Guides Hunting

Rifle Cartridge Selection for Hunting

An exploration of the most prolific centerfire rifle hunting cartridges in America and their hunting applications.

Discussions surrounding hunting cartridge selection seems to increase in frequency as hunting season approaches every year. This year those discussions I’ve been having so far have been primarily revolving around hog hunting. Most often these discussions start with a “what’s the best cartridge for” or a “which is better between” type of question. Both of which lead to some great discussions and exchanges, but I think that having a deeper understanding of what a cartridge is suitable for and why is far more beneficial. The reason is that best or better is relative to the game being hunted and the terrain where the hunting will take place as terrain tends to define the typical engagement distance. Having knowledge of the cartridges we have on hand, one can answer the question: “Is this cartridge suitable for this hunt?” Which, in my opinion, is the only question that needs answering.

I want to remind readers that I’m still relatively new to hunting and my experience is primarily with hunting deer, hogs, and other medium sized game animals in Texas. That said, I’ve spent a fairly significant amount of time reading and talking with experienced guides. So I’ll mostly be sharing second knowledge that I’ve gathered. Also remember that the first hand knowledge that I share is anecdotal at best as my experiences represent a very small sample size of knowledge.

Before getting into the cartridges, let’s talk about game animals. Game animals typically fall into one of four classes by weight and potential aggression using the CXP (Controlled eXpansion Performance) classification system which, if I am not mistaken, was trademarked by Winchester. This system is commonly used by ammo manufacturers to designate applications a manufactured cartridge is intended for.

CXPCommon DesignationDescription
1Varmint< 50 lbs
2Medium Game50 to 300 lbs
3Large Game300 to 1500 lbs
4Dangerous Game

The problem with this classification system is that it’s too coarse grained which can lead to suboptimal decisions. For example, .223 Remington was listed as the top selling cartridge in the USA by Chuck Hawks in 2015 and an updated study in 2019 indicates it’s still the top selling cartridge in the USA. I’ll get into more detail on this cartridge in a bit, but for now consider that it is a suitable round for varmint hunting or suitable for hunting CXP1 game animals. However, a .223 on tree squirrel (a CXP1 game animal) that weighs less than 10 lbs would probably leave very little harvest-able meat if it left anything at all. So yes, it’s suitable for CXP1 game animals, but not suitable for harvesting small game. As such, I like the finer grained classification approach used many other more knowledge hunters and guides which is as follows:

ClassCXPDescription & Examples
Small Game1Harvest-able animals weighing < 10 lbs.
Tree squirrels and cottontail rabbits
Varmints1Small pests (not usually harvested) weighing < 15 lbs.
Rats, sand/sage rats, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, jack rabbits and marmots
Predators1Small predators weighing up to 50 lbs.
Foxes, coyotes and bobcats
Medium Game2Non-dangerous animals weighing 50 to 300 lbs.
Deer, goats, sheep, caribou, boar and feral pigs and several species of Indian and African antelope
Large Game3Non-dangerous animals weighing 300 to 1500 lbs.
Alg, elk, muskox, moose, hartebeest, wildebeest, waterbuck, eland, nilgai, zebra, and kudu
Thin-skinned Dangerous Game3Thin-skinned predators weighing under 300 lbs.
Lesser big cats or wild Russian boar (or similar medium sized tusked hogs)
Cougar and Black Bear2Self explanatory
Large Thin-skinned Dangerous Game3Really large thin-skinned predators weighing over 300 lbs.
Grizzly, brown and polar bears, full grown big cats, and large sized tusked hogs
Thick-skinned Dangerous Game4Thick-skinned heavy game weighing over 1500 lbs.
American bison

So what about cartridges? Let’s start by considering the most prolific hunting rifle cartridges in the USA as of 2019. I’m going to take that list and group into one of three caliber types: tiny bore (under .23 caliber), small bore (.24 to .32 caliber), medium bore (.33 to .39 caliber), and big bore (over .40 caliber). I’m also going to add the .22 Long Rifle to the list as it is appropriate for this discussion.

RankCartridgeCaliber DiameterBore
1.223 Remington.224″Tiny
2.308 Winchester.308″Small
3.30-06 Springfield.308″Small
4.300 Winchester Magnum.308″Small
57mm Remington Magnum.284″Small
6.270 Winchester.277″Small
7.300 ACC Blackout (BLK).308″Small
8.243 Winchester.243″Small
96.5 Creedmoor.264″Small
10.300 Winchester Short Magnum.308″Small
11.22-250 Remington.224″Tiny
12.30-30 Winchester.308″Small
137.62x39mm Soviet.310″Small
14.45-70 Government.458″Big
157mm-08 Remington.284″Small
16.338 Lapua Magnum.338″Medium
17.25-06 Remington.257″Small
18.338 Winchester Magnum.338″Medium
18.300 Weatherby Magnum.308″Small
19.270 Winchester Short Magnum (WSM).277″Small
N/A.22 Long Rifle.223″Tiny

The interesting thing about this list is that it is overwhelmingly composed of small bore cartridges. It’s not surprising though as the small bore cartridges will work for the vast majority of game animals in North America.

