But in a democratic sense, the "best" American cartridges are those that have won over the masses and garnered the approval of American hunters, withstanding the test of time.
These cartridges must have a long and decorated track record on game, and while I believe that some of the newer cartridges like the 6.5 Creedmoor and the .270 Winchester Short Magnum may prove to be lasting and popular cartridges, they've yet to endure a half century of field testing. The cartridges that made the cut here have all been around for over 50 years, and a few have been around more than twice that long.
While you can argue that other cartridges perform better, the following rounds have become the gold standard by which other hunting cartridges are judged.
Based on history, success, performance and popularity, here is a list of the ten best hunting cartridges of the modern era.
7mm Remington Magnum
Once upon a time American hunters and shooters were slow to adopt metric calibers, but the 7mm Remington Magnum bucked the odds and became a quick fan favorite. The 7mm Remington Magnum came around in 1962, but it wasn't the first 7mm cartridge.
Roy Weatherby's 7mm already existed, but the 7mm Mauser was old by then, and there were a handful of wildcat cartridges available as well. Still, the 7mm Remington Magnum was the first huge 7mm success story in this country. Factory ammo is available in weights ranging from 139 to 175 grains, and there are plenty of rifles from which to choose. The heavy 175-grain bullets have a very high sectional density (.310) and penetrate well. With the proper bullet, it will take down anything in North America besides the great bears and perhaps bison.
It shoots flat enough for mountain hunting or the open plains, and recoil is stiff but manageable. No wonder so many American shooters rely on the big 7.
.44 Remington Magnum
It would be unfair to recognize the greatest hunting cartridges of all time without giving a nod to the .44 Magnum. When the .44 Magnum arrived on the hunting scene in 1956, it revolutionized handgun hunting by delivering much better trajectory and more downrange energy than the cartridges available at that time.
Although the .44 Magnum is not the most powerful revolver cartridge designed for big game hunting, it is one of the most manageable big bore revolver rounds. It's been offered in a variety of hunting handguns from Ruger, Smith and Wesson, Taurus, Colt — just to name a few — and it remains the standard by which other handgun calibers are judged.
The .243 Winchester debuted in 1955 as a necked-down version of the .308 Winchester. And while it may seem an obvious choice for one of the most versatile and effective big game cartridges ever developed, surviving as a 6mm cartridge isn't as easy as it seems.
The 6mm Remington, argued by many to be a better cartridge than the .243, has struggled on the edge of obscurity for years, and the .243 WSSM hasn't come close to matching the other Winchester 6mm in popularity. The .243 Winchester is capable of driving an 80-grain bullet about 3,300 fps and a 100-grain projectile around 2,800 fps, making the .243 a flat-shooting varmint cartridge that can also kill deer, antelope and black bear.
Recoil with the .243 is minimal, rifles are everywhere and there is plenty of ammunition available even if you don't handload.
There isn't much to be said about the .270 Winchester that Jack O'Connor and a hundred other outdoor writers haven't already said. It was introduced to the world in 1925 in the Winchester Model 54 bolt-action rifle, and it was almost immediately accepted by hunters.
Ballistically it was similar enough to the already established .30-06 and the .270 certainly had mass appeal to draw fans from the Springfield. It shot flatter than the 06 with most loads, generated less recoil and was versatile enough to take varmints, deer, bear and elk. O'Connor's lavish praise certainly helped the .270's case, but even today it remains very popular despite mounting competition from all around.
The .270's virtues are many: typical bullets range from 100 to 150 grains, and its flat trajectory and sufficient killing power don't come at the cost of a great deal of muzzle blast and kick. It's a ubiquitous cartridge, probably because as new shooters come up the old timers tell them to 'get a .270, it'll kill darn near anything. '
.300 Weatherby Magnum
The .300 Weatherby deserves a place on this list not only for its outstanding ballistics and long track record on game, but also for the role it played in starting the magnum craze of the mid-20th century. There were certainly magnum cartridges that arrived before the .300 Weatherby, some of which Roy himself designed. But perhaps more than any other cartridge in history the .300 Weatherby drew hunters to the notion that fast magnums offered a big advantage on big game.
Rifles from various other makers have been chambered in .300 Weatherby Magnum over the years, and it's still a favorite among mountain hunters. The .300 Weatherby drives a 150-grain bullet upwards of 3,400 fps and it can send a 180-grain pill downrange at better than 3,100 fps, making it flat shooting enough for virtually any type of hunting, anywhere on the planet. The current crop of tough, high-BC, long-range hunting bullets make the .300 Weatherby Magnum better than ever, and there are still a good number of factory options for those who don't handload.
