America's Top 10 Big Game Cartridges
September 19, 2016
I hate to begin an article by apologizing. So I won't. If you're of sensitive nature and protective of your favorite cartridge, now may be the time to skip to the next article.
The following is a list of cartridges that have earned the right to inclusion by being very, very good at what they do. It's not a list of my favorite cartridges: I admittedly have dubious practical taste. Rather, this is a list of big-game cartridges that have proven worthy on no uncertain terms.
I anticipate the most consternation will come from lovers of the .243 Winchester, the classic .30-30 Winchester, and the Wee-08'¦I mean .308 Winchester. Because, you see, when it comes to really, truly capable big-game cartridges, those don't make the cut.
Let's just get that out in the open. But, please, before you fire up the tar and gather the feathers, keep in mind that while I stand behind what I write, my tongue is planted firmly in cheek as I peck away at my keyboard.
Without further ado, here is a look at 10 cartridges I consider the most legitimately capable big-game rounds available today, spanning the spectrum from light deer and antelope cartridges up to an honest big bear stopper.
At the price of more recoil and a lot less barrel life, the 6.5-284 does everything the 6.5 Creedmoor does in the field and does it better. Handloaders wanting a high-performance 6.5mm rifle gain a solid 250 fps by stepping up to the 6.5-284, which is about the same jump gained by going from a .30-06 to a .300 Win. Mag.
This cartridge is included here for one reason: It has proven to be one of the most capable options for long-range hunting, which is the biggest trend on western America's hunting scene. Whether you detest the practice of sniping big game at extended distances or you idolize the TV practitioners that promote such hunting methods matters not for the sake of this discussion.
The cartridge can get it done without breaking a sweat. Don't believe cartridges sweat? Try and get your .308 to keep up with the fellow shooting one-MOA steel targets all the way to 1,200 yards with his 6.5-284.
I don't have space here to crunch comparison numbers, but a few minutes spent on a good ballistic calculator will show that the 6.5-284 smokes most popular hunting cartridges in terms of retained weight and minimal wind drift at extreme distances.
Lots of hunters exercising their right to shoot game at distances that would bulge the eyes of our forefathers choose to do so with Berger VLD Hunting bullets — and with great success in most cases. Respectfully, I submit that projectiles engineered to provide predictable expansion and controlled weight loss are superior, particularly those long-range super-bullets such as Hornady's new ELD-X and Nosler's AccuBond Long Range.
As with the 6.5 Creedmoor, bullets in the 120- to 140-grain weight range work superbly on deer-size game. When stepping up to heavier game, a 140-grain projectile designed for controlled expansion and deep penetration is much better.
How far is too far? Assuming you're rifleman enough to put your first shot into the vital zone every time, the cartridge has what it takes to kill cleanly at 1,000 yards and beyond. No offense, but most of y'all just aren't. So even if you own and hunt with a super-accurate 6.5-284, exercise your ethics and keep it practical.
7mm Remington Magnum
I am a reluctant admirer of this cartridge. It couldn't be excluded from this roundup even if I weren't, since it's one of the most popular big-game cartridges. I've come to respect it tremendously.
Oddly, with light-for-caliber bullets in the 140- and even 150-grain range,
it doesn't offer eyebrow-raising performance increases over mundane cartridges, such as the .30-06 or .270, with similar-weight projectiles. However, when the bullets get heavy, the "Seven Mag" gets going. Judicious handloads can push 168-grain Bergers, 175-grain Nosler Partitions and Hornady ELD-Xs, and Berger 180-grain bullets at capable velocities, making it one of the finest everyman's long-distance cartridges.
Until a few years ago, I was an all-American .30-caliber man, my gaggingly long Austrian name notwithstanding. While I still revere .308-diameter projectiles for their many outstanding characteristics, diligent application eventually revealed to me (I'm slow, but I get there) that 7mm (.284) diameter bullets are inherently more aerodynamic, at least in common weights, than their slightly fatter cousins.
I do think the magnum versions of those fatter cousins still hit harder, courtesy of a larger frontal diameter and increased bullet weight, but for the average guy — and even the accomplished rifleman — the 7mm Rem. Mag. is easier to shoot by virtue of less recoil.
Some old-timers have a sour taste over the 7mm Rem. Mag. In the early years it quickly developed a reputation for poor killing ability, which wasn't a fault of the cartridge at all. Rather, it stemmed from ammo manufacturers loading soft, thin-jacketed hunting bullets designed for the much-slower 7x57 Mauser
cartridge into the 7mm Rem. Mag. On impact, they tended to blow to bits, resulting in huge craters and little penetration. Long blood trails and extensive meat loss did little to endear the cartridge to traditional American hunters.
