Got Enough Ammo?
Not having enough rounds to finish the job is a terrible feeling, but if you’re careless, it can happen.
By Craig Boddington
I’ve never been afraid to write about my mistakes…and there have been many. I’ve failed to get shots off when I had reasonable opportunities. I’ve missed shots that I should have made and, perhaps worse yet, missed shots I shouldn’t have taken. And, yes, over the course of now nearly fifty years of hunting, I’ve lost game. There was a time when I thought that couldn’t happen to me…but it can, and if you stick around and hunt long enough, it can happen to you. But there is at least one mistake that I think is even worse, and that’s running out of ammo with the job incomplete.
I came close to running out of ammo on this Arctic grizzly. He was about 225 yards away in a driving blizzard, and the bear didn’t seem to know that the first shot was well-placed. On that day I broke my own rules and had only ten rounds. We got the job done, but with little to spare.
I know it sounds crazy and stupid, and it is…but it happens. It hasn’t happened to me (yet), but I’ve been there when it happened to friends, and every guide who has spent significant time in the field can tell you about a hunter who hit an animal, then ran out of ammo during the follow-up. Remember that in many areas it’s illegal for guides to carry firearms, so they can’t help.
Best case? Put the mission on hold while somebody runs back to the truck for more bullets. Guess what? It usually isn’t the hunter who screwed up who makes the run, because that would take three times as long, wouldn’t it? So it’s a not-so-happy guide who nearly kills himself fetching ammo. If the best case continues, things really were on hold and the job gets finished when he gets back. Realistically, the worst case is the most likely: It’s too late by the time he gets back; the opportunity and the animal are lost.
Buffalo are notorious for being tough, and while one well-placed shot can do the trick, it isn’t unusual for several rounds to be needed. Better carry plenty!
So, how does this happen? Sometimes through carelessness, sometimes through overconfidence. A likely scenario is this: You leave the truck to quickly glass a little pocket. The chance comes, but the shot isn’t perfect, so you follow up, you have a couple of fleeting opportunities, and then your rifle is empty and your ammo is back at the truck, which might be very far away by now. The latter, well, sometimes people get odd ideas. The late Watson Yoshimoto—“Yoshi”—was a genuine hunting legend. Part of the legend, and possibly true, was that he only carried three cartridges on a single-species hunt. If he missed, which didn’t happen often, then the hunt was over and he’d come back and try again. Me, well, I worry too much about a rifle coming out of zero, let alone a running gun battle with an injured animal. I take lots of ammo, and keep plenty with me!
I try very hard not to leave the truck (horse, boat, camp, whatever) without plenty of ammo. Have I done it? Sure, I just haven’t been caught. But it depends on the circumstances. I’ll jump into a whitetail stand on my place with the magazine full and maybe a couple of spares in my pocket. I know where the resupply is, and I can go there before I start a serious follow-up. Leaving the truck on a logging road, or tying the horses in a high basin, and leaving all the spare ammo in the truck or saddlebag, are different stories.
How much should you carry? Well, I’d be a pretty smart guy if I could a put a number on all the weird contingencies that can happen in the field. Most ammo comes twenty to the box, and that’s a pretty good number. I remember hunting Coues deer with Duwane Adams back before anybody had rangefinders. More than once he glassed up a nice buck at long range and he’d hiss, “Boddington, I got a barn burner, dump all your shells out on the ground!”
I never worked my way through the whole pile, but there was some trial-and-error back then. Today, with perfect knowledge of range, we have a little better idea of what we can do…and what we shouldn’t attempt. But odd things happen. Jack O’Connor wrote about a buffalo that took fourteen rounds of large-caliber ammunition, and I remember sitting in a spike camp in Alaska listening to a gunfight erupt over the ridge. They got the bear, and it was a very big and very tough bear…but I lost count at about a dozen shots. It happens, despite the best intentions, and, rarely, even with reasonable shot placement (though probably not perfect, right?).
Like I said, a box of twenty is a pretty good number, but with non-dangerous game I don’t usually carry that much unless I’m planning to be out for a few days. My number is more like seventeen or thereabouts. There are lots of ways to carry ammo, and that’s really the trick: Surgically attaching at least a few extra rounds to your body so you can’t possibly go anywhere without it. I have a favorite double-folding ammo wallet that holds fourteen (plus three in the magazine)—but I hate suspenders, and that means I hate weights that drag my belt downward. So that ammo pouch, maybe only partly full, or at least a partial box of ammo, is usually in my daypack. I don’t normally go very far without my pack because, after all, no camera, no story, right? So that’s almost safe.
Big-bore cartridges are more difficult to haul around. I like to use a traditional “culling belt”—but I sure don’t fill it up all the way. The trick is to make sure I don’t leave the truck without it!
But not quite. With lighter-caliber rifles I usually stick a few cartridges in my pockets. Yeah, I know, this is a bad habit. You need to carry them so they don’t rattle. With tight jeans it might be okay; with looser cargo pockets I may wind up with a single cartridge in each pocket. Hey, my system doesn’t have to be your system; figure out what works for you so you can’t possibly be separated from at least a few extra rounds. With the bigger scopes we’re using today I have a couple of rifles with strap-on nylon cheekpieces; the opposite side has a pouch with loops for several cartridges. Perfect…but the weight alters the balance of the rifle, so think about the tradeoffs. Some slings have loops for a couple of cartridges, also a good idea. Again, I don’t have a minimum or maximum number, I just know that I don’t ever, ever want to commit the sin of running out of ammo. (I’ve come pretty close, and it’s a horrible feeling.)
With detachable-magazine rifles you have more options. Honestly, I’ve never liked detachable magazines in hunting rifles—just one more thing to lose—but I’ve embraced the Blaser R8 system, so I generally carry a spare magazine in a cargo or jacket pocket. That simplifies things. If I ever go through both magazines, I’ve probably got time to rummage around in my daypack for the rest of the ammo!
With large-caliber ammo your choices are more limited—and your need might be greater. I usually wear a “culling belt”—I don’t keep it full, it’s too heavy. Generally I keep six or eight solids on one side and some softs on the other. I try to put it on when I leave the vehicle, and take it off when I return. But, just in case, you can bet I’ve got a spare cartridge in every pocket.
Detachable magazines offer a good solution. With a spare magazine and two shells in the sling I’m in good shape for any opening round—but I still need some ammo in the daypack.