Big game hunting in the western United States is characterized by expansive country with room to roam. The wide open landscapes, steep and rugged terrain, and deep canyons are often a stark contrast to hunting in other parts of the United States. The expansive nature of western landscapes requires rifles and cartridges that are up to the challenge.
You won’t find many hunters chasing after elk or mule deer with shotguns or straight-walled cartridges. Western terrain often requires longer shots, necessitating calibers with higher velocities and greater range.
There are many suitable cartridges for hunting western big game, and every hunter will have opinions of their favorites. I’m not here to convince you to change your mind about what you like.
Instead, I’m talking to beginning hunters. If you’re new to hunting out west and aren’t sure where to start with rifles and calibers, hopefully, this will be a helpful resource.
Characteristics of Good Hunting Calibers for Beginners
There are a few boxes that rifle calibers for beginner hunters should check. These will ensure you pick a caliber that will cover the hunting situations you want to try and the species you want to hunt.
The caliber you select should be capable of taking multiple game species. You may start out hunting Coues Whitetails in Arizona or Pronghorn in Wyoming and later want to try an elk hunt in Colorado. Ideally, you’ll want to use the same rifle because you’re accustomed to shooting it and have confidence in its performance.
Your proficiency with your rifle is much more important than the specific caliber you are shooting. Accuracy beats power every time. Proficiency comes with practice and experience. That means you’ll need to afford your rifle and the ammunition to shoot it regularly.
While some newer calibers that are optimized for western hunting may seem appealing, the ammunition can be expensive and may be difficult to find. You don’t want to miss out on valuable practice because of an ammunition shortage, whether it’s caused by availability or affordability.
3. Readily available and easy to shoot
As I mentioned above, ammunition for some calibers is just harder to find than others. Starting with a popular caliber will ensure you can find ammunition easily.
If you’re new to hunting (and shooting) you’ll also want a caliber that doesn’t have too much recoil and is easy to shoot. In fact, this is still something I consider when deciding on a caliber, even after hunting in the west for over 20 years.
What’s the point of having a rifle if you don’t enjoy shooting it or have trouble finding ammo to shoot?
Considerations for Choosing a Hunting Cartridge
Before we start discussing specific calibers, let’s consider a few questions that will help determine the characteristics we are looking for in a rifle or cartridge. By thinking about the species we’ll pursue, the terrain we’ll hunt, and the distances we’ll shoot we can narrow down our search.
What species are you hunting?
A magnum cartridge is not required if you’re after deer, elk, pronghorn, and/or black bear. If you want to start hunting moose, bison, and/or grizzly bears, then you might want to start considering the larger magnum calibers.
What type of terrain do you hunt?
Are you trying to call moose in Alaska’s thick river bottoms? If so, you won’t need (be able to) to shoot more than 200-300 yards.
Are you hunting pronghorn or mule deer on the eastern plains of Wyoming, Montana, or Colorado? If so, 400-yard shots might be the norm.
What is your hunting style?
Do you sit in ambush positions waiting for an animal to pass by? In that case, you’ll have shorter-range shots.
Do you spot-and-stalk rugged, open country? If so, you’ll probably have more difficulty getting close to animals. At the same time, you’ll also want a rifle that’s not too heavy so you can move quickly and cover difficult terrain.
Do you slowly still hunt through feeding or bedding areas? If this is your style, you can expect shorter shots.
Cover all your bases
Maybe you don’t have answers to all the questions above yet, and that’s okay. You may not know which hunting style suits you best until you have a chance to test some out. Or maybe you’ll be hunting multiple species in different terrains but just want one rifle. That’s okay too.
All of the calibers listed below are suitable for taking multiple species in different hunting scenarios.
1. 308 Winchester
The 308 Winchester (usually referred to as the 308) is the goldilocks of hunting calibers, and it’s the caliber I shoot and prefer (you can read the review of my rifle here). The 308 provides a great combination of performance and versatility. It has enough power for a moose, with very manageable recoil, and provides enough velocity to confidently take shots out to around 500 yards on big game animals.
The 308 cartridge is widely used by military and law enforcement groups, which means ammunition is available and affordable. You can find loads with bullets ranging from 110-200 grains, though most hunting loads will be in the 150-180 grain range.
