I’ve put this question to quite a number of hunting guides and outfitters over the years, all of whom have been in on the taking of hundreds of big game animals during their careers. Most of these professionals held a preference for one caliber or another, but all of them would agree that regardless of the chosen cartridge, the first shot had to be on the money. And that first shot is really what it boils down to. A rifle and cartridge combination has to be one that a hunter will enjoy taking to the shooting range and becoming proficient with. Regardless whether you’re on that hunt of lifetime or you’re just on the annual deer hunt, there’s no greater feeling than watching your cross-hairs settle into the kill zone and knowing the outcome, before you squeeze the trigger.
Most hunters will have more opportunities to hunt deer than any other species of big game, so if possible try to have as your primary rifle one that is best suited for deer. With this rifle you should be comfortable getting in as much target practice as you can fit into your schedule. A rifle chambered for one of the magnums won’t be as much fun to shoot and develop your marksmanship ability as less punishing cartridge.
Calibers such as the .30-06, .270 Winchester and .25-06 will do in a pinch but they require the use of a long action rifle and recoil can be unpleasant. Short action rounds like a .308, 7mm-08 and the .260 Remington are excellent cartridges for deer size game. They provide sufficient terminal capability out to 500 yards, have outstanding accuracy and are fun to shoot. As a bonus of their mild recoil, you can use them to introduce your kids into the game of shooting sports. Another advantage of short action rifle, is that they shorten the overall length of a rifle, thereby making easier to hunt in thick cover and maneuvering in and out of a blind.
Some of our better shooting ranges have impact berms set up at varying distances out to 550 yards, and farther in some cases. There you can develop your ability to hit targets at greater distances on a regular basis. Work out the kinks in those shooting positions that you’ll be using in the field. And while you’re at it, practice with some shooting sticks or a bi-pod, you’ll find that those devices require some getting used to.
For elk and larger game, consider a cartridge that has more range and terminal energy. Over the years most of us have read articles or heard other hunters say that, “those big magnums only serve someone’s ego, they kick too hard or that they’re too loud. For elk and moose I want to be shooting a caliber that has the fewest limitations in terms of accurate shooting distance and knock down power that’s available. That being said, more game is taken inside of 200 yards than beyond. But if you’re hunting out west or up north for that mater, you need to be prepared to make an effective shot out to the practical limit of your ability.
To be sure a magnum is a bit louder but if your shooting at the range, you should be wearing ear protection, in which case I honestly don’t notice a great difference between shooting a .243 versus a .338 Ultra Mag. You may notice a difference when watching another shooter but your still wearing ear protection, so what does it matter (if you’re shooting, it’s going to be loud).
Recoil isn’t something that I’m fond of but thanks to today’s muzzle brakes, recoil can be successfully managed. I have a .338 Remington Ultra Magnum that is not overly unpleasant to shoot, thanks to the Vias muzzle brake that it wears. No it’s not a rifle that I enjoy shooting often but when the quarry is larger than elk, it hasn’t let me down. There truly is a gee-wizz effect, the first time that you fire a magnum rife that has a muzzle brake. I also have a .300 Remington Ultra Mag., that has a muzzle brake. Shooting 190 grain bullets, felt recoil is mild, either from the shooting bench or from a field position.
Out west there are quite a few hunting areas where due to the terrain, you can only be successful if you’re prepared to make an effective shot out to 500 yards and beyond. Such shots are highly specialized and they absolutely require time spent on the shooting range practicing at extended distances. With very few exceptions an off the shelf factory rifle won’t produce the accuracy required. If this is the kind of country that you really want to hunt, consider building a custom long range rifle. To obtain the optimum velocity and accuracy for those long shots, a stout barrel that is 27 or 28 inches is needed. Top it off with a specialized scope equipped with adjustable knobs for windage and elevation and you’ll have a rifle weighing in excess of 10 pounds.
For long range hunting there are 3 critical elements in choosing a cartridge, great inherent accuracy, velocity and bullet weight. When these 3 elements are combined, a rather short list of calibers has become popular for their effectiveness at long range. The 7mm Remington magnum using 180 grain bullets has gained a strong reputation. Firing 190 and 210 grain bullets there are 3 .30 caliber cartridges which have become notorious for long range shooting, the .300 Winchester magnum, .300 Remington Ultra magnum and the .30-338 Weatherby magnum. Lastly the .338 Lapua magnum shooting 300 grain bullets, pretty much round out the most desirable cartridges for long range hunting.
Plan on shooting the heavier bullets from your chosen cartridge, the heaver bullets not only carry greater down range energy, they have a higher ballistic coefficient, which will be less susceptible to the wind than a lighter bullet. Most of these bullets are non traditional in the sense that they were originally designed as target bullets. Which is contradictory to everything we were taught about hunting bullet design, you’ll simply have accept the fact that these bullets have proven themselves to be very effective for long range hunting. If you’ve ever watched a long range kill shot on TV, you may notice that in most cases, these marksmen are hitting the top of the scapula right where it covers the vertebrae, with devastating results. Shots to the heart lung area, are effective but without the dead right there effect.