What's the Best Rifle Caliber for North American Big Game?

Looking for that do-it-all caliber for hunting North American Big Game? Here are some great options to consider.

North America has a staggering variety of big game critters roaming about, and almost all of them have open seasons in one locale or another. Whitetail deer, mule deer, antelope, elk, caribou, moose, and black bear are easily the most commonly hunted, but other, larger animals such as bison, brown, polar, and grizzly bears, the various goats and sheep, and even walrus (!) are on the list. So if you're going for your North American Super Slam, you'd better have a versatile caliber with some horsepower and good ballistics behind it. Here are some great options.

.30-06 Springfield

My grandfather always told me, "If you can't kill it with a .30-06, you probably shouldn't be shooting at it anyway." The venerable and eternally popular .30-06 Springfield was introduced by the U.S. military in 1906 as a shorter-necked evolution of the .30-03 cartridge. Hunters quickly flocked to the caliber, and apparently haven't looked back; the .30-06 is easily one of the most popular sporting calibers in the world.

Able to hurl a 180-grain bullet towards its target at 2700 feet per second (fps) for a resulting 2900 foot-pounds of energy, the .30-06 is capable of downing any animal on the continent out to 300 yards or so with proper bullet placement. Luckily, the .30-06 is available in a vast array of bullet weights - 110 to 220 grains. Modern projectile designs are so highly evolved that you can tailor the bullet design to the game you are taking, even more so if you handload.

If I knew I might be facing a charging Alaskan brown bear at short distance, I might look for a tad more horsepower. However, the .30-06 is still a great all-around choice for hunting anywhere on this continent, and it's hands down my favorite caliber on this list.

.375 Holland & Holland Magnum

Three great calibers: .338 Winchester Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, .375 Holland & Holland Magnum. Image via wikimedia commons.

Speaking of horsepower, here we go! The .375 Holland & Holland Magnum has been the darling of the African hunter for over a hundred years. It is still considered one of the most versatile calibers on the planet. Considered by many to be the minimum caliber required to hunt the African "Big Five", the .375 H&H certainly will work on any North American four-legged animal with equal aplomb. The stalwart .375 H&H is a good choice when you're up against game that has no compunction about turning you into plant fertilizer.

With 235 to 270 grain bullets, the .375 H&H shoots flat enough to be a hard-hitting menace to animals quite some distance away. As a matter of fact, a .375 H&H launching Hornady's 270-grain Superformance load at 2800 fps boasts an almost identical trajectory to a 180-grain .30-06 out to 300 yards. With 300-grain heavily constructed bullets such as Nosler's Partition or Swift A-Frame, the .375 H&H will provide an extra level of comfort when huge angry toothy animals are at bad breath distance. The newer .375 Ruger is an excellent option as well if you have a .375 fetish but don't want a magnum-length rifle action.

.300 Winchester Magnum

The .300 Winchester Magnum could be called the best choice on this list for a variety of reasons. The .300 Winchester Magnum, being a .30 caliber, is available in a staggering array of loads, with projectile weights ranging from 150 to 200 grains. If you handload your own ammunition, bullet weights from 110 grains to 250 grains are available to you. Consider this projectile versatility with a healthy velocity boost - over 300 fps more than a .30-06 with a 180-grain bullet - and you start to see why the .300 Winchester Magnum is heavily used in the field and in law enforcement for long-range knockdown power. A .300 Win. Mag's 180 -grain bullet at 3100 fps equates to roughly 3,800 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle - almost one third more energy than a .30-06.

There are other great calibers in the .30 caliber "magnum" category - .300 Weatherby Magnum, .300 Remington Ultra Magnum, and .30-378 Weatherby Magnum come to mind. While they offer even more velocity (and recoil!), they need longer magnum-length rifle actions to handle the practically-asparagus-sized cartridges.

.35 Whelen

The mighty .35 Whelen is our dark horse candidate in this article. A .30-06 Springfield with the case mouth necked up to accept .358" diameter bullets, the .35 Whelen has been around a long time -since 1922. Factory loads are stout, pushing a 250 grain bullet to 2300 fps or so. However, the determined handloader can coax another 300 feet per second out of the same bullet weight. For those of us paying attention, that puts the .35 Whelen within spitting distance of the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum in terms of raw power.

Since the shorter roly-poly .35 caliber bullets have a lower ballistic coefficient, the .35 Whelen might be a bit challenging with long-distance shots on caribou or antelope. The rifle's track record, though, speaks for itself. The .35 Whelen has been used successfully on every type of animal in Africa, and its performance is reportedly excellent on Alaskan brown bears. It is an extremely popular moose caliber here in Maine.

7mm Remington Magnum

Rounding out our compendium of versatile calibers is the 7mm Remington Magnum. If you rule out heavily-built dangerous animals, the 7mm Remington Magnum may indeed be the most versatile caliber on this list. Being able to push a 150-grain bullet out of your rifle at the zippy clip of over 3,100 fps with 3,200 foot pounds of energy is something the 7mm Remington Magnum is superb at. Combined with the wonderfully high ballistic coefficients and sectional densities of the long-for-caliber 7mm projectiles, you get laser-flat trajectories and high retained energy at long distances and excellent penetration on game. For 400-yard shots on bighorns or black bears over bait at 75 yards, the 7mm Remington Magnum is a truly flexible choice for North American game.

A Remington 725 in .270 Winchester would be a great all-around hunting rifle.

Other Options Abound!

You might notice I've favored a few cartridges that lean towards raw power yet are versatile enough to use on any game you can chase. However, if you aren't after animals that offer the thrill of hunting you, there are hundreds of calibers that are great options for hunting on our beautiful continent.

The .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester, and 6.5x55 Swedish are wonderful, low-recoiling calibers that enjoy huge followings due to their ability to effectively harvest game. If you like toting guns that aren't of such run-of-the-mill calibers, (guilty as charged here!), perhaps cast your eyes toward such stellar bullet-launching platforms as the .358 Winchester, .284 Winchester, .264 Winchester Magnum, or the aged-but-still-svelte .300 Holland & Holland Magnum.

As always, remember "it ain't the arrow; it's the indian". Whatever caliber and rifle you choose, be sure you perform your due diligence and put your time in behind the trigger. Ensure you can put that bullet where it needs to go at a given distance - you owe it to your quarry to make a clean, quick kill, and you owe it to yourself to not have to track wounded game or - God forbid - become the prey.

What do you think? Do you have a caliber that's worked well for you? Any we missed?