We Use Straight-Wall Cartridges at NDA’s Back40 Deer Hunts. Here’s Our Experience.

June 26, 2024 By: Hank Forester
straight wall cartridges

My first deer hunt with a straight-wall cartridge was December 28, 2020. It was a cold day in Michigan, at least to my standards, and the Back40 property was mostly dormant with a light dusting of snow. I was there with Mark Kenyon of Wired to Hunt / MeatEater and our CEO Nick Pinizzotto. Mark was “handing over the keys” to the Back40 to the National Deer Association. That evening, we each tagged a doe during the late antlerless season: Nick with a .44 Remington Magnum, Mark with a .350 Legend, and I used a borrowed .450 Bushmaster. Though it was my introduction to straight-wall cartridges, Mark was already a fan and advocate.

“Where I live, in the ‘limited firearm zone’ of Southern Michigan, standard center fire rifles aren’t legal to use for deer hunting,” said Mark. “For years, I had to stash my .308 Winchester bolt-action and instead settle for slug guns and muzzleloaders. All of this changed when Michigan legalized rifles using straight-wall cartridges. Instantly my hunting buddies and I had a firearm option that was clean, convenient to use, deadly accurate, and with improved range.”

Growing Adoption 

Straight-wall cartridges are nothing new. In fact, the first metallic cartridges were straight-walls. By 1873, the U.S. Army had adopted the immortal straight-wall rifle cartridge, the .45-70 Government that is still on ammunition shelves and gun store racks today. As cartridge design and performance improved along with rifle actions and barrels, bottle-necked cartridges and sleek, spitzer bullets became the standard. 

straight wall cartridges
A CVA .350 Legend in use at an NDA Field to Fork training day.

In Michigan’s case, the Natural Resources Commission approved a measure to allow the use of straight-walled cartridges in what was traditionally their “Shotgun Zone” creating their “Limited Firearm Deer Zone” ahead of the 2014 season. This zone, the southern half and most populated areas of Michigan, could now hunt deer with shotguns, muzzleloaders and straight-walled pistols and rifles. It’s important to note, Michigan regulation requires a straight-wall cartridge be at least .35 caliber and have a case length between 1.16 and 1.80 inches. So, a .45-70 and some of the longer straight-walls are not legal for deer hunting. Similar measures allowing straight-wall cartridges have been adopted in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania and are ever expanding. 

Drew Gilby, a lead volunteer on the Back40, is an avid deer hunter and mentor to new hunters who has seen the advantages of straight-walls. “Prior to straight-wall cartridges, Michigan hunters’ options were shotguns or muzzleloaders,” said Drew. “Both have a steep learning curve, substantial recoil, and limited range. The greatest advantage of the straight-wall cartridge is their ease of use, efficiency, and accuracy, allowing hunters, especially new hunters, to be proficient, ethical, and have confidence as hunters.”

Modern Straight-Wall Cartridges

Afield today, there are two major contenders for the most popular straight-walled cartridge for deer hunting: the .450 Bushmaster and .350 Legend. According to Backfire, the .450 Bushmaster ranks in the top-ten of all rifle cartridge Google searches and online ammunition sales, and I’m surprised the .350 Legend isn’t right there with it. 

straight wall cartridges
Straight-wall cartridges flank either side of a bottle-necked cartridge. L-R: .350 Legend, 7mm-08 Remington and .450 Bushmaster.

The .450 Bushmaster was introduced in 2007 as a “thumper” round, a large .45 caliber cartridge that could fit in an AR platform for more knockdown power and hunting large game at limited distance. Think 250-grain plus pistol bullet going a little over 2,000 feet per second. It’s basically a refined slug gun. When straight-wall cartridges were approved for deer hunting in these limited zones, the .450 Bushmaster was likely the round in mind and was sitting on the sideline ready for action. The .450 Bushmaster got the head start and proved to be a very effective deer cartridge out to 200 yards or so. It has one drawback: it can be a “thumper” on both ends.

After witnessing the adoption of the .450 Bushmaster and its new relevancy, Winchester set out to create an improved straight-wall cartridge that fit the modern deer hunter and legal requirements. In 2019, Winchester introduced the .350 Legend, and it has been quickly adopted by deer hunters inside the limited zones and even some outside those zones. Shrinking the projectile to .35 caliber and operating at higher pressure came with advantages in increased velocity, decreased bullet drop and decreased recoil. The .350 Legend typically launches a 160- to 180-grain bullet around 2,200 feet per second and is also designed to operate in AR platforms which adds to popularity. While I prefer a bolt action rifle for deer hunting, many Michigan deer hunters use AR-type rifles in .350 Legend and .450 Bushmaster with success. 

Offerings continue to grow. We now have the .360 Buckhammer introduced by Remington seemingly to take advantage of lever guns. There’s also the .400 Legend introduced by Winchester which splits the difference between the .350 Legend and .450 Bushmaster. 

