Making the case for the best cartridges for Canada’s big game
OC hunting editor Ken Bailey makes his picks. Now let the campfire debates begin…
At one time or another, most hunters have engaged in the ongoing debate over the perfect all-around cartridge for Canada’s big game, the one round that can do it all. My answer has generally been the .30-06, if you take big bears out of the equation. You may disagree, but in today’s world of seemingly endless cartridge choices, why settle for just one option anyway? Let’s take it up a level and select the perfect cartridge for each of our big-game animals.
Again, there’s tons of room for argument, but what follows are my choices. Admittedly, while I’ve hunted most of our big game, I haven’t hunted them all. And of the species I have hunted, I haven’t pursued them in every region they’re found. So, should you have different opinions on any of my cartridge selections, I look forward to a lively campfire discussion some cool autumn evening.
Tourism Saskatchewan/Brian Wolitski
Our most popular species, whitetails also occupy the widest range of habitat. In the eastern woods, where 100 metres is a long shot, the venerable .30-30 is ideal. In parkland areas, where shots can reach out to 250 metres, an old warhorse such as the 7x57 is perfect. On the prairies and in the foothills, however, shooting opportunities for those with the expertise can extend to 400 metres or more. There, one of the 7mm magnums would be right at home. But for the one cartridge that can handle it all, I’ll go with the .308 Win. This short-action round can be chambered in quick-handling carbines well suited to close-cover hunting, yet it has the downrange energy and flat-shooting capability to effectively take down bucks at any practical range.
Big mulies are about the same size as big whitetails, but average shooting distances tend to be somewhat longer, owing to the open country mule deer generally inhabit. The outliers are the small Columbian blacktails of western B.C. They don’t make up a significant proportion of Canada’s mulie hunting, however, so for the purposes of this exercise, they’ll have to be handled with the same cartridge selected for deer in the prairies, parklands, foothills and mountains. In those areas, you need a cartridge capable of carrying significant energy out to long ranges, so my choice is the 7mm Rem. Mag. It’s chambered in plenty of different rifles, and premium ammunition is available just about everywhere.
All moose are not created equal, so you need a round capable of handling the big boys found in the Yukon, N.W.T. and northern B.C. and Alberta, as well as their smaller-bodied cousins to the south. Shooting ranges tend to be inside 250 metres across Canada, sometimes considerably less, meaning you need a cartridge that provides plenty of punch at close quarters, yet is capable of handling long shots on these immense animals. I struggled more with this choice than any other, but I’m going with the .338 Win. Mag. I realize many consider it too much gun, and it probably is for many situations. But if you have to poke a 1,500-pound bull across a river valley, you’ll be thankful for the extra energy—moose that don’t go down quickly tend to die in the worst possible places.
Generally considered the toughest of our big game, elk are not very forgiving when your shot misses the mark, even slightly. These animals occupy highly variable habitat, and it’s not unusual to face long shots in open country—300 metres is common. That means you need a cartridge with relatively high downrange energy and a flat trajectory, so I’m selecting the .300 WSM. The practical ballistic benefits of this round over the storied .300 Win. Mag. are, in my opinion, overstated for hunting purposes. However, the fact the WSM can be chambered in shorter, lighter rifles gives it a slight edge when it comes to lugging your rifle all day in elk country.
These are relatively small animals, found in the wide-open prairies. Most often, pronghorns can be stalked to within reasonable ranges, but occasionally long shots are the only option. All considered, I think it’s hard to beat the .25-06 as the perfect cartridge choice.
Hard-core sheep hunters will surely criticize me for lumping all three of Canada’s sheep together, as I do recognize there’s a big difference in body size between Rocky Mountain bighorns and Dall’s or Stone’s rams. And admittedly, I don’t have much sheep-hunting experience, so I’ll rely on the sage advice of renowned sheep guru Jack O’Connor, but with a slight twist. O’Connor was a proponent of the .270 Win. as the ideal sheep cartridge, but I’m going to up the ante and choose the .270 WSM. This cartridge offers a little more velocity, and it can be chambered in the shorter, lighter rifles that are a godsend in the mountains.
It’s difficult to lump the barren-ground, woodland and mountain caribou into one basket. I’ll soldier on nonetheless, however, fully aware that the mountain species can handle a pretty good wallop, and extended ranges are a possibility wherever caribou are hunted. That means the cartridge choice has to be flat-shooting and able to carry reasonable downrange energy out to 300 metres. With that, I’ll again select the 7mm Rem. Mag. It’s up to the task in any of Canada’s caribou-hunting scenarios.
There’s a significant difference between what’s ideal for the close range of a baited black bear hunt and that of a spot-and-stalk foothills hunt. And while most black bears are medium-sized animals, some grow to be huge and thick-boned. With both those factors in mind, I’m going to select the .30-06 as the best all-round black bear round. With 220-grain pills, it’s well suited for close-cover scenarios, but with premium 180-grain bullets, it’s capable of handling large boars at extended ranges. And hey, I had to fit the .30-06 in here somewhere.
The only grizzly I’ve taken fell neatly to a well-placed .300 Win. Mag. bullet, but I understand that in thick cover you’d be better served by something with a little more stopping power. So, I’ll select the .338 Win. Mag. It offers the appropriate balance of effective range, bullet weight and frontal area required to handle any of Canada’s grizzlies.
Full-grown cougars can weigh 175 pounds or more, but they’re thin-skinned and not particularly tough. Plus, they’re most often taken after being treed by hounds, which calls for close-range shots. It would be hard, therefore, to top the trusty lever-action chambered in .30-30 as the perfect cat medicine—it’s easy to carry all day and performs best in short-range scenarios.
I’ve not hunted bison, but I’ve learned a few lessons pursuing their African cousins, the Cape buffalo. Bison are huge animals, prone to running into thick cover when wounded, which makes extraction a chore. This underscores the importance of anchoring them where they stand, making the 100-year-old-plus .375 H&H the right choice for this task.
Now, let the campfire debates begin anew.