Choosing weapons and ammunition for hunting

A major component of hunting is the equipment we carry with us. Choosing a rifle and suitable ammunition can be a confusing task, so let's clear up some of the questions one might have together with David Gustafsson.

A major component of hunting is the equipment we carry with us. For lots of outsiders, this is something that is difficult to accept. Carrying weapons is not, in fact, a matter of course, and, not surprisingly, some countries have stricter rules than others.

In Sweden, we have a centuries-old tradition of hunting, but firearms for the peasantry didn’t come into effect until much later. On the continent and in the Orient, firearms were available to wealthy hunters long before weapons were introduced into the Swedish army. In Sweden, there was a long tradition of hunting with primitive firearms with strings, e.g. bows and cross bows. Firearms made their entrance relatively late, and Swedish kings even tried to slow this development. A couple of examples are Karl XII, who introduced a law stipulating that bears could only be killed with spears and nets, or Queen Kristina, who changed the hunting laws to advantage the nobility and the royals, ignoring the interests of the peasantry. On Öland, for a very long time, peasants were not even allowed to have four-legged dogs; they had to cut one of the dog’s legs so that the peasant farmer could not hunt on the island which was, at that time, the King’s private hunting ground.

The repeating rifle changed everything
A few hundred years later, and probably the biggest thing that happened in the arms industry since the invention of the gun – the repeating rifle was invented. I will deliberately avoid talking about the large number of American weapons that were introduced in the second half of the 19th century with a lever action and plumb ammunition.

In the early 19th century, Fredrik I of Würtemberg founded the royal arms factory in Oberndorf am Neckar. For many of you, bells will already be ringing at the name Oberndorf. This factory made weapons to suit the wars of that particular period. With some competition from French manufacturers and, among other things, new advances in gunpowder (it was the gunpowder and the cartridges that accelerated the development of more modern weapons) new models of rifles were developed.

The first bolt-action weapon was developed by a German named Johan Nicolaus von Dreyse as early as 1924. But what happened at Oberndorf became a hugely important stage of development for the weapons industry.

The Mauser brothers were pioneers
Following the German innovation made by Johan Nicolaus, the model was developed by a number of weapon manufacturers, but the biggest changes took place at the weapons factory in Oberndorf by the Mauser brothers who worked there as gunsmiths. After many attempts, the M/71 model was produced including a repeater system. The Prussian government bought the model for its army, and on 23 May (which is also my birthday) the brothers bought the factory. After a plethora of different models and weapons contracts with various armies, we have ended up with the M94 and M96 models, which are currently used on a multitude of weapons around the globe. This is a fantastic historical step – that a weapon that was invented so long ago is still as reliable, and still in use even today.

The reason for my fascination with Mauser is that they still make weapons that are top-of-the-line. I own some older models of their weapons, such as an Oberndorf K98k from the German Armed Forces in 1940, an M96 from the Swedish Armed Forces in 1911, and an M38 from the Swedish Armed Forces in 1943. Mauser’s models became popular early on and were widely used in several major conflicts. Among other things, this weapon system was used by armies on both sides of the two world wars. Today, Mauser is one of the larger weapons companies, but if you look at the weapons industry for the private market, several of the larger companies are German. Most of us hunters have heard of Sauer, Merkel, Carl Walther, Simson, or my favourite, Blaser. I’ll come back to these.

The market for riflescopes is also dominated by German manufacturers, such as Steiner, Zeiss, Kahles, Helia, Schmidt and Bender and Hensholdt. I’d also like to mention Swarovski here, even though the company is based in and originated from Austria. I’ve probably forgotten more brands as I’ve just mentioned the big ones.

Sweden’s proud weapons tradition
Sweden has also put its name on the weapons map. Today, there are hardly any big manufacturers of weapons left in Sweden, but we can boast about classics from Husqvarna and Carl Gustaf. Our neighbours to the east, in Finland, also have a proud tradition of weapons where Sako and Tikka are the two larger manufacturers. You’ve probably all seen one of these weapons if you don’t already own one.

