February 10, 2023
I landed up at Camp Pendleton when I was 22. Native Kansas had no feral hogs (still doesn't), so I figured California's year-round hog hunting was like the keys to a candy store. It took time to make contacts, but feral hogs have been my bullet-testing laboratory for 40 years. I am equal opportunity. I've hunted hogs in lots of places. I love it and I respect them. And, I've had more close calls with hogs than all the rest put together.
BOARS AND SOWS
Because of long, dry summers, our California hogs don't get huge, rarely approaching 300 pounds. Elsewhere, hogs can top 400, but that's unusual everywhere. Mature boars are usually bigger than sows, but both sexes can be aggressive. Sows attack with their teeth, usually chomping low. Only boars have razor-sharp tusks for slashing upwards—as they do when fighting—into places we don't want to think about.
Also, only boars have the thick cartilaginous shield over neck and shoulders—nature's defense against the tusks of other boars. No, it will not turn an adequate bullet. The biggest boar in the world is not bullet-proof. However, that shield can stop an arrow, and can cause a too-light, too-fast bullet to expand prematurely and fail to penetrate. I have not seen this with centerfire rifles above 6mm, but it's not uncommon with handgun cartridges below .44 Rem Mag. This story is intended to be about bullets, not cartridges, and about boars. However, these subjects are intermixed.
So, boar (or bear) with me a moment. There is a massive difference between the average 125-pound meat hog, and a 300-pound giant, regardless of sex. Boars spend their lives roaming for sows, and fighting to breed. They are different animals, not just bigger, tougher and harder to put down. They're also warier and more nocturnal, and more difficult at which to get a shot.
Some will disagree, but for grownup hogs, in rifles, the 6mms with 100-grain bullets aren't enough. With handguns, anything below .44 Rem Mag is suspect, and it's essential to choose heavier bullets sure to penetrate.
Whenever I write about guns for hogs, I'm sure to get letters from guys who scoff that "they always shoot them in the head" with .223s, and/or from dog hunters, who dispatch them at close range with handguns. Yes, over bait, and with hounds, shot distances can be controlled and, with head shots, it doesn’t much matter what you use. I've taken hogs cleanly with the little .22 Hornet, and plenty with .223s.
Boar (or bear) with me a bit more. California hog hunting isn't important to most readers, but it's a different deal. All "big game" rules apply. We're not allowed to bait, and legal shooting hours apply. These things change the game. Because of periodic drought, our hogs are sort of self-limiting. The population builds up and crashes, so our hogs are generally not the "problem" they are elsewhere. Dogs are legal, but terrain and habitat support spot-and-stalk hunting, the most common technique.
Every pig must be tagged. You can buy as many tags as you wish. Resident tags are now $25, so nobody buys a bunch. Now a nonresident, I pay $87 per tag—one at a time—and I'm careful how I use it. Different mind-set: California hunters don't wade into a sounder trying to control numbers. We look for the biggest, tastiest sow we can find, or we look for a mature boar with good tusks.
In spot-and-stalk hunting, you get as close as you can, but you can't control the shot. Since we're always for bigger hogs, we tend to use plenty of gun. Let's turn that to the hog hunting done in Texas and the Southeast, often over bait. Instead of looking for any pig and hoping to take several, consider that you're "trophy hunting," looking for one big hog. Over bait, you know that a big boar is likely to come out last, and be nervous and wary as light fades. Head shots aren't as certain. Let's confine this discussion to body shots that put the hog down quickly.
ENOUGH GUN AND BULLET
My friend Chad Wiebe is one of several local Central Coast outfitters, making much of his living guiding hog hunters. I was talking to him the other day, and he reckoned one in four hogs needed to be followed up. Chad uses awesome Jack Russells, reducing danger and increasing recovery, but absent trained dogs, it's tough.
Because of thick skin underlain by fat, pigs typically leave little blood trail, and the chaparral brush is dense. Our local hospitals get customers cut up by pigs every year. It's better to take them down quickly. Preferably on the spot, although that's impossible to guarantee with body shots.
