Clayton: Hammering hogs, what's the best caliber?

Luke Clayton
Special to the E-T

I’m often asked what caliber I prefer for hunting hog. Although this might sound like a pretty straightforward question, it really is a bit complex and one for which there is no "pat" answer. My reply used to be something like, “Grab the largest caliber you own, load it with the heaviest bullet and you are ready to go.”

Luke Clayton, right, and his buddy Jeff Rice head out on a hog hunt with their big bore air rifles chambered for .45 and .50 caliber.

While this answer certainly still suffices, it doesn’t do justice to all the different ways hogs are hunted today nor the many actions of rifles used. For instance, if hog control is one’s singular goal, the heavier the caliber the better, right? Well, maybe not.

The heavier calibers are not normally used in the AR-style rifles that are so popular today with hog hunters, especially those that go after wild porkers after dark with thermal or digital optics. Shooting multiple wild hogs running across a wheat field at night requires a semi auto rifle and a night scope that facilitates quick target acquisition and the ability to recover from recoil quickly.

Although very heavy calibers such as the 500 Auto Max or .450 Bushmaster are available, they haven’t become popular with the majority of hog hunters using the AR platform.

Luke Clayton

If night hunting and shooting multiple hogs is your thing, it would be hard to go wrong with a rifle chambered in .308 or possibly the 6.5 Grendel or 6.8 SPC. Granted, the .223, 5.56 is also a popular caliber that many AR-style rifles are chambered in but without the ability to always make precise bullet placement on moving hogs, the .308 or 6.5 or 6.8 is a far better round for shooting running hogs. Quick recovery from heavy recoil is one of the biggest challenges of shooting the heavier calibers, especially at hogs on the move.

So, Luke what caliber do YOU use for collecting your pork chops, you are probably wondering! Again, there’s no single statement answer! I hunt hogs mostly for meat and average shooting 15 or 20 per year.

Night hunters with ARs topped with thermal scopes will sometime kill that many in a single night. I do the majority of my hog hunting over a corn feeder and shoot standing hogs at ranges of 100 yards or less. It’s doesn’t require a sharpshooter to put pork in the cooler using my method, just a good trail camera to inform me of when the hogs are coming and good optics and an accurate rifle to make the precise head/neck shot to insure the hogs goes down instantly and to avoid lost of meat.

When I’m not hunting with my .45-caliber "Texan" big bore air rifle, I use a little lightweight bolt action .223 topped with a Wraith digital scope by Sightmark. I don’t mean this in a bragging way, but the past 23 hogs I’ve shot with these weapons have either dropped in their tracks or went down within sight. Keep in mind ranges were always close and the hogs motionless when I made the shot, far different than shooting a sounder of hogs a couple hundred yards out at night.

I actually consider the benefit of the Wraith digital scope as important as the caliber I choose for this close-in hunting. The scope works great during daylight hours with a color display and after dark if there is the least bit of moon, the ambient light is all that is needed to make these relatively close shots. When it’s pitch dark, the IR allows perfect target acquisition. With this precise shot placement at close range, I could just as well be shooting the hogs with a heavy caliber or, a .22 magnum for that matter. As mentioned, my primary goal is tasty wild pork chops and head/neck shots result in little or no meat loss.

Stalking or still hunting hogs during daylight hours is a great way to kill hogs during a period of the day when they are often inactive and not out in the open or around feeders. I have a lever action chambered in 30/30 topped with a peep sight that I consider perfect for this exciting style of hunting. The good ole 30/30 round has plenty of oomph to drop the biggest boar in the woods with a shot to the vitals.

I wouldn’t consider using my little .223 for this style hunting for obvious reasons. In heavy cover precise shot placement is not always possible and it’s often necessary to aim "at the front of the hog" with a goal of hitting it in the neck or front shoulders. Other good "hog" calibers for this fast-action type of hunting include, but certainly are not limited to, the 47-70 Government, .348 Winchester and .405 Winchester.  

Teddy Roosevelt used the .405 for big game on his well documented East African safari and modern-day hunters have used it effectively for Cape Buffalo and other big, heavy-boned species. Hornady produces a 300 grain InterLock cartridge for the .405 that produces 3,200 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle, more than enough to anchor the biggest boar in the woods, even when shot through the tough shoulder shield.

You might be new to hunting wild hogs and wonder just which action/caliber is best for the style of hunting you wish to do. I would suggest before you invest in an AR and expensive thermal scope, you use the deer rifle that you already own and hunt during daylight hours. Anything from a .22/.250 to the big magnums will cleanly anchor hogs so there really is no need to spend a lot of dollars on a "hog gun," at least not at first. After a few hog hunts are under your belt, you might wish to purchase specialized equipment for night hunting.

Hogs often become very active during the late afternoon, especially the last 30 minutes of daylight. With a quality scope cranked down to the lowest power, it’s often possible to shoot hogs well after twilight. Many hunters set up lights around their feeders where their day scopes work quite well.

For several years, I have used a motion-detection device called the Game Alert by Hogman Outdoors to let me know when hogs are approaching. A red light is triggered when hogs come in, which eliminates the need to be constantly scanning the area around a feeder for incoming hogs.

If you plan to shoot hogs at relatively close range and own a shotgun, you need not invest in a rifle right away. That 12-gauge in your gun cabinet loaded with double-ought buckshot will do nice work putting wild pork in your freezer if you keep shots at less than 40 yards. With the exception of a single shot, every other style shotgun is capable of firing at least two shots; with a pump or autoloader, even more.

In past years, I’ve used heavy loads of double-ought to put multiple hogs on the ground. Make the first shot at a standing hog but also be watching one out of the corner of your eye. That second shot might be at a running hog but shooting moving game/birds is exactly what a shotgun is designed for!

Granted, wild hogs are definitely an invasive species and do great harm to our farm and ranch lands, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they can be very good eating and much fun to hunt. The old saying about lemons and making lemonade aptly applies to wild hog hunting.

Contact outdoors writer Luke Clayton via email through his website www.catfishradio.org