The .300 Weatherby generates significant recoil, but if you can handle it there isn't much game anywhere in the world that it won't kill.
.300 Winchester Magnum
The .300 Winchester is based on a shortened .300 H&H case and fits in a standard-length action, but it delivers a level of power and performance that the .308 and .30-06 can't match. In fact, a few years ago the .300 Winchester Magnum passed the .30-06 as the cartridge with the most Boone and Crockett heads to its name.
The .300 Win. Mag is a popular chambering and factory bullets are available from 150 up to 220 grains, so there are plenty of choices in ammo. It's suitable for just about any game animal on the planet, and it's a favorite cartridge among guides and professional hunters who see hundreds of heads of game collected with various rounds.
I carried one on an African safari and shot a 90-pound springbok and an 800-pound zebra on the same day. Needless to say it performed extremely well on both animals.
The .308 was originally designed for military use with a short, efficient cartridge that could almost match the ballistics of the .30-06 in a shorter action. In 1952, Winchester laid claim to the design, and since that time the .308 has been offered successfully in bolt action, slide action, lever action and semiautomatic rifles.
The .308 isn't a flashy cartridge ballistically speaking, but it has proven to be an accurate, versatile hunting cartridge that generates manageable recoil and is suitable for most game. Shooters have argued for years whether the .308 Winchester or the .30-06 Springfield is a better cartridge, but the point is largely moot.
The .308 has a slight advantage with lighter bullets, though the .30-06 outperforms it with heavier projectiles. With regard to terminal performance on game, the two are extremely similar, and the .308 is certainly one of the greatest hunting cartridges ever designed.
.375 Holland and Holland Magnum
The .375 H&H — aka the African Queen — is the medium bore of choice for those who may find themselves hunting everything from impala to elephant on the same day. But the .375 is surprisingly popular in the States as well, and there are a band of elk, moose and bear hunters for whom the .375 H&H is their arm of choice. It hits plenty hard, generating more than 4,500 pounds of energy. It's overkill on deer, but the big bullets at modest velocities don't damage much meat.
Ammo for the .375 H&H is commonly available with bullets ranging from 250 to 300 grains. The lighter bullets shoot relatively flat and the 300-grain projectiles, with a sectional density of .305, penetrate well. Despite the fact that the .375 H&H Magnum requires a magnum-length action, there are still several rifles chambered for this cartridge and lots of companies continue to load .375 H&H ammo.
Perhaps nostalgia or a longing to hunt in faraway, exotic places is behind some of the .375's popularity, but if you're looking for a round that generates dangerous game power, shoots relatively flat and doesn't rearrange the bones in your shoulder with every shot, the .375 H&H is a popular and prudent choice.
It's hard to say anything about the .30-06 that hasn't already been said or isn't a cliché. That's because the .30-06 is the standard against which all other hunting cartridges are measured. While there are plenty of cartridges that shoot flatter, hit harder, with less recoil and burn powder more efficiently, the .30-06 is blessed with a level of versatility that few other cartridges can match.
Rather than regurgitate ballistics that most shooters have indelibly ingrained in their psyche, I'll share my own experience with the cartridge. On a cull hunt in Texas we were asked to shoot several deer from a large property and provided .30-06 rifles and ammunition for the task. In total, the rifles accounted for dozens of deer and hogs from 50 to almost 300 yards over the course of two days. The results were excellent, with all but one of the animals being harvested with a single shot.
The .30-06 is king for a reason.
The .30-30 is old and ballistically anemic compared to more modern centerfire cartridges, and there are only a handful of cartridges that are chambered in this round today. That being said, the .30-30 is still a very popular hunting round, and countless deer, elk and bear have fallen to the thuty-thuty.
When the .30-30 came to pass in 1895, it didn't hurt that it was chambered in the then-new Winchester 94. Over the course of the next 100 years, the .30-30 would remain near the top of the heap of centerfire hunting cartridges despite the fact that it only drove a 170-grain bullet at about 2,100 fps. It isn't particularly flat shooting compared to more modern rifle cartridges, but recoil is minimal and for close to medium-range hunting on deer-sized game it's outstanding.
The introduction of Hornady's LeveRevolution polymer-tipped ammunition helped the .30-30's case since it provided a pointed bullet that could safely be loaded in tubular magazines. But the .30-30's popularity will likely never be what it once was, and 50 years from now it may not make the list. Still, when the last century is examined as a whole, the .30-30 deserves a place on this list.