Today we are among the largest of the manufacturers of military equipment, but the military tradition dates back to the 1500s and 1600s, and is therefore nothing new. The German tradition is great and has a long history, which is still evident today. In addition, there are a plethora of smaller players and today you can walk around for hours at auctions or trade shows and study the smaller weapon manufacturers’ solid craftsmanship on both a large and small scale, often with a lot of engraving. German weapons were used during hunts, not just for war. After the Congress of Vienna, the German colonies in Africa provided the finer gentlemen from German society with the possibility of travelling to Africa and hunting all kinds of exotic animals.

Hunting in Africa gave rise to lots of calibres
On the African continent there were already other hunting-interested Europeans, such as the British hunters who had long been hunting dangerous animals in their own colonies. Many of our calibres today come from this period, and certainly the larger calibres from both Germany and Britain. Some of the ones that you will immediately think of are 375H&H (British) and one of my favourites, the 9.3x62 that Otto Bock produced back in 1905 focusing on hunting in Africa. I have shot a lot with both, but today I only use 9.3x62 when I hunt with dogs. This calibre was used for all of the Big Five, and as you know, these are quite large animals. Then, of course, they were usually shot using bonded bullets. The Germans lost their colonies after the First World War but the calibre remained and Germans still went down to hunt in Africa. An interesting fact here is that the German troops in the colonies were the last to give up because the information that the fighting in Europe had ceased and peace negotiations had begun took a long time to reach them.

Powerful Nitro Express calibres
As I’ve hastily touched on the African colonies, I think that I wouldn’t give a fair description of the British calibres unless I at least mention the Eley brothers’ Nitro Express calibres produced in the first years of the 20th Century. The huge 450 Nitro Express came as early as 1903 and 360 NE came in 1905. These powerful cartridges have become widely known among hunters on the African continent and are widely used today, among other things, in more elegant double barrelled rifles that can be seen in the hands of the professional hunters guiding hunters on buffalo or elephant hunts.

Another particularly adequate cartridge invented by the Germans is the 8.57I, which later came in a more civilian model named the 8.57JS. I definitely use this calibre most often and every year I bag at least a hundred animals with this one. In my opinion, it’s a very reliable cartridge. At the risk of some of you calling me an idiot, I would probably say that it has the same bullet trajectory as the 30-06 and the same effect on the game as a 9.3x62. It’s certainly a very potent calibre for the kind of hunting I do.

6.5x55 is a classic
The Swedish "big game cartridge” the 6.5x55 is today a very controversial calibre. If Sweden were to incur a ban on lead ammunition from the EU, the 6.5x55 would no longer be classified as a Class 1 weapon. It could therefore not be used for hunting big game. This would probably be devastating as a large part of Sweden’s, not to mention Europe’s, hunters appreciate this cartridge for its bullet trajectory and effective impact on the animal’s body. The calibre was primarily developed for military use. But as more and more weapons began to be used by conscripts and militia, this cartridge eventually began to be used for hunting. In the end, it also became the best-selling calibre on the Swedish market as the availability of this ammunition was great.

This calibre has been used extensively in hunting and I believe that no cartridge has shot more elks in Sweden than this one. I myself have shot a few hundred wild boars with a 6.5, but today it’s mostly used for roe bucks due to its flat bullet trajectory. It’s also very suitable for silencers and has a nice recoil even without a silencer.

308 Win – a popular choice
In addition to these three calibres, I use a 308 Win like most others. I wouldn’t say that this is one I favour and I would never value it higher than e.g. a 6.5 or 8.57JS. But it is a potent, flat and effective calibre that undoubtedly does the same job as the above. It is the best selling today for several reasons. Among other things, it has a flat bullet trajectory and an effect similar to a 30-06 without the recoil. Some say that the length of the cartridge casing is so short that it is actually more gratifying to eject. Others say that they buy it because the ammunition is cheaper. They may all be right, but I know the latter is true. Today, the 308 Win is one of the cheapest Class 1 shots in Sweden and one of the most common for hunting in Europe if not worldwide.

Oryx a versatile first choice
It’s not a coincidence that I’m writing here on behalf of Norma Academy. I have, with a few exceptions, always used Norma's ammunition. Since I have a preference for more expensive weapons, I consciously choose to shoot with better ammunition.

My favourite is Norma Oryx and I choose this whenever possible. However, on some occasions I have purchased other ammunition, such as Vulkan and Alaska, in cases where the store had run out of Oryx in the calibre that I needed right then and there. As you understand, I cannot go without ammunition, I always have to have a stock at home. With that being said, I look forward to trying Norma’s new Bondstrike and also their Ecostrike, even if this means that I have to abandon my 6.5x55 during big game hunts if the laws change.

