LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
The Last Best Place
Montana, “The Last Best Place,” as termed by artist Charlie Russell, is the fourth largest state. It is home to many different game species: elk, moose, bison, black bear, pronghorn antelope, mountain lion, wolf, big horn sheep, mountain goat, upland birds, water fowl, and two deer varieties. It is a vast landscape with rolling, wind-swept prairies; seventy-seven mountain ranges; and wide, fast rivers set in flat, glacier carved valleys. So what’s the best hunting rifle and caliber for “The Last Best Place?”
One State, Two Worlds
The continental divide creates two distinct hunting environments: the east slope and the west slope, each with its own special requirements when it comes to hunting rifles and calibers.
Another factor is, unlike some states, hunters in Montana can hunt multiple species during the general rifle season--a "mixed bag" hunt which complicates the selection process further. For mixed bag hunts, select the rifle and caliber combination which suits the largest game pursued and the longest anticipated ranges, thus it will deal with anything smaller or closer.
This is the area which inspired Montana’s other nick-name, “Big Sky Country.” The east slope is rolling prairie punctuated by isolated mountain ranges such as the Big Snowy, Bear Paw, and Big Sheep.
Mule deer and whitetail deer are widespread, as well as antelope and some bison, while elk are more confined to the various mountain ranges and foothills. The mountains here have sparsely treed, sage covered south facing slopes and medium to dense timber on the north faces with little underbrush, much like Colorado’s and Wyoming’s mountains.
Flat-shooting calibers launched from bolt-action rifles are king here, with final choice determined by the species hunted.
East slope hunting: Big Sky, high buttes, and rolling sage.
East Slope Elk
Elk are large, robust animals—bullet sponges. Never underestimate an elk's ability to take a solid hit and walk away as though nothing ever happened. On the east slope, use enough gun with a flat trajectory, and good downrange punch.
- .270 Winchester, .280 Remington
- 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Winchester Short Magnum, 28 Nosler, 7mm Shooting Times Westerner
- .300 H&H Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 WSM, .300 Remington Ultra-Magnum, .30-378 Weatherby Magnum
- .338 Winchester Magnum, .340 Weatherby Magnum, .338 RUM
East Slope Deer and Antelope
Although the elk calibers listed above will get the job done on deer and antelope, for a one species hunt, less punishing to shoot calibers are more appropriate.
- .25-06 Remington, .257 Weatherby Magnum
- 6.5 Creedmoor, 260 Remington, 6.5-284 Norma, .264 Winchester Magnum, 26 Nosler
- .308 Winchester
- .30-06 Springfield
East Slope Black Bear
These bears range more in the south eastern and central east slope areas. While all the calibers mentioned above will kill a black bear, it is wise to select a powerful caliber for the worst case scenario—a charge by a wounded bear. Bears are often shot at closer range than herbivores to ensure effective shot placement, so flat trajectory is less a factor.
- .30-06 with 200 – 220 grain bullets
- .338 Federal
- .300 Winchester Magnum
- .338 Winchester Magnum
- .340 Weatherby Magnum
- .35 Whelen
- 9.3x62mm Mauser
- .375 Holland & Holland Magnum
- .45-70 Government
Rifle Selection for the East Slope
Rifle weight is not critical if hunting the prairie as most hunters ride in vehicles searching for game and then dismount for short stalks, or they set up a shooting bench on a promontory and wait for animals to come within range. For these hunts a heavier, long-range type rifle is a good choice. Hunts in the mountainous areas, or prairie hunts in areas closed to motor vehicles however, can involve much climbing and hiking, and while an ultra-light rifle from a custom gunsmith isn’t necessary, a hunter might want to keep the total scoped and loaded weight to no more than eight and a half pounds.
Western Montana is dominated by mountains, from the Gallatin in the south to the Mission in the north. While the elevations are lower than say, Colorado’s high country, these mountains are rugged and lashed by challenging weather. Between the various mountain ranges are wide valleys and large open areas called “parks.”
Western Montana is home to every big game species in the state: deer, antelope, elk, moose, wolf, lion, black bear, bison, mountain goat, and big horn sheep. Versatility is the prime requirement for any hunting rifle here.
West Slope Rifles
While bolt-actions still dominate the field, many west slope hunters rely on lever-actions and semi-automatics. Shots are often much closer than on the east slope. Western Montana’s forests are dense with close packed ponderosa, Douglas fir, Tamarac, and spruce set amongst thick underbrush such as box elder, choke cherry, and elderberry.
West Slope Hunting is Different
Most hunting in this region is either on foot or horseback, especially since both the State and Federal governments have closed more and more back-country roads in recent years. Hunting methods are also different. Hunters call for animals much more than on the east slope since there are fewer good vantage spots to observe large areas by binoculars. Hunters must often stalk through the forest or use tree stands along game trails, much like in the eastern United States.
Shots are taken at a few hundred yards at best, and less than thirty yards is not uncommon. Although, it is not unusual to break out from the thick timber only to find animals four hundred yards or more away on a slope across a steep drainage.
If the hunter is lucky, he or she may get to hunt on private land situated on a valley floor. Game is often engaged at three hundred yards or more in these hunts. Either way, the hunter needs a versatile firearm—one which is good in both close cover and open areas, or a rifle for each terrain type.
West slope elk hunting: you may only get one shot in all that timber.
On Montana's West Slope You Are on the Menu, Too
The western slope has one other challenge. Most grizzly bears are found there, although some inhabit the foothills on the east slope. The wise hunter should select a rifle to deal effectively with this ill-tempered predator should the need arise to defend oneself.
