The Best Cartridges for Western Big Game Hunting

A common question or even debate among hunters is what the best rifle cartridges is for western big game hunting. This is an interesting subject to wade into because one hunter’s options might vary from another’s. Some people like chocolate chip cookies, other people like oatmeal raisin. I detest oatmeal raisin. So, take this as you will. It’s only kind of a general rule of thumb of what my specific interest is for what I want out of a big game cartridges for out west.

What you need to consider with a cartridges is whether there is enough horsepower behind your bullet to get the job done. I mean, 1,500 foot pounds of impact seems to be about the minimum kinetic energy that you want for any sort of cartridge for killing any deer-sized big game animal. And you’re going to want a little bit more for larger game such as elk, moose, and caribou. That said, we’re going to make a lot of people mad right out of the gate by throwing out a couple of c cartridges, starting with the 6.5 Creedmoor.

I know I’m going to get flamed for this, but ballistically speaking, the 6.5 Creedmoor is not a cartridges that I would take out West for big game hunting, and here’s why: Most of your shots out West are going to be fairly quick and fairly far. A lot of times you don’t have a lot of time to range an animal, set up on it, dial a scope and do a whole bunch of things to it to get an effective shot off. It’s really open country and they spot you from a long ways away.

The one thing I don’t like about a 6.5 Creedmoor is ballistically speaking, it’s not very fast. It’s not very flat. You’re going to want something that’s a little faster, a little flatter, so it has a little more room for error so you’re able to make a judgment call on a shot without having to gain all the information needed for that shot.

When it comes to big game hunting out West, we’re looking for something that’s got a fair amount of kinetic energy and is going to be fast and flat. That’s what I look for in a cartridge for big game hunting. Let’s go through a list of what I think are some of the better big game cartridges out there:

Number one on my list is a 7mm Remington Magnum. This has been tried and true across the board. It has a wide range of bullet capabilities as far as grain weights to shoot. It has a lot of velocity. It has a lot of knockdown power, especially out for longer range stuff. It’s the original long range cartridge.

You look at where all the long range hunting guys started, most all of them started building 7mm Remington Magnums before they started with any of these new fandangled cartridges, before the 7LRM, before a 28 Nosler, before the .300 Ultra. Everyone shot a 7mm Remington Magnum back in the day for a 1,000 yard shot. Why? Because it was the best, and it’s still one of the best right now. It hasn’t lost that position. It’s kind of lost some of the luster because of the new cartridges that have come out, but realistically speaking, a 7mm Remington Magnum is capable of taking big game anywhere in North America, especially out West.

It’s fast, it’s flat, and it has plenty of kinetic energy and knockdown power. Another benefit of it over some of the other cartridges is the access to over-the-counter ammo, and the fact that you can pretty much go into any gas station, at least in Montana, and find 7mm Remington core locks in 150-grain. So it’s something that’s available and is not going to go anywhere. So its ease of availability also makes it desirable, especially if you’re on a hunt and you lose your ammo or something happens. There’s a good chance you’ll be able to find that on the shelf.

An honorable mention to the 7mm Mag is going to be a .300 Win Mag. The reason I put the 7mm above the .300 Win is recoil and down range energy. Your performance down range of a 7mm is going to outperform a .300, once you get past that 800 yard range. I’m not advocating that that’s where you need to be playing around in, but you do have that option, if you have the proper equipment, to get out to a 600-plus yard shot.

I choose the 7 Mag over the .300 Win on that, just for the simple fact that it holds its energy a little bit better. It’s got a little better ballistic coefficients in the bullets for it, without having to shoot too heavy of a grain bullet and have too much recoil. So it’s kind of the one cartridge that can do it all. I would have no problem taking and shooting a whitetail doe with it, as well as shooting a moose with it. All across the board, it’s a very effective cartridge, that’s common, it’s easy to find on the shelves, and it has a wide variety of bullet and factory ammo choices, as well as reloading choices.

Next on the list a middle-sized cartridge that good for deer and also good for elk under 500 yards. A .270. It’s hard to beat a .270. There’s a lot of different cartridges out there now that are really similar to a .270 that have come about. The 6.5 PRC is one of honorable mention. It’s fast. It’s flat. It shoots a 140-grain bullet. It catches all those same things that we were looking for, in a big game cartridge, but in a smaller, more compact, case. So a .270, again, easy to find on the shelf, has plenty of knockdown power for elk.

I wouldn’t use a .270 on elk over 500 yards. You’re starting to get down there in kinetic energy where it’s going to be a problem, but for 500 yards on in for elk, it’s a great round. For deer out to 600 or 700 yards, it’s a great round. Now, keep in mind, I’m throwing huge distances out there, and this is for hunting fanatics that practice year round at long ranges. Realistically, we’re going to try to get in close and have a 300 yard or less shot, but in some cases, that just doesn’t happen and you don’t have that option.

So with enough practice and the cartridge, optics, and gadgets, with conditions permitting, you are able to make a longer shot. That’s where it separates some cartridges from other. Again, .270 would be my second choice for a kind of a middle range. A little bit lighter recoil than the 7mm Remington Magnum, and it is perfect for deer, antelope, and elk under 500 yards. That said, the .270 would be kind of my runner up as far as number two choice.

Moving on down the line, we’re going to go to number three: the old .243. This will be a deer-specific round. I mean, yes, of course you can kill an elk with a .243. My neighbor has killed 28 bulls and every one of them he shot behind the shoulder with a .243. I’m not saying it’s not effective. I’m just saying that at range, especially from 300-plus yards, if you hit a shoulder blade of an elk with a .243 and a 100-grain bullet, there’s a good chance that it’s not going to have the desired results.

