Best All-Around Hunting Rifle Cartridges for Medium to Large Game
July 30, 2018
So many hunting rifle cartridges have been labeled "all around" that the term itself has been watered down. Each hunting scenario is different, and a cartridge that may be well-suited to the hunting needs of one hunter, may be under or overpowered for another.
By Philip Massaro
Let's take a look at what makes an all-around cartridge, and why.
Surely, the .30-06 Springfield has got to be one of the best contenders for the all-around cartridge for the average North American hunter, and with good reason. It has maintained its popularity long after it was relieved of military duty, simply because it is so useful as a hunting rifle cartridge.
The good old aught-six is capable of being shot well by just about any hunter, delivering the consummate blend of trajectory, striking power and manageable recoil. With a performance level so reliable it could be described as boring, having a rifle chambered in .30-06 gives a hunter a viable choice for all hunting in the contiguous 48 states.
It can use bullets weighing between 100 and 250 grains, making it fully capable of taking sheep and goats at longer ranges without issue, and when loaded with heavier bullets large game like elk, moose and bears are easily handled.
It makes a great deer cartridge, as well as being excellent for hogs. Equally at home on the prairie as it is in the hardwoods, the .30-06 can obtain a muzzle velocity with its wide range of bullets that doesn't punish a standard cup-and-core bullet yet is well-served by the premium bullets.
There is a reason the .30-06 is the benchmark by which most cartridges in its class are measured: It's not too fast, not too slow, but like Goldilocks said, "just right." Many of the same attributes are applicable to the .308 Winchester, which offers similar velocities, but generally tops out at 200-grain bullets.
But, for those who primarily pursue white-tailed deer, with perhaps the occasional coyote thrown in the mix, a .243 Winchester may well be described as the perfect all-around cartridge. With bullets weighing as little as 55 grains, all the way up to 100 grains, the little 6mm cartridge will handle the back-forty duties very well, provided that black bears are off the menu.
I live in the northeast, and hunt the woods that are inhabited by both deer and bear, so I've always opted for a larger bore diameter, but if I resigned myself to deer and varmints alone, I could get the job done easily with the .243 Winchester or 6mm Remington. It all depends on what your intended quarry will be.
For those who intend to travel the world, certainly the classic .375 Holland & Holland Magnum represents one of the wisest choices available. I personally consider it to be — in the big-game arena — the most useful cartridge ever designed. With bullet choices from 235 to 350 grains, the .375 can truly be taken anywhere, for any big game animal.
I have taken animals ranging from the diminutive steenbok, to impala (a bit smaller than our whitetail), to American bison and the eland. Hunting buddies have used it for whitetails, black and brown bears, Cape buffalo and elephant. It makes an excellent choice for elk and moose, and, well, just about anything that walks. The 300-grain bullets, leaving the muzzle at 2,530 feet per second (fps) or so, offer a surprisingly flat trajectory. The 235- and 250-grain slugs are wonderful for lighter game, and the heavy 350-grain bullets — I like the duo of the Woodleigh Weldcore and FMJ solid — will definitely extend the versatility of the .375s. If you have a favorite deer rifle, and you're looking for something to compliment it well, look to the .375 H&H Magnum.
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If you're a fan of the medium-caliber magnums, there are several that can represent an all-around cartridge. Certainly the .300 Winchester Magnum
and 7mm Remington Magnum
are good choices, offering a velocity increase of about 150 fps over the .30-06 and .280 Remington
, respectively. They offer a flatter trajectory, greater energy figures, and make a wonderful choice for the same categories of game that the '06 family of cartridges do. But they come with a caveat; they can create a lot of bloodshot meat, when the shots are close.
In the Northeast, I've shot quite a few deer with my favorite .300 Winchester Magnum, and it taught me some lessons. One, using factory ammunition at full-house velocities can put quite a strain on the cup-and-core bullet, resulting in low retained weight and also creating a fist-size hole in the deer.
A premium bullet solved that issue. Second, reducing the velocity a bit — through handloading — made for better performance. If you can reduce the velocities when hunting in the woods, where shots are predominately inside of 100 yards, you'll see better results when butchering your deer.
The various 6.5mm cartridges that are making waves right now are also a contender for the "all-around" title. The 6.5 Creedmoor will most definitely kill much better than its paper ballistics would indicate; I know folks that have used it for elk, moose, bears and African plains game up to and including eland.
Bump up the velocities to the level of the 6.5x55 Swede, 6.5-284 Norma, or the new 6.5 PRC and you'll find a more useful formula, especially when using the 156- and 160-grain bullets. They are easy on the shoulder, can offer incredible downrange performance with the 140-grain bullets; the high Ballistic Coefficient makes shooting in windy conditions much easier.
I predict that the 6.5s will certainly show their potential in the mainstream in the coming years, and while they aren't a good choice for bison or brown bear, they can be used very effectively for most other North American species, and especially as a deer cartridge. With a bullet range of 100 to 160 grains, the 6.5s have an awful lot to offer.
I like a choice that has a wide selection of ammunition available, can launch a bullet between 120 and 200 grains at a muzzle velocity between 2,500 and 3,000 fps — and I know that leaves many candidates — and that sensibly matches up to the game you intend to hunt. The list is extremely subjective, and if your personal favorite wasn't mentioned, don't panic; there are many answers to this question.
If you prefer hunting with a niche cartridge — I absolutely love the .318 Westley Richards but accept the fact that it's an oddball — just be prepared to work around the cartridge's performance. But, if you're looking for an all-'rounder, or perhaps looking to purchase a rifle as a gift for your son, wife, etc., an all-around cartridge makes a sound and logical choice.