Picture this: You live in the North Country, dwell in a log cabin along a remote creek and hunt for a living. You’re one of the toughest folks around, shoot all your own meat and live in close daily proximity to the biggest, most dangerous bears on the planet. You’re a one-rifle kind of person, using only one gun for everything from shooting varmints to stopping big bears that want to kill you.
Now, some flatlander asks you what your favorite rifle is? And what kind of bullets do you like to use in it?
I teamed up with Book Your Hunt (a direct-to-consumer online booking agency) to ask those same questions of a couple dozen North Country outfitters—folks who actually fit the description above. They all guide for a living, live in north-country settings where dangerous bears are a reality, and know from experience what calibers work, and what bullets won’t fail. Here are their opinions, mostly given in short, to-the-point answers. We coaxed a few stories out of them for you, too, so enjoy. At the bottom I’ll tally up and score all the caliber and bullet info, so you can see which wins the “Most-Popular North-Country Cartridge and Projectile Contest.”
Guide: Brandon Friesen, Bear Track Outfitters, Interlace Manitoba. Hunts: Black bear Years Of Experience: 20 All-Around Caliber: .30-06 Springfield Favorite Bullet: 180-grain Hornady True Story: “We were tracking a bear my hunter had shot with his bow. I had to stop that bear, which turned out to be a 520-lb. spring black bear, as it charged me and my hunter.”
Guide: Kelly Udell, Udell’s Guiding & Outfitting, Northern Alberta Hunts: Moose, black bear, mule deer, whitetail deer, elk, waterfowl, wolves Years Of Experience: 20 All-Around Caliber: .300 Winchester Magnum Favorite Bullet: 200-grain Nosler Partition Kelly Says: “I like this caliber because it checks most of the boxes. It’s has knock down power, range, availability of cartridges and bullet weights. It’s very versatile. Bullet weight is dependent on what you’re hunting. I would say a 200-grain partition would be an all-around good choice for most game.”
Guide: Kevin McNeil, Blue Sky Outfitters, Northwest Alberta Hunts: Waterfowl, moose, wolves, woodland bison, whitetail deer, spot-and-stalk black bears Years Of Experience: 20 All-Around Caliber: .375 H&H Magnum Favorite Bullet: .300-grain Hornady DGX Kevin Says: “Covers all animals from dangerous game like polar bears to Sitka deer.” Guide: Charles Langelier, Bear Crush Outfitters, Manitoba Hunts: Whitetail, waterfowl and elk around home in Manitoba. Guiding waterfowl and bear for 6 years. Years Of Experience: 18 All-Around Caliber: .30-06 Springfield Favorite Bullet: 180-grain Barnes Charles Says: “.30-06 carries enough energy for all of North America’s wild game, offers an abundance of ammunition and ammunition choices. Minimal recoil versus some of the heavy hitters in its class. Barnes is hard-hitting and usually passes through.” True Story: “I once got charged by a 500-pound boar that was on bait station with a sow during the rut. The big Bruin charged twice and with the first two charges I fired off warning shots. With each warning the bear would stop in his tracks. Having only a three-shot clip when the bear decided to charge for a third time, unfortunately I had to make my shot count at seven yards.”
Guide: Cabbot Pitts, Alaska Wild Wind Adventures, Alaskan Peninsula Hunts: Brown bear and Alaskan Yukon moose Years Of Experience: 15 All-Around Caliber: .300 Winchester Magnum Favorite Bullet: Swift A-Frame, Barnes Triple Shock, Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw Cabbot Says:“This is a very common round that I feel has a very good range of ballistics, and depending on load and bullet you can take smaller big game up to brown bear in Alaska with a well-placed shot. I like the use of a bonded bullet that holds together.”
Guide: Chet Benson, Bearfoot Adventures LLC, Alaska Hunts: Brown bear, black bear, sheep, moose and caribou Years Of Experience: 20+ All-Around Caliber: .375 H&H Magnum Favorite Bullet: 300-grain Barnes TSX Chet Says: “The 375 H&H is a decently flat-shooting, hard-hitting caliber that will keep you safe while deer hunting on Kodiak or following up on a poorly hit brown bear in the alders. A 300-grain Barnes TSX bullet will take care of any situation.”