I would also like to point out that my choice of Norma’s ammunition is not just because I’m writing on behalf of Norma. I’m writing on behalf of Norma because I’ve always used their ammunition. Just like with everything else, you always get what you pay for. The bullets may not be the cheapest, but they give the best effect. I’m not going to trash other brands, but on occasion, and of my own free will or at the request of companies, I have tried other brands and not been satisfied except for one brand that I experienced as being very similar to Oryx, but then again, why settle for a copy when I can so easily use the original with an extremely marginal difference in price. Quality costs. Having said that, I’ll move onto my guns, and it took a while to get to this point.

The choice fell on Blaser R8
As we know, I hunt a lot. More than most people, and I had about ten years with about 300 hunting days or game management days a year. That was a lot of time spent in the field, and I had plenty of time to try things out and see what suits me. This also applies to weapons, and I tried my way through lots of brands and models. In total, I’ve probably had about 30 different hunting weapons or maybe even more. Eight years ago I got to try a Blaser R8 with a friend and fell in love with it. It was love at first sight. Just as with ammunition, these weapons cost a small fortune and it’s probably not a weapon you start out with. But you get what you pay for, I thought, and tried it. Today I have three Blaser R8s but have tried many attractive models from Sauer and Merkel, among others. I have a Merkel 961L double stud drill that I use on occasion. Of course in 8.57JRS and calibre 20. It’s an elegant weapon that’s not for everyday use.

Regardless of what you choose, it is important to try things out, to squeeze and feel the difference in weapons, and shoot on a range etc. before you buy anything. A good friend who’s also a retired gunsmith said that you can invest in weapons just like you can in gold, as they do not lose their value if handled properly. Unfortunately, you can’t say the same thing about shotguns. Those who bought expensive side-by-side rifles 20 years ago rarely see their money again. The model is now outdated and not as sought after, unless it’s a particularly good example of craftsmanship and quite out of the ordinary.

Husqvarna 9,3x57 – a classic
My first weapon was my grandfather’s Husqvarna model 1640 in calibre 9.3x57. Many of you older people will certainly have used this weapon, as it was the most commonly used weapon among hunters in Sweden in the mid-1950s. It kicked something awful and in the end I was afraid of the recoil that both scoped my eyebrows and bruised my shoulder. I would therefore recommend that new hunters invest instead in a better scope. Maybe spend a more modest sum on a simpler second-hand weapon and instead invest in a riflescope that they can use for many years to come, and later trade it for a better one if their interest grows. I chose to import Leupold brand American scopes early on, as I believe they hold a high quality at an acceptable price.

I use my Blaser weapons for a variety of purposes. Reliability and security are important to me, and when I have taken the safety catch off and fired the weapon I must be sure that there will be a shot. I also need to be sure that no stoppage prevents me from pursuing my shooting and that there is the opportunity to fell another animal or more if I have come across a group of wild boars, for example. Of course, a variety of other weapons could be just as good, but that’s where I think personal taste comes in.

Safety first
I urge everyone to take weapons as a grave and serious matter. Don’t put yourself or others at risk, and don’t see it as a right to use and own weapons. It is generous of the state to give us the opportunity to own weapons, which are, actually, really dangerous objects, for leisure and work. It is therefore important that we see this as a huge opportunity and that we are careful and cautious about how we use them. Safety is the most important thing of all, we all want to come home to our families after a hunt and we also want to bring our dogs home if we have them. Those who break the law will most often have to give up their weapons, and rightly so. The idea isn’t that a few who have abused their chances ruin things for the rest of us who use weapons correctly. It’s rare that a hunting weapon is used in crime, although many politicians want us to believe that this is the case.

My final tip is to practice a lot and become familiar with your weapon and to take good care of your equipment. Check the barrel, piston and scope so that the weapon retains its functionality and value. Although I hunt and practice shooting a lot, I always make sure to take one or more days each month to sit with my guns and clean the barrel and remove gunpowder residue. This is not something you just do with expensive weapons – all weapons work better if they are properly cared for and the risk of accidents is less if the weapon is properly maintained.