Cougar Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

.280 Rem.
.280 Rem. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The cougar, also called the mountain lion, puma, and panther, is the only big cat to inhabit large parts of North America. Like other cats they are very intelligent and curious, perhaps the most intelligent big game animal in North America. Once regarded as an unwanted predator and hunted indiscriminately, the great value of the cougar to both the natural order and sport hunters has belatedly been realized.

In some states, cougars have been fully protected from hunting, a policy that is never wise when applied to large predators as they then lose their fear of man. Which is exactly what is happening in those places. Protected cougars are now beginning to venture into the outskirts of towns and cities, preying on domestic cats, dogs, and occasionally human beings. This is not good for the humans, or in the long run for the cougars.

On the other hand, some states still allow cougars to be treed with packs of dogs and shot while essentially helpless. This may be risky for the dogs, and exciting while the chase lasts, but it certainly is not fair chase hunting. And a cornered animal executed at short range puts little demand on the rifle cartridge or the shooter.

The cartridges that this article deals with are those adequate for fair chase hunting. Then woodcraft, cartridge performance, and marksmanship are crucially important, just as they are when hunting bighorn sheep, elk, or grizzly bear.

The North American cougar is about the size of, but as a rule far less ferocious than, the African leopard. In his study on live game weight published in the Lyman 47th Reloading Handbook, Edward A. Matunas found that the average mature male cougar weighs about 150 pounds, while the average female weighs about 90 pounds. Very large male cats may weigh 225 pounds, and females up to 140 pounds.

Shy and retiring by nature (at least in areas where they are hunted), cougars are probably the most difficult animal in North America to bag using fair chase methods. The hunter who does so has collected a magnificent trophy.

As with any large predator, there is always the chance of trouble should things go wrong. And with an animal as fast and agile as a cougar, if things do go wrong, they can go wrong in a hurry. So it makes sense to use a rifle and cartridge that are a little more powerful than normally required for non-dangerous game of similar size.

I would avoid, for example, all rifles chambered for pistol cartridges and marginal old timers like the .38-40, .44-40 and .25-35, even though such calibers are adequate short range deer cartridges. Ditto the smaller combination varmint and CXP2 class game cartridges such as the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .243 WSSM, .250 Savage, and .257 Roberts, although under favorable circumstances they will kill a cougar as dead as last week.

Recommended calibers

Within their range limitations, most of the common deer and black bear cartridges are adequate cougar cartridges. These include the .25-06, .257 Weatherby Magnum, 6.5x55 SE, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Rem. Magnum, 6.5x68, .264 Win. Magnum, .270 Winchester, .270 Weatherby Magnum, 7x57, 7mm-08, 7x64 Brenneke, .280 Remington, 7mm Magnum (all), .30-30, .30-40, .300 Savage, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .300 Magnum (all), .303 British, .32 Win. Special, 8x57JS, .338x57 O'Connor, .338-06, .35 Remington, .356 Winchester, .358 Winchester, .35 Whelen, .350 Rem. Magnum, .375 Winchester, .405 Winchester, .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin, and .45-70.


If your favorite cougar cartridge is not included in the list above, do not despair. The list includes many popular and satisfactory cougar cartridges, but it is not intended to be all-inclusive.

For hunting cougar it is wise to select bullets with a sectional density above .236 for the small bore calibers, .223 for the medium bores, and .204 for the big bores. A muzzle energy of around 2700 ft. lbs. is probably close to ideal. The .308 Winchester with a 165-180 grain bullet would be an example of an excellent cougar cartridge.

Like all of the cartridge recommendations in my series on North American big game animals, the cartridge recommendations above assume a relatively undisturbed animal, not one high on adrenaline. They also assume that the hunter selects an adequate bullet and gets it into a vital spot. As in all hunting, but particularly when hunting a potentially dangerous animal, correct bullet placement is of paramount importance.

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