Your Top 10 Rifle Cartridges For Big-Game Hunting

There are many rifle calibers and cartridges to fit those calibers. Knowing what caliber/cartridge is best is a matter of doing your homework and some at-the-range experimentation. Here are 10 excellent choices our gun guy, the legendary Scott Haugen, recommends.

by Scott Haugen

Through my scope, I watched as a buck arose from its bed, stretched, pawed the ground, and laid back down. With its shoulders above the body, facing away, the buck was in a perfect position to take a shot.

I’d been sitting comfortably for several minutes, my 28 Nosler secure in a BOG Gear DeathGrip Tripod. The buck was 385 yards away, and dialing in the scope to 16 power brought the deer into my lap.

The trigger pull was easy, almost surprising, as the shot echoed through the rimrock mountains. The buck slowly stood, stumbled one step forward, and collapsed. It was a quick, clean kill.

“You’re not even shaking,” my buddy shouted as he excitedly punched me in the shoulder. Aren’t you pumped? That was a long shot! Weren’t you nervous? That was awesome; I can’t believe you hit it that far away.”

“I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger if I weren’t sure I’d kill it,” I said. 

I was confident in my caliber, bullet, scope, and shooting ability. There was no wind or heat waves, and I was rock solid. There was no missing the buck. 

When you’re confident with your rifle and know you’re shooting a caliber/cartridge adequate to handle the big-game species you’re after, good things happen. Here, in no particular order, are 10 excellent rifle cartridges to consider.

The 28 Nosler

A few years ago, I had my dream rifle built. Curt Mendenhall of Curt’s Custom Guns in Oregon crafted me a 28 Nosler. In over 45 years of hunting, it’s the best performing, most accurate, lightweight big game rifle I’ve shot. I’d use it to hunt most all big game animals minus polar bears and coastal brown bears.

Mendenhall used a full titanium Pierce action for my 28 Nosler. The Benchmark match grade barrel sits in an MPI Kevlar stock which weighs only 15 ounces. Hawkins Precision aluminum rings are machined with a 25 MOA to extend the range. A Triggertech completes the rifle, which weighs a mere 5.5 pounds.

Topped with a Trijicon AccuPoint 4-16×50 scope with a capped elevation adjuster, scope caps, scope dust cover, and a slender custom sling created by Oregon Paracord, the total weight of the setup is only 7.25 pounds. I shoot 175-grain Nosler AccuBond Long Range factory ammo moving at 2,900 fps and have been very happy with this bullet’s performance on every animal it’s hit, including elk, deer, black bear, and a bighorn sheep a buddy shot with it. At this time in my hunting career, this custom-built rifle is my favorite. I know it’s a luxury, but it’s worth it.

The .30-06 Springfield

My first rifle was a pre-64 Winchester Model 70 chambered in .30-06. My grandmother gifted it to me on my 12th birthday in 1976. Ten years prior, my grandfather died of a massive heart attack when hunting Columbia blacktail deer near our home in Oregon, and in his grasp was this rifle. The fall after getting the gun, I shot my first blacktail with it, and over the next 20 years, it was my rifle of choice.

When my wife and I moved to Alaska’s high Arctic in 1990 and lived a semi-subsistence lifestyle, Grandpa’s .30-06 was the only rifle I took. With this rifle and 180-grain handloads I built, I took numerous caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and grizzly bear. I even killed a man-eating polar bear with it using 220-grain handloads. I did all my loading back then, mainly with Nosler Partitions. In the Lower 48, I used Granddad’s ’06 to take elk, black bear, and several deer. I loved that rifle and still regard the .30-06 as one of the best all-around big-game calibers ever built.

The .300 Winchester  Magnum

Over the years, I’ve shot more big game worldwide using a .300 Winchester Magnum than any one caliber. I’ve taken leopard, eland, kudu, wildebeest, waterbuck, and numerous plains game species in Africa with a Christensen Arms .300 Win. Mag. Shooting Remington’s Model 700, Winchester’s Model 70, and Thompson Center’s Icon, all chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum, I’ve shot moose, several black bears, deer, elk, mountain goat, African lion, Himalayan tahr, water buffalo, red stag in Australia and loads of heavy-boned African game in multiple countries. I love the energy of this flat shooting caliber, which translates to pinpoint accuracy if recoil isn’t a concern.