Today, it's much better understood, and when stoked with a long, sleek, high-BC bullet designed for high velocities, it's probably the most practical long-range hunting cartridge available.
While its much older, more established, smaller 7mm brother is arguably the most practical long-range hunting cartridge available, the 28 Nosler is arguably the best of the best — if you walk practicality off the metaphorical plank.
It pushes a 175-grain Nosler ABLR or Hornady ELD-X at 3,125 fps, and does so from a standard-length action. Yes, there are faster cartridges, such as the 7mm Remington Ultra Mag, but none offer quite the ideal balance of usability and performance that the 28 Nosler does.
The 28 Nosler isn't a new concept. Gunwerks's 7mm LRM is very similar, and like-performing wildcats abound. All Nosler did was perfect (arguably, of course) the non-belted, standard-length magnum 7mm.
Of all the cartridges on this list, the 28 Nosler is the only one not proven by at least a half-decade of use and is the only one too young to have earned the stamp of popular approval. So I'm going out on a limb a bit by including it. What I like about it is the refined design (I really do think it's the best of the standard-length modern magnums), plus the fact that Nosler brass is typically very consistent, favoring accuracy. And, of course, it's in my favorite far-shooting bullet diameter: 7mm.
With light 7mm bullets the 28 Nosler puts lasers to shame. With heavy Partitions and X-type bullets, it penetrates like a depth charge. But in light of what it's really good at, one may as well just go with a heavy, aerodynamic hunting bullet and use it for everything. There's not a hooved animal on the North American continent that it's not prime for.
.300 Winchester Magnum
.300 Winchester Magnum
For the fella that can handle the recoil and doesn't mind spending the extra money on ammo, the .300 Win. Mag. is arguably the best worldwide big-game cartridge there is. For such a hunter, it's a better choice than the glorious .30-06, just because it carries more energy downrange and shoots a bit flatter. Plus, the .300 Win. Mag. excels with long, heavy, aerodynamic bullets that hold on to velocity and buck the wind beautifully, making it capable as far out as a good rifleman can keep his shots in the vitals.
For many decades, the 7mm Rem. Mag. held the spot as the most popular magnum cartridge available. A decade or so ago the gap closed, and according to many polls, the .300 Win. Mag. has now edged to the front. Were I pressed to guess why, I'd say that the bigger cartridge just kills a little faster, probably a product of the greater frontal diameter. I've shot a lot of game with my favorite .300, ranging from 40-pound steenbok to 1,200-pound moose and rarely do properly hit animals go farther than a step or two.
Another advantage the .300 Win. Mag. shares with the .30-06 and 7mm Rem. Mag. is the availability of ammunition worldwide. The last time I went to Africa, my baggage was lost for a couple of days. No problem: I borrowed a pocketful of the outfitter's outstanding 200-grain Norma Oryx handloads and went hunting. A big blue wildebeest fell to that bullet before my baggage arrived.
Speaking of bullets, there's little one can't accomplish with a good 180-grain pill from a .30-caliber magnum, but don't neglect the heavier projectiles. One of my favorites is the 200-grain Nosler AccuBond.
Another is the new 200-grain Hornady ELD-X. With it I dropped an old aoudad ram with one shot at 641 yards; it's become my go-to long-distance bullet. (Note that for me a very long shot on game is 600 yards. I don't promote extreme-range shooting at game.) As for factory loads, I've had incredibly good results using Federal's 180-grain Trophy Bonded Tip; it gave me 13 one-shot kills in Africa after my luggage arrived.
Much as I respect the .30-06 and the 7mm Rem. Mag., if I had to choose one big-game cartridge to hunt the world with for the rest of my life, I'd opt for the .300 Win. Mag.
This is the cartridge the .243 Winchester always wished it could be. Offering outstanding velocities and just enough bullet weight to be really effective, at a very polite price in recoil, the .25-06 is one of the finest deer and pronghorn antelope cartridges ever devised.
With bullets in the 75- to 87- grain range, it's also superb for predators. But I digress. Choose a sleek bullet in the 110- to 117-grain range, which will exit the muzzle of your favorite deer slayer somewhere between 3,000 and 3,100 fps, and never look back. You'll be able to reach out to 400-plus yards — if you're rifleman enough to do so ethically — with outstanding effect.
