One of the most overused enticements in hunting literature is the ever popular "What is the best caliber for?..." Before we get too far into this article, I will assure you that there is not a definitive answer to that question. We are not here to argue that the 30.06 is the most popular caliber ever, or that the 7mm-08 is the ideal whitetail whacker, or that it takes a 338 Lapua to kill a big buck at 600 yards. We are here because I am looking for a new rifle. In particular, a new elk rifle for grizzly country.
I may dampen your adrenaline rush a bit by telling you that I favor the 7-08 for deer. I also think the 7mm Mag is a great choice for elk. Both 7mm calibers can do the job well out to 300 yards and, in the right hands, beyond. Since I already have these calibers, it is obvious that I am itching for a new shooting stick. If I am so sure that a 7mm Remington mag is a good elk rifle, why am I eying a possible replacement? The twist in this mix is defense. I can assure you of 2 things. First, an attack by a large predator would most likely be unexpected. Second, I would not throw down my rifle and attempt to outdraw a charging mama Grizzly with a six-shooter. If I am carrying a rifle, I intend to use it.
I hate to break this to the "Quick Draw McGraws" out there, but it a head-to-head dual with a furry carnivore, even the mild-mannered 7mm-08 can overpower the mighty 500 Smith & Wesson when it comes to close-range lethality. This is not a video game, and you cannot press the space bar to cycle through weapons. I have looked at, and lifted, both the Smith 500 and Ruger 460 wheel guns. They are impressive. They are also inherently heavy. Carrying a pack, a rifle, and a heavy pistol (even in a chest holster) is cumbersome. I did not say impossible. I recommend the chest holster from the great folks at Guides Choice if that is the approach you are looking for. The obvious choice for more defensive power in a single firearm is a large bullet at a velocity that only a long-gun can deliver.
Unlike many riflemen, I am not ashamed to admit that recoil becomes a factor when discussing rifles above the 300 Win mag range. The 300 Mag is a definite improvement over the 7 Mag for dangerous animals at the ranges we are discussing. The question is, how much shoulder punishment can a hunter absorb and still maintain long-range accuracy? Unless you are Superman, you have limits in this area as well. If you are Superman, I apologize. Just let the bear gnaw at you for a while, then toss it back into the woods. For the rest of us, there is a trade-off between the long-range accuracy needed for elk in open country, and the loss of precision that comes from recoil anticipation while yanking the bang switch on a fire-belching, lead foundry. A fellow hunter suggested a Browning lever action in a 358 Win. I do not disagree that this is a fine defensive caliber. Much like my 45-70 lever gun, it lacks the long-range performance I am looking for.
Let's look at two options. Both are documented performers, and have a well-earned respect in the shooting industry. First, the Weatherby 30-378. Yes, there are larger Weatherby calibers that are more bear-worthy, but the Accumark line with a muzzle break brings the recoil down to a level that is manageable in a long range rifle. The other option is the venerable 338 Win Mag. This is the go to caliber for many Alaskan guides. The performance of the 338 Win is admirable at mid to fairly long range trajectories. Once again, there are options for a muzzle brake if the recoil is above manageable levels. In case you were wondering... The recoil on these 2 calibers is very similar.
The next step in the selection process is to search the availability of rifles in these calibers. The 30-378 is simple. There are Sako,and Weatherby rifles chambered for the long range cartridge. The Weatherby options vary from the new $2600 Terra-mark, to the new Accu-guard at $950. For the 338 Win, the possibilities are huge. It seems that almost every arms manufacturer still in business has, at one time or another, chambered a rifle in the 338 Win Mag. Since I have my fair share of Winchesters and Remingtons, I would lean towards a Sako Classic, or a very reasonable Savage. So, the guns are out there. Let's get to a very real factor... the cost of ammo.
Does a hundred bucks for 20 factory cartridges seem a little high? I am being generous.The difference between a box of factory ammo for the 30-378 and the 338 is around $100, with the Winchester cartridge hovering between $35 and $50. I have no issues paying for a quality rifle that will hold its value. I do have issues with $7 flying out the barrel with every practice shot.
Now for the bad news, I have not made my decision yet. Seem like a bait and switch story? Not really. As I said in the beginning, there is no perfect option. That is especially true when this decision is applied to other hunters with different abilities. The problem with my scenario is that there is a trade-off between the best long range calibers and the short range defensive varieties. If I were hunting on Kodiak Island, I would lean heavily towards a short barreled 338. If I stalked a 6x6 bull all day and never got closer than 500 yards, I would curse my choice. The opposite would hold true as well. In the unlikely event of a bear charge, my brain would be screaming, "45-70 lever!" as I attempted to swing the 26 in barrel and high magnification scope at a furry, blurry target.
There are other reasons I chose the 2 calibers above. At some point I intend to hunt for moose and bear... 338 territory. I would also like to customize a long ranger... 30-378, possibly 300 RUM. I have been debating this since the spring thaw. I have also been wearing out the "Watch This" icon over at GunBroker. Whichever I choose first, it will go in the safe for this year. It is time for some range practice, and my 7 Rem Mag is looking mighty comfy as my elk rifle again this year. I can still strap on the old 44 Mag for camp duty. There is a lot to be said for being familiar with your firearm. A wise man once said that a bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush. That thought applies well when comparing new rifles to your trusted favorites.