Best Big Game Caliber: How to Choose the Best Big Game Cartridge for North American Hunting
If you’ve ever spent any time in a deer camp, you know that the virtues of certain hunting cartridges are hotly debated among serious big-game hunters. Modern shooters have access to hundreds of capable cartridges, and every big game hunter is convinced that the one he uses is the absolute best.
Because hunters are awfully opinionated, this article won’t completely settle this age-old argument. What it will do is outline the best big-game cartridges in current production, so you can make an informed decision about which one will work best for you.
We’ve compiled this list using years of personal hunting experience and countless hours of research. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, each cartridge featured here is awfully good at filling tags and putting meat in the freezer.
In North America, big game and whitetail deer are practically synonymous. For that reason, we’ve left off bigger, more powerful cartridges like .416 Rem Mag in favor of more versatile, do-it-all options suitable for the spectrum of North American big game.
Some of these cartridges may be slightly more powerful than the average deer hunter requires. However, even the bigger calibers on this list can still be used for whitetails in a pinch, even if they may be better suited for massive moose or big, burly bison.
I have personal experience dropping bucks with this one in both thick woods and across open farmland. I admit that having filled my share of deer tags with this cartridge, I have some understandably favorable biases toward it.
I’m definitely not alone in my affinity for this capable cartridge. The .30-06 Springfield (pronounced “thirty aught six”) regularly ranks as one of the top five best-selling rifle cartridges in the world.
The “aught six” was originally developed as a military cartridge, and it owes much of its big game popularity to those roots. Soldiers returning home from both World Wars reached for the rifles and cartridges that were most familiar to them when they trekked into the deer woods.
The same qualities that made the .30-06 a capable wartime cartridge - impressive ballistics for the time period, consistent accuracy, and deadly terminal performance - also make it a capable big game cartridge. Since it was introduced in 1906, no other cartridge has put more venison on family dinner tables than the venerable “aught six”.
When topped with modern bonded bullets, the .30-06 delivers better accuracy, deeper penetration, and less fragmentation (and therefore less meat damage) than the loads our grandfathers fell in love with.
Using .30-06 ammo with a heavier, 180-grain .30-caliber bullet will produce better aerodynamics thanks to higher sectional density and ballistic coefficient. If you need to stretch your shots, the heavier bullet weight will hold velocity and deliver more impact energy downrange.
The .30-06 still delivers its best performance inside of 200 yards. However, when held in skilled hands, this cartridge is plenty capable of dropping whitetails, antelope, elk, and caribou out past 300 yards.
Some hunters brag about bagging whitetails out past the 300-yard mark. However, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. There are other cartridges on this list that offer better long-range performance than the .30-06.
The .308 Winchester is another best-selling .30-caliber cartridge. While the .30-06 arguably produces a faster muzzle velocity (around 100 to 200 fps faster), delivers better ballistics, and carries more kinetic energy, the .308 has its own advantages in the field.
The .308 Winchester has noticeably less recoil than the “aught six”. The recoil of an 8-pound bolt-action rifle.30-06 shooting a 180-grain bullet is around 20 foot-pounds. In comparison, a .308 pushing the same bullet delivers a much milder 17.5 foot-pounds of recoil to your shoulder.
That might not seem like a significant difference, but the milder recoil makes it easier to recover and get back on target for faster, more accurate follow-up shots.
With a shorter action than the .30-06, the .308 also allows you to carry a shorter, lighter, more maneuverable hunting rifle. If you have to hike miles into the backcountry, the .308 won’t tire you out nearly as quickly.
Another major perk: the .308 Winchester is the standard chambering for the AR-10. If you’ve ever dreamed of deer hunting with a modern sporting rifle, this cartridge will make those dreams a reality.
Compared to the .308 Win and .30-06 Springfield, the .300 Win Mag is a .30-caliber cartridge on steroids. It shoots heavy bullets at break-neck speeds and delivers punishing terminal energy on big game animals.
A Hornady 180-grain SST bullet leaves home at a blistering 3130 fps. At 500 yards, the same bullet drops a full 10 inches less than the .30-06, giving the .300 Win Mag a major trajectory and energy advantage over its .30-caliber cousins.