As for the bigger game, well, the .25-06 is not as good as the larger-diameter bullets flung by other cartridges on this list. But with a 115-grain Nosler Partition, it will do for caribou and elk as long as good shot presentations are taken.
.280 Ackley Improved
For the chap who pines for magnum performance but clings to the advantages of a standard-size cartridge (greater magazine capacity, less recoil, more efficient powder usage, less costly brass, longer barrel life), the .280 Ackley Improved is a wonder drug.
By blowing out the case walls to a straighter taper and the case shoulder to a much steeper angle, P.O. Ackley (who was the master of the improved cartridge case) turned the languishing .280 Remington into a fire-breathing dragon capable of 7mm Rem. Mag.-like performance.
Stoked with healthy charges of Reloder 19 or 22 under a 150-grain Barnes TTSX or 160-grain Nosler AccuBond, the .280 AI smokes big bull elk like a Sicilian crime lord smokes a Cuban cigar — there just shouldn't be that much pure goodness in such a compact package. I dropped what was at the time my biggest bull with one well-placed shot at 519 yards with the 150-grain TTSX, which exits the muzzle of my custom rifle at 3,060 fps. For electrocuting whitetails in their tracks inside 400 yards, load a 140-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip, Hornady SST, or Sierra GameKing at 3,150 fps.
Better yet, the .280 AI is a legitimate long-range performer. Hornady's Joe Theilen shoots one in 1,000-yard benchrest competition with outstanding success. Loaded with a premium .284-diameter match projectile, such as Barnes Bullets's 171-grain Match Burner or Hornady's 162-grain A-Max, it comfortably gets the job done to 1,200 yards.
Want to take your match-shooting skills across No Man's Land into the murky realm of long-range hunting? Load your .280 AI with Hornady's new 162- or 175-grain ELD-X match-accurate hunting bullets and never look back.
Not versatile, you say? Au contraire! Courtesy of the genius of Ackley's design, you can safely and effectively fire garden-variety .280 Remington ammo in your .280 AI rifle. In fact, that's the least expensive way to produce appropriate brass for your improved chamber. That little characteristic has pulled more than one wandering adventurer molested by the unreliability of the airline out of a slump and put him back in the hunting game. Plus, Nosler loads factory .280 AI ammo for those who don't handload.
.338 Winchester Magnum
Really, all you need to know about this great cartridge is that the late, great Elmer Keith loved it and living legend Dave Petzal loves it. I recently asked Craig Boddington, who is arguably the most experienced dangerous-game hunter/writer alive, if he considers the .338 Win. Mag. to be a legitimate big bear stopper. (Most cartridges will kill a bear; few will stop one bent on killing you before he bites your scalp off.)
Boddington replied with an emphatic yes and pointed out that although bore diameter (.338) is a significant 0.037-inch smaller than the .375 H&H Magnum, the .338 Win. Mag. drives a 250-grain projectile at 2,700 fps or better, which matches the velocity of 260-grain bullets out of the bigger magnum.
And with such bullets, it offers better sec-tional density (0.313 vs. 0.264). In fact, the 250-grain .338 projectile betters even 300-grain .375 bullets, which boast an already-impressive sectional density of 0.305. In English, that means that heavy .338 Win. Mag. bullets will penetrate like the proverbial runaway freight train.
Loaded with a heavy Nosler Partition, Barnes TSX, Hornady GMX, Swift A-Frame, or the like, the .338 Win. Mag. does indeed offer tremendous killing power, whether your target is a bull elk or a 1,400-pound brown bear. Plus, it's more versatile than the .375 H&H for several reasons. It shoots flatter, courtesy of higher muzzle velocity, and is more suitable for shots stretching past 250 yards. Additionally, it can be loaded with lighter bullets in the 185- to 200-grain range at 3,000 to 3,200 fps, making it a flat-shooting deer rifle. Handloaders wishing to stretch their lethal distance have long-range bullets designed for the .338 Lapua at their disposal.
I've said that a good .300 Win. Mag. teamed with a reliable .375 H&H sets a hunter up to hunt any game around the world. But if you're not a world traveler, there's a better way. Pair a reliable .338 Win. Mag. with a fine, accurate deer rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5x284 Norma, or .280 Ackley Improved, and you'll be well equipped to hunt anything that walks the North American continent.
Although there are younger, more modern cartridges that outpace the classic .270 Winchester at extreme ranges, I've long said that Jack O'Connor's favorite is still one of the very best deer cartridges.
