LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
What Makes the Most Versatile Hunting Caliber?
“Beware the hunter with just one rifle.” This old saying is just as true now as in the past. Such a hunter must use this single gun for everything. They know their rifle inside and out, field strip it blindfolded, and can knock a fly off an elk’s ear at 300 yards.
When I was much younger, I too had just one hunting rifle—a Winchester Model 70 chambered in .375 H&H Magnum. It had to have one quality above all others: versatility. The same is true for anyone with just one hunting rifle, regardless of the caliber. My “three-seven-five” needed the flexibility to take light-bodied medium game, such as antelope or whitetail deer, but also enough punch to anchor an elk, moose, or bear. I didn’t know where in the world I might end up hunting, so I also wanted a gun fit for Alaska or Africa, should I ever find myself there.
There are many (perhaps too many) hunting cartridges on the market. What makes any particular one versatile? A versatile cartridge has three main qualities: power, reach, and flexibility.
When a bullet strikes a target, in this case a game animal, it imparts energy based on its mass and velocity. This energy is measured in foot-pounds: the energy required to move one pound for one foot. For example, if a bullet has 3000 ft-lbs when it hits, it could, in theory, move a mid-size car for one foot along a road. Quite a feat for a tiny metal bit. How this energy is transferred to the target will vary based on many things such as bullet construction, target composition, impact angle, etc. Still, the basic foot-pounds measurement gives us a good idea of how hard a cartridge will hit an animal and thus how much damage it should cause.
Bullets need to hit game animals with enough energy to cause a swift, humane kill. No ethical hunter wants their prospective dinner to suffer any more than necessary. When we talk about versatile cartridges, we mean those which are suited to different sized animals. Game is classified as small (less than 100 pounds), medium (100 – 400 lbs.), and large (over 400 lbs.). The fourth but separate category is dangerous game—animals that can injure or kill a hunter.
Each game category has a recommended minimum impact energy: small game (500 ft-lbs), medium game (1200 ft-lbs.), large game (1500 ft-lbs.), and dangerous game (3000 ft-lbs.).
Reach, or effective range, is influenced by two factors: the minimum impact energy, and the bullet’s trajectory expressed as Maximum Point Blank Range, or MPBR.
A versatile cartridge should deliver the minimum energy for small, medium, and large game out to 500 yards. While most game is shot inside 250 yards, the 500 yard mark is a realistic limit for most hunters when confronted with longer shots in certain terrain, such as the American West and Africa’s savannas. Dangerous game is best shot inside 100 yards, which makes reach for this category a non-issue in most cases.
MPBR is the range across which a bullet rises a certain distance in inches above the rifle’s sight line, then drops the same distance below. For example, if a bullet rises three inches above sight line and then drops three inches below by 200 yards, the particular load has a 200 yard MPBR. This means at any point from the rifle’s muzzle to the 200 yard mark, the bullet will hit within a six-inch imaginary circle. Military snipers call this the “kill box.”
The kill box’s size is arbitrary and in most cases corresponds to the desired target’s size. In hunting, the desired target is a game animal’s vital zone in the forward chest cavity where the heart and lungs reside. Average vital zones are four inches, or less, for small game, six inches for medium game, and ten inches for large game. A six-inch kill box is a good compromise to determine a cartridge’s versatility.
Versatile cartridges have MPBRs around 230 to 250 yards or longer. This allows a hunter to shoot at the most common hunting ranges without any holdover or scope adjustment calculations. At these ranges, there is often little time to set up a shot, so the less “monkey math” you have to do, the better.
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Flexibility is different from versatility in this case. While versatility refers to a cartridge’s suitability for multiple game classes and species, flexibility is the capacity it has to use many different bullet weights to achieve this versatility.
In a perfect world, one cartridge would need just one load for all game. The inconvenient fact is different sized animals need different bullet weights. A tough, heavy bullet might work well on a big, tough critter such as an elk, but it would not perform as well on a small pronghorn antelope or a coyote. Likewise, bullets ideal for the latter would not do well against the former.
The more bullet types are available for a particular cartridge, the more flexible it is. The most versatile cartridges have light, frangible bullets available for varmints and smaller game, sleek, aerodynamic bullets for longer range hunting, heavy bullets with thick jackets to penetrate deep into large or dangerous game, and full-metal jacketed bullets for practice and to limit damage to valuable pelts. It also doesn’t hurt if a cartridge tends to shoot different bullet weights and designs to a similar point of impact (POI).
Based on these criteria, in ascending power order, are my choices for the five most versatile hunting cartridges in the world. This is not a comparison between them all but rather a collection to choose from if you have just one hunting rifle.
5) The .308 Winchester
The .308 is perhaps the best short-action cartridge around. Developed from the .300 Savage for the U.S. military in the 1950s, the .308 hits way above its weight class. It has spawned several other cartridges since its debut. Although the .308’s descendants are quite good, they do not have the overall versatility their parent possesses.
