We spotted the big Colorado mule deer standing in the rising sun on a ridge 1000 yards away while we were driving into our planned hunting area. We stopped, put a scope on him, and then decided he was worth trying to put the sneak on. The two of us split up and started working two separate ways up the ridge the big buck was standing on. One hour and a lot of climbing later, I knew I was getting close to where he should be.
I worked my way carefully through juniper and sagebrush, trying to catch a glimpse of the buck before he could see me and take off.
Suddenly, I heard three shots just over the ridge. I climbed to the top and spotted the orange of my buddy, headed down into a gulch a couple hundred yards away. When I finally caught up, he was staring wide eyed at the nice buck lying on the ground.
Did he use a new super magnum with a scope to take this buck, which was bigger than any I have ever shot?
Nope, he used an old Marlin 30-30 with open sights and 150grn round-nosed bullets.
Contrary to common opinion, you don’t need a big magnum to successfully hunt North American big game. There are several cartridges that combine the stopping power needed with low felt recoil and muzzle blast to make big game hunting pleasurable for anyone.
Here are some of the best cartridges for the recoil and muzzle blast sensitive, along with an approximation of their recoil and range.
30-30 Winchester – Low
Probably the most popular deer cartridge ever introduced, the 30-30 will handle most North American big game out to the range of about 200 yards. Available almost exclusively in lever action rifles, the 30-30 combines decent stopping power with low recoil.
Lever action rifles with tube magazines require flat-nosed or round-nosed bullets. Bullets of 150grn and 170grn are most popular. Hornady’s LEVERevolution ammo, which uses a flexible pointed tip, is a good choice for hunting.
7.62 x 39 – Low
The ammunition of the famous AK47, this round has arrived on the scene in the States with thousands of surplus AK and SKS rifles. There are five-round magazines and conversions available to make these guns legal for hunting. There are several small-ring Mausers that have been converted to this round, and one of these would make an excellent deer rifle.
The 7.62×39 is slightly less powerful than a 30-30 and shoots a lighter 123grn bullet. For hunting purposes, you will want to be sure to get soft-point bullets. The surplus FMJ and hollow-point ammo is not expanding and should not be used for hunting. This round should be limited to 150-yard shots.
.357/.44 Magnums – Low to Very Low
These two are both pistol rounds that have been chambered in lever-action rifles. Due to the popularity of competition cowboy shooting, there are many of these lever guns on the used market. For close-range big game hunting, it is hard to beat these two rounds.
The .357 magnum is about ½ as powerful as the 30-30, so 150 yards will probably be its maximum range, while the .44 magnum, when loaded with the LEVERevolution ammo, is only slightly less powerful than the 30-30.
The wonderful thing about these guns is their ability to shoot toned-down rounds. The .357 magnum will shoot .38 special rounds and the .44 magnum will shoot the .44 special. This means you can practice and hunt small game with an even further reduction in recoil, meaning you become more familiar with the gun.
6mm Remington/.243 Winchester – Low to Medium
I put these two together because they are both excellent cartridges and very similar to each other in performance (the 6mm holds about 120 feet per second edge on the .243). They both use the same .24 caliber bullets, which are generally the minimum caliber for hunting big game in most states.
For big game, use either 80grn or 100grn soft-point bullets. They are quite a bit faster than the 30-30, so they will shoot flatter and more accurately. They should be good out to 300 yards for deer-sized animals.
7×57 Mauser – Medium
The 7×57 was used in the 93 and 95 Mauser military rifles. Since it is a very flat-shooting round, it was soon embraced for sporting use. There are still many rifles out there using this round.
The 7×57 Mauser is an outstanding big-game cartridge. With very manageable recoil, it uses a 7mm bullet that travels very efficiently through the air, making a flat-shooting cartridge. Any bullet weight that can be loaded into a 7mm Remington Magnum can be used in the 7×57 with less power and recoil.
.308 – Low to Medium
The .308 Winchester (7.62NATO) is a current-use military round. It is used by police and military snipers because of its accuracy. It is also extremely versatile. You can load 90grn bullets to plink all day, or load up 220grn bullets to hunt grizzlies.
The .308 is available from every major manufacturer in several types of actions including pump, semi-auto, bolt action, and break action. The .308 will be one of the easiest chamberings to locate.
20-Gauge Shotgun – Medium
In some states, hunting big game with a rifle is illegal. These states require you to use a shotgun firing a single slug, and in a couple states, buckshot is allowed. The 20-gauge is great for those who are recoil sensitive. You could go clear down to a .410 slug, but since the 20-gauge has almost three times the muzzle energy, it only has slightly greater felt recoil.
You can add a rifled barrel and a scope to increase its range and accuracy. You should limit yourself to about 150 yards with these upgrades; without them, 100 yards is pushing it for accuracy.
Others – Medium
There are many other rifle and cartridge combinations out there that will not beat you to death when you shoot them, but for one reason or another have certain drawbacks. Some will require reduced loads to be comfortable to shoot. Some others are scarce or collectable, but if you can find them for a decent price, they would be great to pick up.
These two are great flat-shooting rounds, which, if loaded properly, are a pleasure to shoot. They can, however, be loaded up to where muzzle blast or recoil may be uncomfortable to some.
.257 Roberts/.250-3000 Savage
These two may be a perfect compromise between power and recoil, if you can find them. They are getting uncommon and hard to find. If you have your choice of rifles and either of these is available, one of them would be my first pick.
6.5 X 55 Mauser
The Swedish Mauser is another military round that quickly found a home in sporting circles. Its low recoil and flat shooting make it a good choice. The biggest drawback is the Swedish Mauser is now somewhat of a collectible. If you can pick up an already sporterized model, you won’t go wrong.
The 7mm-08 is, as the name implies, is a .308 Winchester necked down to accept a 7mm bullet. With the 7mm bullet, it is a flat-shooting round slightly more powerful than the 7×57 Mauser. It is common in some places and rare in others. Also like the .270 Winchester or 25-06, it can be loaded up to where it will be unpleasant for some to shoot.
Other Ways to Reduce Recoil
There are a few other things you can do to reduce the recoil you feel when shooting your rifle.
A semi-automatic will usually kick less than other types of actions shooting the same round, since some of the recoil energy is used to cycle the action. Semi-autos are not recommended for beginners though, since they can lead to bad shooting habits.
Make sure your rifle fits you. Take your rifle and place the butt against the inside of your bent elbow. Your hand should naturally reach the grip and you finger should be right at the trigger. A competent gunsmith can adjust the fit for you.
Adding a recoil pad or replacing a worn one will also cut the recoil you feel.
Try shooting from a standing position. When you shoot from the bench or lying down, your body absorbs all the recoil without giving. If you are standing, your body can move back with the recoil, making it feel like it has been reduced.
Installing a muzzle brake can cut your recoil considerably. A muzzle brake redirects some of the gasses, pushing the bullet through the barrel to counteract some recoil. The problem is muzzle brakes can dramatically increase muzzle blast.
Recoil and muzzle blast sensitivity can have an effect on anyone. Some people who shoot big magnums would be doing themselves a favor to take a step back and reconsider their choice of cartridge.