The straight-wall .350 Legend and .450 Bushmaster compare favorably with the .308 and .243 out to 100 yards before the difference in bullet drop becomes noticeable.

Straight-Wall Cartridges at the Back40 

When our committee began planning our first Field to Fork events around the Back40 property in 2021, it was quickly decided to take advantage of Michigan’s early antlerless rifle season which allows hunters to harvest does in late September with rifles. For the last three years, we’ve trained our new hunters in late August and take them all on their first hunt the Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning of their early antlerless season on the Back40 and a network of mentor’s property around the area. 

Most of the NDA volunteer mentors who guide new hunters on the Back40 use straight-wall cartridges themselves. Here, NDA volunteer mentor Cory Franceus helps Clement Sagan practice with a CVA Scout .350 Legend.

We reached out to CVA while gearing up for the program, and they donated six of their Scout rifles in .350 Legend. As the person sighting in the rifles after adding Vortex scopes, shooting these short, light, single shot rifles was a pleasurable experience. I believe all of our new hunters would similarly report. We have yet to have a new hunter who wasn’t able to quickly learn to shoot our .350 Legends with the proficiency necessary to hunt. We’ve witnessed this prowess on the range and afield. With this direction, our Michigan Field to Forks set their core events as organized hunts during their early antlerless, general rifle and late antlerless seasons utilizing straight-wall cartridges. Most all of our mentors own their own .350 Legend or .450 Bushmaster, often both, and our new hunters often use their guns which are more often bolt-action rifles from Savage or Ruger. 

I typically don’t mentor hunters during the antlerless seasons at the Back40, but I’ve found a sweet spot of covering the property and mentoring on opening day of the general rifle season so most of our local mentors can enjoy their opening day. It’s fun to come be a part of the great Michigan deer hunting culture during that time. There’s blaze orange everywhere and even Buck Poles, which are foreign to us southern hunters. I have a great streak going. I’ve sat with a new hunter five times on the Back40, and we’ve brought home a deer each time – four does and the first buck off the Back40 under our management. 

The light, short, low-recoil rifles are perfect for new deer hunters. We have yet to have a new hunter who wasn’t able to quickly learn to shoot our .350 Legends with the proficiency necessary to hunt. Jessica Sorrentino shows off her success with a .350 Legend. She was coached by NDA volunteer mentor Mike Franceus.

All of these deer were taken with .350 Legends or .450 Bushmasters and none went more than 80 yards after the shot. Craig Towers and I sat in the “Honey Hole” on the Back40 on opening day of rifle season in 2022, and Craig shot his first buck that morning in a field of tall native grass with one of our CVA .350 Legends. I knew it was a good hit and after looking for blood for what seemed like forever, maybe an hour, we found the buck dead in the field. As someone who usually takes pride in their blood trailing abilities, I continued to look for blood and even backtracked the deer’s trail only to confirm he didn’t bleed anywhere I was able to identify. 

Craig Towers with his first buck. He shot it with a .350 Legend while hunting with the author.

This was too common with the .350 Legend and the soft-point lead bullets we were using at the time. The bullets were effective, but they weren’t exiting and leaving good blood trails on most deer. For the 2023 season, as ammunition became more available, we switched to using Barnes copper bullets in our .350 Legends. Since making the switch, I don’t think we’ve had a single instance where the bullet hasn’t exited, and they’ve proven to be equally as effective at bringing home the venison if not more. 

I’ve also mentored for a few deer with the .450 Bushmaster, and it’s always been effective. The doe I shot back in 2020 dropped at the shot, and so did the first one Emily Barrett shot in 2022. On opening day last year, Kayode Ijalana shot his first two deer with a .450 Bushmaster which also had a suppressor installed. Now that makes a good combination other than being about the size of a boat paddle. Close to the first thing Kayode said after shooting his first deer was a comment about how little recoil he felt. Kayode had first tried deer hunting with a 12-gauge slug gun, so between that and the added suppressor, the comments made sense. He made two perfect heart/lung shots that punched through two mature does and left perfect 40-yard blood trails that opening day. 

In three seasons, the 64-acre Back40 has provided 11 does and two bucks to our Field to Fork hunters’ tables, 10 with the .350 Legend and three with the .450 Bushmaster. 

Kayode Ijalana shot hist first deer ever with a .450 Bushmaster with a suppressor attachment. This deer and his second doe went 40 yards each before piling up.

When to Consider Straight-Wall Cartridges 

Modern straight-wall cartridges are pretty sweet, and the opportunity they create is even sweeter. As someone who has hunted with slug guns that like to split eyebrows, and muzzleloaders that are dirty, finicky, and hard to see past when fired, I understand their adoption and popularity. Am I ready to trade in my 7mm-08 Remington for deer hunting in the Southeast? Probably not, but when given the opportunity to hunt and take new hunters afield in a “limited” zone, there’s no doubt the modern straight-walls are the ticket. If I was buying a rifle for a recoil-sensitive deer hunter, I wouldn’t overlook a .350 Legend, no matter where you live.