The .308 can use bullets from 110 grains up to 200 grains. It’s at its best when paired with 150 – 180 grain bullets, though. This warrior-turned-hunter is also noted for exceptional accuracy.
For smaller game and small to medium-sized predators, the .308 loaded with 110 through 150 grain frangible bullets such as Nosler’s Ballistic Tip or Hornady’s V-Max is quite effective. Most ammunition companies offer 147 or 150 grain full-metal jacketed (FMJ) loads which limit pelt damage.
The .308 is a renowned medium game cartridge. Many a deer has fallen to the .308 loaded with 150 to 165 grain bullets. Typical velocities for factory ammo are 2800 feet per second (fps) and 2700 fps, respectively.
While not always considered a large game cartridge, the .308 will get the job done with a 180 grain load at the factory nominal 2600 fps. Heavier than 200 grain bullets don't work well in the .308's short case and are not recommended for this cartridge.
The .308 has reasonable reach. Loaded with a 180 grain, high ballistic coefficient (BC) slug, such as the Nosler AccuBond, it will deliver minimum medium game energy to 500 yards and take large animals out to 400. All this and an MPBR around 260 yards, too.
4) The .30-06 Springfield
Adopted by the U.S. military in 1906, the .30-06 served over five decades and through three wars. This jack-of-all-trades has been used to hunt game on every continent for over a century. It is the most popular big game cartridge in the world. Factory ammunition can be found anywhere—from Palmer, Alaska, to Mozambique and everywhere in between.
There are other thirty caliber hunting cartridges, but the .30-06 remains at the top. It generates one hundred feet per second greater velocity than the .308 Winchester for any given bullet weight. It is more available worldwide than either the .303 British or 7.62x54R, its two contemporaries. It just works well, no matter the climate or game.
Like the .308, this old warrior uses bullets from 110 grains up 200 for the same game classes. Ideal match-ups are 150 or 165 grains for deer, and 180 grains for elk, moose, or black bear. It exceeds the .308’s minimum energy ranges by about 50 yards and the MPBR by 10-15 yards.
The .30-06 pulls away from the .308 when it comes to large, or dangerous game. It has enough case capacity to deliver useable velocities for 200 and 220 grain bullets. The 220 grain, in particular, has been a favorite brown and polar bear load in Alaska for decades. Hand loaded with Woodleigh’s 240 grain thumper, it’s even a match for Africa’s grumpiest critters. More than a few PHs there use this load until they can afford a big bore for client backup duty.
3) The 8x57mm Mauser
The 8x57mm Mauser, also known as the 7.92x57mm or 8mm Mauser, is perhaps the most overlooked and underappreciated cartridge in America today. Adopted in 1905 by the Imperial German Army, the 8x57 evolved from the 1888 German service round. The 1905 variant had a larger bore than the 1888 (.323 inch vs. .318 inch), worked at higher pressures, and propelled a spitzer bullet at a much higher velocity. The 8x57 went on to serve the Germans through both World Wars and continued in service with smaller countries such as Yugoslavia and Spain into the 1960s.
The caliber never caught on with American hunters. There are several reasons why. The biggest is American ammunition companies decided to load the cartridge at very low pressures to protect themselves from liability claims should someone attempt to fire a new cartridge in a vintage 1888 Mauser rifle, which is not designed for the post-1905 larger bore size, high pressure ammunition. Never mind the fact that European shooters avoid this problem, and European ammo makers offer the cartridge at its full velocity.
The second major reason is, like the Russian 7.62x39, the 8x57 is often seen as the “enemy’s” cartridge. This is understandable given how many U.S. servicemen faced Mausers in German soldiers’ hands—an unfortunate prejudice.
Loaded to its full potential, the 8x57 fires a 196 or 200 grain bullet at 2550 – 2600 fps, which generates near 3000 foot-pounds muzzle energy. Compared to the standard .30-06 150 grain at 2900 fps and 2800 ft-lbs load, the Mauser is more effective than the .30-06 inside 250 yards, where most game is shot. It is an excellent elk and moose cartridge.
The 8x57 is versatile. With a 170 grain bullet at lower pressures, it becomes an outstanding low recoil, varmint, deer, and antelope cartridge. Plus, FMJ ammunition is still available for both practice and harvesting furbearers.
The standard 196 grain load is an excellent all-rounder fit for deer, elk, moose, and any bear species. Its effective range and MPBR are similar to the .308, but the .30-06 will out-pace it beyond 300 yards. The Springfield is a bit more ideal for the American West and Africa’s savannas—but not by much.
Loaded with heavy bullets such as Woodleigh’s 250 grain, it’s suitable for many dangerous game species. It is favored in Europe for brown bears and has a good reputation in Africa as well.
American shooters who can tell the difference between a modern rifle in good condition and an antique, and the appropriate ammunition for each, owe it to themselves to give the accurate, hard hitting 8x57 another chance.
2) The .300 Winchester Magnum
Is it possible, despite all the new hunting cartridges introduced in the last decade or so, that the best has been here all along? In 1963, the .300 Winchester Magnum hit the market. Winchester intended the .300 to provide .30-06 punch with the .270’s flat trajectory and created something greater than the sum of its parts. Almost every gun maker offers a model chambered for this fantastic cartridge.