Shot placement is always key, but there are always factors that come in that you don’t expect such as wind gusts, awkward shooting positions, unstable rests, and so on. So you need to have enough confidence in your bullet being able to perform on a poorly placed shot, just as well as on a perfectly placed shot. Everybody knows that if you perfectly place a shot, you can kill anything you want with a 22 long rifle. It will kill it. However, that being said, it’s the poor shots, or the shots that don’t go as we planned, where you want that confidence that your gun’s still going to get the job done and dispatch that animal at a timely manner.

Again, that’s one of my major problems with the 6.5 Creedmoor — it just doesn’t have the kinetic energy or velocity. It’s got a big arc to it. It’s not a flat shooting gun. Is it an accurate cartridge? Absolutely. It’s unbelievably accurate, quite frankly, and there’s a lot of factory ammunition out there and everything else, but it just doesn’t have the kinetic energy, especially out past 300 yards to where I would consider it a good Western big game cartridge.

Will it kill deer? Yes. Will it kill elk? Yes. But again, so will a 22 mag. I mean, we’re really splitting hairs there. A properly placed shot will work every time. We’re looking at the ones where stuff goes wrong, and we want to have enough confidence in our cartridge to where if something goes wrong, we’re still not going to wound that animal and lose it. We’re going to at least take that animal to a point where it’s not mobile anymore and we can finish the job and get it dispatched.

So, coming back to number three: a .243. It’s perfect for deer. Again, it’s an older cartridge. It’s been around a long time. It’s not one of the new fandangled ones, and it doesn’t need to be. It shoots close to 3,000 feet per second with 100-grain bullet. It will get the job done on deer from 300 yards on in. With less recoil, it’s also great for younger hunters and women. Again, I would not advocate it for elk, by any means, but for most of your deer-sized game and smaller, a .243 is an excellent choice.

Another cartridge choice that’s similar to the .243, that has a little bit more recoil is the 25-06. This was a wildcat from the 30-06 parent case and has been in production since 1969. This is another flatter shooting, great deer-sized cartridge as well. It shoots a 120-grain bullet. It’s just a little bit of a step up from the .243 but will fit all the same bills as well.

The one thing that I like and definitely look for in a Western big game rifle is trajectory. So if you don’t have time to range it, or you range it once and it moves but you don’t have time to range it again before he takes off again, that’s where these flatter trajectory cartridges are going to save your butt — because you don’t need to range it again. You know what the ballistics of that rifle and round are capable of. This means your bullet is more likely to stay within the vital kill zone on the animal over a longer distance.

Say you’re 50 yards off at 400 yards with the 7mm Remington Magnum, you’re still going to have a fatal shot on that animal with that difference. If you’re 50 yards off with a 6.5 Creedmoor at 400 yards, you’ll flat out miss that animal. Your ballistic drop there is significantly more with a 6.5 Creedmoor than it would be with your 7mm Remington Magnum. That’s just the bottom line. So there’s more room for error with the bigger cartridges that are faster and flatter than there is with the slower cartridges that are out there now.

Rick Matney, Wild Game Chef

8 thoughts

  1. Sorry, I have to disagree with alot you wrote about. Living and hunting out west for 30 years, I have never shot and elk or deer past 250 yards. This includes elk kills in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico. Truly a variety of terrain. Most of my elk under 100.(about a dozen or so) You base your article on the long shot, but I would argue significantly more big game is taken at less than 300 yards.
    Having said that, you leave out the 3006, it has more place out here than the 270. More energy, more bullet selection and more hunters using it as an all around western big game cartridge.
    20-06 and 243?? Sure in the right hands these will take elk and of course deer, but in the hands of the average hunter a poor choice on anything larger than deer. I think your better served thinking about the average joe, alot of what you write about can certainly hold true, but we need to take into account the ethics surrounding the kill.


  2. I enjoyed reading your piece on best cartridges for west. I appreciate the knowledge of others and try to apply it to my own understanding. Some people have to find fault in everything that others will say when it doesn’t line up with their own way of thinking. Sad reality is when we think we know more than anyone else and refuse to continue to grow in knowledge. Again I say thank you.


  3. Probably more animals shot over the years with a 270 or 30-06 then all the animals shot with all the calibers you mention put together. Some of you writers not sitting around the fire with the boys taking the meat.


  4. So tired of not seeing the 340 Weatherby on or in anyones list. That caliber with a 250 grain partition bullet takes down anything on this continent.


  5. I agree with the 30-06 being the best all around cartridge. Also the Remington 350 Mag was touted as being able to take down any big game animal on the continent. I don’t know if they still make a rifle chambered for the 350 mag, mine was a model 600 magnum carbine produced in the mid 1960’s.


  6. 50 years huning North American big game from New Jersey, Pennsylvaniaand Texas North to the Dakotas and Montana using 7mm Rem Mag, .30-06, .280, .338 Win mag, .30-30 and .25-06 convinced me that the .280 and .30-30 were more than adequate for any game given proper shot placement. In my younger years I used the 7mm and 338 but as I grew older, the recoil was most uncomfortable. My brother-in-law inherited a savage model 99 in 22 hi power (from his father in law) which had been used for “pot-meat” from richardson ground squirrels to elk (in wyoming) while he was tending fence.


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