The answer to the question – what is the best all-round rifle caliber for big game? – has been debated among hunters and gun enthusiasts for decades.
Everyone will tell you something different. The truth, though, is that there is no correct answer, as the best all-around hunting caliber is really subjective based on personal experience and preference.
Nonetheless, there are certain rifle rounds that undoubtedly deserve more attention than others. Not only are they significantly more popular, but there are other factors we will look at that set them above the rest of the playing field. They have a solid track record and certain advantages that place them on this list.
Maybe you have the hunting rifle you want picked out but can’t decide on the caliber; most hunting rifles are available in all the calibers on this list, plus more. This list is designed to be a starting point for you to make that decision.
1. .308 Winchester
The .308 has evolved to become the most popular rifle cartridge in the United States today. A near identical round is also in service with the United States military — the 7.62x51mm NATO. This means that even your average hunting rifle chambered in .308 will accept both calibers, making it one of the most versatile rifles you could own. The .308 round also has a noted reputation for accuracy, and as a result the 7.62x51mm NATO is currently used as a sniper round in addition to the .300 WIN Mag and the .50 BMG. Not only that, but both .308 and 7.62x51mm are some of the most plentiful and affordable rifle calibers currently on the shelves.
Beyond that, the .308 is an effective hunting cartridge for most, but not quite all, North American big game. It is an excellent round for deer, elk, black bear and bighorn sheep. The only time you’d wish you had a bigger round is if you go after the biggest prey such as a moose or grizzly, where a magnum cartridge would provide greater knockdown power. Nonetheless, the .308 is also effective against smaller- and medium-sized game, in that it has more than enough power to take anything that size down with one shot and without being too large of a round to make a mess of the meat. A further benefit of the .308 is its relatively light recoil, meaning that no one’s going to be going home with a bruised shoulder after a day on the range. All in all, it may not be quite the round you need for moose and grizzly, but beyond that, it’s a challenge to argue against the .308 as a great rifle round.
2. .30-06 Springfield
There is no more classic choice on this list than the .30-06 Springfield. In service all the way back since World War I, the .30-06 also has the longest proven track record of any caliber on this list. Though it has since been eclipsed narrowly by the .308 in terms of popularity, the .30-06 remains one of the most popular and common rifle rounds today. Nearly every rifle manufacturer produces large quantities of .30-06, so it’s not hard to find it on the shelves.
In terms of hunting, the .30-06 is a heavier round than the .308, giving it slightly more stopping power but also slightly less velocity (and moderate recoil). While it’s still not quite the best round you could use for the biggest game such as grizzly or moose (though it could do the job if you needed it to), the .30-06 is a superb round for all other game on the continent. And beyond hunting, no gun collection is truly complete without a .30-06 rifle of some sort in the mix.
3. .300 Winchester Magnum
The little brother of the .338 Winchester Magnum, the .300 Win Mag has gained a stout reputation as being a near-flawless combination of accuracy and stopping power. It has gained favor in the military as an A-grade sniper round and will no doubt serve you well when it comes to hunting.
The best feature about the .300 Win Mag is that it offers excellent long-range performance with superb stopping power and high velocity. It has been used successfully time and time again to drop the biggest game like moose and grizzly. So far, the .300 may seem like the perfect cartridge. The only downsides to this round are its greater recoil (which will make it uncomfortable for beginners or for those who just don’t like the kick to their shoulder) and it’s more expensive per-round as well. Both the .308 and .30-06 are more affordable and also found in greater quantities on the shelves.
4. .338 Winchester Magnum
This was the round that was made for Alaskan big game hunting, and is the preferred caliber of grizzly bear and moose hunters across the continent. The .338 Win Mag will drop anything and everything to walk North America. In that regard, the .338 is considered by some experts and professionals to be the best big game American hunting cartridge for that very reason.
But the .338 is also not for everybody. The .338 ammo is insanely expensive; you can plan on spending $3 to $4 per round (and you’ll have to fire hundreds of rounds on the range to become truly proficient with any caliber). And as you can imagine, the recoil is the largest of any of the calibers on this list. New shooters or anyone who doesn’t want to go home with pain in their shoulder (after firing multiple shots) is not going to be a fan of this round. But still, the .338 Win Mag is a rifle round to be respected by all gunowners, and if you want a caliber that’s going to kill anything without question, the .338 Win Mag is it.
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