Why is the .300 Win. Mag. so special? Versatility, availability, and power. The .300 can take everything from woodchucks and coyotes to moose and grizzly bears. Hand loaders can tailor the round even further with premium bullets. Few other cartridges can claim such flexibility.
The .300, like so many other magnums, uses the British developed .375 H&H Magnum’s belted case; shortened to fit into standard length actions, with less taper, and a sharper shoulder. It works at higher pressures (64,000 PSI) than its parent to provide on average 150 – 200 feet per second greater velocity than the .30-06.
The .300 Winchester Magnum is an international favorite, as well. European hunters like it for the larger stags and moose. It is very popular for African plains game of all sizes, as well as in Alaska and Canada. In short, anywhere power and reach are needed, the .300 WM is there.
There are harder hitting, more efficient, and longer ranged cartridges than the .300 Winchester Magnum, but few if any are available in almost any gun store around the world. For the one gun, international hunter, no other cartridge is as useful for almost every game species on the planet.
While it is perhaps a bit much for the smaller varmints, hand loaded with 150 grain FMJ bullets, it makes a terrific long-range wolf and coyote slayer which will leave pelts in useable condition.
For medium game, the 165 grain projectiles are ideal. While this weight is suitable for larger game, 180 grain bullets are the preferred medicine for elk, etc., and are considered the all-rounders. High BC 180 grain bullets deliver minimum medium game energy to just beyond 700 yards, large game energy to 680, and have an MPBR around 280. This is the weight for multi-species, mixed bag hunts as it won’t grenade medium game and hits hard enough for the big ‘uns.
The .300 Win. Mag. drives 200 grain and heavier bullets at substantial velocities. These loads are the “go-to” ones for Alaskan bears or tough African plains species such as kudu.
1) The .375 Holland & Holland Magnum
Few, if any, cartridges are as versatile as the .375 H&H. British gun maker, Holland & Holland, introduced their “.375 Belted Nitro Magnum,” later renamed just the .375 H&H Magnum, in 1912 during African hunting’s golden age.
Big game hunters wanted a cartridge for their magazine fed rifles versatile enough for most game they encountered. English gun maker Holland and Holland saw this need and designed a revolutionary cartridge to satisfy their customers. It had a long case for the nitro based gunpowder then in use, and almost no shoulder to eliminate jams in a bolt action. A belt at the base provided the necessary head space in the firing chamber. This case went on to father dozens more magnum cartridges throughout the twentieth century.
When first introduced, the .375 used three bullet weights: 235, 270, and 300 grains for light, medium, and large game, respectively. Unlike most cartridges, the .375 will generally shoot any bullet weight to the same point of impact. This allows the hunter to carry loads for all anticipated situations and not re-sight for each one. Also, the recoil is much less than other dangerous game calibers such as .458 Winchester Magnum or the classic Nitro-Express loads.
Mid-weight bullets between 250 and 270 grains are the all-rounders here and will do for anything but the largest or most dangerous game. There are no FMJ .375 bullets on the market, but if a hunter wanted to use this heavy hitter for wolf, and needed to preserve the hide, there are expensive, lathe turned monometal solids available made for ultra-long-range shooting matches. A bit quirky, but just shows how versatile this grand old Brit is. With high BC bullets, this weight is sufficient for medium game to over 500 yards, large game to 400, and an MPBR around 250 yards.
When maximum hurt is required for large or grumpy beasts, the 300 grain bullets are the ticket. Use controlled expansion bullets such as Nosler’s Partition, Swift’s A-Frame, or Woodleigh’s Weldcore for softer skinned animals, and solids for the real tough ones such as Cape buffalo or American bison. For extra insurance against the nastiest critters, Woodleigh offers a 350 grain bullet said to make the .375 H&H perform more like a .470 Nitro Express. Most 300 grain, .375 H&H bullets have a trajectory similar to a .30-06 and carry their energy about 75 yards less for a given game class than the mid-weights discussed above.
Harry Selby, the famed African hunter and .416 Rigby devotee, once remarked about the .375 H&H, “No finer cartridge has ever been developed.” I couldn’t agree more.
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: I'm surprised the 7mm Remington Magnum didn't make the list. Is it not worthy to be considered a versatile hunting cartridge?
Answer: It is a good cartridge, one of the most popular in the world. If the article had been about the top 10 versatile cartridges, it would have been included. As it is, I decided against it because several of the other rounds on the list cover the same territory as the Rem. Mag., and it doesn't have the upper end punch for the largest or most dangerous game. In my opinion, someone who has a .30-06, .300 Winchester Magnum, or .375 H&H Magnum doesn't need a 7mm Remington Magnum. It was, however, a close call, and I had to draw the line somewhere.
© 2018 LJ Bonham
Vyacheslav on July 09, 2020:
What do you think about the 9.3 x 62 my caliber?