Best Big Game Cartridge: Big and Hard-Hitting, or Small and Sweet Shooting?

Choose your big game cartridge wisely: It can make the difference between elk steak or tag soup.

Dawn broke cold over the high country, with a threat of snow hanging in the air. Twelve cow elk grazed in a meadow at 11,500 feet, one small five-by-six bull still sleeping off his night of debauchery. I crept into place, rested my .300 Winchester Magnum atop a lightweight tripod, and squeezed the trigger. The bull never regained his feet.

Two years later I approached the same meadow, this time with a friend who carried a 6.5 Creedmoor on her shoulder and an elk tag in her pocket. Fresh elk tracks showed the way and we flushed another, bigger 5X6 bull. I cow called, my friend pressed the trigger, and another bull lay still in the snow. Both elk succumbed to a single shot. Only the duration of the kill was different. Mine died almost instantly; the other bull stayed on his feet for almost a minute, even though he was hit perfectly.

This bull never gained his feet after becoming acquainted with a 200-grain bullet from a .300 Win Mag. The .300 has long been a favored elk cartridge, and with good reason. It hits hard and penetrates deeply.

IS BIGGER BETTER?

For decades big, hard-hitting calibers held court across America’s hunting grounds. Recoil wasn’t considered the detriment it is today, indeed some shooters and hunters acclaimed hard-kicking rifles as superior, and accused those chambered in more mannerly cartridges as being sissified. This opinion was created by the projectile performance of the day. Simply put, the then-new high-velocity cartridges of the 20th century generated so much speed that traditional bullets struggled to maintain their composure when impacting heavy hide and bone. Bigger, heavier bullets had a better chance of holding together and penetrating deeply.

Modern projectile design offers fantastic accuracy and downrange terminal performance. Those elements can make a difference when you’re hunting the wide-open reaches of the west.

Today the pendulum has swung, and many hunters and shooters opine that bigger, harder-hitting calibers belong with folks of limited intelligence. According to these same hunters and shooters, anyone with enough electronic devices and high enough projectile BC (ballistic coefficient) can kill a mastodon at 1,000 yards with a 6mm Creedmoor. The one thing they do have right is that things have changed. Coming full circle, it’s all about bullet performance. Today’s premium projectiles are incredibly accurate and consistent. More to the point, they penetrate deeply and perform reliably at a wide variety of impact velocities. What this means is that today’s small, recoil-friendly calibers can kill as cleanly as yesterday’s bigger, harder-hitting calibers.

Elk are big, heavy-boned animals. Use a premium, deep-penetrating bullet. This bull was killed with a 6.5 Creedmoor, and bullet performance was good. However, the bull managed to stay on his feet for almost a minute after absorbing a perfect shoulder shot. A bigger bullet would have made quicker work.

IS SMALL AND SWEET SHOOTING BETTER?

Smaller calibers and cartridges kick less. They tend to be accurate and are certainly easier to shoot well. Loaded with a premium bullet they penetrate deeply and create a devastating wound channel. They do everything a big, hard-kicking caliber can do, right?

Wrong. There are two things they can never do as well:

Hit Hard: Two elements affect how hard a bullet impacts. The first is frontal diameter. The greater the frontal diameter, the more surface area and tissue the bullet impacts directly. Remember; surface area in a circle increases exponentially as diameter increases. The second element is weight. The heavier a projectile is the harder it hits. Consider the difference between getting hit by a pencil eraser traveling at 100 feet per second (fps), and a softball traveling the same speed. Neither will penetrate your skin, but the softball will hit much harder due to greater weight and diameter.

Penetrate Deep: In a nutshell, bigger, heavier bullets penetrate deeper than smaller, lighter projectiles of the same design. That said, modern-day bullet design has leveled the scale, to a degree. Projectiles such as Barnes’ TTSX, (a monolithic, solid copper/alloy bullet), and Federal Premium’s Terminal Ascent (built with a rapid-expanding jacketed lead front and a solid copper rear portion) maintain weight and drive deep, even in lighter, more friendly calibers.

The final word, though, is that a 200-grain bullet from a .300 Win Mag will out-penetrate a same-design 130-grain bullet sent from a 6.5 PRC.

This 147-grain “soft” bullet from a 6.5 PRC performed beautifully on this light-boned pronghorn, even with a full quartered-on shoulder shot. Don’t try it on elk, though.

THE UPSHOT

Light/sweet-shooting calibers are easier and friendlier to shoot, and now (with premium bullets) perform and penetrate admirably. Bigger calibers kick harder, but also hit harder and penetrate better. So what is best? The answer is, of course, situation and species specific. The light/sweet crowd will say, “It’s all about shot placement. Just wait for a good broadside shot and place your bullet right in the boiler room”.

