Moose Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

.300 Win. Mag.
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

To start with, how big is a North American moose? One thing that seems evident is that they grow larger as one goes north. In Idaho and Montana they run much smaller than in Alaska and parts of Canada. Of course, individual animals vary in weight. According to the information compiled by Edward A. Matunas, an average mature male weighs about 600 pounds (typical for Montana moose). A very large male might weigh 1000 pounds. In extreme cases Alaskan and Northern Canadian moose can weigh over 1800 pounds. That is a great variation in weight. For the purposes of this article I am assuming an animal weighing in the vicinity of 1000 pounds.

Please bear in mind that in all cases and for all calibers I am also assuming that the hunter uses a controlled expansion bullet of adequate weight (150 grains minimum) and sectional density (minimum around .265 for small bores and .250 or better for medium and big bores). Moose are CXP3 category game. Examples of adequate bullets would be a 154 grain bullet (SD .273) in 7mm, 180 grain bullet (SD .271) in .30 caliber, 180 grain bullet (SD .265) in .303 caliber, 200 grain bullet (SD .274) in 8mm, 210 grain bullet (SD .263) in .338 caliber, 225 grain bullet (SD .251) in .35 caliber, 250 grain bullet in 9.3mm (SD .267) and 270 grain bullet (SD .274) in .375 caliber. Remaining bullet energy at impact should be at least 1500 ft. lbs.

Examples of recommended bullets include the various Barnes X-Bullets; Federal Fusion; Speer Grand Slam and Trophy Bonded Bear Claw; Swift A-Frame; Nosler Partition and AccuBond; Remington Core-Lokt and Core-Lokt Ultra; Winchester Silvertip, AccuBond CT, E-Tip and XP3; Hornady Interlock, FTX and InterBond. Of course, the hunter must get that bullet into a vital spot (usually the heart/lung area) of the moose. I am assuming a good shot with an adequate bullet.

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.

The cartridges mentioned below are examples of satisfactory moose cartridges. 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.

I think it might be wise to divide moose cartridges into three categories as follows:

1. All-around cartridges that, although more powerful than strictly necessary for medium size game like deer, are often used on them as well as for larger game like elk and moose. These are powerful general purpose cartridges and they have proven adequate for shooting moose at reasonable distances. While they are not necessarily perfect, they are the minimum recommended moose cartridges. This category includes such cartridges as the .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, the .270 Magnums, .280 Remington, the 7mm Magnums, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .303 British and 8x57JS.

2. Short to medium range (100-200 yard) moose cartridges. These medium and big bore cartridges strike a solid blow as long as the range is not excessive. Examples are the .338 Marlin Express, .338 Federal, .338-06, .348 Winchester, .358 Winchester, .35 Whelen, .350 Rem. Magnum, 9.3x62mm, 9.3x74R, .405 Winchester, .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin and .45-70 Government.

3. Long range moose cartridges. These cartridges offer the power and trajectory for 200+ yard shots. These are good cartridges to consider if you are buying a rifle specifically for moose hunting and don't mind substantial recoil and muzzle blast. Their principle drawback is that most shooters do mind the recoil and muzzle blast and simply cannot do their best shooting with these cartridges. For relatively long range moose shooting, the list includes the various .300 Magnums, 8x68S, 8mm Rem. Magnum, the .338 Magnums, .358 Norma Magnum and 9.3x64. Most of the .375 Magnums could also be included in this category, but such powerful cartridges are simply not necessary.

Bullet placement is the most important factor in killing power. I suspect that is why we hear such divergent views about many of the cartridges commonly used for moose hunting, particularly the all-around cartridges in the first category. Based on a fair amount of research, I regard these as adequate moose cartridges if a hunter puts a decent bullet into a vital spot. They are unlikely to produce an instant kill, as moose are very large creatures with big lungs that take time to fill with blood, but they will get it done if the hunter does his or her job.

A lot of hunters are not particularly good shots, and a great many shooters flinch regularly with powerful all-around calibers like the .30-06, 7mm Magnum and .300 Magnum. They think they placed the shot well when actually they did not. A 7mm or .30 caliber bullet is unlikely to bag a moose if it does not hit in an immediately vital spot. The animal may die later, but by that time it will probably be far away and most hunters could not track a moose through the muskeg if their lives depended on it. These hunters are very apt to blame the rifle for their bad shooting.

All of this makes it difficult and even risky to suggest calibers for specific purposes. I have tried to be conservative, but not excessively so, in my recommendations. Perhaps the .338 Magnums are the perfect moose cartridges--if the hunter can shoot them well.

On the other hand, I realize that cartridges like the .30-30, .32 Win. Special and .35 Remington have killed a lot of moose in the hands of good hunters (particularly subsistence hunters) who wait for the right angle at short range (within 100 yards). Used thusly, they can be deadly. However, few experts would recommend them as moose cartridges for the average sport hunter.

I would rather see a moose hunter carrying a .30-06 that he can shoot well instead of a .338 Magnum that causes him to flinch. Moose are very big animals, but they are not immortal. Use an adequate caliber within its energy and trajectory limits, an appropriate bullet, but most of all get that bullet into a vital spot!

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Copyright 2006, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.