Some folks like to talk about shot placement and how with the right shot presentation even a .223 will kill a moose stone dead. Me, I like to be able to kill big, heavy-boned, densely muscled deer from any angle, should the need arise. That means shooting a cartridge that throws enough lead and throws it hard.
The .270 is one such cartridge. Loaded with a premium hunting bullet, such as a Nosler Partition, Barnes TTSX, Hornady GMX, or Swift Scirocco II, a savvy hunter can rake his bullet through the hip and into the vitals of a buck — even a big muley in the Rockies or a bulky whitetail in Alberta — and be confident that it's got what it takes to kill cleanly.
You may argue that ethical hunters take only clean shot presentations. You're right, of course. Thing is, shooting the right cartridge and bullet broadens the definition of clean, ethical presentations considerably, which can be heartening when the biggest buck you've ever seen is about to disappear into a thicket on the last evening of a hunt you've saved a decade for.
By and large, most game in America is shot inside of 200 yards, and no cartridge is more capable than the .30-06 for that use. This old warhorse is America's most popular hunting cartridge — hard to believe considering that it's well over 100 years old. It earned that title the hard way, and maintains it the same way, by proving year in and year out that for all-around use, it can't be beat.
Past 200 yards the faster .30s begin to edge it out because they carry more energy, but in the hands of a skillful rifleman the old '06 is ideal for deer, antelope, caribou, elk, and moose out to 300 yards or so. And, yes, many deer and elk are taken well in excess of that each year. I'm not saying that it can't do it; it's just that past 300 yards there are cartridges that do it better.
Many hunters opt to shoot the lighter 150- and 165-grain bullets in their .30-06s, and they work great on deer-size game. However, where the '06 really shines is with 180-grain projectiles (and here's where it really pulls away from the .308). Heavier bullets have far better aerodynamics and offer considerably higher sectional densities — which is a measure that, all other factors being equal, predicts the penetrating ability of a projectile. While heavy bullets start out a bit slower than their lighter siblings, they hold on to velocity better and soon overtake them, thus offering considerable more on-impact authority downrange courtesy of their heavier mass.
Handloading the .30-06 can boost performance. Most 180-grain factory loads produce about 2,700 fps; a good handload can add 50 to 100 fps to that. My favorite bullets for the .30-06 are Nosler's 180-grain AccuBond, Swift's 180-grain Scirocco II, Sierra's 180-grain GameKing, Barnes's 180-grain TTSX, and, last but not least, Federal's 180-grain Trophy Bonded Tip. That last one may be the best of them all, but it's unfortunately available only in factory-loaded form.
Originally designed as a 1,000-yard match cartridge, this super-efficient little round quickly caught on among savvy, precision-minded hunters that want good performance at low recoil. Designed by a national champion long-distance shooter (Dennis DeMille) and the Einstein of modern cartridge development (Dave Emary), the 6.5 Creedmoor nips at the heels of the superb 6.5-284 but is less finicky in the accuracy department and offers substantially greater barrel life.
Of all the cartridges discussed here, the 6.5 Creedmoor, in my opinion, is the most inherently accurate. I've never met one that wouldn't shoot one-MOA groups, and many of them will halve that, even with factory ammunition.
While the 6.5 Creedmoor pushes the long, aerodynamic 140-grain projectiles so popular among its followers at around 2,720 fps — a full 220 fps slower than a .270 Winchester shoots the same weight — the sleek 6.5 bullets hang on to velocity much more efficiently.
As distances increase, the 6.5 gains on the .270 and eventually passes it. In other words, at long range the 140-grain 6.5 Creedmoor bullet is both going faster and has better sectional density than the 140-grain .270 bullet and will impact with more authority. Now, that's a tunnel-vision comparison of two superb cartridges, but it serves to illustrate the effectiveness of this little short-action 6.5mm.
While many deer and more than a few elk fall each year to Hornady's ultra-accurate 140-grain A-Max 6.5mm match bullet, hunters are better off with a bullet actually designed for terminal performance on big game. Choose a 120- to 143-grain version that your gun likes for use on deer and pronghorn-size game. Should you wish to push the 6.5's boundaries and hunt elk-size game with it, opt for a tough 140-grain bullet designed for controlled expansion, such as a Nosler Partition or AccuBond or a Swift A-Frame, or a homogeneous Barnes 120-grain TTSX or Hornady 120-grain GMX.