Guide: John Floyd, Tucker Ridge Outdoors, Northern Maine. Hunts: Moose, whitetail, black bear and predators Years Of Experience: 6 All-Around Caliber: .30-06 Springfield Favorite Bullet: Winchester Expedition Big Game (Nosler AccuBond). John Says: “The .30-06 cartridge is fully capable of taking any game animal on the North American continent. It is a tried-and-true round that can be employed in many diverse settings and has the stopping power to anchor most game on the first well-placed shot. I like Winchester Expedition Big Game ammo because the polymer tip allows for flat shooting with pinpoint accuracy in open terrain, and the bonded alloyed lead core provides massive knockdown power while penetrating thick hide and bone. A hunter can take a long shot at a whitetail or anchor a big black bear on the spot from in close with the same rifle and cartridge.”
Guide: Vance Hrechkosy, Trail End Camp & Outfitters, Manitoba Hunts: Black Bear, waterfowl and whitetails Years Of Experience: 28 All-Around Caliber: .308 Winchester Favorite Bullet: 165-grain Hornady Vance Says: “Although not enough gun for polar/brown/grizzly bears, the .308 is one of my favorite calibers and can handle pretty much any game. The short action makes it fast and the recoil is very manageable—I’ve seen far too many guests suffer from flinching while shooting large caliber weapons. I’ve had countless clients over the years take bears and whitetails with the .308 Win. I’ve had numerous bears charge and act quite threatening, but I’ve never had to kill one. In Manitoba, registered guides cannot use a rifle while guiding and are restricted to a shotgun for protection, so we carry a 12-gauge with slugs.”
Guide: Steve Kovack, Kovack Guide Services, New Brunswick Hunts: Black bears Years Of Experience: 20 All-Around Caliber: .30-06 Springfield Favorite Bullet: 180-grain Steve Says: “You have lots of knock down power; can get ammo everywhere; available in different grain shells. I find the .30-06 with a 180-grain bullet will put down anything. I've seen moose drop right in their tracks, bears weighing 400 pounds dropped in their tracks, and deer drop in their tracks.”
Guide: Yves Bouthillette, 3 different lodges in Québec Canada. Hunts: Black bear, moose Years Of Experience: 31+ All-Around Caliber: 7mm Remington Magnum Favorite Bullet: 127-grain Geco Zero
(Author’s note: I’ve left much of the French-Canadian lingo written by this outfitter, because I find it awesome…)
Yves Says: “The 7mm is just big enough, not too big, capable of short distance and long one also. Not too expensive. With the right ammo can be very accurate and can take down big and smaller game.” True Story:“So I can think of one very large old bear that we ‘ad to track one morning with a few of our clients, because that thing was more tracking us then we were tracking him the night before. When we track in the daytime we bring shotgun and my 7mm. We follow that very large black bear until he finally charge us, bumping one of the customer (the one that ‘ad shot at him the night before) making him drop ‘is gun and clawing him in the leg before we could do anything. That customer ‘ad gone a little too far to my left before I could see him. After the scare that everybody ‘ad, myself included I manage to come about and run in the direction of that bear and my customer and yelled to make that thing come in my direction or move away, so I could shoot. Well the bear chose to run in my direction, which was a fatal mistake for him. One shot hit him on top of the back just missing his ‘ead and that was the end of him. My customer ended ‘is trip with a 392-pound black bear, a very good scare and 32 suture in his leg.”
“Well, I can think of a lot (of experiences) but my best one ever which is not maybe the most extraordinary is the one where my oldess son use ‘is 7mm to take down is first large bull moose. Using ‘is new 7mm for the first time he manage to make a shot of about 300 yards true brush and tree, where not only precision counted but also timing. If he would not ‘ad shot then this fantastic animal would maybe ‘ave never come back. A real father and son story with a very special ending.”
