North America holds some of the most varied hunting conditions on the planet, from mountains to deserts to swamps, plains and forests, with a significant variety of game. The good news is, under any given conditions—and for any given animal—there are lots of good choices and relatively few that are wildly unsuitable. What is perhaps most important is that your choice gives you confidence. One of the few curses of my occupation is it’s a rare blessing when I have a chance to actually use my own rifles, but I definitely have my favorites—or at least my “ideal choices.”
The whitetail is not only our most popular big game animal, but also our most widespread, and it’s hunted under an incredible variety of conditions. I reckon that any reasonably fast, versatile cartridge from, say, a .25-06 to a fast .30 would do for almost any whitetail situation, but I’m not altogether certain that one size fits all. Certainly, it doesn’t for me. In close cover, where a longer shot is unlikely, my favorite is a lovely 7x57 “stalking rifle” made by Todd Ramirez. That’s what I normally use at my place in southeastern Kansas. There’s only one spot there where a shot beyond 200 yards is even possible, and most shots are much less. The rifle has detachable mounts, and I usually use a 2-7X Leupold, but on dark, cloudy days in the timber I clamp on a 1.5-6X Schmidt & Bender.
In more open country I want something with more reach—specifically for Coues whitetail, which, although smaller, are often taken at longer ranges. Although I run the risk of being called overgunned, my favorite is a .300 Weatherby Magnum. My Rifles Inc. .300 is an old friend, as is its Zeiss 4.5-14X with Rapid-Z reticle. Lately, I’m equally likely to use a Blaser R8 with a .300 Weatherby Magnum barrel (which also wears the same optic/reticle setup).
I consider the whitetail to be extremely tough pound-for-pound, and I want a bullet that will expand and do some damage. My 7x57 shoots Hornady Interbond very well, so that’s what I use in that rifle. The .300s can do a bit too much damage on a close shot, but I use them when I expect a longer-range opportunity, so accuracy is critical. I’ve had great results with Hornady’s plain old 180-grain Interlock, but I’m also getting awesome accuracy and performance with Federal's 180-grain Trophy Tip.
I don’t believe mule deer are as tough as whitetails, but a good mulie is awfully hard to come by these days, so you really do want to be prepared for any reasonable shot. There are lots of great choices, but something like a .25-06 to a fast .30 or a faster 7mm are fine choices. My favorite, however, is a rifle that some will find a bit oddball. It’s a .264 Winchester Magnum, built by Serengeti Rifles on a left-hand Parker Ackley Mauser action with a 26-inch Obermayr barrel. It wears a 3.5-10X Leupold with a Boone & Crockett reticle, and it shoots better than .264s are supposed to. It groups well with a variety of 140-grain bullets, but it really likes Nosler's 130-grain AccuBond, which provides a great combination of accuracy, velocity and terminal performance.
Although tough for their size, pronghorn aren’t very big. They do live in the wide-open spaces, so shots can be a bit on the long side. But in my experience it usually isn’t necessary to shoot at extreme range. I’ve taken many with a .243, and that’s a fine choice. The .25 calibers are also excellent, but over the years I’ve noticed that calibers under 6.5mm don’t hold up nearly as well in the wind as larger ones, and the plains are often windy. So my favorite cartridge for pronghorn is the good old .270 Winchester.
I don’t actually have one in that caliber right now, but my perfect pronghorn pick would be a Ruger No. 1 in .270. It’s pleasant to carry, and one shot should be plenty. Pronghorns are small, so I want plenty of scope. This is a good place for a variable with an upper magnification of 12X or 14X. The load chosen must be accurate in the rifle—that’s the most important factor—but I want bullets that will open up quickly. This is a good place for Winchester Power Points, Remington Core-Lokts, Federal Hi-Shok, Hornady Interbond or the Sierra GameKing. If you want to get a bit fancier, consider Berger's VLD, a wonderfully accurate bullet.
Caribou are not particularly tough, and, when the conditions are right, they can often be stalked quite readily. However, when caribou are on the move it can be impossible to catch up or head them off, so longer shots aren’t unusual. Also, more often than not the tundra is a windy place, so wind-bucking capabilities are important.
Over the years, I’ve been perfectly comfortable with anything from a .270 to a fast .30. More is not needed, and less doesn’t seem to make sense. Here’s another odd choice, since at this particular time I don’t own a rifle chambered to this cartridge. I had to go back and do some figuring, but I have taken more caribou with the 7mm Remington Magnum than with all other cartridges combined. It probably is the perfect choice: flat-shooting, plenty powerful, good in the wind. In caribou country the rifle should wear a weatherproof stock, either synthetic or laminate, and definitely a rust-resistant finish. The scope should be 3-9X minimum on up to maybe 4-16X, and again a trajectory-compensating reticle makes a lot of sense.
