While whitetail deer have become the country’s most popular big game animal, it wasn’t so long ago that black bears were considered America’s premier wild table fare. MeatEater’s Clay Newcomb has pointed out that black bears fueled the expansion of the American frontier, and bear hunting was featured prominently in outdoor stories from the 19th century.
For new and aspiring hunters, however, bears can seem invincible. Even though they’re generally smaller and lighter than elk, all that fur and fat makes them look like formidable opponents.
If that’s you, or you’ve simply wondered which rifle cartridges are best for bruins, you’ve come to the right place. Most of the cartridges in the list below are good for short- and long-range work, for spot-and-stalk hunting and hunts over a bait pile. However you choose to go after bears, these five cartridges will get the job done.
Some might question whether the 6.5 Creedmoor has enough juice to bring down a bear, and of our five options, it produces the least amount of energy at the muzzle. But MeatEater’s Brody Henderson points out that the aura of invincibility mentioned above doesn’t translate to the real world.
“When it comes down to it, black bears aren’t all that hard to kill, so you don’t need a big-bore magnum,” Brody said. He once shot a big Colorado boar through the ribcage with a 6.5 Creedmoor, and it piled up within 20 yards.
That shouldn’t surprise those familiar with the Creedmoor’s ballistic profile. These 120-grain Trophy Copper loads, for example, travel 2,875 feet-per-second (fps) at the muzzle and produce 1,259 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy at 400 yards. At that distance, that’s only 200 ft.-lbs. less than the .308 Winchester, which is often considered one of the best black bear cartridges on the market.
As Brody proved, shot placement is almost always more important than power, and with the 6.5 Creedmoor, you can have both.
Our Pick: Trophy Copper 6.5 Creedmoor
Bullet Weight: 120 grains
Muzzle Velocity: 2,875 fps
Muzzle Energy: 2,202 ft.-lbs.
The .308 Winchester made the jump from the military to the hunting market in 1952 and never looked back. Its versatility made it one of the world’s most popular short-action, big game hunting cartridges. Black bear hunting is no exception.
The .308 offers great power at short range and can maintain that power and velocity at longer ranges as well. Federal’s Trophy Copper projectiles reach full expansion at velocities above 1,800 fps, and this 165-grain option chugs along above that speed past 500 yards. At 200 yards, it hits with a whopping 2,203 ft.-lbs. of energy, which is more than a .30-30 Win. (another proven bear-killer) at the muzzle.
Our Pick: Trophy Copper .308 Win.
Bullet Weight: 165 grains
Muzzle Velocity: 2,700 fps
Muzzle Energy: 2,671 ft.-lbs.
Rifle: Weatherby Mark V Hunter
If there’s one cartridge that has proven it can do it all in North America, it’s the .30-06 Springfield. The legendary .30-caliber cartridge has been walloping bears for nigh on 100 years, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
You could go with this 200-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, which would be excellent for taking down really big bears up close. But for most black bear hunting situations, these 165-grain Sierra GameKing loads will get the job done. They hit with over 2,800 ft.-lbs. of force at the muzzle, and Sierra’s famous hunting bullet has been bringing down large game for years.
Bullet Weight: 165 grains
Muzzle Velocity: 2,800 fps
Muzzle Energy: 2,872 ft.-lbs.
Rifle: Weatherby Vanguard Sporter
You may not need a magnum cartridge to take a bear, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Ballistically speaking, the 7mm Rem. Mag. beats out both the .30-06 and the .308 Win. This 150-grain option, for example, files over 3,000 fps at the muzzle and produces 3,047 ft.-lbs. of energy. At 500 yards, it’s still travelling north of 2,000 fps.
Plus, as MeatEater’s Garrett Long told me, the 7mm is available in a host of bullets designed for close- and long-range work.
“With the 7mm getting a little extra love in bullet design, it’s quickly becoming one of the best all-around calibers out there,” he said. “If you are hunting bears in a dense forest, there’s a bunch of good bullet choices. If you’re a B.C. nerd and shooting cross-canyon, there’s a bullet for you as well.”
Federal’s 7mm Trophy Copper bullet is a nice mix of both. It features a high .498 B.C., and its all-copper construction will hold together even in the toughest bruin.
Our Pick: Trophy Copper 7mm Rem Magnum
Bullet Weight: 150 grains
Muzzle Velocity: 3,025 fps
Muzzle Energy: 3,047 ft.-lbs.
If you have a question about black bear hunting, Clay Newcomb’s your guy. When I asked him about his favorite all-around bear caliber, he only had one choice: the .300 Winchester Magnum. The .300 Win. Mag. has more than enough juice to get the job done at long distance, and Clay has had great success with bullets that weigh at least 180 grains, like this Nosler Partition load.
For spot-and-stalk hunts, MeatEater’s Sam Lungren also recommends the .300 Winchester Short Magnum. The .300 WSM can be built with a short, lightweight action, which Sam says is perfect for the high-mountain hunts he usually takes. Plus, the .300 WSM packs a punch: this 180-grain option clocks in at nearly 3,000 fps at the muzzle and retains 2,075 ft.-lbs. of energy out to 400 yards. (For context, a 6.5 Creedmoor only hits with about 1,200 ft.-lbs. at that distance.)
Sam also pointed out something I heard several times talking to the MeatEater crew. Black bears take a solid hit to stop them in their tracks, but shot placement is always king. The .300 WSM does a great job, but Sam made his quickest bear kill with an well-placed arrow.
Our Pick: Nosler Partition 300 Win Magnum
Bullet Weight: 180 grains
Muzzle Velocity: 2,960 fps
Muzzle Energy: 3,502 ft.-lbs.
Rifle: Weatherby Vanguard Badlands
There are many other cartridges that can take down a black bear. For short-range work, the .45-70 Govt., the .30-30 Win., or even a 12-gauge slug will all do the trick. But if you’re looking for a cartridge that can operate in virtually any hunting scenario, look no further than the 6.5 Creedmoor, the .308 Winchester, the .30-06 Springfield, 7mm Remington Magnum, and the .300 Win. Mag.