To an extent that’s true. But what if your quarry never offers you a broadside shot? Let’s consider a common elk-woods scenario: You’re on a dream hunt in the Rocky Mountains. You’ve hunted hard, and you want to kill an elk in the worst way. On the last day of your hunt, you finally find a bull, a good one with heavy six-point antlers. You’re set up on a little rocky outcropping, using your pack as a dead rest. The bull is going over a thick timbered ridge and isn’t giving you a shot at all. You keep your crosshairs on him, hoping against hope that he steps into a clearing and gives you a shot. Finally, it happens; 350 yards away he stops, turns, and bugles back down the canyon. You can see his shoulder clearly between tree trunks, but he’s steeply quartered toward you. Your crosshairs are steady, your finger on the trigger. But you subscribe to the “wait till they’re broadside” strategy, and inside your rifle’s 6.5 PRC chamber rests a rapid-expansion 140-grain bullet. What do you do?

If you’re honest and ethical, you let the bull walk.

At a hard quartered-on angle there is a fortress of hide, muscle, bone, and sinew that a bullet must penetrate before reaching this elk’s vitals. You need a tough, heavy bullet for this job.

The chance that your soft, rapid-expansion bullet will make it through the many inches of hide, flesh, bone, and sinew protecting the vitals at this angle is remote. You pull that trigger, and you’re likely in for a long, heart-wrenching recovery effort. But if you continue to wait for that broadside shot the bull will likely walk over that ridge and out of your life forever.

Now, hit rewind and change your chosen bullet to a 130-grain Federal Premium Terminal Ascent. Suddenly, you’ve completely altered this scenario. You’re not going to hit a massive old bull elk very hard with a 130-grain bullet at 350 yards, but an accurate shot with this deep-penetrating bullet will kill him, even through the point of the shoulder. And that’s what has changed. That’s the new difference.

Rewind the scenario again, and change your rifle to a .300 Win Mag. Shooting a 200-grain Federal Premium Terminal Ascent bullet, you will hit that bull very hard and kill him very quickly. No doubt about it, this is the better elk round. If you can handle the kick and shoot it well, by all means use it. But if the recoil loosens your fillings and crosses your eyes every time you squeeze the trigger, you better lighten up.

This 155-grain Federal Terminal Ascent bullet from a .280 Ackley Improved was recovered under the skin on the opposite side of an eland. It passed entirely through, breaking a shoulder en route. Stellar performance.

This scenario changes dramatically, of course, if the primary species you hunt is deer, pronghorn, or sheep. For smaller, lighter boned members of the big game family the 6.5 PRC and similar cartridges are optimal. Loaded with one of the premium bullets mentioned above they will penetrate into a deer’s vitals from any angle. Recoil is civilized, and terminal performance all you will ever need. But what if you use one rifle to hunt a broad spectrum of big game – elk one week, deer the next, and moose the third?

The author with a big mule deer harvested with a rifle chambered in .280 Ackley Improved; one of his favorite all-around big game hunting calibers.

In my opinion, the ideal solution for an all-around rifle is a mid-level cartridge like the .280 Ackley Improved, .30-06 Springfield, or 7mm Remington Magnum. Recoil generated by these cartridges will not rattle your teeth or cross your eyes, yet they hit hard enough and penetrate admirably. Loaded with premium bullets, they’re cheerfully adequate for everything from coyotes to Alaskan moose.

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Rusky Dude August 11, 2020, 12:27 am

    All my life in rassia I was hunting with old mosin. Darn thing is heavy but I could hit a goat 300 meters away with iron sights. It kills russian bears, 300lb boars, moose. 10,000 years ago it would kill a mammoth and sabretooth tigers. Here in the states I will not pretend to be an expert but I bought all the hype with the 30-06 and found it not adequate what what I was looking for COMPARED to 7.62×54mmR. I bought Benelli R1 it that thing was shooting different oh-06 differently. curve fly trajectory is too high in general. Oh my. Good luck with ‘shot placement over 100 yards’. It’s fine for 75 yards or so but it you want to hit the heart, no chance. Romanian, russian, ugo cartriges have the same trajectory, same shot placement.
    Oh the kick. ruskis can stand the kick bot this 30-oh-06 kicks ass and shoulder. Old mosin kicks bot not as oh-06.

