Top 5 All-Around North American Big-Game Cartridges

posted on November 8, 2021

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.

Five Cartridges Suitable for All-Around North American Big-Game Hunting

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.

Nosler .30-06 Springfield Ballistic Tip Ammunition

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.

Federal Premium .30-06 Springfield Ammunition Headstamp

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.

Winchester Super X 7mm Remington Magnum Ammunition

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.

7mm Remington Magnum Ammunition and Cases on Table

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.

Handloaded .338 Winchester Magnum Ammunition

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.

Federal Premium .338 Winchester Magnum Ammunition Headstamp

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.

Winchester 6.8 Western Expedition Big Game Long Range Ammunition

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.

Winchester 6.5 Western 165 Grain AccuBond Long Range Ammunition

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.

Federal Premium .300 Winchester Magnum Ammunition

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.

Norma .300 Winchester Magnum Ammunition with Bolt Action Rifle

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.

Want to read more from Philip Massaro? Check out the following articles:
An Ode to the .308 Winchester
Tips for Traveling to Hunt in the COVID-19 Era
What Hunters Need to Know About Ticks and Tick-Borne Diseases
• Belted vs. Beltless Magnum Cartridges
Review: Leupold VX-3HD 4.5-14x40mm
• The Effects of Barrel Length on Your Rifle
The Effects of Bullet Shape at Hunting Ranges
Best Shooting Rests for Hunters
5 Reasons to Learn How to Reload Ammunition
Why Every Hunter Should Own a Rifle in a Common Caliber
An Ode to the .375 H&H Magnum
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 6 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Hunting Rifle
 Review: Heym Model 26B Double Rifle .45-70
 5 Reasons the .300 Win. Mag. Rules the Roost
• Bolt-Action Rifles: Push-Feed vs. Controlled-Round-Feed
• Scope Magnification: How Much is Too Much?
 A Hunter's Guide to Staying Sane During the Coronavirus Outbreak
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 Rifles for the Traveling Hunter
 Top 5 Lever-Action Rifle Cartridges
 African Game Meat: What Happens After the Shot?
 Top 5 Underrated Deer Cartridges
 Top 5 Double Rifle Cartridges
 Deer Hunting: Were the Good Old Days Really That Good?
 Essential Gear for the Traveling Hunter
 4 Reasons to Hate the 6.5 Creedmoor
• 4 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Rifle During the Off Season
 Review: Savage Model 110 AccuFit System
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 Review: Tikka T3X Lite
 Top Bear Rifles and Loads
 3 Rifle Cartridges to Hunt the World
 Why My Cartridge is Better Than Yours
 Top 5 Handgun Hunting Cartridges
 An Ode to the Ruger Model 77
 Top 5 Hunting Cartridges of the 21st Century
 Top 5 Deer Bullets for 2018
 An Ode to the .30-30 Winchester
 5 Reasons to Book a Spring Bear Hunt
• An Ode to the Ruger Mini Thirty
• Boattail vs. Flat-Base Bullets
• How to Build a Custom Rifle
• Choosing a Cartridge for North America's Big Game
• Top 5 American-Made Hunting Rifles
• How to Choose a Buffalo Rifle
• An Ode to the .223 Remington
• Top 5 Coyote Cartridges
• The Ultimate Long-Range Hunting Cartridge
• The Greatest Whitetail Cartridge Ever Designed
• An Ode to the Browning BAR
• Top 5 Bear Bullets
• Do You Really Need a Magnum Cartridge?
• Why the Ruger No. 1 is Not No. 2
• Top 10 Mythical Game Species
• Top 5 Monometal Soft-Point Bullets
• Top 5 Subsonic .22 Long Rifle Loads
• The Most American Rifle Cartridge
• Tips for the Traveling Hunter
• How to Choose a Gun Safe
• Best Gun Cases for the Traveling Hunter
• An Ode to the .30-06 Springfield
• Top 5 Boutique Bullet Companies
• Top 5 .22 Long Rifle Loads
• 5 Reasons Round-Nose Bullets Are Still Cool
• Top 5 Dangerous Game Loads
• Top 5 Turkey Loads
• 5 Rifle Cartridges That Need to Make a Comeback
• Top 5 Safari Calibers
• 5 New Year's Resolutions for Hunters
• What Your Favorite Rifle Cartridge Says About You
• America's Most Wanted Cartridges
• America's Strangest Game Laws
• What Your Favorite Rifle Cartridge Says About You, Part II
• Top 5 Overrated Rifle Cartridges
• Top 5 Underrated Rifle Cartridges
 5 Reasons to Handload Your Ammunition
• 5 Cartridges You Might Not Know About
• Top 5 Wildcat Cartridges
• An Ode to the Ruger Mini-14
• Top 5 Hog Loads
• Why .30-30 Winchester Will Never Die


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