Since hogs are my bullet-testing laboratory, I've taken them with just about everything up to .470 Nitro Express. Great fun, but not necessary. Our local outfitters are nervous about 6mms, and I'm not enthused about the .25s. I've taken big boars with both the .250 Savage and .257 Roberts, but their 100- to 120-grain bullets are on the light side.
Hogs are fairly stalkable, so even in open country, shots average maybe 100 yards. I like to hunt them with older "medium" cartridges: .35 Remington, .348 and .358 Winchester. However, none of these cartridges are common, nor are they necessary. I like to see a minimum 140-grain bullet, so the 6.5 Creedmoor and 7mm-08 are just fine.
My hog-hunting mentor, Mike Ballew up at the old Dye Creek Ranch, guided for hundreds of hogs. A hater of recoil, he hunted deer with .25s, but for hogs he carried a big gun. His concept of "big gun" was a 7x57 or .270, both plenty for any hog. At close range, the venerable .30-30 is deadly on hogs. Better are the old .300 Savage and the great .308 Winchester, but there are no flies on the .30-06, a big gun on any boar.
In all calibers, use tough bullets. Bonded core bullets aren't essential, but offer both high weight retention and large expansion. Or, homogenous-alloy bullets. They don't expand as much, but offer deep penetration—usually through-and-through on broadside shots.
California hunters have a weird advantage: We are required to use unleaded bullets. Honestly, the deep-penetrating copper-alloy bullets are almost too tough for our small-bodied blacktails and smaller pigs, but they come into their own on big hogs. Except, we have had to have a mind-set shift. Americans love the behind-the-shoulder lung shot. But it's not the best shot on big hogs, and definitely not with copper bullets. Encountering little resistance, they zip in and out, fatal but with minimal damage, small exit wounds and little blood to follow.
My recommendation on big hogs: Shift to the center of the shoulder, about one-third up from the brisket-belly line. An expanding lead-core bullet of adequate weight will break the on-shoulder and wreck the chest cavity, but probably won't exit. A copper-alloy bullet won't do as much damage inside, but will often break the off-shoulder and exit. Either way, center the shoulder and a big boar is likely to drop to the shot, and stay down.
These days, everybody wants flat-shooting aerodynamic bullets, but hogs are usually taken at closer ranges. Too many of us have forgotten the magic of the round-nosed bullet. Blunt-nosed bullets deal a heavier initial blow with quicker initial expansion. It was the old-fashioned round-nose that gave the .30-30 its reputation on deer.
Initial loads for Remington's new .360 Buckhammer, introduced in the tubular-magazine Henry, feature good old round-nosed Core-Lokt, the same bullet with which the .35 Remington made its bones. I shot a Texas boar with the Buckhammer in light that was so poor I could barely make out the shoulder. The 200-grain round-nose dropped him on the spot.
The most impressive results I've ever seen on big pigs: Daughter Brittany and I got into a place in Australia that was overrun with big boars, shooting her Ruger No. One in .405 Winchester. Its 300-grain bullet is light for caliber and slow at 2200 fps, but wow. Hornady was loading both semi-spitzer and traditional round-nose Interlocks. Both worked, but the impact and greater expansion of the round-noses was amazing. Not one hog moved a single step. The old .45-70 with modern loads is equally impressive.
Common unleaded bullets are usually spitzers, and there aren't unleaded options for some older cartridges. So, round-noses may not exist but, where practical, consider going old-school. You’ll be surprised at the difference.
If that isn't possible, never forget that bullet weight covers up many sins in bullet construction. In 6.5s, .270s, and 7mms, you'll probably be shooting 130- to 140-grain bullets. In .30-calibers, 150-grainers are most common, but Sectional Density (SD) is poor. The 150-grain bullets work fine, but heavier bullets are more impressive.
Shot placement remains the most important thing. Focus on that big, brawny shoulder and use a bullet that will surely penetrate. And don't forget that pigs are tough. If he isn't down, shoot again. You really don't want to follow a big boar into thick stuff.