West Slope Elk, Moose, and Black Bear Calibers (Bolt-Action and Semi-Auto's)
- .257 Weatherby Magnum
- 6.5x55mm Swedish (close range)
- 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm STW, .28 Nosler
- .270 Winchester, .280 Remington
- .308 Winchester (165 - 180 grain bullet)
- .30-06 Springfield (165 - 180 grain for the flats, 200 - 240 for the timber)
- .300 Winchester Magnum (or any .30 caliber magnum)
- 8x57mm Mauser, 8mm Remington Magnum
- .338 Federal, .338 Winchester Magnum, .340 Weatherby Magnum
- .35 Whelen, .350 Remington Magnum, .358 Norma Magnum
- 9.3x62mm Mauser
- .375 H&H Magnum (or any .375 magnum)
- .416 Remington Magnum or .416 Rigby
West Slope Elk, Moose, and Black Bear (Lever-Actions)
- .358 Winchester
- .375 Winchester
- .444 Marlin
- .450 Marlin
- .45-70 Government
West slope Spring black bear hunt. You need to cover a lot of ground out here.
West Slope Deer, Antelope, Wolf, and Lion
All the elk calibers mentioned, except the .416’s, plus:
- .243 Winchester
- .25-06 Remington
- .260 Remington, 6.5 Creedmoor, .26 Nosler, .264 Winchester Magnum
- 7mm’s starting with 7x57 Mauser, on up
- .30-30 Winchester
Big Horn Sheep and Mountain Goat
Big horn and mountain goats are unique—they prefer high, rugged terrain above tree line. Light weight bolt-action rifles, built on short actions, are preferred by most sheep and goat hunters. Shots can be long, which favors flat shooting, short action calibers. Here are a few suggestions.
- .260 Remington
- 6.5 Creedmoor
- .270 Winchester Short Magnum
- 7mm-08 Remington, 7mm Winchester Short Magnum, 7mm Remington Short-Action Ultra Mag
- .300 Winchester Short Magnum
Bison (Bolt-Action and Double Rifles)
Bison are enormous animals, and while mostly confined to the west, a few herds live in the south-eastern corner. There is no such thing as too large a caliber for Bison.
- .375 H&H or other .375’s (300 – 350 grain bullets)
- .416 Ruger (400 grain), .416 Remington Magnum, .416 Rigby (400 - 450 grain)
- .404 Jeffery (400 + grain)
- .458 Winchester Magnum, .458 Lott, .460 Weatherby Magnum (500 + grain)
- .505 Gibbs
- .470 Nitro Express
- .500 Nitro Express
Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Division intends to allow limited hunting in 2017 or 2018 as of this writing. While griz are not bullet proof, and many have been killed with common hunting calibers, given the hazards inherent in hunting grizzly, hunters should lean toward calibers designed for dangerous game.
- Any .375 magnum
- Any .416 magnum
- Any .458 magnum
- .404 Jeffery
- Any Nitro Express cartridge, .40 caliber or larger
Montana offers plentiful game, stunning scenery, and the hunt of a lifetime. Selecting the right rifle and cartridge will help any hunter enjoy their time in the Last Best Place. The key is to match the rifle and cartridge to the job. For those mixed bag hunts, select the caliber which best fits the largest animal hunted and the longest range anticipated, and for specific species hunts, match gun and cartridge to the hunt's location.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Would a .338 Winchester Magnum be a good choice for an elk, bear, and deer hunt in western Montana?
Answer: An outstanding choice!
Question: What do you think about the .30-378 Weatherby for bison? I am currently hand loading 180-grain bullets.
Answer: With a good, tough bullet such as AccuBond, Partition, Weldcore, or A-Frame, and proper placement, it should do fine. Just don't ask it to stop a charge if things, as the Brits say, go up the spout.
Question: Is the .300 WSM a good all around caliber for hunting in Montana? If I can only buy one hunting rifle for Montana, what caliber would you suggest I select?
Answer: Any .30 caliber magnum, including the .300 WSM, loaded with 180 grain or heavier bullets is a great all-round choice for Montana big game. If you can have just one gun, I'd go with a .30 caliber magnum, and if bear and bison are on the menu as well as the ruminant species, I'd go with the versatile and time-proven .375 H&H Magnum.
Question: Would a .338-378 Weatherby Magnum be good for grizzly and bison hunting?
Answer: Yes, if you can take the recoil. Excessive recoil degrades most shooter's accuracy, and bullet placement--not power--is what does the actual killing. So, yes, if you can hack the recoil and hit where you aim with it, by all means give it a go, but if your accuracy suffers, consider something else. The .375 H&H, for instance, will do as much damage as the .338-378, and not break your shoulder.
Question: For black bear, would a 6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser with Nosler Partitions bullets be sufficient or permitted?
Answer: Montana has no minimum caliber requirements, unlike some states such as Colorado, so it is legal as of the moment. Scandinavian hunters have taken bears--even big brown bears--with the 6.5x55mm for over a century. A well-controlled expansion bullet, such as the Partition you mentioned, is the best choice. It all comes down to proper bullet placement. A .458 Winchester Magnum, for instance, will do little good if you shoot a bear around the edges. Whereas, a 6.5 in the heart or brain will achieve the desired result. Small bores, however, are not the best thing to have in one's hands should things go up the spout and you have to stop a charge by wounded bruin.
© 2016 LJ Bonham
navaratna rajaram on July 03, 2019:
My choice would be .375 Magnum, you can take anything and the recoil is manageable. It is better to be overgunned than undergunned.
Pax Pacis from North Carolina on November 21, 2016:
Great article on caliber and rifle selection.