Before we begin, you need to know this. A gun expert or ballistics wonk I am not. But I do know a good gun when I use one, and I live to hunt big game.
There isn't a hunter I know who doesn't have a preference for gun and caliber. And it would be a rare exception to find a hunter who could not advance some good arguments to support his gun choice when the discussion heats up at deer camp. Years ago, I — a devoted deer hunter in those days with lots of energy — tramped all day long among the cedar bogs and alder runs. I carried a lever action Marlin that shot a .35 Remington. It was the only deer gun for me, and it served me well. Later in life, when my wife retired from the classroom and took up deer hunting, she took over my .35 Remington by marital domain. She still has it. I now carry a Remington bolt-action .270 that my late father gave me when he left the deer woods for good.
I wouldn't trade my .270 for any gun. It works for me. It has proven to be reliable, accurate and lethal on all kinds of big game — from moose to deer and elk. Mine is a Plain-Jane rifle with a blemished varnished stock — no checkering — and the old style magazine that doesn't drop the shells conveniently into your hand. Newer guns seem to have smoother operating bolts, but I don't object to the firm lockdown. The trigger pull was impossible when Dad had it, but a gunsmith in St Albans adjusted the poundage down nicely for my taste.
Deer camp debates invariably wind up comparing the virtues of a .270 with those of the vaunted 30-06, America's most popular big-game round. While it is good fun to banter about the comparative ballistics, including down-range velocities and knockdown power, we all know in our hearts that, in the end, both cartridges are lethal, and it all boils down to marksmanship.
According to gun writer Chuck Hawks, the .270 made its debut in 1925 and was created to challenge the popular .30-06. (The .270 is a necked down 30-06). Famous Outdoor writer Jack O'Connor helped make the .270 popular when he recounted the .270's lightning-quick kills at 300 yards! At that time the .270 was considered to be the flattest shooting big-game round in the world, according to Hawks. The .30-06 spits a 180 grain bullet at 2,700 feet per second. The .270 releases a 130-grain bullet at 3,140 feet per second. Equally impressive, according to the ballistics students, is the .270's capacity to sustain its velocity down range: 130 grain bullet registers 2,320 feet per second at 300 yards!
Of course, ammo today is like breakfast cereal. It is enough to make your eyes glaze over. Hunters can purchase a variety of bullet weights and designs in both the .30-06 and the .270. Personally, I'm not a long-range shooter by nature. My outside limit for elk with the .270 is 200 yards. For that I use either a 140 grain or 150 grain partition bullet, both of which have always performed remarkably well on the heavy-hided, big-boned elk.
Word to the wise, though. There seems to be evidence that bullet design and integrity is critical at these high velocities. Gun writer Wayne Van Zwoll recalls that in the early days of the .270, "The first .270 bullets were particularly troublesome, fragmenting at the breakneck impact speeds guaranteed by a Mach 3 launch." Lesson learned: if you hunt big game with a .270, buy good ammunition and know what you are buying — and shooting.
I also like the .270's relative civility when it comes to recoil. A fellow elk hunter, who hunts with a Winchester .300 Magnum, always leaves the shooting range with a bruised, tender shoulder after zeroing his cannon. He also rations his rounds due to the cost. Granted, I'll stick with him during a grizzly-bear charge, but the rest of the time give me the .270.
In a recent edition of Bugle Magazine, Van Zwoll, who doesn't part easily with superlatives, extolls the virtues of the .270 like this: "If you can't already tell, I like the .270 cartridges. Just about all of 'em.Their bullets carry well and land with authority. The rifles don't bruise me in recoil. Now nearly 90 years old, the .270 Winchester remains my first pick for western deer hunting, a top choice for open shooting at elk."
My late father, a deer hunter who upgraded from an old, shopworn .30-30 to the .270 when I was too young to hunt but still curious, explained to me that he simply "wanted more firepower." He never studied guns, they were just the tool of the hunt. He bought the .270 on a friend's say so.
I'm glad that he did. So will one of my boys be one day. That's the thing about good hunting rifles, .30-06s or .270s. They live on.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He isalso a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program "Maine Outdoors" heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is email@example.com and his new book is "A Maine Deer Hunter's Logbook."