    Old Mosin is the second oldest cartridge and still used in modern military. It is used in machine guns and in sniper rifles. It is used by hunters in estern europe for over 130 years. I sold my Benelli and someone else hunts now in 30-06. Good luck. Now, can you make that Mosin weight 6lb so my old frame can carry it in russian Alaska?

  • Robert P Boitt August 7, 2020, 8:23 am

    I remember as a young hunter transitioning from my .30.30 Marlin to a new Remington .30-06 THAT was an epiphany!
    30-06 just rules in the amount and variety of loads and bullet weights available. It’s truly an all around cartridge.
    Accurate and plenty of knockdown power.

  • Stan Sanders August 5, 2020, 3:14 pm

    My old Remington semiauto, 30-.06 Woodmaster has never let me down—coast-to-coast.
    Ss

  • Ray Cook August 4, 2020, 9:37 pm

    30-06 Springfield, a GREAT cartridge for just about any purpose. It has only gotten better with the advances in modern bullet and powder technology. The nearly same thing can be said for the great 308 win. I’ll use either on all North American game except the coastal Brown and Polar bears. Then again, shot placement is everything on those two with most any cartridge. The Inuit kill Polar bears with the 222 Rem, 223, 30-30, etc. with head shots – just saying. The U.S. militarily got it right twice in a row on the 30 caliber. The performance of the 30-06 & 308 Win with today’s high tech, solid type, premium bullets is really similar to the traditional swaged, lead core bullets 300 Win Mag rounds. Think about that folks, much less recoil with nearly same performance is just a just a little more expensive per round away. My body and accuracy potential deserves relief from the pounding recoil of the “magnums”. Thanks, that’s my 2 cents – wont buy much today. Ray Cook

  • Jack Henry August 4, 2020, 7:47 pm

    I always preached about “margin for error” for big game, and this article certainly touched on the subject. In the real world, weather, excitement and other factors can and will make the best shooters miss their mark. While elk are big targets, missing by a few inches can necessitate the finest tracking skills to recover your game (i have tracked dozens of elk for people that swore they missed or even said they hit it “perfectly”). In this respect, bigger is always better. One can argue that bigger means more meat damage, but I do not believe in overkill: dead is dead, and a quick kill and recovery is always best and most ethical.

  • John Allman August 4, 2020, 6:49 pm

    Enjoyed reading! Almost every hunter has a sentimental favorite caliber that is efficient (hopefully) in taking large deer/elk size game. But you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned “ethical”. Thanks for mentioning my favorite 280 Ackley!

  • Darrel Martin August 4, 2020, 4:06 pm

    I’m a traditionalist. With that said, ALL calibers you mentioned are perfect for any N. A. GAME animal. Yes, even using the perfect (?) .30-06 on squirrel (?). But you have to consider the preference of caliber. I sometimes use .35 Remington on EVERYTHING! Maybe I’m just loyal to that particular one.

  • TOM BROLLINI August 4, 2020, 9:25 am

    Good article. “I” would not use less than a 300WM on Elk, Moose, Bear, since I have taken a lot of them & seen what issues “smaller” calibers can have. It’s “not” that they can’t kill them, it’s when “Murphy” rears up & bites you on the butt, that “bigger” is better!

  • DOUGLAS EUGENE MYERS August 4, 2020, 9:06 am

    I have been hunting with my Weatherby 30.06 from Alaska to the Mountains of the Adirondacks and have had excellent success dispatching big game with precision with no exception> I stand by the 30.06 Weatherby Vanguard and there ammunition for accuracy and reliability.

  • James A Tertin August 4, 2020, 8:39 am

    Thank you,

    Finally a great article on calibers, performance and energy vs. recoil. Well said.

  • Pete Farris August 4, 2020, 6:42 am

    I wasn’t sure you were ever going to get to the .30-06, even if it seems grudgingly. When I started hunting sixty years ago, gas stations sold popular ammo. The nearest station to where I hunted in VA was about twelve miles. Their normal ammo selection was .22RF, 12 gauge, .30-30, and .30-06. Maybe .38 Special. For anything else, you had to go to Front Royal forty-five minutes away. There are still more different loads for different purposes for the ..30-06 than for just about any other cartridge. It has been truthfully said that there is no game in North America that has not been killed with some load of that caliber.

    • Big Al 45 August 4, 2020, 12:57 pm

      If you’re a handloader, the venerable ’06 is the quintessential all around rifle cartridge.
      It can take all N.A, game, from squirrels to Bears, and most (not all) African game.

    • Aram von Benedikt August 4, 2020, 4:50 pm

      30-06 not at all grudgingly! It’s one of my all-time favorite cartridges.

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