June 05, 2023
He was a good-sized black bear, and he took the big bullet hard. Driven sideways by the impact, he rolled onto his back. For a moment I thought it was over. Then, before my left-handed self could finish working the right-handed bolt, he streaked through trees. I swung with him, looked for a gap, and started the trigger press when he somersaulted forward and laid still. I paced 24 yards from the first shot. Time elapsed? Possibly 3 seconds.
The essence of ethical hunting is to take game with a clean, accurate shot. With heart and lung shots, a short final run is normal. Animal down in sight, it would appear that I accomplished the goal, but I didn’t know until he dropped. In fact, I had a bad moment, wondering if I’d fluffed. I had no idea how far he would go, and hitting him again through timber was iffy.
During the years I was “Petersen’s Hunting” editor, I got several letters from hunters in the Northeast and upper Midwest. Primarily a Western hunter, these regions are foreign territory to me. So was the theme of those letters.
Whether small acreage or public land, they knew other hunters weren’t far away. They wanted their game down before reaching a property line. Or, they were concerned that even a well-hit animal might be claimed by someone else. In the West, the rule of “first blood” applies, so this was unfamiliar to me, but the point was clear: These folks wanted their game “DRT,” “Down (or “Dead”) Right There.” If you can stop them, there is no tracking and no dispute for possession.
Always, Shot Placement
From aardvark to zebra, where you hit an animal is more important than what you hit it with. I shot that bear with Hornady’s 250-grain MonoFlex from a Mossberg Patriot in .450 Bushmaster at close range, so near the muzzle velocity of 2,200 feet per second. The exit wound showed good expansion and energy was similar to modern .45-70 loads. The bear didn’t get out of sight, but he wasn’t exactly DRT.
Absent a brain or spine hit, DRT is difficult to guarantee. I don’t recommend either shot. Do it right and it’s lights out, but the target is small and risky. If you’re close and certain, brain shots are fine on does and hogs, but not a good idea on bucks and bears if you’d like to keep antlers or skull.
Let’s revisit that Bushmaster black bear: He was feeding, front paws outstretched, quartering slightly away. I wanted to get the shot through both shoulders, but couldn’t get the angle. My quandary: Might get better, or worse. Good enough.
The bullet entered tight behind the on-shoulder and exited the off-shoulder. It wrecked the chest cavity and broke the off-shoulder. For a second, it looked DRT. Then the bear was up and running for 24 yards. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Broadside shots aren’t always offered. However, I am convinced that the most reliable DRT is dead-on broadside, center of shoulder, one-third up with a cartridge powerful enough, and an expanding bullet tough enough to break and penetrate the on-shoulder, continue through the chest cavity, and penetrate further to break the off-shoulder. It doesn’t matter if the bullet exits. Break both shoulders and mess up everything between, you’re close to DRT.
American hunters are fixated on the behind-the-shoulder lung shot. It’s fatal and ruins little meat. Many of us are also bowhunters, and this is the shot we seek because arrow penetration is questionable on shoulder bones. Here’s the difference: Bowhunters expect to wait and track; they have no expectation of DRT.
Gun hunters who take the same shot are unlikely to get DRT. Sure, it happens. After exhaling, a double-lung shot can drop an animal but a 100-yard dash is more common. For DRT, go for the shoulder, one-third up. The bullet will disrupt the major vessels above the heart, causing a catastrophic drop in blood pressure. Truly broadside, both shoulders, it’s likely DRT. Just one shoulder and through the chest, sometimes, but not much tracking.
Bucks, Boars, or Bears?
Size matters. Whitetail deer are tenacious, and we’re not just talking 90-pound does. A 200-pound mature whitetail buck is a tough customer. I expect a whitetail to run, especially if the shot angle catches just one shoulder.
Last year, I was culling some whitetails on my son-in-law’s ranch, taking several deer with the new Marlin Model 1895. Within 100 yards, the .45-70 is an elephant gun on Texas whitetails, but DRT was elusive unless I was given that perfect broadside double-shoulder shot.
The two most dramatic shots I recall on whitetails were a Kansas buck with a .257 Roberts and a mature Georgia buck with a 6.5 PRC. Both were broadside, the shots catching both shoulders. There’s a big difference between .257 “Bob” and 6.5 PRC, but the effect was much the same: DRT. Both bucks went down so hard they seemed to bounce.
Always, we pick our shots, but buck hunting is different from meat hunting. There are several absolutely-fatal options, but few that offer good odds for DRT no matter what you’re shooting. We wait for a good shot, but not at risk of losing the opportunity. The lung shot will work. So will centering just one shoulder, but tracking is likely.