The next thing to consider is that for each class of game animal (with the exception of CXP1 animals) there is a suitable minimum impact energy that is desirable in order to deliver sufficient trauma to quickly incapacitate and expire the game animal. Additionally, there is a recommended minimum sectional density (SD) specific to each bore class in order to consistently penetrate deep enough into the vital organs of the game animal. The following table breaks down those minimums by game animal class.

ClassImpact EnergySmall Bore SDMedium Bore SDLarge Bore SD
Medium Game (CXP2)800 ft-lbs.210.200.185
Large Game (CXP3)1,200 ft-lbs.270.250.220
Thin-skinned Dangerous Game (CXP3)1,200 ft-lbs.270.250.220
Cougar and Black Bear (CXP2)800 ft-lbs.250.200.185
Large Thin-skinned Dangerous Game (CXP3)2,000 ft-lbs.270.250.220
Thick-skinned Dangerous Game (CXP4)3,500 to 5,000 ft-lbs (at muzzle).300.300

There is a lot of overlap in the previous table, but there are some subtle differences that are important. For example, medium game (CXP2) and the cougar and black bear (CXP2) classes are identical with the exception of favoring small bore cartridges that use a heavier projectile (larger sectional density). Large game (CXP3) and thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) have identical minimums, the difference is that the suggestion implies using the same cartridges for dangerous game that weighs much less than non-dangerous large game.

So how does this translate into the suitable applications for the prolific hunting cartridges? Well, it really depends on the available projectiles. The following table explores what, in my opinion, are suitable hunting applications for those cartridges.

CartridgeSuitable Hunting Applications
.223 RemingtonVarmints (CPX1) with a frangible varmint projectile.
Small predators (CPX1) with expanding projectile.
.308 WinchesterVarmints (CPX1) with a frangible varmint projectile.
Small predators (CPX1) with an expanding projectile.
Medium game (CPX2) with an expanding 150gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 168gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
.30-06 SpringfieldMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 150gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 168gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
.300 Winchester MagnumMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 150gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 168gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
7mm Remington MagnumMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 139gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 154gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 154gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 150gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 154gr or heavier projectile.
.270 WinchesterMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 130gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 145gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 145gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 140gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 145gr or heavier projectile.
.300 ACC Blackout (BLK)Varmints (CPX1) with a frangible varmint projectile.
Small predators (CPX1) with an expanding projectile.
.243 WinchesterVarmints (CPX1) with a frangible varmint projectile.
Small predators (CPX1) with an expanding projectile.
Medium game (CPX2) with an expanding 87gr or heavier projectile.
6.5 CreedmoorVarmints (CPX1) with a frangible varmint projectile.
Small predators (CPX1) with an expanding projectile.
Medium game (CPX2) with an expanding 120gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 140gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 140gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 129gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 140gr or heavier projectile.
.300 Winchester Short MagnumMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 165gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 168gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
.22-250 RemingtonVarmints (CPX1) with a frangible varmint projectile.
Small predators (CPX1) with expanding projectile.
.30-30 WinchesterMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 140gr or heavier projectile.
7.62x39mm SovietVarmints (CPX1) with a frangible varmint projectile.
Small predators (CPX1) with an expanding projectile.
.45-70 GovernmentMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 325gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 325gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 325gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 325gr or heavier projectile.
7mm-08 RemingtonMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 120gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 150gr or heavier projectile.
.338 Lapua MagnumMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 270gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 270gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 270gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 270gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 270gr or heavier projectile.
Thick-skinned dangerous game (CXP4) with an expanding 270gr or heavier projectile.
.25-06 RemingtonMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 110gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 117gr or heavier projectile.
.338 Winchester MagnumMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 200gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 200gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 200gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 200gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 200gr or heavier projectile.
.300 Weatherby MagnumMedium game (CPX2) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 180gr or heavier projectile.
Thick-skinned dangerous game (CXP4) with an expanding 200gr or heavier projectile.
.270 Winchester Short Magnum (WSM)Medium game (CPX2) with an expanding 130gr or heavier projectile.
Large game (CXP3) with an expanding 145gr or heavier projectile.
Thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 145gr or heavier projectile.
Cougar and black bear (CXP2) with an expanding 140gr or heavier projectile.
Large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) with an expanding 145gr or heavier projectile.
.22 Long RifleSmall game (CXP1) with an expanding projectile.

I’m certain a few folks are going to balk at my opinions. For example, I expect folks to point out they regularly harvest medium sized game animals with cartridges like .223 Remington, .300 BLK, .22-250 Remington, and 7.62x39mm and so therefore my opinion that those cartridges are only suitable for varmints and small predators is wrong. That’s okay. I’m not saying it’s not possible to hunt medium game animals with those cartridges. I’m not even saying folks shouldn’t. I’m simply saying that in my opinion, I think those cartridges are limited to those applications based on what I’ve learned and experienced so far.

