Caribou Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

6.5x55 SE. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

This is the eighth in my series of articles about cartridges for North American big game animals. As in the previous articles, it is necessary to preface my recommendations with some explanatory information.

First of all, how big is a caribou? Naturally, individual animals vary in weight. According to the information compiled by Edward A. Matunas, an average mature male caribou weighs about 240 pounds, while an average female weighs only about 150 pounds. A very large male might weigh 400 pounds, and a very large female about 250 pounds. In extreme cases male caribou can weigh as much as 700 pounds, but very few animals ever reach such a size. Caribou are generally large, but not huge, animals. They are neither as big nor as tough as elk.

One of the real problems with cartridge recommendations is the vitality and state of mind of the individual animal when shot. Most hunters have noticed how relatively easy it is to kill a relaxed animal, and how difficult it can be to stop an animal fleeing for its life. These are variables that are hard to account for in any list. For the record, all of the cartridge suggestions below assume a reasonably undisturbed animal, not one high on adrenaline.

Please bear in mind that in all cases and for all calibers I am assuming that the hunter uses a bullet of adequate weight, sectional density, and expansion characteristics for the cartridge recommended, and gets it into a vital spot (usually the heart/lung area) of the caribou. It doesn't have to be a perfect shot that slips between two ribs and blows up the heart, but I am assuming a good shot with an adequate bullet.

Caribou are big enough to require relatively heavy bullets with a sectional density of about .250 or higher in the smaller calibers. I would suggest 115-120 grain bullets in .25 caliber and 125-140 grains in 6.5mm.

It would be too cumbersome to list every adequate caribou cartridge. The following list is reasonably complete, but if a cartridge is not listed it does not mean it is no good. Look for a cartridge with similar ballistics. If you find one, then the cartridge in question is also probably adequate.

Remember to match the ballistics of the cartridge you choose with the locale in which you will be hunting. A lot, but certainly not all, caribou range is pretty open country. In some regions a .45-70 would be entirely adequate and in others a .257 Weatherby Magnum would be more appropriate. Here are some representative caribou cartridges:

    .25 WSSM, .25-06 Remington, .257 Weatherby Magnum, 6.5x54 M-S, 6.5x55 SE, .260 Remington, 6.5mm-284 Norma, 6.5mm Remington Magnum, .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, .270 Magnum (all), 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57 Mauser, 7x64 Brenneke, .280 Remington, 7mm Magnum (all), .30-30 Winchester, .307 Winchester, .300 Savage, .308 Marlin, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .300 Magnum (all), .303 Savage, .303 British, .32 Winchester Special, 8x57 JS, 8mm Magnum (all), .338 Federal, .338-06 A-Square, .35 Remington, .356 Winchester, .358 Winchester, .35 Whelen, .375 Winchester, .444 Marlin, .45-70 Government.

The .300 and 8mm Magnums are basically more cartridge than required for hunting caribou. I have included them on this list because they certainly have the power and trajectory to do the job, and because much of caribou range is also grizzly bear range. In an area where there is a reasonable likelihood that the great bears may be encountered, a rifle more powerful than strictly necessary for hunting caribou may be reassuring.

I have not gone so far as to include powerful medium and big bore magnums such as the .338 Winchester Magnum, .350 Remington Magnum, 9.3x74R and .450 Marlin because, although they certainly have the requisite power, they are over the top for caribou hunting. And this article is, after all, about caribou cartridges. However, on a mixed caribou and bear hunt such a rifle may be a reasonable choice.

Nor have I included the smaller combination varmint and deer cartridges, such as the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .243 WSSM, .250 Savage and .257 Roberts. There is no doubt that with excellent bullet placement they can and have done the job on caribou many times. However, the hunter planning a caribou hunt would do well to bring more rifle.

As with any kind of hunting, it is not so much what rifle cartridge you use to hunt caribou, but how well you use it. Since, under some conditions, shots may be fairly long, choose a caliber that you can shoot well. Remember that bullet placement is, by far, the most important element in killing power.

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Copyright 2006, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.