is legal, but a 3″ .410 rifled slug at 1,800 fps is illegal. Another state: A .23 caliber minimum; cartridge must be 2″ long “as normally loaded.” This kills the .357 Magnum, but not the .357 Herrett, which is almost 1.8″ long before seating a bullet. The Herrett drives a 180 grain bullet at 1,900 fps. The .475 Linebaugh, 400 grain bullet 1,600 fps MV in a rifle is illegal here. It’s not 2″ long “as normally loaded.” Likewise the .500 Smith and Wesson in a carbine — 500 grain bullet at over 1,500 fps MV, which whips the “legal” .357 Herrett soundly.
Over the years there have been so many changes in ammunition that game departments could never keep up with ballistics “suitable” for big game. The states that essentially issue no rulings depend upon the hunter to make the right choice for himself or herself based on familiarity and success with both firearm and hunting strategies. This photo is an example of an interesting load in a .303 British with cordite powder — likely perfectly legal just about anywhere.
Modern loads can, and often do, exceed the original ballistics of a cartridge. The .308, right, in a special factory load from Hornady, produces essentially the same ballistics as the .30-06, left, carried for decades. Meanwhile, the .30-06 in both factory and handload, can develop the same delivered energy as the original factory .300 H&H Magnum load. Game departments would be hard pressed to keep up with changes in ballistics — such as the .22-250 Remington and .220 Swift with 80-grain Hornady bullet at 3,150 to 3,200 feet per second for a delivered downrange “punch” that exceeds allowable cartridges while the two .22 caliber rounds are disallowed.
In many states, a .44 Magnum is legal in a handgun, but would not be legal in a rifle, even though the rifle would offer higher velocities and more reliable accuracy at longer ranges. Go figure!
Bows And Arrows Too?
And it’s not all guns. There is a rule on paper the big game bow must be capable of casting an arrow 160 yards. I can see it now: “Sir Bowhunter, I must test your bow to be sure it is legal for big game.” The warden reaches for his rangefinder. “That big tree over there — see it?” The archer says he does. “My rangefinder shows that tree to be 160 yards away. So please prove your bow can shoot an arrow that far.” The bowhunter, being an accommodating sort, plucks a 10 dollar arrow from his bow quiver, strings it, and lets the broadhead shaft sail over the treetop into a large meadow of high grass never to be seen again. Rule satisfied.
I am strong for State’s Rights, and therefore stand for each game department making its own rules about legal and illegal firearms for big game hunting. States having confidence in its hunters levy very few commandments, believing the hunter will not handicap himself or herself with inadequate guns or bows. Other states concoct all manner of regulations, many as useful as reading tea leaves and tossed monkey bones to tell the future.
Here’s all I ask for: Regulations based upon sound ballistic fact, not fancy, such as “the muzzleloader bullet must not be twice as long as its caliber.” No specific state was picked on. This was not a finger-pointing essay. But rather a simple call for sound reasoning to trump random coffee table talk.
By Sam Fadala