Guide: Wayne Holloway, Pine Ridge Lodge, Newfoundland Hunts: Moose, woodland caribou and black bear Years Of Experience: 30 All-Around Caliber: .30-06 Springfield Favorite Bullet: 180-grain Nosler AccuBond Wayne Says: “I like the .30-06, same as used by JY Jones in his quest for the North American 29. But any 30-caliber rifle is adequate for all North American big-game species.
The issue of bullet selection is largely overworked. Nothing else is a replacement for ability to manage your firearm, and stalking game to within the limits of the hunter’s capability.”
Guide: Marty Dickinson, Buckstop Outfitting, Alberta Hunts: Moose, whitetail and mule deer Years Of Experience: 30 All-Around Caliber: .30-06 Springfield Favorite Bullet: 165-grain Nosler AccuBond Marty Says: “You really don’t need anything more than a .30-06 for the whitetails, bears and moose we commonly hunt. We’ve tried a lot of different calibers and bullets; some of them waste too much meat, some kick too much for most people to shoot well. The .30-06 with a 165-grain Nosler puts animals down fast, doesn’t ruin a bunch of meat, and is mild enough for most folks to shoot well.”
True Story:“One hunter shot a charging bull moose with his head down coming straight at him. His only choice was to shoot it through the nose; when the moose dropped it fell five yards in front of him. At the time that it was all happening the guide had told him to run but he knew he didn’t have a choice. He told me after that it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him.”
Guide: Tim Nelson, Tim’s Alaskan Guide Service, Alaska Hunts: Dall sheep, grizzly, moose, bison and wolf. Years Of Experience: 15 All-Around Caliber: .338 Winchester Magnum Favorite Bullet: “That's a tough question because it all depends on the animal being hunted as well as the terrain that you are hunting in. There are too many options available to just pick one.” Tim Says: “My belief that the .338 Win. Mag. is the best caliber comes from personal experience as well as information passed on from others in the guiding industry. I have seen many fine trophies collected with a .338 Win Mag including bison, moose, caribou, grizzly, black bear, and wolf. I've never actually been attacked in the field. If I were attacked, I would feel confident knowing that I had a .338 Win. Mag. in my hands.”
Guide: Ken Steinbru, Wild Alberta High Country Outfitters, Alberta Hunts: Black bear, moose and whitetail deer Years Of Experience: 20 All-Around Caliber: .338-378 Weatherby Magnum Favorite Bullet: Barnes Bullets Ken Says: Barnes Bullets are, in my opinion, the best; total energy displacement and the bullets hold together unbelievably well. I personally harvested a beautiful bull moose at 502 yards; it went 20 yards and fell. I recovered the bullet just on the other side of the animal in the hide.”
True Story: “I was looking for a wounded bear that a client had shot and got charged by the bear. I had enough time to turn, point, and pull the trigger; the bear stopped dead in its tracks. Not bad for only being 15 yards away!”
Guide: Al Gilliam, Alaska Cross Country Guiding, Alaska Hunts: Brown bear, black bear, mountain goat and wolf Years Of Experience: 30+ All-Around Caliber: .338 Winchester Magnum Favorite Bullet: Barnes Al Says: “Across many parts of the North American Continent, large bears are found in the same environment as smaller big-game animals. The .338 Winchester Magnum cartridge provides sufficient firepower against any attacking Bear, instilling confidence while hunting any other species. Additionally, the .338 Win. Mag. has been with us for so long that the cartridges are readily available in most sporting-goods stores.
No doubt about it, Barnes Bullets are the best. I feel that the true definition of a dangerous-game bullet starts at extremely close range. After many years of guiding Brown Bear hunts in Alaska, I noticed that many top-name bullets fragment when striking bone at near muzzle energy. Barnes Bullets are of a hollow-point, monolithic design. They readily expand into four petals, which provides tremendous shock. However, even if all four petals become sheared off, the solid copper base continues breaking bone while penetrating deep into the vitals of large bears.
