At least a few times day, we get asked: “What is the best rifle caliber for big game hunting?” There’s no one answer to that question, and rifle caliber and cartridge selection is and will always be one of the most contentious debates in the hunting world. That’s not surprising considering the number of choices hunters have. There’s dozens of cartridges out there that will get the job done when it comes time to fill the freezer. And the fact of the matter is that, at MeatEater, we commonly use different ones for different hunts.
But just because you can kill a seven hundred pound bull elk with a tiny .223, and you can kill a one hundred pound antelope doe with the massively powerful .338 Winchester Magnum, that doesn’t make those cartridges ideal choices for those animals. And keep mind, we’re talking about all-purpose, general big game hunting, not going after dangerous game like coastal brown bears or Cape buffalo. So, you’ll notice a lack of wildcats and ultra-magnums on the following list of our favorites. It’s simply unnecessary to use cartridges that nearly tear your shoulder off and cost you upwards of five bucks every time you pull the trigger. We tend to stick with tried and true choices, which have proven themselves time after time on big game hunts for a wide variety of species.
With today’s selection of modern, premium bullets, all of these cartridges achieve accuracy and terminal performance that couldn’t be achieved fifteen or twenty years ago. And that’s an important consideration for big game hunters. Untold numbers of animals have been killed over the years with cheap, soft lead bullets with thin copper jackets like the always popular Remington Core-Lokt, but there’s much better bullet choices these days than the old “cup and core” models of the past. We prefer sturdy, bonded bullets with a heavy copper jacket, or monolithic (solid) copper bullets. These bullets are more accurate, penetrate better, and less prone to violent fragmentation which ruins meat.
I hesitated to include the .243 Winchester on this list because frankly, it comes up short as an all-purpose big game cartridge. Its small, lightweight bullets aren’t a good choice for big-bodied animals like elk. But it’s the minimum legal big game caliber in many states, and the .243 has proven itself to be capable if the biggest thing you’re going to be shooting at is an average-sized whitetail deer, pronghorn antelope, and any other other small-bodied, thin-skinned critter. In fact, Steve used a .243 Winchester to kill his first mountain lion in Idaho. Keep your shots to a reasonable distance and aim for a double-lung shot and the .243 will get the job done.
MeatEater’s .243 Winchester Big Game Big Game Bullet Choice: Federal Premium 85 Grain Trophy Copper
The 6.5 Creedmoor began life as a long-range competition target shooting cartridge about a decade ago, and quickly became one the most popular big game hunting cartridges in the country. And for good reason. 6.5 mm cartridges have long been known for their inherent accuracy and wind-bucking traits. In Europe, the 6.5 mm Swede (A Latvian Eagle favorite) is preferred for moose hunting. My experience with the 6.5 Creedmoor has been incredible; so much so that I’ve been largely neglecting my trusty .30-06. In the past couple of years, I’ve taken a cow elk, a couple big mule deer bucks, and an antelope buck at a variety of ranges with the 6.5. It’s light recoil makes it easy to shoot, but you’re not giving up the power necessary to kill big, thick-skinned animals with heavy skeletal structures.
MeatEater’s 6.5 Creedmoor Big Game Bullet Choice: Federal Premium 120 grain Trophy Copper
The 7mm-08 is a necked-down version of the .308 Winchester, but it may be an even better big game cartridge than the original .30 caliber cartridge upon which it is based. Like the 6.5 Creedmoor, it’s light-recoiling with enough power to kill big, tough animals. I killed my first, and biggest bull elk with a 7mm-08 with a single shot through the shoulder blade at 200 yards. And it’s Steve’s top choice for hunting Sitka blacktails in the open alpine country on Prince of Wales Island, where long shots are the norm. You’ll often hear the 7mm-08 categorized as a great choice for youngsters, women, and novices, which paints it as unworthy of experienced hunters. But it’s an excellent option for anyone who wants a reliable, deadly big game cartridge.
MeatEater’s 7mm-08 Big Game Bullet Choice: Federal Premium 140 grain Trophy Copper
If there’s a big game cartridge that perfectly bridges the gap between the mild .243 Winchester on the low end and the powerful .300 Winchester Magnum on the top end, it’s the time-tested .270 Winchester. American big game hunting pioneer, Jack O’Connor championed the merits of the .270 nearly 100 years ago and killed big game ranging from Coues Deer to Dall Sheep to grizzly bears with a .270. It shoots flat out to 300 yards, which makes it a point and shoot rifle caliber for the vast majority of shots on big game. You can take the same .270 you use for whitetails in Wisconsin for caribou bulls and big black bears in Alaska, or on combo western hunts for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and elk.
MeatEater’s .270 Winchester Big Game Bullet Choice: Federal Premium 130 grain Trophy Copper
The 7mm Remington Magnum was the first magnum hunting cartridge to achieve widespread commercial success among American big game hunters, and the magnum craze among big game hunters has never been the same since. The 7mm Mag has been around for over fifty years and is still very popular today as an all-purpose big game killer. It kicks out bullets of the same weight faster than popular non-magnum calibers like the .270 Winchester or .30-06, and the 7mm Mag is great choice for hunters who want a hard-hitting, flat-shooting rifle for long range shots. Just be aware, the recoil and noise of magnums is noticeably stronger than in standard big game cartridges.
MeatEater’s 7mm Remington Magnum Big Game Bullet Choice: Federal Premium 150 Grain Trophy Copper
I’ll admit right off the bat; I’ve got a serious bias towards the .30-06 as the world’s greatest big game killer. It’s the first centerfire big game rifle I ever owned, and for over thirty years from the woods of Pennsylvania to the Colorado Rockies, it has always done its job. In the past century, it’s likely no other big game cartridge in the world has killed the number and variety of big game animals as the .30-06. And with the right bullet choice you’ll get nearly .300 Win Mag ballistics and terminal performance out of America’s favorite big game caliber. You can dial it in for shooting clear across massive midwestern cornfields at distant whitetails, and it’ll cleanly handle the biggest bull moose or bison. That’s really all there is to say about the .30-06.
MeatEater’s .30-6 Big Game Rifle Bullet Choice: Federal Premium 165 Trophy Copper
Finally, we’ve got the .300 Winchester Magnum, which is definitely near the top of popularity list when it comes to American big game cartridges. It’s known for having the right combo of speed, accuracy, and power. In other words, the .300 Win Mag shoots big bullets really fast and knocks down big animals with authority. Both Steve and Ryan Callaghan picked the .300 Win Mag as their choice if they could hunt with only one rifle. It may be overkill for whitetails on the back forty but if you also hunt for elk, moose, and bears, it’s hard to argue against the .300 Win Mag. Warning: If you’re recoil sensitive, consider a muzzle break for the .300 Win. Mag.
MeatEater’s .300 Winchester Magnum Big Game Rifle Bullet Choice: Federal Premium 180 grain Trophy Copper
Now, before you write in to extoll the virtues of your particular choice for the best big game cartridges and bullets, or to let us know how much you detest our choices, we know there are a lot of other very capable big game options out there. These are just some of our favorites.