Hunting Bullet Guide
Part One: Caliber and Weight

By Chuck Hawks


I have decided to approach the question of hunting bullet selection by dividing it into two general topics. This article is Part One of the "Hunting Bullet Guide" and addresses big game hunting bullets by caliber, weight, and application. Part Two addresses the bullet designs of the various major manufacturers.

The purpose of these articles is to assist the reader in choosing an appropriate jacketed, expanding bullet for hunting medium and large game animals. For our purposes, "big game" starts at animals weighing perhaps 80 pounds and goes up from there to animals as large as pachyderms.

Varmint bullets are frangible and should not be used for hunting big game animals; they are not included in the Hunting Bullet Guide articles. Neither are non-expanding practice, match and military (FMJ) bullets. These are usually illegal for hunting big game, at least in North America and should not be used. They are not designed for proper expansion and cannot be modified to expand reliably. For hunting big game animals, buy bullets specifically intended for the purpose.

A special class of hunting bullets is the "solids." These are typically round-nose or flat tip non-expanding bullets specifically designed to provide maximum penetration on the largest (CXP4 class) dangerous game animals, principally African rhinos and elephants. These special purpose bullets are also largely beyond the scope of the Hunting Bullet Guide.

I use Winchester's "CXP" (Controlled eXPansion) 1-4 scale to describe the various classes of game animals (1=varmints, 2=medium game, 3=large game, 4=thick-skinned dangerous game), so if you are not familiar with it, please read the article "The CXP Rating System for Hunting Cartridges." I have previously written fairly extensively about the subject of hunting bullets and most of those articles can be found in the same place, under the "Bullets" heading on the Rifle Information Page here on Guns and Shooting Online. Links to all of the bullet makers mentioned in this series are provided on the Guns and Shooting Online Links Page.

Fortunately, the big name ammo manufacturers (Winchester, Remington, Federal, Hornady) basically know what they are doing and provide bullets adequate for the caliber and purpose in their factory loaded ammunition. Some of the specialty ammo companies are also competent, able to provide information and advice and are willing to create custom loads for specific purposes. Some are not, though, and seem more interested in selling some proprietary bullet or theory of killing power than addressing the customer's actual needs, so buyer beware. Usually, if you pick a suitable caliber and bullet weight in a factory load for the game you intend to hunt and put that bullet into the heart/lung area of the animal, the bullet will do its job satisfactorily.

A good rule of thumb for selecting an appropriate weight bullet within any given caliber is that lighter bullets are usually intended for the smaller species of game appropriate for that caliber and the heavier bullets are intended for the larger appropriate species. The lightest bullets in calibers below 8mm are generally intended for varmint shooting, not big game hunting. Here are some general guidelines concerning suitable bullet weights for the popular hunting rifle calibers.

6mm caliber (.243" diameter) bullets weighing less than about 85 grains are almost always varmint bullets, not intended for big game hunting. 85-87 grain bullets may be either varmint or big game bullets. Bullets of 90-99 grains are usually intended for small to medium size CXP2 game, such as pronghorn antelope, Colombian blacktail deer and whitetail deer. Bullets in the 100-110 grain range are normally intended for the larger species of CXP2 game, such as wild sheep, mountain goats and mule deer.

.25 caliber (.257" diameter) varmint bullets usually weigh 87 grains or less. The 100 grain bullets are usually for small to medium size CXP2 game. 115 to 120 grain bullets are usually the best choice for all-around use on CXP2 game, with the long 120 grain bullets generally preferred for the largest species, such as caribou and black bear.

6.5mm caliber (.264" diameter) bullets of less than 100 grains are usually varmint bullets. 100 grain bullets are often designed for the smallest species of "big game," such as European chamois and the smallest African antelope. The 120-130 grain bullets are usually a good choice for medium size CXP2 game, such as pronghorn antelope, most deer species, wild sheep and goats. The 140 grain bullets are the all-around bullets, suitable for all CXP2 and the smaller species of CXP3 game, while the heavy 156-160 grain bullets are usually intended for CXP3 game on the order of elk and Scandinavian moose.

.270 caliber bullets (.277" diameter) bullets weighing 110 grains and less are usually varmint bullets. The new 115 grain Core-Lokt Ultra bullet designed by Remington for the 6.8mm SPC cartridge is a CXP2 game hunting bullet.

The popular 130-150 grain slugs are useful for a wide variety of CXP2 and CXP3 game, depending on the individual bullet's design, in the standard .270 Winchester cartridge and the .270 Magnums. I generally recommend 130 grain bullets for all CXP2 game, the 140 grain bullets for mixed bag CXP2 and CXP3 hunts and the 150 grain or heavier bullets primarily for CXP3 game.