One thing I’d like to point out is that the only cartridges I found suitable for hunting thick-skinned dangerous game (CXP4) available in that list were the .338 Lapua Magnum and the .300 Weatherby Magnum. I should note that both of those cartridges don’t exceed the high end of the minimum muzzle energy for animals in that class. I suspect they would be suitable for American bison which are on the smaller side of animals in that class, but it’s just a guess as I haven’t really looked into hunting that class of animal.

Readers may have noticed that there are quite a few cartridges that cover the gamut of medium game (CXP2) to large thin-skinned dangerous game (CXP3) and might be wondering why there are so many similar cartridges and what the difference between them is. Those are good questions. With regards to similarity, I suspect a lot has to do with cartridges that folks grew up using and the familiarity has kept a healthy market demand for them. After all, the vast majority of the cartridges on the list have been around for generations. Also, while they appear similar in terms of suitable application there are some significant differences between them with the most significant being recoil and effective range. Generally speaking, magnum cartridges tend to have longer effective ranges and heavier recoil. Folks who don’t hunt in terrains where the range of a magnum cartridge is required, generally opt for softer recoiling cartridges that suit the needs of the terrains they hunt.

How is effective range defined? Effective range is the distance at which the projectile carries sufficient remaining energy for delivery upon impact with a game animal. The effective range will vary depending on the cartridge selected, the projectile the cartridge is loaded with, and the class of animal being hunted. I’ll provide a comparison table with distances for the cartridges we have discussed in this post for their CXP2 and CXP3 applications along with the lightest and heaviest projectile weight I mentioned. The ranges will be calculated using a ballistic calculator and the advertised ballistics from select Hornady factory loads.

CartridgeGrains2,000 ft-lbs Range1,200 ft-lbs Range800 ft-lbs Range
.308 Winchester150200 yards500 yards700 yards
.308 Winchester180200 yards500 yards800 yards
.30-06 Springfield150200 yards500 yards700 yards
.30-06 Springfield180300 yards600 yards800 yards
.300 Winchester Magnum150200 yards500 yards700 yards
.300 Winchester Magnum180400 yards700 yards1000 yards
7mm Remington Magnum139300 yards600 yards900 yards
7mm Remington Magnum154300 yards700 yards1000 yards
.270 Winchester130100 yards400 yards600 yards
.270 Winchester145200 yards600 yards900 yards
.243 Winchester87100 yards300 yards
6.5 Creedmoor120400 yards600 yards
6.5 Creedmoor140100 yards500 yards800 yards
.300 Winchester Short Magnum165300 yards600 yards800 yards
.300 Winchester Short Magnum180300 yards700 yards900 yards
.30-30 Winchester140100 yards300 yards
.45-70 Government325100 yards200 yards400 yards
7mm-08 Remington120200 yards400 yards
7mm-08 Remington150200 yards600 yards800 yards
.338 Lapua Magnum270800 yards1300 yards1700 yards
.25-06 Remington110100 yards400 yards700 yards
.25-06 Remington117100 yards400 yards600 yards
.338 Winchester Magnum200400 yards700 yards900 yards
.300 Weatherby Magnum180400 yards700 yards1000 yards
.300 Weatherby Magnum200500 yards900 yards1200 yards
.270 Winchester Short Magnum (WSM)130200 yards600 yards800 yards
.270 Winchester Short Magnum (WSM)145300 yards700 yards900 yards

The one other characteristic that can be considered is how much a projectile drops as a cartridge approaches its effective range. Less drop is generally more desirable especially when using traditional iron sights or scopes with simple or plain reticles. Another way to think about this, is flatter shooting cartridges (that’s cartridges with less drop) tend to have longer maximum point blank ranges (MPBR). I won’t get into the definition of MPBR here as I’ve covered this topic as it relates to zeros here and as it relates to reticles here. The gist is that a longer MPBR range allows a hunter to engage game animals at longer distances with having to apply elevation holdovers. This doesn’t necessarily make a cartridge more suitable than another, but it might make it more desirable for a particular hunting application. I’m not going to add another table for comparison, because this post is long enough and already has a bunch of tables.

So what’s the point of writing and sharing all of this information? There are a couple of reasons, but I suppose it comes back to helping folks get outside and hunt more. Hear me out. I’m a gear junkie and as such it doesn’t take much to get me looking for that next rifle, or cartridge, or scope. Even so, I prefer experiences over gear. So I hope that perhaps a reader who is wondering what the best cartridge for a particular hunting application comes across this and realizes they may already have access to one or more rifles chambered for a cartridge that is suitable for their application and opts for one or more additional hunting trips over a new rifle. I also hope that folks who are uncertain of which cartridge to use for a particular application can use the content here to make a better well informed decision or at least walk away knowing what questions to ask as they research their options.

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