It’s a question I hear often, and one with many correct answers: “What is the best all-around cartridge for North American big-game hunting?” Hunting styles have changed, the quality optics available to us make longer shots a reality, and modern bullets have done nothing but helped our cause. Still, ‘all-around’ can be a subjective term, and one which can easily ignite argument. We have a very wide selection of different cartridges, with a ton of overlap in performance, so as I pick the five cartridges I consider to be at the top of the heap, it doesn’t mean that all others are useless or unnecessary.
I use some cartridges simply because they are fun or nostalgic, and while they work, they might not make an all-around choice. And, as an all-around cartridge, I feel the cartridge needs to be able to fit the bill on shots near and far, on game big and small. So, in the name of ammunition availability (remember when the shelves were full?) and overall performance, here are my top five selections for North American big-game species, from hogs, deer and antelope to moose, elk and bears.
1. .30-06 Springfield Well, I hope you saw that coming. Born a military cartridge, this is a revision of the short-lived .30-03 Springfield, yet the 1906 design has certainly been getting it done in the hunting fields for well over a century. Bullet weights run from the very light 110-grain pills (usually reserved for the .30 M1 carbine) to the long 220- and 250-grain round-nosed choices, but the most popular sit between 150 and 200 grains.
With very practical trajectories and equally friendly recoil levels, the .30-06 Springfield in a jack of all trades. I’ve used it for axis deer, black bear and whitetails, and wouldn’t hesitate to grab one for moose or elk as well. There are many cartridges of similar performance—I’ll include the .308 Winchester—yet the sheer availability of both ammunition and rifles make the .30-06 an excellent choice for a do-all cartridge. Across North America, the .30-06 is probably all you really need; just ask Dr. J.Y. Jones or read the exploits of Grancel Fitz.
2. 7mm Remington Magnum The 7mm bore diameter is second in popularity among big-game hunters only to the .30 calibers, yet are highly effective choices. And while there are a number of solid cartridge which launch 7mm bullets, few have the popularity and availability of the 7mm Remington Magnum. Based on a shortened Holland & Holland belted case, the 7mm Rem. Mag. handles even the heaviest 175-grain bullets very well.
While I actually prefer the .280 Ackley Improved for its efficiency, the popularity of the 7mm Remington Magnum makes it the more logical choice. From the 140-grain deer bullets to the 160- and 175-grain bonded-core designs which will handle the larger species, the 7mm Remington Magnum is an extremely versatile cartridge, though some may find the recoil takes some getting used to.
3. .338 Winchester Magnum The darling of Alaska, the .338 Winchester Magnum is a surprisingly flexible cartridge, giving flat trajectories and enough horsepower—with the heavy 250-grain slugs—to handle the big coastal brown bears neatly. With the lighter bullets—I like the Barnes 160-grain TTSX flat base for deer and similar-sized game—it shoots much like a .300 Magnum, making it much more of an all-around choice than most folks would think. Alaskan guides rely on that flexibility, as their daily chores vary from big bears at spitting distance, to caribou, sheep and mountain goats at 400 to 500 yards if needs be.
Based on a shortened H&H belted case, the .338 Win. Mag. can be housed in a standard long-action cartridge, so the rifles can stay on the lighter side, balancing nicely when climbing mountains or traversing the willow thickets. While it may be on the heavy side for pronghorn antelope or Coues’ deer, it will work, and is the smart choice if the majority of your hunting involves the larger species on our continent.
4. 6.8 Western I have spent nearly a year playing with the latest incarnation of the WSM concept, and have yet to find something to complain about. And while I can already hear the groans from the .270 Winchester crowd, I choose the 6.8 Western not because the .270 Winchester is inadequate, but because the 6.8 Western is more adequate. Revising the twist rate to handle bullets too long and heavy for the traditional .270 cartridges, the 6.8 Western launches 165- and 175-grain bullets at respectable velocities—the 165-grain AccuBond load leaves the muzzle at 2970 fps. The improved ballistic coefficient (BC) of those longer bullets helps retain more energy at all distances, and the higher sectional density assures great penetration, even on bigger species like elk and moose.
The cartridge is based on the .270 WSM, shortened a bit to allow for the seating of the longer Nosler AccuBond and Sierra GameKing bullets, and unlike many of the WSM siblings, I don’t find any feeding problems with the 6.8 Western. It is housed in a short-action rifle, is easy on the shoulder, yet is extremely effective as an all-around choice. I believe this cartridge is going to be a strong performer among hunters for years to come, and if you fancy the .277-inch bore diameter, I feel this to be the consummate blend of bullet weight and speeds, and it seems to be on enough shelves to keep the rifles fed.
5. .300 Winchester Magnum While the .30-06 Springfield will probably always rule the roost, Americans simply love .300 Magnums, and among the lineup, the .300 Winchester Magnum has become the most popular choice. Released in 1963, the .300 Winchester is another of Winchester’s cases based on the H&H belted design, but with the case mouth and shoulder moved forward for additional powder capacity.
I have used a .300 Winchester all over the place, and it has always done the job, whether it was black bear in the evergreen thickets of the Catskill mountains, the Wyoming prairie in pursuit of pronghorn or the West Texas mesas which house the beautiful aoudad, a .300 Winnie is never a bad choice. Launching a 180-grain bullet at 2960 fps, it offers a definite trajectory and energy advantage over the ought-six, and while not as fast as the .300 Weatherby Magnum or .300 Remington Ultra Magnum, it is much easier on the shoulder than either of those choices.
Before you start cursing my very existence because I didn’t pick your chosen favorite, ask yourself if you would turn down any hunt in North America because you were forced to use one of the cartridges I named above. They might not be your favorites, and they might not have a ton of sex appeal, but they sure get the job done and done well across a wide range of different hunting scenarios.