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Best Rifle Cartridge for Big Game Hunting

Discussion in 'Rifle Country' started by schromf, Feb 26, 2004.

  1. schromf

    schromf Well-Known Member

    I see a fair amount of posts regarding suitability of different rifle cartridges for big game hunting. Many times it is phrased in posts as: What is the best? The simple answer is none, there is no truth here.

    First I will assume that big game hunting for 90+% of hunters defines deer/hog/antelope/bear/sheep/goat/elk class of animals. Most USA hunters are concerned with one of the above class of animals. Alaska has a few variables thrown into the mix, but my assumptions are valid for a large portion of their game also. This does NOT include: varmint, fur hunters, small game, or large dangerous game.

    Based on the above definition of big game hunting is there a single best? No, and there never will be the single best. First there is a wide variance in the size of the above game animals; an example here is a small Arizona Coues deer which is reasonable to expect a 100 lb game animal verses a large Bull Elk that can tip the scales in excess of 700 lbs. Second there exists a huge difference under the terrain conditions these species of game will typically be hunted.

    As I approach this subject I want to preface this I am avid hunter, but I have some strong opinions on ethical fair chase hunts. I always hunt so that I humanely and quickly dispatch my quarry, which means I avoid chancy shots, and bring proper equipment for the job at hand. I owe this much respect to the game I hunt, and it is incumbent on me to abide by these rules.

    So with the above preface what cartridge you ask? As I stated before there is no single truth, there are too many variables. I can define what I expect and has worked for me in my hunting life. It is a rule of thumb that has yet to disappoint my expectations of cartridge performance. I will again preface this "RULE OF THUMB" and deviations will occur.

    OK my magic rule is my 26-28 three 1200 rule. It is pretty simple really, anytime I evaluate a cartridge for hunting I start out looking at published factory specifications, or reloading manuals. Breaking down my rule the first number is muzzle velocity and that translates to 2600-2800 fps. The second number is the sectional density which is .3. The third number is energy in foot lbs. remaining at target impact. I also want to emphasis that this really only applies to Spitzer or pointed bullets, pistol or rifle cartridges with flat nosed bullets and large frontal areas area a completely different subject.

    The above is a rule of thumb or guideline I use, there are variables inside this formula and I will explain each below.

    2nd Rule .3 section density, I have always found that if I can deliver enough energy with any quality bullet (which now days means just about every major manufacturer) I can expect reasonable performance. This doesn't mean I don't have bullet preferences, I do: but all of the quality bullets perform to a set minimum level of expectation on my part. Again this is a big blanket rule. And before you start screaming about my favorite doesn't fit inside this, it probably does in fact. A very simple example is a 30 cal, 180 gr. bullet with a SD of .271-.274 it is absolutely inside this rule, so is a 150 gr.270 cal: a 154 gr.. .277 cal: a 140 gr. .264 cal: 225gr .338 cal: 250gr .358 cal: 270gr .375 cal, all of this are in the fit. What differs and doesn't fit are the .25cal and 6mm on the small side, and the big stuff that goes way over .3 SD. They in fact do work with some modifiers. If your cartridge has a SD of .341 your trajectory will suffer but performance on game when adhering to rule three is more than adequate. If your SD falls under the .25 level a slight elevation in value of rule three compensates.

    First rule is the 2600-2800 fps this is a fast and loose rule but it directly affects rule three. I feel that if I can propel any of the above bullets at this velocity range I can expect a reasonably flat trajectory with a Spitzer (not flat nosed) bullet. How this effects the last rule has a couple of variables but in essence to deliver the 1200 lbs of min energy, at what range does the cartridge fall below this energy level, if you want more range or a flatter trajectory you will either need to look at more velocity or increasing the ballistic coefficient of the bullet.