To take full advantage of the .300 Win Mag’s excellent ballistics, choose a load with a heavier 200-grain bullet with a high ballistic coefficient. Your shots will be pancake-flat and capable of bucking a stiff crosswind like it isn’t even there.
This superhero-level performance comes at a price, however. Rifles that shoot .300 Win Mag are heavy, long, and somewhat cumbersome. .300 Win Mag ammo is also more expensive, harder recoiling, and tough on barrels.
Some hunters consider .300 Win Mag to be a major overkill for whitetails. However, if you want a rifle cartridge capable of pulling double duty on eastern whitetails and western elk, mule deer, and black bear, especially at long distances, this is it.
As the first mainstream factory-produced magnum cartridge, the 7mm Rem Mag (affectionately referred to as “Seven Mag”) is largely responsible for the modern hunter’s current magnum love affair. It is also one of the most popular big game cartridges on the market today.
Big game hunters are serious about their ammo, and cartridges don’t reach high levels of popularity without delivering serious performance. With that in mind, you can bet the 7mm Rem Mag makes the best-seller list for a reason.
Although 7mm isn’t as popular as .30-caliber hunting cartridges, it walks a tightrope between big bullet diameter and the higher BC of the popular 6.5mm Creedmoor. While the speed and trajectory of the 7mm are comparable to the long-range abilities of the Creedmoor, it carries kinetic energy similar to the .30-06.
While there are other 7mm cartridges that offer better ballistics and on-target energy (We’re looking at you, .280 Ackley), the Seven Mag’s popularity offers some major advantages.
There is no shortage of high-quality, affordable hunting rifles chambered in 7mm Rem Mag. You can also find every type of factory load under the sun. Every major ammo manufacturer has 7mm Rem Mag in all their most popular big game lines, offering loads optimized for everything from hogs to dangerous game.
The Seven Mag’s recoil may be a little rough for some, but it isn’t any harder to handle than the .30-06.
When the .270 Winchester was first introduced in 1925, it didn’t exactly take the hunting world by storm. However, it didn’t take long for this cartridge to catch on, and it's been a favorite of big game hunters ever since.
The design is simple - a.30-06 Springfield case necked down to hold a smaller .277-inch diameter bullet. It carries bullets with just enough weight to adequately handle any big game species in North America.
Delivering ballistics nearly identical to the 7mm Rem Mag, the .270 Win shoots incredibly flat out to 300 yards. That means you can basically point and shoot your rifle in most hunting situations without having to do an elaborate dance with windage and elevation.
If you need to stretch shots across open prairie, the .270 Winchester holds both energy and velocity well, and only drops around 40 inches at 500 yards.
The .270 also has relatively mild recoil for a big game cartridge, kicking with only around 18 foot-pounds from an 8-pound rifle. That amount of recoil should be manageable for all but the most recoil-sensitive shooters.
.270 Winchester ammo is also easily affordable and usually readily available.
While 6.5 Creedmoor is famous for ruling the long-range competition field, it also reigns as a high-performance big game cartridge. Shooting high BC bullets that hold velocity and easily buck the wind, 6.5 Creedmoor is one of the most inherently accurate cartridges available to modern big-game hunters.
Be sure to pick Creedmoor loads designed to deliver lethal terminal performance on tough game. Choose heavier, spitzer-style bullets (think 140 grains) engineered for controlled expansion. We love Hornady’s ELD-X or the Nosler Partition for dropping big bull elk at longer distances.
Loads with lighter bullets are fine for whitetail deer. While heavier bullets have a better sectional density (which produces better ballistic performance), which is a major benefit if you’re stretching the range of your shot opportunities.
The 6.5mm bullet diameter is much smaller than most of the other calibers on our list. However, the Creedmoor’s ballistic performance makes proper shot placement easier, especially at longer distances. A bullet in the boiler room will beat a poorly placed shot every time, no matter what diameter bullet you’re shooting.
With its rock star performance and popularity, 6.5 Creedmoor is widely chambered in almost every major hunting rifle model, from semi-automatic AR-10s to the ever-popular bolt-action Remington 700.
A wide variety of ammo is also readily available for Creedmoor fans, with factory loads engineered for everything from varmints and coyotes to elk and caribou.
The .375 H&H Magnum (also known as .375 Holland & Holland Magnum) is a favorite cartridge among Alaskan big game hunters.
