Is the .308 the Perfect North American Big Game Cartridge?

A-1_FBooks have been written, stories have been told and lies have been concocted in an effort to identify the perfect North American big game cartridge. Many believe it's the cartridge they've chosen, others think specific cartridges must be matched to specific animals, and some claim perfection does not exist. When it comes to rifle cartridges, perfection may not exist but we should still be able to make a faultless choice given the vast options we have.

But How?

First, we should define the parameters of determining the perfect North American big game cartridge:

  • The cartridge should be able to push a bullet fast and flat enough to limit trajectory as much as possible.
  • The bullet should provide enough penetration to pass through the vitals of any animal we shoot, while expanding to increase tissue destruction.

  • Ideal external and terminal ballistics should be provided without excessive recoil.
  • The cartridge must fit in a repeating rifle compact and light enough to carry all day, with a reasonable magazine capacity.

Now, for the specifics:

Trajectory (external ballistics)

An 8-inch kill zone is a reasonable average for North American big game animals. From a trajectory standpoint, our cartridge should allow you to hold in the center of this kill zone out to 300 yards and still hit it, even in a moderate cross wind.

Penetration/Expansion (terminal ballistics)

A-2_2Given reasonable shot angles, for a bullet to pass through the vitals of all North American big game animals, from pronghorn to moose, it should be capable of penetrating 18 to 20 inches in 10 percent ordnance gelatin. To maximize tissue destruction the bullet should also expand between 1.5 and 2 times its original diameter.


How hard a rifle kicks is subjective and somewhat dependent on rifle design. That said, most hunters find that a rifle/cartridge combination producing a free recoil energy of more than 25 to 30 pounds is uncomfortable to shoot.

Cartridge/Rifle Size

A-11_2Long cartridges increase rifle length and weight. Fat cartridges diminish magazine capacity. Long and fat cartridges do both. And some magnum cartridges need long barrels to really be magnums. What's ideal? Eight pounds is a good target weight for a field ready rifle and 40 inches or less is a reasonable length. You must shoot once and a coup de grace might be needed. You also might miss, so you need at least three shots. And, since you never want an empty rifle, capacity must be four or more.

Is there a cartridge that fits these specifications?

A-7_2The first that comes to mind is the .308 Winchester. It will work splendidly on whitetails — I've done that — and its sufficient for moose — I've done that, too. It's compact and allows for a properly sized rifle with an ample magazine capacity. With good bullets, 20 inches of penetration is easily obtained, even with 2x bullet expansion. When properly zeroed it will allow you to hold dead on out to just the other side of 300 yards. And, in an 8-pound rifle it will generate less than 20 ft./lbs. of free recoil energy.

Your search is over.

But what about the big, mean and nasty brown colored bears you say? We're talking about hunting cartridges, not charge stopping, dangerous game cartridges. If your plan is to shoot a charging grizzly at 20 paces you do not merely need the perfect North American big game cartridge, you need a specialized, dangerous game cartridge and rifle setup. If you hope to hunt and then shoot a big bear at a reasonable distance, the .308 will kill him just like it will kill an elk.

A-14_2But what about shooting at really long range you ask? Look, if you want to shoot big game animals out beyond a quarter of a mile with regularity and success, again you'll need a specialized rifle and cartridge. This would not be a rifle to tote into the timber with the hopes of jumping a whitetail buck.

What we're talking about is the perfect, general-purpose cartridge/rifle combination, a single solution for all your North American hunting needs. One of the greatest firearms experts and teachers conceived this combination as early as 1966.

Col. Jeff Cooper originated the scout rifle concept just for this purpose, citing it sufficient for animals weighing up to 1,000 pounds. For this rifle he selected the .308 Winchester cartridge. You might opine the .308 not adequate for hunting all of North America and you have a right to your opinion. I do not share it. I've seen the .308 employed with sensational success in North America and Africa on animals large and small.

We really don't need a modern treatise on this subject to discover the truth. Long before Cooper, in his 1927 book, Wilderness Hunting and Wildcraft, Townsend Whelen wrote that the best big game cartridges were the "'¦6.5 mm Mannlicher, .270 Winchester, 7mm Mauser and .30-06 U.S. Government."

Practically speaking, these four cartridges are ballistically identical to the more compact .308 Winchester, which was not invented until 1952. Yes, there are even more modern cartridges and they offer similar or improved ballistics. But none of these more modern cartridges make big game animals harder to kill.

Hunters seem to have figured all this out the same way Whelen did — through field experience, though without stopping power formulas and gun writer drivel. According to a leading ammunition company, last year the most popular big game cartridge sold in North America was the .308 Winchester.

However, we've left out a very important element of big game cartridge anatomy. Many hunters develop an unbreakable and sometimes unreasonable bond with certain cartridges. That relationship can be very important to the overall enjoyment of the hunt and without enjoyment, hunting is just hard grocery shopping. Your perfect North American big game cartridge will and should be one you like. For that reason cartridge anatomy arguments will continue as long as there are campfires.

Which cartridge gets your vote as the perfect North American big game round?

Recommended for You

North America

Big-Game Adventure Beckons in Quebec

Lynn Burkhead

Whether you're pursuing black bears, moose or whitetails, Quebec will put you on the right...

North America

The Best Units for Hunting Elk, Mule Deer & Antelope

Chuck Smock

These are the must-apply units for trophy elk, mule deer, and antelope in the West.


What's In Your Backcountry Pack?

Tracy Breen

Having just the right amount of lightweight gear can make or break a hunt. Find out the best...

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

2018 Petersen's Hunting Episode 12: High Plains Elk

David Draper teams up with Fred Eichler to hunt elk on the high plains of southern Colorado.

2018 Petersen's Hunting Episode 7: Beginner's Luck

Host Kali Parmley takes first-time hunter Danae Hale of CZ-USA to Wyoming for a mule deer hunt. After covering all the basics with Danae, the girls head into the field and what happens next goes way beyond either of their expectations!

2018 Petersen's Hunting Episode 14: Swamp Bulls

With his Mozambique forest bull in the salt, Craig Boddington sets his sights on the Marromeu grasslands in pursuit of a swamp buffalo.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories


The Ultimate Hunting Trailers

WA Staff - May 11, 2015

I have never felt that camping trailers at least the "house on wheels" variety that most...


The Ticks Making Hunters Allergic to Meat

David Hart

A new wave of allergies threatens to turn hunters into vegetarians.


Remington Timeline: 1963 - Remington Model 1100 Autoloading Shotguns

Hunting Online Staff - August 09, 2016

It was the fall of 1962, and a meeting was underway at the Remington firearms plant in Ilion,...

See More Stories

More Ammo


History and Development of Hunting Bullets

Phil Massaro - August 14, 2018

Strolling down the ammunition aisle at your local gun shop will reveal a multitude of...


Whitetail Hunt Shows Off New 224 Valkyrie Cartridge

Lynn Burkhead - January 28, 2018

Sitting on the rifle range for the start of a December 2017 Mossy Oak hunt at Vatoville, a


First Look: Winchester Xtended Range Bismuth Turkey Shotshell Load

Lynn Burkhead - January 25, 2018

With spring turkey season just around the corner, OSG senior digital editor Lynn Burkhead was...

See More Ammo

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save.

Temporary Price Reduction.


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.