Hogs are different. Again, we aren’t talking 90-pound meat sows. Grown-up boars, 200 to 400 pounds, are tougher than deer. Between thicker skin and an underlayer of fat, the biggest problem with hogs is that they leave little blood. We want DRT, or as close as we can get to it.
A good boar is bigger and stronger than any buck deer. The 6mms are too light for body shots on grownup hogs, but anything from the 6.5 Creedmoor on up will work. I do a lot of my hog hunting in California where we also have a bullet issue. In the “condor zone,” we must use unleaded bullets. This comes back to shot placement. Like most Americans, hunters here like to use the “behind-the-shoulder lung shot” for the least meat damage, largest target. Homogenous-alloy bullets offer great penetration but less expansion. The lung shot with these bullets is sort of like being stabbed through-and-through with a knitting needle. Since hogs bleed so little, trailing can be difficult. Stout shoulder bones and the boar’s thick gristle plate allows tough bullets to expand. Going for the shoulder yields faster results with less tracking. As for DRT, same deal: Try to catch a broadside shot and center the on-shoulder. If the cartridge and bullet have enough power and penetration to get through to the opposite shoulder, then DRT is almost certain. If we’re talking a large boar, this may require a bigger hammer!
The average black bear isn’t much heavier than a big buck, and only a few grow larger than an outsized boar, but they can. As with does and bucks — and sows and boars — there’s an exponential difference between the average 200-pound bear and the 400-pound bruin we hope to encounter although, rarely, they can get much bigger. All bears are tenacious, with heavy shoulder bones and corded muscle. I like to be armed for the biggest bear in the woods, not the average bear I’m likely to see. Given a choice, I’ll carry the bigger hammer.
Shot placement is the same: Try to wait for a broadside shot, center the shoulder, and hope the bullet will penetrate the opposite shoulder as well. On a body shot, this is about the only way to achieve DRT but, with bears, don’t count on it. Bears are likely to drop to a well-placed shot, sort of like a glass-jawed boxer — except that they don’t stay down. Like that Bushmaster bear, it’s common for a bear to bounce back up and take off. If I’d caught both shoulders, maybe he’d have stayed down, but maybe not.
Provided the first shot is well-placed, a bear won’t go farther than any other animal. The problem is when an animal runs, you can’t know exactly what happened. You only know that it’s not DRT; time to shoot again, if you can. Hunting black bears isn’t dangerous, but following a bear into thick stuff is bad.
When the .300 WSM was new in 2001, industry colleague Kevin Howard and I found a big bear ambling along a logging road on Vancouver Island. The wind was good and we got close. The bear dropped to the shot, but was getting up. To the right, the roadbed dropped precipitously into dense second growth. I didn’t want to dig him out of that stuff, so I shot twice more while working a right-hand bolt. Howard was running video so we got a timeline: Five seconds from the first shot to the third. It wasn’t a one-shot deal, but he was DRT on the trail where we wanted him.
Under or Over?
These days, some hunters seem to take pride in using the smallest cartridges possible. Part of it, I think, is the widespread legalization of .22 centerfires for deer. Accurate and easy to shoot well, they’re fine for careful hunters who concentrate on head and neck shots. With today’s heavy bullets, body shots have proven adequate enough, though DRT is unlikely. Expect some tracking to follow with limited blood spoor.
In an Alberta bear camp last spring, one guy insisted on using a .300 Blackout. Sure, with perfect shot placement it could have worked, but the .300 BLK is not a bear cartridge. It was a two-bear area, and his first was wounded and lost. He used a .350 Legend to fill his second tag with one shot. It was a good bear.
A minimalist approach has appeal but is not fun when things go wrong, and not the path to DRT. For me, there’s little harm in being overgunned. Beyond burning extra powder and sustaining more recoil, the only downside is some ridicule from your friends, perhaps. It’s simply not true that larger calibers ruin more meat. This is more a function of velocity and bullet performance than caliber, bullet weight and energy. Although they work — and, on deer and hogs, can achieve DRT through sheer energy — it’s fast magnums with quick-expanding bullets that destroy meat.
When I was a kid, I shot a lot of deer-sized game with a .375 H&H. I’m not recommending this but I had one and wanted to use it. Meat damage was minimal because .375 bullets are designed for ideal performance on bigger stuff. On smaller animals, they pass through with minimal expansion. You can eat right up to the bullet hole. For exactly the same reason, on deer-sized game, versatile “mediums,” such as faster .33s, 9.3mms, and .375s are not the best choices for DRT.
Big hogs and large black bears are another story, though, as they provide enough resistance for bigger bullets to open up and perform as they should. Again, I’m not suggesting these are what you need, but they work. I’ve taken a half-dozen black bears with a .375 H&H. All but one was DRT, and the one only required a second shot. The most dramatic DRT I’ve seen on a black bear was with a 9.3x62mm; he was flattened with no movement at all.
