A modern guide to guns and hunting

On Magnum Envy


I would like to address a mildly-troubling development in hunting over the past several years. Lately, there has been a trend toward adopting larger cartridges than what was in the past deemed necessary for a particular hunting application. This phenomenon is commonly called “magnumitis,” but I prefer the term “magnum envy.” This is by no means the first article written on the topic, but as it seems to be especially pervasive among newcomers, I thought a few words here might be appropriate.

My favorite magnum envy story is from my own gun club, which is open to the public a few days every week. One Saturday, as I taking my turn standing Range Safety Officer, I heard a sound from the other end of the firing line that was unusually loud and deep. While I’m not yet any kind of an expert on guns, I could tell by the rifle’s report that we had something exotic in our midst. I wandered down and quickly found the heavy metal I was looking for: it was a gorgeous Remington 700 Safari rifle chambered for the .458 Winchester. (For the unfamiliar, the .458 Winchester is one of the very largest hunting cartridges in existence and is supreme overkill for anything other than elephant or cape buffalo.) The rifle in question belonged to a middle-aged man whose eyes were watering from the recoil (I kid you not). After he’d fired several rounds and was taking a break, I couldn’t resist asking him the intended purpose of this giant-killer. He nonchalantly told me he was going “trophy boar hunting” in Northern California. When I later mentioned this to a friend of mine who happened to be at the range, he dryly replied, “Well, does he want any pig left after the shot?”

Many of the popular hunting cartridges have been around for decades. The .30-06, perhaps the most prevalent cartridge of them all, recently celebrated its 100th birthday. Other cartridges, such as the .308 Winchester and the .270 Winchester, have enjoyed popularity for decades. Our fathers and grandfathers found these calibers to be more than sufficient for harvesting any game anywhere in the lower 48 states of America. Recently, though, there has been a proliferation of cartridges featuring larger bullets being pushed by still larger amounts of gunpowder to amazing velocities that would have been considered unthinkable half a century ago.

So, the burning question is, if the cartridges were satisfactory then, why aren’t they now?

Whence magnum envy?

Several ideas have been forwarded regarding the cause of magnum envy. One cites the natural evolution of consumer products to grow larger and more elaborate over time. Another accuses the gunmakers of wishing to convince a nation of customers that they need to go out and buy new, improved products. Still another hypothesis see this merely as further evidence of our culture’s current fascination with all things extreme.

I think the last of these ideas is on the right track, but doesn’t really “get it.” To really understand magnum envy, we must examine the current nature of our society. Our generation is more financially successful than any other in history, and has far more discretionary income. As advertisers compete for our “fun money,” they must appeal to much more than our material needs – they must appeal to our dreams. They must encourage us to imagine ourselves in all sorts of improbable situations where we need their exotic products to reach our fullest potential (whatever that means). In this sense, a gun buyer who chooses a rifle chambered for .338 Winchester magnum when a .243 will cleanly kill anything he actually ever comes across, is really no different than the urbanite who buys an ultra-heavy-duty off-road vehicle which he then proceeds to drive to work and back for the next five years. Both people have been convinced that they need more product than is actually the case.

What’s wrong with magnum envy?

Wherever magnum envy comes from, it is the purpose of this editorial to convince the reader to do his best to resist succumbing to it. Magnum envy can cause you problems in several ways:

  • more recoil. Recoil, or the “kick” that the rifle delivers to your shoulder upon firing, is directly related to the size of the cartridge being fired. (This is a slight mis-truth; the actual calculation of recoil is highly complex and depends on multiple factors other than the cartridge size, but this statement is essentially correct for our purposes here. )Once recoil reaches a certain level (and that level isn’t particularly high), it becomes more than mere discomfort: it can cause the shooter to flinch in anticipation, which causes a host of shooting problems. And, if you take these shooting problems into the field with you (and you will), your hunting success will be negatively impacted.
  • less long-distance accuracy. These extra-large cartridges weren’t built just for fun; they’re intended to fulfill a specific purpose, namely the harvesting of very large (and often dangerous) game. This is generally performed at relatively short distances (less than 100 yards in most cases). Accordingly, long-distance accuracy was not a priority in the design of these cartridges. And, while 100 yards is generally more than enough required distance for most hunters (the myth of the 400 yard kill is another subject I intend to take up), there will be times when you would wish for the long-range accuracy of the smaller cartridges.
  • gun cost. While this is not universally true, in general, rifles chambered for the biggest cartridges tend to cost at least a little more. Why pay for something you don’t need? And while the cost of the gun is a one-time outlay…
  • ammunition cost. …the cost of ammunition is another matter. While large-cartridge guns may be slightly more expensive, the ammunition for these guns is MUCH more expensive. And you’ll be shelling this out every time you head to the field or to the range (you do intend to practice long and hard with that new hand-cannon, don’t you?). Please…consider this aspect very carefully when choosing a cartridge.
  • weight. Again, while this isn’t always the case, the guns that fire the mega-loads have to be built extra-strong. This generally implies that they’re a little heavier. And in the field, that little bit of added weight will feel as heavy as the game you’re hunting after a couple of miles.


While any hunter is to be commended for wishing to take enough gun to reliably secure a quick and clean kill, this just isn’t necessarily accomplished by reaching for the big iron. Please…resist the temptation to “go heavy” and do some research on just how much gun is necessary for the specific hunting you intend to do. You’ll be ahead of the game on several fronts.

After all…they’re not making the animals any bigger than they used to.

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  • James Whitmore

    You are so right, seems like every time I see one of these behemoths on the used rack at the gun shop, they almost always come with half a box of cartridges. I’ll leave the big guns to the younger men, I have gotten too old to be knocked around for no reason.

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