I suspect that the argument of what rifle cartridge is the best "all-around" caliber for Alaska big game hunting has burned as many calories in heated debate as what truck is better, Ford or Chevy. Forests have been decimated to publish various opinions.
When we moved to Alaska in 1971, I went back through old magazines my dad had and read everything I could find on the subject. I never experienced Nirvana, nothing seemed conclusive.
But it was entertaining. I spent my first Alaska summer cutting and installing spruce logs for septic tanks (yes, we did that) and was rewarded with a Winchester M70 in .300 Winchester Magnum for my efforts. That rifle instantly became my "all-around" rifle, largely because it was the only one I had.
Holy grail of hunting cartridges
After all this time, it seems that no malignancies have put the argument to death. New calibers appear routinely, providing the opportunity to revisit the argument and find the holy grail of Alaska hunting cartridges.
First, though, we have to acknowledge that a large share of hunters hunt for meat with rifles chambered for calibers that never make the list. There is ample evidence that more big game has been taken by those using the .30-30 Winchester or 30-06 Springfield than just about all others combined.
The requirements for a successful big game cartridge are not steeped in rocket science, as some of us gun folks would suggest. The caliber must be able to drive a projectile into the vitals of the animal and create enough damage to cause, if not instantaneous death, at least a fairly rapid demise. With the exception of some of the smaller .22 caliber center-fires, virtually all of them will accomplish the task. AR-15s and Mini-14s in .223 have become quite popular with western Alaska subsistence caribou hunters, although I have no idea how effective they find them to be.
Regardless of cartridge selection, the real issue rests on the shoulders of the hunter. Do they understand the capabilities of the cartridge and are they willing to accept the limitations? It really comes down to the effective range of the chosen round and the hunter's ability to shoot accurately regardless of the gun used. The hunter who is patient, who is willing to take the time to stalk the animal to get in range and to pass up shots that the cartridge cannot be expected to perform well on will do just fine with whatever caliber they choose to use.
A fair number of hunters don't have much interest in guns and shooting beyond bringing home winter meat. They will find all of this of little interest. They hunt with what they have and don't consider the details of it all.
Those of us who love it all — the hunting, the guns, and the shooting — find it a fascinating subject. We can and do blabber on for hours about velocity and energy, in-flight ballistics, terminal bullet performance, stopping power, and on and on. The first time Christine asked me a question about calibers, her eyes rolled back in her head a few minutes into my response. Small doses, she suggested.
A few suggestions
But here is the rub: Those of us who love to talk about it want nothing to do with an all-around rifle/cartridge. That means we only have one rifle — for us, a ridiculous concept. It is so much more interesting and fun to discuss a multitude of rifle/cartridge combinations tailored specifically for certain tasks and then, of course, get them. Most of us reload, which opens an entire world of custom loads with premium bullets at a fraction of the cost of shelf ammunition for our beloved rifles. Thus, some thoughts that are neither right or wrong, they're just mine.
*For Alaska's open-country game — Dall sheep, barren-ground caribou, and mountain goat — a flat shooting cartridge is desirable. While, in truth, most of the time these are taken within 200 yards, like most everything else in Alaska, there are times, like the last day of a 10-day hunt, when the only opportunity for a shot might be 400 yards. A plethora of cartridges, such as the .25-06, .270 Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum, to name a few, fill the bill. My personal choice would be the 6.5-.300 Weatherby.
*Larger herbivores, moose and bison, seem to demand yet another rifle and for more than just the joy of having one. The bison is the only Alaska big-game animal that has a specific requirement as to the bullet weight and downrange energy of the cartridge used to hunt them. The bullet must weigh at least 200 grains and the retained energy of the bullet at 100 yards must be at least 2,000 foot-pounds. The 30-06 is the practical minimum for the task. Moose aren't particularly hard to kill. Having shot them with the 6mm/.284, .264 Winchester, .270 Winchester, .300 Winchester, .375 H&H and the .458 Winchester, none ever moved out of their tracks. The closest was 20 feet with a .458, the furthest, a bit over 400 yards with a .300 Winchester. They are, however, large animals and a heavier bullet for shots that might require deep penetration from a variety of angles is advantageous. Hoping to someday draw a bison permit, my choice for the "medium" rifle is the .300 Winchester. It makes a nice deer rifle in areas inhabited by brown bears as well.
*Then there is the big bear rifle. Brown bears can and have been taken with everything from the .223 Remington to the .460 Weatherby. They aren't bulletproof but do show more tenacity when wounded than other Alaska big game. Except those taken in "predator control" measures and the relatively rare case of being taken as food, brown bears are a trophy animal. The real allure is that they are considered dangerous. In order to be really dangerous they should be hunted up close and personal, halitosis distance if you will. That plays right into the justification to have a "heavy" rifle like a .375 H&H, .416 Rigby, .45/70, .450 Alaskan, or a .458 Winchester. My desire to hunt for trophies faded years ago, but you never know when an opportunity to help find a wounded bear might arise, and for such work I've always wanted a .470 Nitro Express in a double rifle of the British persuasion that has served on the Dark Continent. It's a piece of art and history that might never again see employment but what a terrific conversation piece around the campfire or fireplace.
The conversation is sort of like picking the best gun dog or the best partner. No matter your choice, the one you bring better be the right one. I suppose if the awful circumstance of only being allowed to have one rifle for Alaska big game hunting arose, mine would be a .300 Weatherby Magnum. I would build it on a single shot action with a 26-inch barrel making it as short as most bolt guns with a 22-inch barrel and with no sacrifice of velocity.
What say you? Leave comments below and we'll compile the results.
Steve Meyer of Soldotna is lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org