For our purposes — bucks, boars and black bears — you don’t need to step up to Alaskan brown bear or buffalo-capable cartridges. Choose the right bullet, wait for that broadside shoulder shot, and a .308 Winchester or .30-’06 Springfield will give you DRT as well as anything else.
That said, we’re gun people, and we’re exploring the right stuff for DRT. Since that’s the goal, be it for bucks, boars, or bears, I’m assuming the range is short. We’re not sniping from one ridge to another, hunting from a stand, or stalking in close. We don’t need high velocity, and we don’t need versatility.
It seems to me there’s a whole class of cartridges that fill the bill. Large in caliber (frontal area), lots of energy transferred on impact, and with plenty of bullet weight to ensure penetration. Absent extreme velocity, recoil is relatively mild, and effect is legendary. We’re talking about both the great old and new “brush-busting” cartridges. That’s a total misnomer. Nothing is particularly reliable at getting through brush, so let’s instead call these DRT cartridges, too.
I’m a huge fan of the .35 calibers, and so are many big-woods deer and black bear hunters. The .35 Remington is the most famous. Perhaps, oddly, I have little field experience with it, and none at all with the .356 Win. The .356 was among various attempts to breathe life into sagging lever-action sales, as was the .375 Win. (not a .35), a powerful and under-rated cartridge that meets straight-wall criteria. Regardless of merit, no rifles are currently chambered to .35 Rem. or the two Winchester cartridges.
The newest .35 is Winchester’s .350 Legend. It emulates .35 Rem performance, but in a modern case that is AR-compatible, and it meets all straight-wall cartridge criteria. With 200-yard capability and mild recoil, it has proven itself a fine deer cartridge and a great alternative to shotgun slugs. With a 170-grain bullet traveling at 2,200 fps, I find it on the edge of power for DRT. I’ve taken a number of hogs with it, and just one bear. All went down quickly, but no DRT so far. The bear, another good-sized blackie, was shot through both shoulders. He ran 50 yards and I saw him go down. It was excellent, but not quite DRT.
The .350 Legend’s velocity is fine, but I like more bullet weight. Although no longer popular (and not straight-wall legal), my preferences in this group are the .348 and .358 Win., both shooting heavier bullets a bit faster. Obviously, I must do my part, but I can’t recall a hog running anywhere after a proper hit with either. I’ve had one-shot DRTs on black bears with both.
Another good option for DRT is the “over .40” crowd. We can start with the .44 Remington Magnum, still the standard among handgun hunters, but more potent in longer barrels. In a rifle, a .44 Mag.’s recoil is a joke, plus it’s legal in the straight-wall states. I am unconvinced that it will give DRT performance on big black bears but, with heavy bullets, it is absolutely adequate. Other big handgun cartridges — .454 Casull, .460 and .500 S&W — have also been chambered in carbines, so those are in the running.
Years ago, I got one of Ruger’s first run of No. 1 single-shots in .405 Winchester. It fired a 300-grain bullet at 2,200 fps; that was Teddy Roosevelt’s “lion medicine.” My daughter Brittany and I used it in northern Australia in a spot that had a weird concentration of giant boars. It produced the most spectacular performance I’ve ever seen on big pigs. We shot several good boars, and every one was DRT. Due to case length, the .405 is not straight-wall legal, but it must be included in any discussion of DRT cartridges. Likewise, the .444 Marlin warrants a mention, but that’s another cartridge I have little experience with.
Now we’re back to where we started: .450 Bushmaster and the .45-70. Also, the .450 Marlin, which is simply the .45-70 case with a belt ahead of the rim. This precludes it from being chambered in .45-70, so it is loaded to higher pressure than standard .45-70 ammo. Bushmaster has less case capacity and, certainly in the AR platform, cannot handle heavy bullets as the .45-70 and .450 Marlin can. For bucks, boars and black bears, this matters little. All are as powerful as needed with spare. Bushmaster meets all straight-wall-case criteria, but the .45-70’s case is too long for some jurisdictions.
I have special fondness for the .45-70, and I’ve recently done a lot of hunting with the Bushmaster. Both hit hard but, to be honest, DRT is tough to guarantee with anything. To some extent, it’s luck, shot presentation and placement, complicated by the fact that no two animals react exactly the same upon receiving a bullet. All you can do is wait for the right shot, do your best, and prepare to shoot again. Overall, I reckon the .450 Bushmaster and .45-70 are the ultimate short-range DRT cartridges. Their biggest drawback? Having more recoil than most are comfortable with.
Do you have a preferred cartridge that keeps game down? Let us know by emailing us at GAEDITOR@OUTDOORSG.COM, and use "Sound Off" in the subject line.
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