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Best Big Game Caliber: How to Choose the Best Big Game Cartridge for North American Hunting

Written by Sam Jacobs Subject: Gun Rights

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.

Choosing the Best Big Game Cartridge

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.

.30-06 Springfiel

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.

.308 Winchester

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.

.300 Winchester Magnum

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.

7mm Remington Magnum

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.

Continue reading the full guide on the best big game calibers here.

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