Caribou are not as big as we like to say they are, but in the 7mm I’ve never been a light-bullet guy. I generally use bullets from 160 to 165 grains, maybe “medium” in the expansion-vs.-penetration category. However, accuracy is really more important than performance, because if you do need to reach out, you need all the accuracy you can get.
The actual hunting conditions are a key consideration here. Hunting elk in big Alpine basins is a whole lot different from hunting them in thick timber. Also, elk are a whole lot bigger and stronger than deer. I think a .270 or even a 7mm-08 makes a sensible bare-bones minimum, and, always and forever, the grand old .30-06 is a fine elk cartridge. Given a choice, however, I prefer to go a bit heavier. For all-around elk hunting, I think a .338 Winchester Magnum is awfully hard to beat, but in close cover a lighter and lighter-recoiling .35 Whelen could be substituted. My own personal favorite, however, is another oddball. Barreled and stocked by Norm Bridge, it’s an 8mm Remington Magnum with a 28-inch Pac-Nor barrel. It’s kind of heavy, but it shoots wonderfully. I keep a 4.5-14X on it, and with that long barrel it reaches out with awesome authority.
In general I prefer tough, deep-penetrating bullets for elk, and this is especially true if you go with lighter calibers. Think Nosler Partition, homogenous alloy bullets or any of the “tipped and bonded” bullets like AccuBond, InterBond and Swift Scirocco. But caliber and bullet weight do make a difference. In my 8mm I generally shoot 220-grain Sierra GameKings, and they have performed marvelously.
Once again, conditions vary tremendously. There’s a lot of moose hunting done in extremely close cover, and there are times and places when you need to reach out a bit. I am not a serious moose hunter, but I’ve hunted moose with an eclectic array of cartridges, from .270 Winchester to .416 Remington. Pound-for-pound, I don’t think moose are particularly tough, but in general I think the .270 is a bit light and the .416 is way too heavy.
Also, while I’ve personally taken moose at bayonet range and clear out at 400 yards, it seems to me that moose are generally “stalkable,” so long shots aren’t the norm. Since this is the case, I think I’ve been most satisfied with the .35s that I love so well: .358 Winchester, .350 Remington Magnum, .35 Whelen. That said, one of the best experiences I ever had moose hunting was with a Marlin lever action in .338 Marlin Express, an awesome little cartridge.
The target is awfully big, so you don’t need a big scope. Something on the order of a 1.5-6X or 2-7X is plenty, and there’s nothing wrong with the 3-9X. Although very tall, moose are relatively slender through the shoulders, so you don’t necessarily need the toughest bullets in the world. That being said, a moose is a big animal, so you definitely need bullets that are reasonably heavy for caliber and designed to offer adequate penetration. In the .338 Marlin, Hornady’s factory 200-grain Flex Tip (FTX) worked just fine. In the .35s I’ve had great success with Remington Core-Lokt and 250-grain Sierras.
I took my last mountain lion more than 30 years ago, and although I enjoy following the hounds, I have no desire to take another one for myself. I used an open-sighted Thompson/Center Contender back then, and it worked just fine. Handguns really are ideal for this kind of hunting. Your hands are free while you’re scrambling to get to the tree, and when you get there the shot is usually quite close.
But if you want to stick with rifles, the choice is still easy: a traditional tubular magazine .30-30 (Marlin or Winchester). Should I ever be convinced that I need to take another cougar, I would choose a short-barreled Model 94 Trapper. Mine wears an aperture sight, which is just fine.
Cougars are not hardy. A lot of old-time houndsmen use cartridges as mild as the .25-20, and (where legal) some swear by the Model 94 Trapper" target="_blank">.22 WMR. I want a bit more than that, but the advantage of the .30-30 is that it will enter and exit without undue damage to the pelt. My rifle shoots wonderfully with Hornady’s 160-grain FTX but equally well with Winchester’s ancient 170-grain Silvertip. This is one of the rare situations where choice of bullet is not critical.
Sheep & Goats
It’s a myth that mountain game is always taken at long range. More often than not, broken terrain offers enough cover for a stalk to reasonable range. On the other hand, mountain hunting is pretty tough and big trophies aren’t hiding behind every rock, so when you see a good one, you want to be ready to take the shot.
At this writing I think I’ve taken a dozen North American rams and several goats, and I’ve used an array of cartridges from .270 Winchester to .375 H&H. The latter is a terrible choice, but the .270s, the faster 7mms and the fast .30s are all very good ones. All said and done, I think Jack O’Connor had it right all along: The .270 Winchester is a wonderful choice for North American mountain game. But for my personal favorite, I’ll go a step further: the .270 Winchester Short Magnum. On those rare occasions when long shots are required, the .270 WSM reaches out a bit better than the .270 Winchester and delivers more energy.