    Third Rule is my 1200 foot lbs of energy rule. Again this is not set in concrete. Where I get this value is from comparisons of several cartridges starting with a 30-30 Winchester, few would disagree that the 30-30 with a 150 gr. bullet is effective on deer sized game to 175 yards. That is about 1000 lbs of energy, in comparison a 270 Winchester with a 130 gr. bullet at 400 yards has relatively similar levels 1285 ft lbs, and a 30-06 with a 180 gr. bullet delivers 1100 ft lbs at 500 yards. I am not suggesting shooting game that far but the cartridges if not the human are certainly capable. Yes ballistic coefficient changes these yardages all around but doesn't alter the energy on target factor. The area that this rule gets a little tricky is on small and large calibers. I would not question performance of a 300 gr. bullet in a 45-70 with 1000 lbs of energy on target, but it is a large flat nosed bullet and I already stated the above rule doesn’t apply to this type of cartridge. But conversely I doubt anyone would question a .416 caliber, 400 gr. bullet ( SD=.330 ) with 1000 lbs of energy on target would certainly be adequate for the class of game defined above. I wouldn’t suggest pushing this bullet to 2800 fps, and a fair assumption on my part would be 1600-1800 fps would provide the requisite energy levels with a loss in flat trajectory. Small calibers 6mm, 25 cal which don’t fit into the rule #2 above can be easily compensated for with this third rule. I think adhering to the strict 1200 ft lb rule or slightly increasing this number gets a good fit for all of the 243 winchester/25-06 cartridges. One big variable here is how big of game and how tough. I used the Coues deer and the elk comparison before so I will repeat that spectrum here. The elk is a much larger tougher animal than the small deer, with an elk I want a minimum of the 1200 ft lbs of energy, and would prefer 1400 ft lbs of energy especially in a 6mm or 25 cal bullet. In contrast to the small Coues deer, where I would feel comfortable with a 900-1000lbs of energy. In practical terms for the elk I would define a 243 Winchester with a 100 gr. bullet limited to around a 200 yards max shoot, whereas a 30-06 with a 180 gr. bullet would have an effective range of 400 yards. Contrast the same cartridges to the smaller deer and the 30-06 180 gr. bullet will deliver 900 lbs of energy out to 550 yards, and the 243 100 gr. bullet is a 350 yard combination. The .243 Winchester would not be my first choice or even close on the elk (in fact I usually use a 30 magnum), and the 30-06 would not be my first choice on the Coues deer. In reality my choice would be the 30-06 on the elk and the .243 Winchester on the deer, but both cartridges are certainly capable within the confines of definition posted above.

    Most cartridges available today fall into the above categories with some common sense applied. So in summary to answer the original question of this thread, what is the best cartridge for big game hunting, I am not sure but I suspect you already own it.
  2. JohnDog

    JohnDog Well-Known Member

    Where's Art?

    I think he has a saying about a certain cartridge and an amount of hard cash money. I'll throw my $.02 in after that;)

  3. litman252

    litman252 Well-Known Member

    You do many times more homework than I do.
    I stick to the well known ones, 30-06, 30-30. Once in a while something on the wierd, crazy side ( for me ) 7mm STW. Or a gun that just means a lot to me, 243.

    What ever works for you. The 7mm is the only gun that I would use for shots greater than 150 yards, due to the optics and gun that chambers those calibers, not the calibers themselvs.

  4. Renegade

    Renegade Well-Known Member

    I believe, that a hunter should match your rifle/caliber combination to the game you're hunting, hunting conditions and terrane(sp). There will never be the miracle do-all rifle/caliber duo. But, there are many that are very versitile. I wish that I could financally afford any caliber for any given hunting situation, but alas I had to decide on one... the battle and time proven 30-06. It isn't the latest and greatest, but it meets my needs for what I hunt and where I hunt. As a hunters we are responsible for insuring a clean and humane kill, we owe it to the animals we hunt.


  5. Art Eatman

    Art Eatman Administrator Staff Member


    I've never worried about "best", since I started handloading at the same time I got into centerfire. Since everything I've ever shot fell dead (except for two deer, but it wasn't the cartridge's fault) I reckon that whatever I was using was as good for its purpose as anything else.

    I guess I got to about the same place as schromf, but with a lot less effort: My father and uncle set me up with an old DCM 1917 Enfield and taught me reloading. Heck, a pound of DuPont IMR cost some $1.75 a pound, back then; up from $1.25. Twenty years later I ran across this really neat little Sako Forester in .243...

    I've mostly used a 150-grain bullet in the '06, so when I read up a bit on the 7mm08, launching a 140-grain bullet at 2,900, I sez to myself, "Self, this is no bad deal." And since a 700Ti with sling, ammo and scope totals out at 6-1/4 pounds, my aging legs thought they were young again! :D

    Jeff Cooper's daughter composed the poem with the lines, "There aren't many things that a man can't fix, with seven-hundred dollars and a .30-'06."

    Sounds good to me.

  6. Kingcreek

    Kingcreek Well-Known Member

    The schromf formula made me dizzy. If it works for you, go with it but to me it seems like a hard way to get to where I already got.
    If I feel like my .270 is a little light I tip 'em over with a .300 win mag.
    math was never my best subject. heck, I even remember when it was first discovered and they called it "rith-muh-tic"

    The BEST cartridge is the one that kills 'em.
  7. MeekandMild

    MeekandMild Well-Known Member

    Here I'm reminded of a hundred year old line of poetry from Kipling:
    "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
    and every single one of them is right."

    Except perhaps the use of a .243 for bear and elk. :uhoh:
  8. artherd

    artherd member

    I know buppkiss about hunting, but .30-06 for me too. With *factory* loads ranging from 125gr-220gr, it will take just about anything at all.

