The Best Cartridges
Oooh, here we will have a big argument, no matter what I say. I feel that the best cartridges are those that optimally meet the demands of the animal being hunted. I am also a handloader, and all of my choices are made with that in mind. Alright, these are my opinions, if you don’t agree, fine.
Small Game like squirrels -
The ‘scope mounted .22 long rifle rimfire remains #1 here, out to reasonable hunting distances. It’s advantages? Optimal point blank range, accuracy, and effective killing power. I have hated shotguns for squirrels after literally peppering a squirrel once and ruining the meat.
Small Varmints -
For close ranges, under 100 yards, where wind drift is minimal and high velocity, high ballistic coefficients and velocity are not essential, the .22 Winchester rimfire magnum or the .17 Hornady rimfire magnum. A little further out, say to 125 yards, the old reliable .22 Hornet. A little further distant, cartridges like the .17 Remington, .205 Hornady, and the .223 Remington. For serious long ranges, the .22-250 or .220 Swift are fine choices.
Concentrating on point-blank range and light-for-caliber bullets is fine for small varmints where penetration is not a factor. With larger animals, the ability to humanely kill becomes the first requirement of a cartridge for all ethical hunters. Experience has shown that ANY hunting cartridge based on the 308 Winchester case is severely handicapped by it’s short overall length and 0.313 inch-long neck. Have you ever seen a factory 308 Winchester cartridge loaded with a 220 grain bullet? The exact same thing is true of the various silly ‘short magnums’. Excluding these types of cartridges culls out a lot of cartridges whose only benefits have been that they sell hunting magazines by giving their writers something to ‘ooh’ about, and rifle manufacturers the opportunity to sell new guns. My life is simpler, I just want a good hunting cartridge.
Coyote-sized varmints -
I go for heavy premium heavy bullets in a .22-250 or .220 Swift, also fine are the .243 Winchester/.244 Remington twins or the .257 Roberts. The 308-based .243 is allowed onto this list, but the .244 Remington remains the better cartridge of the two if you handload.
Deer-sized game including antelope and black bear -
Close range, as in a Michigan swamp, the .30-30, or .35 Remington and similar cartridges, the .358 Winchester or the ‘Old Reliable’ .45-70. For longer ranges in the woods, the superb but neglected .300 Savage. What about that .30-06 wannabe, the.308 Winchester? Unnecessary.
Longer range, up to around 350-400 yards, the .257 Roberts because of it’s ability to use heavy bullets, the great .270 Winchester, and, as always, the .30-06. There are lot’s of other cartridges, some quite fashionable today, but who needs them? Even caribou and antelope, notorious for requiring long shots, can be routinely taken with a .270 Winchester or .30-06.
Over 400 yards? - If you shoot regularly at these game animals at ranges greater than 400 yards, see my ‘Long Range Shooting’ section on my home page.
I like the 9.3X62 Mauser, it has a good balance between effective power and relatively low recoil. You don’t need anything more powerful, even a big elk only weighs around 800 pounds or so, and ‘long range’ is nearly always under 300 yards, remember, it’s called elk hunting, and stalking closer is an essential skill of any hunter. Of course, the .30-06 can be used on elk - and ‘most anything else for that matter, if the right bullets are chosen, but both it and the .270 Winchester will be a little wanting if you encounter a grizzly who has decided to stake a claim on your dead elk. The .300 Winchester and other magnums? Totally unnecessary except for the .338 Winchester Magnum, which is about the only magnum that I have any respect for.
In the habitat in which moose are found, shots over 150-200 yards are very rare and best avoided. Pulling a dead moose out of a lake is extremely hard work. The 9.3X62 Mauser is superb for moose. The .35 Whelen is nearly as good, the .30-06 with heavy bullets will get the job done, if used wisely and you are willing to pass up some ‘iffy’ shots. Again, except for the .338 Winchester Magnum, magnums are just silly over-kill.
The Big Bears-
For the optimal compromise between power and recoil - the 9.3X62 Mauser. Any other cartridge, even the closely similar .35 Whelen, is only second-best. The magnums? Unnecessary, totally unnecessary. Shots at dangerous game should be taken at as short a range as possible, certainly within 100 yards if there is cover nearby, and unless you’ve practiced off-hand shooting a lot, always from the prone or sitting position, or else from an improvised rest. You want to nail the animal right then and there and not have to chase it around the countryside. Accuracy is needed, not unnecessary power.
African Hunting -
Heavy rifle - This is becoming history. Rhinos aren’t around in huntable numbers, elephants are the targets for a very few people. Use a .404 Jeffrey, .458 Winchester, or of course the .416 Rigby and equivalent cartridges. The numerous powerful Mangle-ems? Just silly, remember - you have a professional guide that’s backing you up. The immensely experienced John ‘Pondoro’ Taylor said of the 600 Nitro Express, then the most powerful cartridge made, “But there really was never the slightest need for it.” He felt that if heavy bullets like the 400 grain one of the .404 Jeffrey were used,”Experience has shown that 4,000 ft-lbs can safely be taken against any animal anywhere.” I cannot emphasize this too much, if you have a guide, you want the least powerful cartridge that will do the job effectively because that is the one that you will find is the easiest to learn to shoot accurately.
Medium rifle - The 9.3X62 Mauser, the old but still marvellously modern 9.3X64 Brenneke if you are the nervous type. Yes, I know it’s little known now, but it still is a fine cartridge. The overly-hyped .375 H&H Magnum? My choices are just as effective killers, without being nearly as l-o-n-g, and thus requiring a heavy magnum action, and they also don’t have that silly belt. Of course, if I were ever to go to Africa to hunt buffalo, I might use a .375 H&H but only because the 9.3x62 isn’t legally used everywhere and the .375’s ammo is readily available. It’s definitely second-best, tho.
Light rifle - The .30-06, .270 Winchester or .257 Roberts, also, of course, the 7X57 Mauser.
Notice a theme here? Wherever animals are hunted for sport, the cartridges that I prefer are the ‘Old Reliables’ that have proven themselves on countless thousands of hunting trips over many years. There are many newer cartridges - mainly produced to feed new fads, like .308 Winchester-based cartridges or the poorly designed ‘short magnums’, or else to meet a totally unnecessary demand for greater power. Bell killed many, many elephants with a 7X57 Mauser and considered Cape Buffalo to be just big cows. I wouldn’t suggest copying him, he was an extraordinarily good shot and was described by ‘Pondoro’ Taylor as being perhaps the greatest elephant hunter who ever lived, but it does put the ridiculous penchant of too many people for sheer power into it’s proper perspective.