This cartridge may be a bit much for whitetails (and even bigger-bodied ungulates like elk and caribou). However, its power provides peace of mind if you hunt areas where you could suddenly come face to face with big brown bears.
The .375 H&H also provides enough knock-down power for hunters itching to shoot big game animals like cape buffalo and elephants in Africa. In some areas, this cartridge is the mandatory minimum for certain tough, dangerous, thick-skinned species.
.375 H&H loads from Hornady’s Dangerous Game ammo line lob a 300-grain bonded bullet at 2530 fps with a whopping 4263 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. These loads continue to hit like a freight train out beyond 200 yards.
The in-flight ballistics of the .375 H&H aren’t all that impressive. You can expect that 300-grain bullet to drop a full 78 inches at 500 yards. However, if you need to drop a charging bruin dead in his tracks, this cartridge delivers a major shock wave at close to medium ranges.
Unfortunately, all that stopping power is going to cost you. Rifles chambered in .375 H&H are long, heavy, and cumbersome to tote through backcountry brush. A nine-pound .375 H&H is considered a lightweight rifle.
The ammo is also going to cost you, and it isn’t always easy to find. Plus, the .375 H&H Magnum’s recoil is seriously abusive on your shoulder. That 300-grain bullet shot from a nine-pound rifle is going to whack your shoulder with over 37 foot-pounds of force. This one definitely isn’t for the faint of heart.
Although the .338 Win Mag doesn’t boast the same big bore diameter as the .375 H&H, it offers exceptional killing power for big elk, moose, brown bear, and even bison.
Compared to the .375 H&H, the .338 Win Mag boasts better sectional density, faster velocities, less drop over distance, and more on-target energy. It also manages to do all that with recoil that is at least slightly more manageable.
The .338 Win Mag drives a substantial 225-grain copper alloy bullet at 2,800 fps with 3917 foot-pounds of energy.
The bullet holds both speed and energy more efficiently than the heftier .375 H&H, delivering 1891 foot-pounds of penetrating energy at 500 yards.
Performance like that makes the .338 Magnum better suited than the .375 H&H for dropping big game at distances beyond 250 yards.
The .338 Win Mag definitely isn’t as popular as other big game cartridges like the .30-06 or .243. That can sometimes make finding a suitable rifle and appropriate ammo a bit tricky. However, .338 isn’t exactly a wildcat cartridge either. There are still plenty of affordable rifles and hunting loads on the market. You just might have to do a little digging to find them.
I hesitate to include the small-caliber .243 Winchester cartridge on this list, and I’m sure some big game hunters will scoff at its inclusion. However, it is the minimum legal big game caliber in many states. It is also one of the most popular hunting cartridges for recoil-sensitive hunters.
Shoot a load with 100-grain soft points, and the bullet leaves the muzzle at close to 3000 fps. The projectile retains enough energy to harvest deer-sized game out to at least 300 yards.
The .243 Win also manages that performance with minimal recoil. Even though .243 deer rifles tend to be light and maneuverable compared to other popular big game hunting options, 100-grain loads will push less than 9 foot-pounds of recoil into your shoulder. Its mild recoil is the main reason this cartridge is a long-standing favorite among younger hunters and some women.
The .243 Win definitely works best as a whitetail-specific round (although it will work quite well on coyotes if the need arises), especially if you keep your shots within a reasonable distance.
Can you kill elk with a .243? Plenty of wapiti have ended up in freezers thanks to this cartridge.
Is it the best tool for the job? Probably not. Small, relatively lightweight projectiles are no match for the thick shoulder blades of a big bull.
Shot placement is everything when you’re shooting a .243. There’s just a lot that can go wrong, especially if you are attempting to make ethical shots beyond 200 yards. Wait for your target to come to a reasonable distance and give a good broadside presentation, then put your crosshairs square on the boiler room and pull the trigger.
Every single cartridge on this list has proven its worth as a big game cartridge. Asking us to choose a single cartridge as “The Best Big Game Cartridge” is like asking a mother to name her favorite child. It’s practically impossible. They are all wonderful options, and we love them for different reasons.
However, if we were forced to pick one at gunpoint, it would probably be the .30-06 Springfield. With over a century of experience under its belt, the .30-06 is still the most popular big game cartridge in America. It also makes a solid showing among hunters on other continents.