    Except I'd probally try bringing my 12lb AR-30 in .338Lapua Magnum for Elk, at least my first time. 250gr at *3,000fps*. 5,000lb-ft at the muzzle. WELL over 1,000lb-ft at 1,000yds. Supersonic to 2,000yds. BC similar to .50BMG. How much walking do I have to do? ;)
  9. Red Neck64

    Red Neck64 Active Member

    If I were a one rifle big game hunter,I would want my rifle to be in 30-06.A reloader can load it down to the 30-30 class,or load it up to right behind the 7mm Remington Mag.With proper bullet placement,the 30-06 will kill and has killed all North American big game.
  10. bailer

    bailer Well-Known Member

    The one you have in the safe. I have a Ruger in 6.5 Swede that I can load a little hotter than factory(careful not to mix those into the Mauser pile). For Arizona hunting that will take care of anything I'm likely to draw. If I ever pull a buffalo tag I'll have an excuse to buy bigger. The last few years I've put in for archery elk.
  11. Art Eatman

    Art Eatman Administrator Staff Member

    Red Neck64, five grains weight of Bullseye or shotgun powder behind a 00 Buck makes a nice squirrel load in the '06. And you can push 80- or 90-grain pistol bullets to incredible velocities with practically no recoil, but with devastating results on jackrabbits. :) Lotsa options.

  12. MeekandMild

    MeekandMild Well-Known Member

    Art, what do you use for wadding on your squirrel loads?
  13. schromf

    schromf Well-Known Member

    I avoided recommendations and damnations in the formula post. Neither did I post what I shoot, as I was not attempting to bias. What in fact works for me are:

    30-338 mag with 200gr @ 3100 fps
    30-06 with 180gr bullets @ approx 2850-2900 fps
    7x57 with 160gr estimated velocity 2700 fps +/-
    6.5x55 Swede 140-160 gr
    257 Roberts 100-120 gr bullets 2750-3050 fps depending on bullet weight

    Replies concerning the .243 Winchester on elk and being a tad light are an opinion I share. I would further postulate that my 257 Roberts is a little light on elk. I have been carrying my 7x57 quite a bit in the last few years and even with it I limit my shots, on elk to 200-250yds max.

    If I was pressed for 1 gun only solution and couldn't have the others it would be the 30-338 mag, it covers the full spectrum of hunting that I will ever do. I could take it anywhere in North America and hunt it all. Too much rifle for the little Coues deer, and maybe not the best medicine for a brown bear up close but it will do it all. I actually don't carry it as much as the 7x57 anymore as the mag has some serious recoil (also 4350 ft lbs of energy) and I find the intermediate caliber a lot more pleasant to shoot.

    With my magnum discarded my next choice would be a 30-06, or a 280 Remington, followed closely by the 270
  14. Art Eatman

    Art Eatman Administrator Staff Member

    M7M, I never bothered with wadding. The large rifle primer is hot enough for instant ignition, for one thing, plus squirrels in trees means you''re aiming upward at enough of an angle to settle the powder toward the primer, anyway. :)

    schromf, I doubt you'd get much argument about your conclusions on cartridges and suitabilties. Obviously there are other cartridges which can work similarly well, but it's more details and druthers than any major differences...

    :), Art
  15. goalie

    goalie Well-Known Member

    The best cartridge for big game has always been, and always will be, the biggest, fastest, most powerful one that you can shoot accurately.
  16. JohnDog

    JohnDog Well-Known Member

    When I got back into hunting about 10 years ago, I was all into the one rifle for all big-game hunting concept. I settled on a .30-06 in the re-introduced M70 Classic (cause I had always wanted a pre-64 M70). I was ready for anything, and for the next couple of years I took antelope, deer (whitetails and muleys) and elk with it.

    As to how I picked the cartridge, I mostly just went with what I knew worked for family and friends (and myself). Lots of game got taken with .30-06, .30-30, .270 and other standard (and not so standard) calibers. I had a cousin who had a .264 Win Mag and he swore it was the best. I had a .270 at the time, and got out the ballistic charts to show that it was just a good as the .264. Mule deer shot with either rifle ended up pretty dead. I've seen an elk shot in the boiler room with a .338 Win Mag run a 100 yards. I've seen an elk crumple right to the ground on the same shot placement with a .30-30. The common wisdom at the time, was that the .30-06 was THE caliber for Big Game.

    As to the one rifle concept, that fell apart once the itch started. You know the itch - it's caused by too much money in the wallet - and some nice gun you've seen. I now have a .25-06 and .270 to go with the .30-06. So I can use a rifle/cartridge to match the game.

    As to a formula, I guess mine would be a rifle that I can shoot accurately that delivers a tough bullet that I can confidently make humane killing shots on game. For me it's my .30-06, for everything up to elk. I doubt I'll every go shoot big brownies in Alaska, and I know that .30-06 has been used on them and is (arguably) considered the minimum caliber.

    Of course if I ever get do get an urge to go after them big bears maybe the "itch" will strike again.;)

  17. Smoke Rizen

    Smoke Rizen Well-Known Member

    The question is favorite cartridge? My answer is .270. S.R.

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