Sheep Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

.270 Win.
.270 Win. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The four species of wild sheep (Ovis) found in North America are the Dall (Ovis dalli dalli), Desert Bighorn (Ovis canadensis nelsoni, mexicana, weemsi, cremnobates), Rocky Mountain Bighorn (Ovis canadensis canadensis), and Stone's (Ovis dalli stonei). All are majestic animals that live in rough country where access is difficult.

Sheep have terrific eyesight. Approaching them is difficult, often involving long and arduous stalks. This puts a premium on accurate, flat shooting rifles.

Many experienced hunters regard wild sheep as the ultimate hunting experience. And the rare hunter who has achieved a "Grand Slam" by collecting a representative trophy of each species deserves the respect he or she receives.

The North American wild sheep are all CXP2 class game. The published research of Edward A. Matunas reveals that an average mature ram weighs about 175 pounds, and very large individuals may weigh 275 pounds. Extreme individuals may grow to 325+ pounds, but are very rare.

But this article is not about wild sheep per se, but about rifle cartridges suitable for bagging them. As with all of the articles in my series on rifle cartridges for North American big game animals, the assumption underlying the cartridge suggestions is that the hunter chooses an adequate bullet for the job and gets that bullet into the heart/lung area of the animal.

Speaking of bullets, I cannot see much point to using bullets weighing over 150 grains, even for the largest species of wild sheep. Even in the biggest recommended calibers (.30, .303, and 8mm) bullets weighing about 150 grains will shoot flatter, kick less, and kill humanely. In the smaller calibers, lighter bullets are recommended. Good choices would be the 100-105 grain bullets in .24 Magnum, 115-120 grain in .25, 120-130 grain in .26, 130 grain in .270, and 139-140 grain in .28 caliber.

Because they generally live in rough and steep terrain, the sheep hunter would do well to consider a lightweight rifle. Rifles weighing over 8 pounds can become a real burden, and 7 to 7.5 pounds is about ideal.

Because lightweight rifles often come with barrels shorter than the standard 24", these factors should be taken into consideration when choosing an appropriate cartridge. Cartridges of heavy recoil and/or severe muzzle blast should be avoided.

The type of rifle action is not really critical, but almost all experienced wild sheep hunters use single shot or bolt action rifles. These are usually the safest, most accurate and most reliable types, so in this matter I would suggest emulating the experts.

Although long shots are not usually required in mountainous terrain, sometimes they are. It seems reasonable to suggest that a cartridge for a modern centerfire rifle intended specifically for hunting mountain sheep should be capable of a maximum point blank range (+/- 3") of at least 275 yards. The recommended cartridges can all meet that standard with appropriate loads.

It is important to anchor wild sheep with the first shot. Bullet placement is critical. An animal that is able to run may fall off a cliff or down a steep slope, damaging the horns. Rifles and cartridges should be chosen with care. Following is a list of cartridges deemed acceptable for hunting wild sheep. This list is representative, not intended to be 100% inclusive, so don't fret if your favorite sheep cartridge has been omitted.

Recommended cartridges

.240 Weatherby Magnum, .257 Roberts, .25-06, .257 Weatherby Magnum, .260 Remington, 6.5x55 SE, 6.5mm Remington Magnum, 6.5x68, .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, .270 WSM, .270 Weatherby Magnum, 7x57, 7mm-08, 7x64 Brenneke, .280 Remington, 7mm Rem. SAUM, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .303 British and 8x57JS.


The powerful 7mm, .300 and .32 (8mm) Magnums have not been included because, while they offer the requisite flat trajectory, they are definitely over kill for sheep hunting. Their recoil and muzzle blast are excessive, particularly in lightweight mountain rifles.

Due to the necessity to anchor sheep with the first shot, cartridges with the killing power of the .257 Roberts or better are generally preferred. Perhaps the all-time classic sheep cartridge is the .270 Winchester. The .270 with a 130 grain bullet provides an excellent combination of flat trajectory and stopping power, combined with about the maximum amount of recoil that most shooters can endure.

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Copyright 2006, 2010 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.