I also tend to prefer 130-140 grain bullets in the standard .270 Winchester and 140-150 grain bullets in the .270 Magnum calibers. However, I would be the first to admit that controlled expansion 130 grain .270 bullets have been used successfully on the largest antlered game all over the world for decades, in both standard and magnum caliber rifles.

7mm caliber (.284" diameter) bullets weighing less than 120 grains are usually varmint bullets, while 130-140 grain bullets are normally for CXP2 game. 139-140 grain bullets are a good all-around (CXP2/CXP3 game) choice in the standard 7mm calibers, as are 150-154 grain bullets in the 7mm Magnum calibers. The 160-175 grain bullets are usually reserved for use on the largest game (elk and moose, for example).

.30-.303 caliber (.308"-.312" diameter) bullets weighing less than 125 grains are usually varmint bullets. The following remarks apply to cartridges on the order of the .30-30, .308 Win., .303 British, .30-06 and .300 Magnum, but not to small cartridges, such as the .30 Carbine and 7.62x39mm, that were never intended for big game hunting.

Bullets in the 125-130 grain range are normally intended for use on light CXP2 game or for reduced recoil loads. Bullets in the 150-155 grain range are intended for a broad spectrum of CXP2 game, such as deer, antelope, goats and sheep. The heavier 160-180 grain bullets are typically the all-around bullets for mixed bag CXP2 and CXP3 game hunts and are the heaviest bullets suitable for short action cartridges. These are the bullets most commonly chosen for elk hunting, for example. The long 200-220 grain bullets are generally reserved for use on very large and/or dangerous game, such as Alaskan moose and brown bear in the largest cartridges, starting with the .30-06 and standard length .300 Magnums.

.32/8mm caliber (.321-.323" diameter) bullets are generally intended for hunting medium and large game. As with the .30-.303 calibers, to which the .32's are quite similar in bullet weight and application, bullets weighing less than 125 grains are often varmint bullets or intended for the smallest species of CXP2 game. Hunting bullets in the 150 grain range are usually good CXP2 game bullets, while the 170-180 grain numbers are the all-around bullets most suitable for mixed bag hunts. The comparatively heavy 195-220 grain bullets are generally reserved for CXP3 game, with the 220 grain bullets favored for use on the large predators (brown bear and the big cats).

.33 caliber (.338" diameter) marks the beginning of the medium bore calibers. In general, most .338 cartridges are primarily intended for use on CXP3 hoofed game and large predators, such as the big cats and bears.

180 grain bullets are usually recommended only for CXP2 class game, such as deer, caribou and black bear. The 200 grain bullets are generally the combination CXP2/CXP3 game bullets. The 225-250 grain bullets are recommended for large CXP3 game and big predators. Deep penetrating 250 grain bullets are the ticket for use on CXP4 game (where legal).

.35 caliber (.358" diameter) bullets weighing 150-160 grains are best reserved for practice or small to medium size CXP2 game. Their poor sectional density (SD) severely limits penetration. From 180 grains on up, the bullet weight recommendations for the high intensity and magnum .35 calibers are basically the same as those for the .338 calibers (see above). The .35's offer greater bullet diameter and the .338's offer better SD. In terms of killing power, it seems to pretty much balance out.

The smallest .35 caliber rifle cartridges, such as the .35 Remington, do quite will with 180 grain bullets for all CXP2 game and 200 grain bullets for short range use on CXP2 and CXP3 game. The larger and more poweful .358 Winchester is probably at its best with 200-220 grain bullets, good combination CXP2-CXP3 bullet weights. The larger cartridges, such as the .35 Whelen and .350 Rem. Mag., seem to be most effective with 225-250 grain bullets, which are excellent for all CXP3 game and also large predators. The biggest cartridges, such as the .358 Norma Magnum, are tremendously potent with 250 grain and heavier bullets and are suitable for use on CXP4 game, where legal.

9.3mm caliber (.366" diameter) rifles are seldom seen in Australia and most of the New World, although the popularity of the 9.3x62mm and 9.3x74R are on the rise in the U.S. The 9.3mm cartridges are popular in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa as the metric alternative to .375 caliber rifles. Bullet weights typically run in the 250-300 grain range. The lighter weight bullets are for CXP3 game and the 270 grain and heavier bullets are usually for large, dangerous predators and heavy hoofed game. Controlled expansion 285-286 grain (and heavier) bullets designed for deep penetration are suitable for CXP4 game. The SD of the popular 286 grain 9.3mm bullet (.305) is identical to the 300 grain .375 bullet and can be used for the same purposes.

.375 caliber (.375" diameter) marks the upper limit of what are normally described as medium bore rifle cartridges. The .38-55 and .375 Winchester are chambered in the lever action Winchester Model 94 and similar rifles. They are normally used for woods hunting of CXP2 and CXP3 game and normally loaded with 200-225 grain bullets for the purpose.