This last is important. Sheep are not especially hardy, but the Rocky Mountain goat is amazingly tenacious. Either way, you want to do your best to anchor them where they are. Goats are prone to inhabit steep, dangerous places, but sheep can also be found in really bad spots. If you have an animal in a position where you can take him and then recover him safely, then that’s where you want him. For this reason I like bullets that will expand quickly and transfer a lot of energy. Tipped bullets like the Ballistic Tip and SST catch a lot of flak for opening too quickly. But since very close shots are somewhat unlikely, this is exactly the performance I want on sheep and goats. If you’re uncomfortable with that, then step up to bullets like the TTSX, AccuBond, InterBond, Scirocco and so forth. Just don’t use really hard, tough bullets on mountain game.
I’ve used a lot of different scopes, and I suppose anything from 3-9X upward to maybe 4-16X is fine, but in the mountains I prefer an upper magnification of 12X or 14X, and I definitely want a trajectory-compensating reticle.
The Zeiss Rapid-Z is the system I am most familiar with, but they all work provided you learn how to use them.
Conditions vary widely depending not only on terrain, but also on hunting technique. With hounds, the shot will be very short. Over bait, probably less than 100 yards, but low-light conditions are likely. When stalking, anything goes, but black bears are tough and potentially dangerous, so shots much beyond 200 yards don’t seem sensible. There is also a major difference between the average 200-pound black bear and the quarter-ton monster you hope to encounter (and just might). I’m not sure there’s an all-around choice.
Up close, the .45-70 is awesome, and I love the .348 Winchester. But the black bears" target="_blank">.45-70 doesn’t have the reach you might need for spot-and-stalk hunting, and the Winchester Model 71 doesn’t wear a scope very well. A Browning BLR in .358 with a low-power scope makes a great black bear rifle, but even better—and better-suited for all conditions—is the long-unloved .350 Remington Magnum. Mine is an MGA on one of the rare left-hand Remington M700 short actions. I have a 3-9X Trijicon on mine right now. There is no reason for more magnification, and some argument for less, but a black animal in dark shadows plays tricks on the eyes, so I strongly recommend a lighted reticle.
Tough bullets are essential—more so if you prefer lighter calibers. In the .35s I like 250-grain bullets, and with that much weight the design doesn’t matter so much, but in that .350 Remington I generally use 225-grain Barnes TSX, a bullet that I know darn well will penetrate no matter the size of the bear.
Grizzly Bear & Brown Bear
Now we’re talking seriously dangerous game. Shot placement is always the single most important criteria, so while I consider a .30 caliber the absolute minimum, you’re better off with a .30 caliber you shoot well than a .416 you’re afraid of. Somewhere in the middle is probably the best choice.
Hunting the grizzly bear and hunting the Alaskan brown bear are not the same. Grizzlies are somewhat smaller and are often hunted in high country where shots out to 250 yards might be called for. The larger Alaskan brown bear is generally hunted in “tighter” country. None of us has taken many of these bears, so I freely admit my choices are based on conventional wisdom as well as personal experience. For grizzly I think there’s nothing better than a fast .33—the .338 Remington Ultra Mag. or .340 Weatherby Magnum. But if the recoil is too much—and it might be—tone it down to the .338 Winchester Magnum. Because range can be involved, a 3-9X scope is a good choice. For bullets, stick with 250-grain slugs with known penetrating capabilities. I used a 250-grain Nosler Partition on a couple of grizzlies. That’s still a benchmark bullet, but all heavy-for-caliber 250-grain slugs will do the job.
You could use the same setup for brown bear and you’d be just fine, but I think this is one of the only situations in North America where the .375 H&H is still king. But if you prefer a .375 Ruger, that’s fine with me. And if you can handle the added recoil of a .375 RUM or .375 Weatherby Magnum, that’s maybe even better. Skip the 270-grain bullets and use a 300-grain slug, then hope you run into a monster that’s twice the size of any grizzly. Choose serious bullets: Swift A-Frame, Barnes TSX, Hornady DGX, Nosler Partition.
The challenge with the .375 is that all too often we saddle them with a low-powered “dangerous game” scope with maximum power of 4X or 5X. There is much potential for a 200-yard shot, which any .375 can handle. But don’t make things more difficult by going “minimal” on magnification. Consider a scope with an upper level of 6X, 7X or 8X. Keep it turned down unless you need the magnification and you should be ready for any shot that comes along. By the way, brown bear country is pretty wet, so this is the place for synthetic and/or laminate stocks.
As you’ve undoubtedly gathered, I’m mostly a bolt-action guy. Call it a generational thing. Realistically, my big bears are probably all behind me (unless I hit the lottery and go for a polar bear). All have been taken with bolt actions, but in my experience all bears are tough, and the bigger the tougher. Clean, one-shot kills aren’t the norm. So if I were to start over, I would definitely use my Blaser R8 with an appropriate barrel. The straight-pull action is significantly faster and requires less movement, and on big bears this might be critical.