By: Tom Lounsbury.
In June 2014, Michigan’s Natural Resource Commission (NRC) changed what was once known as the “Shotgun Zone” into the “Limited Firearms Zone”, which would allow centerfire rifles chambered for straight-wall rounds .35 caliber or larger, with a minimum case length of 1.16 inches and a maximum case length of 1.80 inches. This law relates to case length only and not overall cartridge length.
The law is designed to allow deer hunters in southern Michigan more diversity in firearm selection, as well as better accuracy and to also offer lighter weight rifles featuring less recoil for slighter framed individuals and youth hunters. Yep, folks, I was quite excited to the core to get into the act of deer hunting in my Thumb area with a rifle firing one of the allowed calibers.
The minimum case length of 1.16 inches is that of the .44 S&W Special and the maximum case length of 1.80 inches is that of the .460 S&W Magnum. Some old rounds certainly qualify such as the .351 Winchester.
A cartridge which has become highly popular in Michigan’s Limited Firearms Zone is the .450 Bushmaster. This is a relatively new rifle round originally designed by Hornady for the semi-auto AR-15 platform (the .450 Bushmaster and .223 rounds have an identical overall cartridge length when placed side by side). Having a (rimless) straight-wall case length of 1.70 inches and using (per Hornady) a 250-grain bullet, it is truly a top performer out to 300 yards. Besides the AR-15 platform, custom bolt-action rifles also became available, but were on the pricey side.
I fully credit Randy Brown of Randy’s Hunting Center in Bad Axe, Michigan for changing all that by working with Ruger officials to bring out a quality and very affordable bolt-action rifle in .450 Bushmaster, which would occur just before the 2016 Firearms Deer Season. Randy also worked with Leupold Optics to specifically design a scope for this rifle and round, where when the correct yardage is clicked in, the shot will hit exactly at point of aim out to 300 yards.
For the first few months, this rifle was exclusively sold only by Randy’s Hunting Center which experienced an immediate and overwhelming response with hunters coming from all over southern Michigan (and even from out of state) to purchase one. When it first became available, I had an opportunity to test fire one (thanks to a loaner from Randy) on my shooting range, and I was thoroughly impressed by its performance using the 250 grain Hornady rounds, with the rifle featuring a short bolt-throw and smooth feed. My example lacked a muzzle brake, and I was surprised by what I considered a mild recoil on the order of a 20 ga shotgun. A proper muzzle brake certainly tames the recoil even more, making this an ideal caliber for even lighter framed individuals, including youth hunters.
It didn’t take other firearms manufacturers long to realize the popularity of the .450 Bushmaster round, and it is now available through many arms manufacturers. There is also a wide selection of ammunition (and bullet weights) and I look at the .450 Bushmaster as being an ideal “Michigan round” because it is legal statewide, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it for hunting black bears and even elk.
One of my favorite rounds for deer hunting in the Thumb is the .44 Magnum (case length 1.285 inches). Typically considered a 100-yard rifle round (which will cover most Michigan whitetail encounters), I found it to be extremely accurate (even for “threading the needle” through holes in the brush) and quite efficient in putting tenacious whitetails down for the count. I’ve taken several whitetails with this round in a rifle, and all were one-shot kills. However, due to the heavy cover I prefer to hunt, none of my shots ever exceeded 75 yards. Being a lever-action fan, my favorite deer rifle is a .44 Magnum Henry Big Boy Steel Carbine that I have topped with a 1 – 4X Leupold scope, which I believe is ideal optics for .44 Magnum ballistics. This combination is a top performer in my preferred hunting environment.
My granddaughter McKenna Lounsbury thoroughly appreciates her .44 Magnum (which can also shoot .44 S&W Special) H&R single-shot rifle topped with a 2X scope. She was very recoil sensitive, truly disliking the recoil of a 20 ga, and at age 11, she shot her first deer using .44 S&W Special handloads, which offered a very mild recoil in her rifle. She would use the .44 Magnum round the following year to bag her second deer, during which she didn’t notice any extra recoil, because I had neglected to tell her she wasn’t firing the .44 S&W Special in her rifle anymore. She discovered her Grandpa Tom could be a bit sneaky when required, and she has confidently taken deer annually ever since with the .44 Magnum round, and all have been one-shot kills.
In January 2019, Winchester unveiled their new .350 Legend round, as well as a bolt-action rifle chambered for it. The .350 Legend is a straight wall cartridge designed to fill a particular niche which offers top performance with less recoil than the .450 Bushmaster round. Touted as being effective out to 200 yards and slightly beyond, it quickly became quite popular with southern Michigan deer hunters. I’m fully aware of deer which have readily succumbed to well-placed shots from a .350 legend rifle at the 200-yard mark.
In 2022, Remington brought out the .360 Buckhammer cartridge which uses the same bullets as the old and proven .35 Remington round (which I used to shoot my first black bear many years ago). This new straight-wall cartridge is basically the rimmed .30-30 round necked out to.358 caliber. Henry USA was quick to bring out the “Big Boy” steel lever-action rifle in .360 Buckhammer, and I must admit it is a beautiful combination for deer hunting in southern Michigan, offering a bit of power-hitting “reach” in a nostalgic piece. Yep, folks, I’m getting a bit green-eyed about that package, and I might have to write it down on my Christmas list for Santa!
In early 2023, Winchester brought out the .400 Legend, so there is obviously a “straight-wall” cartridge revolution going on, thanks to states having shotgun zones changed to limited firearms zones, with the most recent being Illinois. The round all other calibers tend to get compared to is without question, the .450 Bushmaster, and I’ve found it is the most popular choice with southern Michigan deer hunters. I’ve taken several local whitetails with my Mossberg Patriot rifle in .450 Bushmaster, and it is an outstanding performer in this arena.
With all the hype these days about long-range efficiency in some centerfire rounds, the straight-wall cartridges are mid-range performers. From all the evidence I’ve witnessed since the Limited Firearms Zone came into being in 2014, the new law is performing quite well as designed and it has created a lot of happy southern Michigan deer hunting fans due to its added diversity to the effective firearms now allowed.
Yep, folks, it certainly works for me!