Moose Hunting: Choosing the Right Rifle, Cartridge and Bullet

Shooting a moose is a once-per-lifetime event for most hunters. You want the right rifle, cartridge and bullet to do the job properly. But can you handle the recoil necessary to cleanly kill a 1,000-pound or heavier moose?

You bet you can.

Moose, despite their size, are not all that durable. It just takes them time to realize they’re dead. I’ve shot more than one bull that stood contemplating the noise he’d heard for a half minute before wobbling and falling over. Then the real work began.

Up north, locals have shot moose for decades with 222 Remington and 223 Remington rifles. They consider the 243 Winchester and 30-30 Winchester more than adequate. But how do you square this with that old story about John Nosler back in the 1940s? He supposedly shot a mud-caked bull again and again with a 300 H&H Magnum before finally tipping it over. He then went home and created the Partition bullet. Whose stories can we believe?

Moose Hunt

All of them. The truth is that little bullets with pinprick precision can bring a bull to the table. And big, fast bullets — if not properly constructed — can lead to flesh wounds and frustration. As with most big game shooting, the bullet matters more than the caliber, cartridge or velocity.

So let’s start with the bullet. Unless you’re shooting at least a .338-inch bullet or a low-velocity round (under 2,700 fps MV), shy away from traditional cup-and-core projectiles with soft lead cores. These are the type that sometimes pancake on contact or break into pieces, none of which then retain momentum for deep penetration. Bonded bullets with jackets welded to lead cores do a much better job. So do partitioned designs like Nosler’s original Partition or Swift’s A-Frame. Monolithic bullets like Barnes X and Hornady GMX are effective because they have no jacket and core to separate. The all-copper alloy slugs expand thanks to a hollow nose. Hybrids like Federal’s Trophy Bonded Bear Claw combine solid copper alloy shanks with nose sections filled with bonded lead. Regardless the exact design, such bullets are known collectively as controlled expansion bullets. That’s what you want to ensure they’ll plow through big moose muscles and bones to reach the heart, lungs or spine.

For the record, light cup-and-core bullets and even frangible varmint bullets can conclude a bull’s time on Earth IF they are slipped precisely and neatly behind the shoulder and into the heart. But do you really want to have to work for that perfect shot on an expensive, once-in-a-lifetime hunt? What if your only opportunity is a bull quartering away at 300 yards? You want a bullet that’ll penetrate deeply and do maximum damage.

So… forget the .224 varmint rigs and even the 243 Winchester. The 25-06 Remington with a 120-grain bullet might be an acceptable start for folks who can’t handle much recoil. Scandinavians have shot thousands of moose with the little 6.5m55mm Swede. That round is the ballistic twin to the 6.5mm Creedmoor and 260 Remington. Throwing 140-grain bullets 2,700 fps, these aren’t exactly the Hammer of Thor, but no one has told the moose. Carve a hole through heart or lungs and Mr. Moose will expire. You’ll get similar reaction from our familiar 270 Winchester. It’ll drive a 150-grain bullet 2,900 fps for a slightly heavier touch than the 6.5s.

So be honest with yourself on the recoil you can handle without pain or flinching. Then consider more powerful cartridges. Again, larger calibers really aren’t going to alter the moose’s opinion, but a little wider bullet and a little more oomph never hurt. The 7mms from 7x57mm Mauser, 7mm-08 Rem. and 280 Rem. through the 7mm magnums are excellent choices with 150 to 175-grain slugs. You can see how a bull moose reacted to my 7mm Rem. Mag. in this video of a beautiful B.C. mountain hunt:

The 30-06 Springfield has probably toppled as many North American moose (including my first two) as any other 30-caliber, but the shorter 308 Win. will work just fine, too. The 300 Win. Mag. is considered by many to be the best compromise between tolerable recoil and magnum punch. It adds flat trajectory for long range potential. That means, of course, that all the other 300 magnums are great, too, although the 26- to 28-inch barrels many use do get unwieldy. Some of the fastest 300s start to hurt at both ends. You don’t want to be one of those hunters who misses the broad side of a moose because you flinched. Been there done that. If you opt for a new magnum, do yourself a big favor and train with it a lot. Enough so that you can calmly shoot is as if it were a 243 Win.

If flinching and recoil are not in your nature, consider the 8mm Rem. Mag., 338 Win. Mag. or any other .338 mags. Again, such powerhouses aren’t necessary, but they sure work. So does the little 338 Federal. I watched a bull fall to this little cartridge in the mountains of B.C. Nothing to it.