Barnes Bullets also perform well at long range, so I recommend that my goat hunting clients consider using them. They provide the bone-shattering energy and penetration needed to anchor a large Billy goat before it can retreat to the safety of a cliff or enter a deep chasm where we may not be able to recover it. During mountain goat hunts, Barnes bullets provide superb protection from the bears. Over the years, I saw many name brand bullets disintegrate before I settled on recommending Barnes Bullets.”
True Story: “I have twice been attacked by three brown bears at the same time. In the first instance, it was during the mating season and two boar brown bears were competing for a hot sow when all three of them attacked me. There were two witnesses to the attack, and it was documented with the Alaska Dept. of Public Safety. I killed one boar as it leaped at me, then my rifle jammed. When I looked up from sorting out the rifle the two other bears had vanished.”
“In the other instance, I was guiding a traditional-style archery hunter while on the ground. We came under attack by three Brown Bears at the same time. I had to take two of them down, about 10-seconds apart, while firing my rifle from the hip.”
Guide: Ken Watson, Opatcho Lake Outfitters, British Columbia Hunts: Moose, bears, cougar, lynx and wolf Years Of Experience: 34 All-Around Caliber: .300 Winchester Magnum Favorite Bullet: 180- or 200-grain Nosler Ken Says: “I like the .300 Win. Mag. because it’s available in lots of different loads, and possesses plenty of knock-down and range.”
“I have had lots of situations, but have never been mauled or had to kill anything out of season. I have had a few interesting standoffs at close quarters with big fuzzy bears.”
Guide: Paul Michel, To The Max Outfitters, British Columbia Hunts: Moose, black bears, cats, whitetail and mule deer Years Of Experience: 25+ All-Around Caliber: .300 Winchester Magnum Favorite Bullet: 180-grain Paul Says: “I like the .300 Win Mag because it’s super flat shooting and has many different bullet weights to play with. I shot a grizzly when he charged me at 150 meters, and killed him at seventy-five yards with one shot”
Guide: Ben Cockell, Northern Alberta Outfitters, Alberta Hunts: Whitetail, wolf, bear and moose Years Of Experience: 8 All-Around Caliber: .300 Winchester Short Magnum Favorite Bullet: 180-grain Federal Trophy Bonded Tip Ben Says: “The .300 WSM is very accurate and has a lot of put-down power.”
Guide: Jeremy Hatala, Double Diamond Wilderness Hunts, Alberta. Hunts: Whitetail deer, mule deer, black bear, wolf and coyote Years Of Experience: 25 All-Around Caliber: .300 Winchester Magnum Favorite Bullet: 180-grain Nosler AccuBond Jeremy Says: “The .300 Win. Mag. offers a great range of bullet choices from light to heavy loads. The AccuBond bullet gives great performance and is very accurate.
True Story: While baiting black bear a large boar would not leave us alone and would chase us around the quad trying to get the bait off the bike. We eventually had to shoot him at nine yards right between the eyes. Even at close range that bear never knew what hit him!”
Guide: Luke Tyrrell, Tyrrell's Trails, Alaska Hunts: Moose, sheep, caribou and bears Years Of Experience: 15 All-Around Caliber: .30-06 Springfield Favorite Bullet: 180-grain Barnes TSX Luke Says: “The .30-06 is capable of taking down any game, offers quality ballistics, reliable operation and ammunition is always available. Barnes bullets provide knock-down power, ballistic performance and reliability.”
Conclusion In a surprising landslide victory, the venerable old .30-06 blew all other calibers out of the water, even among hunters who share territory with the big, dangerous bears. Not surprisingly, the .300 Winchester Magnum came in a not-too-distant second, followed (also not surprisingly) by the .338 Winchester Magnum and the .375 H&H Magnum.
The bullet comparison was somewhat hard to quantify due to the ambiguous nature of certain answers. For instance, several outfitters just liked “180-grain” bullets. Even so, in another landslide win, Barnes bullets reigned supreme. Nosler AccuBond came in second, with all other choices ranked way, way behind.