If You Can Only Pick One Big Game Hunting Cartridge, Pick This One

If You Can Only Pick One Big Game Hunting Cartridge, Pick This One

The apocalypse is nigh. As you gather your loved ones and sprint out the front door, you have just enough time to grab a hunting rifle. For some reason only partially explained via flashback montage (the writers on this show suck), you know you’ll need this rifle to hunt every legal big game animal in North America–from moose to pronghorn.

Which rifle do you pick?

If you’ve never posed this question to a hunting buddy in a deer stand and spent the next hours in whispered debate, I encourage you to do so. It’s a great way to pass the time, and I’ve only ruined a few friendships.

Here’s a more realistic framing: A friend says she wants to start big game hunting but only wants to buy one rifle. What do you tell her?

There are several good answers, all of which will get the job done. But in my humble and correct opinion, there’s only one best answer, and I’ll make the case for it here.

A Few Criteria

I made my choice using several criteria. Obviously, the cartridge needs to be powerful enough to bring down North America’s largest critters. But, ideally, it should also be flexible enough to target smaller “big game” like whitetail deer and pronghorn without damaging too much meat.

That shrinks the list, but there are still plenty of cartridges that fit that bill. So, as Caliber Battle readers will be unsurprised to hear, I also considered cartridges that are “shootable”–meaning they’re inexpensive, readily available, and light-recoiling.

In either of the scenarios above, it’ll be helpful to choose a cartridge that can be found in every hardware store, gun shop, and big box outdoors store from Maine to New Mexico. Choosing a popular cartridge–as opposed to something more boutique–also means there will be a variety of bullet weights and styles available at different price points for both hunting and practice.

Speaking of practice, choosing a cartridge that’s easy on the shoulder will make range trips far more enjoyable. Since this is the only big game cartridge you’ll be using for the rest of your life, you want something you can shoot frequently without developing a flinch.

The cartridge you select should also be accurate in most factory rifles and available chambered in a wide range of actions. A cartridge that meets these criteria can be found in lightweight mountain rifles, semi-automatic rifles, competition rifles, and everything in between. No matter the gun, it’ll post decent groups because its cartridge and chamber are well-designed.

Lastly, it should have the ability to reach out to about 400 yards. This circles back to the first criteria. The .22 Long Rifle is readily available, accurate, and easy on the shoulder. But to hunt any North American big game animal, you need enough juice to get the job done at any common hunting range.

The Pick

By now, I’m sure you have a few options in mind, but here’s my pick: the .308 Winchester.

The .308 meets all the criteria I laid out above. It has enough power to take down North America’s largest critters, and that’s based on both ballistic data and decades of hunter feedback (the sporting version of the cartridge came out in 1952).

It’s also supremely flexible. It’s available factory-loaded with bullets ranging from 110 grains to over 200 grains, which makes it a fine choice for any big game you want to hunt. The lighter bullets scoot along around 3,100 feet-per-second (fps) at the muzzle, while the heavier bullets travel closer to 2,500 fps. The most common and versatile loads use 165-grain bullets, which fly 2,700 fps and deliver over 2,600 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy at the muzzle.

You can find it everywhere ammo is sold, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg. I like to use Midway USA as a barometer on this question since they have one of the larger selections of online ammunition. Here’s a table for you visual learners.

As you can see, the .308 Win. is the least expensive and most available of these common big-game cartridges. The .30-06 is a close second, but it can’t compete with the .308 Winchester’s bulk ammo selection.

That’s not to say the .300 Win. Mag. or the .30-06 Springfield aren’t powerful, flexible, and inexpensive. When MeatEater’s Brody Henderson asked this question to Steven Rinella and Ryan Callaghan a few years ago, they all named these two legendary .30-caliber cartridges as potential one-gun options.

I wouldn’t normally disagree with those three on anything hunting-related, and frankly, you can’t go wrong with any of these cartridges. But I think the .308 Win. beats these more powerful options in a few respects (other than cost and availability).

First, recoil. The .308 Win. punches with less recoil than the Win. Mag. or the Springfield. Recoil depends on rifle weight and cartridge load, and handloaders can tone down a magnum cartridge to be relatively comfortable. But if we’re talking about a standard 7.5-pound rifle with a 150-grain .308 Win., you’ll feel about 16 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of recoil energy. By contrast, a .300 Win. Mag. hits with 24 ft.-lbs. of energy in a 8.5-pound rifle, and a .30-06 generates 18 ft.-lbs. with an 8-pound gun.

Light recoil helps hunters avoid flinching and allows them to hone their skills with extended time at the range. There’s nothing stopping a hunter from doing the same with a .300 Win. Mag., and many have. I just think, all things being equal, your average hunter (and especially a new hunter) will enjoy the .308 Win. far more than any magnum cartridge.

I also like the range of rifle options for the .308, especially AR-10 platform rifles. You can find semi-auto rifles chambered in most popular calibers, but thanks to the .308’s more recent adoption by the U.S. military, it’s much easier to find AR-type rifles in that cartridge. I know not everyone is jazzed about hunting with an AR, but the platform is hugely popular among pig and deer hunters, and it’s nice to have that option in the future.

Last Shot

In my mind, the only other cartridge that can compete with the .308 Win. in this competition is the .30-06. It offers about 100 fps more velocity than the .308 Win. at most bullet weights, which is attractive if you plan to pursue very large game like grizzly bears. But it doesn’t produce a hefty amount of recoil (usually less than 20 ft.-lbs.), and it’s cheap and widely available.

Still, I like the rifle selection for the .308 Win., I think factory loads in factory rifles are generally more accurate, and the short-action design shaves off a few ounces from most rifles. If you have a .30-06 (or any of the cartridges on the list above), don’t feel like you need to go out and buy a .308. But if you’re a new hunter looking to buy one do-it-all gun (or you find yourself in a low-budget apocalypse/hunting show), I’m recommending the .308 Win.

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