America’s population of feral hogs is now estimated at around nine million, growing and seemingly unstoppable. With crop and property damages running into the billions of dollars, pigs are clearly a plague for many farmers; what’s more, their status as a non-native invasive species means that we don’t yet know the long-term impact they’ll have on native fauna and flora. That said, hunting wild boar is a boon for hunters: They are our second-most numerous “big game animal” after the whitetail deer.
Pigs are intelligent and prolific, and I’m not at all convinced that conventional hunting techniques can control their numbers. But that’s above my pay grade. As a game animal, they provide excellent pork, are fun and surprisingly challenging to hunt, and can often be pursued year-round. They’re tough, and under the right (or wrong) circumstances they can be dangerous. I like to hit them hard, with plenty of bullet and enough gun.
This thinking gets me into trouble—I almost immediately draw letters (and ire) from guys who “always shoot their pigs in the head with a .223″ or from houndsmen who use handguns (and sometimes knives and spears) where legal. Ideal choices depend a whole lot on how you hunt them. Understand that I’ve been a pig hunter since long before it was fashionable, and much of my hunting, for 40 years now, has been done in our California Central Coast.
Location, Location, Location
Some guys around here use dogs, but most of our Central Coast hunting is pure spot-and-stalk. Also, our hogs were declared “big game animals,” many years ago, so we are held to the same hunting regulations that apply to deer. No baiting, no night hunting—only legalized methods of take.
The country varies, but our pigs tend to bed in chaparral hillsides, which is almost impenetrable cover, so our most typical situation is to catch them between feeding and bedding grounds in the morning, and the reverse in the evening. Depending on weather, sometimes we catch them out feeding at odd times of the day, but altogether it’s almost impossible to dictate exactly what kind of shot you might get.
I’ve also hunted hogs quite a lot in Texas and the Deep South, often from stands. Under such circumstances, you have a pretty good idea of shooting distances and are better able to pick your shots.
Hunting Wild Boar with “Intent”
Intent also matters. Over the years I’ve hunted pigs of various types on all the other continents which, as an outsider, is usually approached as, if not a “trophy hunt,” then at least a selective hunt. I suppose that’s my normal mind-set, and these days it applies to our California hunting as well. We still have no closed season and no bag limit, but every pig taken must be tagged and reported. Sometimes I’m looking for a big boar, other times a meat hog, but I’m generally looking for one animal.
It’s different if the goal is controlling numbers, without undue concerns about selectivity or even recovery. Considering America’s increasing pig problem, this can be important. If (or when) Oklahoma’s pigs, now approaching a million strong, expand north to my Kansas place, I’ll be out there with an AR. But in the meantime I generally approach pig hunting as a big-game hunt.
When Choosing a Boar Cartridge: Size Matters
There are pigs, and then there are pigs. As the average 150-pound black bear is a different creature from the quarter-ton bear you might encounter, a 300-pound boar with inch-thick gristle plate is quite a different animal from the 125-pound porker you want for the barbecue. If your methodology dictates that you can consistently take (and make) head shots then I suppose it doesn’t matter. With body shots it’s a different deal. Pigs are hardy animals, and with their thick layer of fat, bullet wounds seal quickly and leak little.
Even with an adequate trail to follow, crawling on my hands and knees through thick, rattlesnake-infested brush is not my idea of fun, but good trails are uncommon. Once, in Texas, I pasted a nice boar on the shoulder with a .300 Winchester Magnum, which I would agree is more powerful than necessary. He ran into scattered oak mottes and we couldn’t find a single drop of blood. Sure of the shot, we made some circles. The boar was down in much less than a hundred yards, but he’d made a radical turn as soon as he was out of sight and we just stumbled onto him. I’ve had more close calls with wounded boars than with all of Africa’s big nasties combined. This is because, like most animals, they seek heavy cover when hurt; there’s also rarely a good, clear trail to follow, so you end up searching randomly in a general direction, and it’s easy to get surprised.
What I Like Versus What Works: Two Different, But Compatible Concepts
Hunting Hogs with Big Bore Loads
To avoid surprises, I like to hit pigs hard and definitively, so I’m prepared for the monstrous boar I might run into. So, what do I like, and what do I think works best?
Honestly, these two concepts aren’t exactly the same. I like to hunt pigs with the good old .45-70. If you want to be a bit different, maybe the .444 Marlin, or perhaps an AR in .450 Bushmaster. I just got a Big Horn Armory lever gun in .500 Smith & Wesson.
Depending on the bullet, the ballistics for these big bores aren’t all that much different, and for sure all will thump pigs with dramatic effect. Unfortunately, these slow-moving cartridges are all limited in sensible range, and some of the platforms, like the ’86 Winchester, aren’t conducive to mounting a scope—which very much limits my range.
This is no problem if you know your shots will be close, but when I use such cartridges for spot-and-stalk hunting, I know I need to get close, even in fairly open country. Pigs have very good hearing and a nose that’s second to none, but their eyesight isn’t great. Much of the time I can get close enough, but I do find that I give up some shots when I use the big bores, especially if they wear iron sights.
Using Medium Bores
Even better to my thinking are the medium bores. The old .35 Remington is fine, likewise the great old .348 Winchester (except the Winchester Model 71 defies scope mounting). Great medium-caliber choices include cartridges such as the .338 Federal, .338 Marlin Express, .358 Winchester, and .35 Whelen. To me this group is the ultimate for swine sweeping. They shoot flat enough for shots to at least 200 yards, plus lots of bullet weight and frontal area.
Hog Hunting with Light Cartridges
That’s what I like. And they work. What is really needed is a bit different. My buddy Mike Ballew, long-time Director of the NRA Whittington Center, used to manage a big ranch in northern California where several hundred pigs had to be harvested annually to keep the numbers in check. Much of what I know about hog hunting them came under Ballew’s tutelage. For his small-bodied blacktail deer he liked light cartridges like the .243 and .257 Roberts, but for pigs—and especially for backup work when guiding hunters—he went to a big rifle. His idea of a “big rifle” was a 7×57 Mauser or .270 Winchester.
We had a lot of good-natured arguments about this but, honestly, he was right. You could drop down to 6.5mm if you want and start with the , . You can certainly add the 7mm-08, and then work up through all the 7mm hunting cartridges.
We would be remiss if we didn’t add the .30-calibers. But maybe not all. The .30-30, 7.62x39mm, and .300 Blackout are fine for close-range work. The .308 Winchester and .30-06 are both awesome cartridges for any pig that walks!
Overall, finding a good load for hunting wild boar isn’t all that complicated. Because long shots are fairly uncommon, using a fast magnum isn’t essential. When it comes to feral hogs, it’s more important to choose tough bullets that are certain to penetrate… just in case you run into Hogzilla!