Similarly the 35 Whelen is a great option. This is the 30-06 case necked up to .35. Then there’s the even lighter recoiling 358 Winchester, which is the 308 case necked up to .35. The 308 Win. case, buy the way, is the 30-06 case shortened. The cartridge world consists of  variations on a few themes. Figuring that out is a big part of the fun.

Now, if you really want to expand your shooting horizons, step up to the 375 H&H Magnum. This venerable “medium bore” throws a 300 grain bullet at 2,500 fps. Guaranteed to get a bull’s attention. Ditto the 375 Ruger, 375 Dakota, 375 RUM and 378 Wthby. Mag. Just how fast do you want that 300-grain boulder to move?

Should you be of the “wider is better” school of thought, there are the 45-70 Govt. and 450 Marlin. While these throw 300- to 350-grain slugs, they do so with a lot less powder than the magnums above. They’ll still poke a big hole in the moose, but less recoil on you. Trajectory, however, suffers from the lower velocities and the flat-nosed bullets traditionally loaded in these. Figure them good to 125 yards.

Finally, you glutens for abuse, consider the 416 Ruger, 416 Rigby, 416 Rem. Mag., 458 Win. Mag. and any other over-the-top big bore you’re dying to hunt with. If not a moose, what else in N.A. will you use these on? Short of a brown bear or bison, their match is moose, so if you have a hankering for a thumper…

But, before you choose a novelty cartridge, consider where you’ll hunt, how far you’ll have to carry your rifle and how far you might have to shoot. Lowland, swampy moose habitat doesn’t call for much reach, but in the northwest mountains you could find yourself needing to spit thunder and lightning across many hundreds of yards of open valley. Think this over. A ten pound 375 H&H rifle can be fun until you carry it up a couple of 2,000-foot mountains. A 45-70 Govt. can be nostalgia in your hands until you discover your only shot is 250 yards on the last day. Scenarios like these are what inspire veteran moose hunters to compromise with a 7mm or 300 magnum. Plenty of reach, plenty of punch, reasonable rifle size. Moose magic instead of moose madness. Suite yourself.

Shop at Sportsman’s Guide for an extensive selection of Rifle Ammunition.

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2 Responses to “Moose Hunting: Choosing the Right Rifle, Cartridge and Bullet”

  1. GLENN BIGBEAR

    Except for the possible inclusion of the .378 wby and the .400s for the ”swamp donkys” , its a pretty good article, as are 99.9% of Rons articles.
    My people have been ”laying low” moose for hundreds of years with spears,bows,traps,rocks,and just about anything else you can think of…….here in B.C.
    But as Ron once said in one of his articles years ago.
    ”take anything a gun writer says”with a grain of salt, my friends.

    Reply
  2. Blane L.

    This was a very well cited, and open minded article that properly lays out a large and open list of acceptable calibers for hunting moose. Ron’s ideology and advice in this article very closely mirror the opinions that I have held for years. It is refreshing to see a modern article that does not dismiss long proven cartridges like the .270 winchester or limit peoples’ confidence in the .308 Winchester, both of which are not only capable of harvesting a moose, but able to do so in nearly identical fashion as the .30-06 that many people claim to be the minimum ethical caliber these days. My own recommendation have long placed the 7mm-08 as the minimum force caliber that I would recommend to others for moose hunting, but with that said I would not go far to prevent someone from using any of the 6.5 cartridges, or .25-06. (Actually, if I knew for sure that a shooter could discipline themselves enough to hold restraint against marginal shots I think I could allow .243, even though I would be a critic the entire way.)(I mean, I know of at least 2 people that have been successful with .30-30’s, which I would speak out against as well.)
    The most important steps are to use the right ammo, know your limitations, have good shot placement, and preferably have at least 1 good follow up shot. (Shoot until the moose is down or out of sight.)No matter what you use, or how you hit it, a moose has about 30 seconds before it knows for sure that it’s dead. (I have never seen a moose drop on the first shot, the fastest that I’ve seen one go down was after I ripped the arteries off the heart and tore the diaphragm on one with my 280, and followed that up with 2 more shots near the heart, one of which was from my friend’s .30-06, and the other being my follow up that finally knocked him over. He still went 15-20 yards after my first shot.)

    Reply