Starting in power with cartridges on the order of the .376 Steyer and going all the way up to the most powerful of the .375 Magnums, 235 grain bullets are generally intended for combination CXP2 and CXP3 game hunts. The serious CXP3 and dangerous predator bullets usually weigh 270-300 grains. Tough or solid 300 grain bullets are the recommended choice for CXP4 game.

.416 caliber (.416" diameter) gets us into the area of big bore cartridges intended for CXP4 game, principally buffalo, rhino and elephant. For such massive creatures, bullets must have exceptional SD (typically over .300) for deep penetration. The choice of bullets in .416 caliber centers around 400 grains, controlled expansion bullets for lung shots on CXP4 game and to break down the largest and most dangerous predators, and solids for double shoulder or brain shots on massive, thick-skinned animals.

.44 caliber (.429" diameter) rifle bullets are used primarily in the .444 Marlin rifle cartridge and the .44 Magnum revolver cartridge adapted to lever action carbines. The .44 Magnum carbines typically shoot handgun ammunition. 240 grain JHP or JSP bullets at around 1760 fps MV are commonly and successfully used for hunting CXP2 game at short range.

The original .444 Marlin factory load used (and still uses) a 240 grain soft point pistol bullet at 2350-2400 fps MV. This is fine for deer and most other CXP2 game, but due to the much higher velocity of the .444, for larger animals a heavier and tougher bullet is needed. Hornady was the first to offer a bullet designed specifically for the .444 cartridge, a 265 grain FP InterLock factory loaded at 2400 fps MV. More recently, Hornady has also offered an excellent 265 grain FTX bullet for the .444 in their LeverEvolution ammo line (MV 2325 fps). These Hornady bullets are designed for use on CXP2 and CXP3 game. Subsequently, other companies have offered controlled expansion bullets weighing 270-300 grains that are also recommended for CXP3 game in the .444 Marlin. With such bullets in full power loads, the .444 Marlin equals the power of the famous .405 Winchester.

.45 caliber (.458" diameter) rifle cartridges generally fall into two classes, traditional North American big game cartridges and Express or Magnum "elephant rifle" cartridges. The .45-70 Government and .450 Marlin are the best known of the former and the .450 Nitro Express, .458 Winchester Magnum and .458 Lott are probably the best known of the latter, although there are others. We will address the .45-70, .450 Marlin and similar cartridges first.

Most reloading manuals have three .45-70 loading sections: one for modern single shot rifles (Ruger No.1, Browning/Winchester High Wall, etc. at up to 50,000 cup MAP), another for strong lever action rifles (Marlin 1895 at up to 40,000 cup MAP) and the third for Trapdoor Springfield, Rolling Block and other weak actions (under 28,000 cup MAP). .450 Marlin factory loads are loaded to 43,500 cup MAP and are generally equivalent to the middle (strong lever action) group of .45-70 loads. Bullet selection for modern .45-70 and .450 lever action rifles is constrained by the relatively short length of the Marlin 1895 and similar actions. Bullets longer than 400-405 grain flat points generally won't feed through the magazine or cycle through the action.

For shooting North American bison with strong .45-70 single shot rifles that can handle long bullets and 50,000 cup loads, deep penetrating bullets weighing 350-500 grains are the best choice. The 350 grain Barnes TSX, 400 grain Swift A-Frame and 500 grain Hornady DGX are notable examples.

Single shot rifles and strong lever action rifles that can handle 40,000 cup loads are excellent for all species of CXP3 game within the MPBR of the .45-70 and .450 Marlin cartridges. Controlled expansion bullets weighing 325-350 grains are the usual choice in both factory loads and reloads. These are also the loads normally used in "Guide Gun" type carbines for protection from large predators in the field. For all CXP2 game and larger game at short range the standard pressure .45-70 loads using 300-405 grain JHP and soft point bullets work well in any .45-70 rifle. Similar reloads are also appropriate for reduced power/recoil loads in .450 Marlin rifles.

Turning our attention to the .458 Magnums, full power loads using 450-500 grain controlled expansion and solid bullets are the usual choice for hunting CXP4 game. Reloaders wanting to use their .458 Win. Magnum big bore rifles for hunting elk, moose and other CXP3 game can load 350 grain bullets at 2100 fps to duplicate the power and performance of the .450 Marlin. The .458 Win. Mag., being a standard length cartridge, can use mild reloads that essentially duplicate the power of standard pressure .45-70 loads for hunting CXP2 game. Such loads are fun to shoot in .458 Magnum rifles.


All of the recommendations given above are generalizations, not hard and fast rules. However, they are useful generalizations, particularly considering the paucity of information provided by most of the bullet and ammunition manufacturers, who seem to assume that everyone already knows these things.

Click to go to the Hunting Bullet Guide, Part Two: By Manufacturer

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Copyright 2005, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.