The .30 TC

Years ago, I hosted hunting TV shows for various outdoor networks. For 14 years, this was my main job. Some years I hosted two TV shows which meant going on 60 or more big game hunts a year, many of which were overseas. Spending 280 days afield was common. For the past 23 years, I’ve been a full-time outdoor writer. I’ve been fortunate to hunt in many parts of the world, taking numerous big game animals. I learned a lot about cartridges on the cull hunts I went on in Africa and management hunts in the South Pacific and U.S. Doing shooting research on game animals is far different than shooting paper or  gel blocks.

In the TV industry, show sponsors often change. Sometimes there was no gun sponsor, which meant I could shoot whatever rifle and caliber I wanted to. I got to hunt with many rifle brands in a range of cartridges.

An overlooked cartridge is the .30 TC. Shooting custom 165-grain SST Hornady ammunition through Thompson Center’s .30 TC Icon was among the best calibers I’ve ever shot. It’s easy to handle, light on the recoil and packs a punch on big game. I have more than one friend who shot the .30 TC and then bought their own.

My wife was part of our TV show and loved shooting the .30 TC. Our sons even shot it in their early teen years. I’ve seen it cleanly kill big Roosevelt bull elk, black bear, mule deer, whitetail, blacktail, wild hogs, and more. Last fall, my wife got a massive Roosevelt cow elk with one well-placed shot through the lungs using a .30 TC. Everyone I’ve let hunt with this caliber loves it; for some, it’s their go-to gun.

The .260 Remington

Though light for elk, the .260 Remington paired with Nosler factory ammo is my wife’s favorite cartridge for deer. Our sons loved it when they were young and shot deer and hogs with it. I’ve shot several coyotes with it, too. If you are looking for a lighter caliber for deer and pronghorn, the .260 Remington is attractive.

The .25-06 Remington

The .25-06 is another family favorite. I’ve used this cartridge on many deer and pronghorn hunts, as have my wife and sons. When our youngest son turned 12, he took his .25-06 to Texas and shot a range of sheep, goats, and pigs. He even got a dandy free-range axis deer. Flat, fast with very little recoil, the .25-06 is a versatile cartridge built for deer-sized game and is excellent for coyotes.

The .270 Weatherby Magnum

A cartridge I’ve been very pleased with on deer, elk, and moose is the .270 Weatherby Magnum. This was the first belted magnum based on the .300 H&H Magnum and was developed back in 1943 by Roy Weatherby. It was reportedly his favorite elk cartridge. The rifle has a longer barrel to maximize the velocity by taking advantage of the extra powder. I especially like its performance more than some modern-day wildcat rounds I’ve shot and seen used on elk.

The .325 Winchester Short Magnum

One of my favorite shooting rifles of all time is Nosler’s Model 48 chambered in .325 Winchester Short Magnum. Yes, it’s a bit heavy for deer, but it doesn’t damage meat to the level I’ve seen some other hyped-up calibers do, especially some of today’s wildcat rounds. The .325 WSM is a very accurate, extremely efficient elk gun, and I love its performance on black bear, especially in rugged, brushy country where I want to put them down on the spot.

With my.325 WSM, I’ve shot several Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, whitetails, and bears, often on the same hunt. If you want one cartridge to take on a multi-species big game hunt for deer, elk, and bear out West, the .325 is a solid choice. I wouldn’t hesitate using it on the inland grizzly bear, and obviously, it’ll handle moose and stout game in Africa, along with water buffalo and banteng in Australia.

The .375 H&H Magnum

The .375 H&H Magnum is tough to beat for big coastal brown bears. I took my first brown bear with a Remington Model 700 chambered in .375 H&H, and it did the job well. I also shot a pride of man-eating lions in Africa with it and several other big plains game in Africa over the years.

The .270 Winchester

I’ve only shot a couple of dozen big game animals using a .270, mostly deer, but I have seen several animals taken with this cartridge. My dad’s favorite hunting rifle is a .270 Winchester, and I’ve been with him when he’s taken many deer, pronghorn, and even elk and bear with it. Introduced in the 1920s, the .270 Winchester is a necked-down version of the .30-06 Springfield. It’s a flatter, faster-shooting caliber than the .30-06 and with less recoil and ease of handling, many hunters still love this cartridge.

The ammunition and scope you choose are nearly as crucial as the caliber, so don’t cut corners on any of it. And remember, no matter how much money you invest in a gun or what cartridge it is, it will only perform as well as the person shooting it. If recoil is a concern, don’t overdo it on the caliber. Practice and get to know your gun so you can shoot it with precision and confidence every time you pull the trigger, and that will be the best gun for you.


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