The 308’s superpowers are versatility, availability, and shootability. It is an excellent choice for almost any western hunt.
It is an inherently accurate cartridge, trusted by military and law enforcement organizations around the world. As I’ve said before, your accuracy with a specific rifle and load is much more important than the load’s ballistics.
308 is easy to find, easy to shoot accurately, and widely available. You can read this article for more information about why the 308 Winchester is my cartridge of choice.
2. 30-06 Springfield
Time-proven, the 30-06 Springfield is one of the most popular, widely-used big game cartridges of all time. And with good reason. The 30-06 shoots a 30 caliber bullet (technically, it’s a .308 caliber bullet), just like the 308 Winchester. The difference is that the 30-06 has a larger case, which means more powder and more velocity.
Because of the larger case the 30-06 will have more recoil and higher velocities than the 308. The longer cartridge also means a larger action which makes the rifle just a little heavier. This also results in more expensive ammunition, though 30-06 ammunition is still more affordable than most magnum and PRC loads.
The primary upside of the 30-06 is higher velocity loads, which means more energy and less bullet drop at longer ranges.
With a 30-06 you can confidently take any big game in North America (with the possible exception of very dangerous game).
30-06 Springfield is primarily a hunting cartridge, which means it won’t have quite the same widespread availability as the 308. However, it may be the most popular hunting cartridge of all time so it’s not going to be hard to find.
3. 270 Winchester
The 270 Winchester is another hunting cartridge that has stood the test of time. It’s very similar to the 30-06, but shoots a smaller-diameter bullet, which creates greater velocities and a flatter trajectory.
As with the 30-06 and 308, the 270 is capable of taking nearly any big-game animal in North America.
I’m not going to get into the minute difference about why you might want to choose the 270 over the 30-06. In my opinion, they’re so similar that it mostly comes down to personal preference.
As with the 30-06, 270 ammunition will be more expensive and maybe a little harder to find than 308 ammo. The 270 will have similar recoil to the 30-06 (more than the 308).
4. 6.5 Creedmoor
The 6.5 Creedmoor is a newer cartridge. Overall, it is similar to the 308, but shoots a smaller diameter, more efficient bullet. The 6.5 is a favorite caliber of match shooters because of it’s ballistic efficiency.
This would be a great cartridge if you primarily hunt deer any may also want to hunt elk. It may be a little underpowered for bigger game (but a good bullet with good placement would still be adequate).
Because it has quickly become a popular cartridge, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding ammunition. But it will likely be a little more scarce, or have fewer available options, than popular calibers like the 308, 30-06, and 270.
6.5 Creedmoor recoil will be less than, but comparable to, the 308 Winchester. This makes is a great option for youth hunters, or anyone else (like myself), that doesn’t love a lot of recoil.
5. 300 Winchester Magnum
As you may have noticed, I’ve mostly stayed away from magnum cartridges (but the 30-06 and 270 are kind of like quasi-magnums). There’s a reason for that. Magnum ammunition is expensive, and the recoil can be daunting for some. That said, there is a place for magnum calibers.
If you plan to consistently shoot long distances (500 yards or greater) for larger animals (elk and moose or larger) then you may want to consider a magnum. In that case, the 300 Winchester is a good choice.
The 300 Winchester is widely used recreationally and by military and law enforcement organizations, so ammunition is readily available. It has great ballistics and will carry energy a long way down range.
However, there are some downsides. Ammunition is expensive. The larger cases and extra power required by magnums have a cost. Magnum cartridges also require longer actions and barrels, so your rifle will weigh more and be less maneuverable.
Other Notable Calibers
These are the general calibers that I think are best for beginning hunters. However, your specific situation or preferences may lead you to choose something else and that’s just fine! If none of these calibers strike your fancy, some others you may want to look into are the 7mm-08, 7mm Remington Magnum, and 243 Winchester Magnum.
In the End
There are a lot of strong opinions and arguments over the ‘best’ caliber for each person or each situation. Remember that this is your choice. Do some research, pick a caliber that suits your needs, and enjoy it! Don’t second guess yourself because someone doesn’t agree with you. There are a lot of calibers that will work in a given situation.