Best Big-Game Rifles for North America

Front view portrait of a big brown bear in a forest

As any of you who have read my articles will already know, I am a fan of shooting from a distance.

That works really well with plains game, as you might not get within 200 yards. That isn’t the case on many elk, caribou and bear hunts.

The shots are often up close and personal, so I will be looking at both types of situations, with some suggestions.

I should also note, I am not talking about a gun for use on mid-sized game like whitetails, antelope or mule deer.

This is about what you should take for hunting caribou, moose, elk or bears.

For distance shooting (200+ yards), a longer (22 to 26-inch) barrel on a bolt-action rifle is likely the most effective choice.

Caliber will be specific to your desires and the intended game, but things like .300 Win Mag, (heavy for caliber) 7mm Mag, (heavy for caliber) .280 AI, .300 PRC and .338 Win Mag might be solid choices.

I would not want .30-06, but it is an adequate choice with heavy bullets. Yes, I know. Let the flame wars begin.

Remington 700/Clones

At this time, I cannot in good conscience suggest a factory-new Remington 700.

Perhaps when the dust settles, they will again produce consistent firearms. The last two new ones I handled shot horribly.

One could only manage 4 MOA at 100 yards and the other was worse, depending on ammo.

That being said, my middle 2000’s .270 Win is a solid 1 MOA shooter.

This means buy used, buy a Remington 700 clone or do like I did and buy a Remington 700 just for the action and upgrade all the other parts.

My upgrade (Shilen Sendero contour barrel, Magpul Hunter stock, Geissele trigger) gun shoots less than 0.5 MOA out past 300 yards.

If you go the custom or upgrade path, you can choose any caliber you want.

I would suggest something harder-hitting than .270 Win, .308 Win or even .30-06.

Those calibers should work well on the sub-500 pound herbivores, but not the bigger critters or the ones that might fight back.

Besides, do you really want to spend all that time and money and lose a moose due to a marginal caliber not getting the job done?

For work past 200 yards, I would want something with at least the hitting power of a (heavy for caliber) 7mm Mag/.300 Win Mag.  

hunter with bolt-action rifle

Savage 110 Hunter

Unlike the current issues with Remington 700’s, the new production Savages shoot well.

This is a smooth-operating bolt-action that holds three to four rounds (in our target calibers) plus one in the chamber.

The factory provides a 22 to 24-inch barrel with the below-mentioned calibers and a detachable magazine.

I find this very important, as I have had no lack of trouble with blind mags from all manufacturers.

Savage also provides a fantastic factory trigger in the Accutrigger.

In this line, they are user-adjustable, but the important thing is the clean, repeatable break.

Appropriate factory options include 7mm Mag, .280 AI, .300 Win Mag and perhaps .30-06.

Assuming good shooting, any of these big-game rifles should work well at distance.

Sako 85 Laminate Hunter

These are well-made, good shooting big-game rifles designed to take the abuse of being outdoors no matter the weather.

Depending on caliber, these bolt guns hold four to five plus one rounds in a hinged floorplate or detachable box magazine.

The barrels are also caliber dependent, running from 20 to 24 inches and are hammer forged.

The actions are very smooth and with practice, loading a new round is quick and reliable.

The triggers are smooth and crisp with a user-adjustment range from two to four pounds. If desired, a single-set trigger is available.

Personally, that would not be my choice, but I don’t have a lot of time with those, so it may be my unfamiliarity speaking.

Without an optic, most of the calibers we are discussing run just over eight pounds.

This should bring an optic-equipped rifle in at very close to nine pounds.

The appropriate calibers offered by Sako are .300 Win Mag, .338 Magnum, .375 H&H, 7mm Mag, 8×57 and 9.3×62.

big-game rifles

Sabatti Saphire

This option is much less common than the others listed above.

Some of you may not have even heard of this Italian brand, but they are an excellent maker of big-game rifles that is not nearly as good at marketing to the American audience.

Again, we are talking about a bolt gun. At longer distances, especially with heavy-hitting rounds, that is a  reliable way to go.  

The Saphire has a few things that are uncommon.  

First, they hammer-forge the barrels using MMR (Multi Radial Rifling). This is sort of similar to GLOCK’s polygonal rifling, but not quite the same.

It does provide for no sharp edges in the rifling by using two alternating radiuses.

This tends to extend barrel life, decrease fouling and provide for improved velocity.

None of these are extreme in comparison to standard methods, but extending barrel life and velocity are always appreciated, and who loves cleaning copper and carbon fouling?

The second, is that every Saphire is equipped for easy barrel/caliber changes.

This only takes a few minutes and allows the same rifle to easily perform different tasks.

The chambers are all standard length to accommodate this, so the shorter calibers have a bolt throw that is longer than normal.

But I think that is a compromise well worth the flexibility.

The Saphire platform comes in these calibers that might be appropriate for our task; 7mm Mag, .300 Win Mag, 7×64 and 8×57.

Without an optic, the rifles weigh in at between seven to eight pounds depending on barrel length and stock type.

With a mounted optic, we are well within hunting weight.

For the tighter confines of brush and deep woods hunting, a rifle that is handy and has projectiles that can plow through underbrush and dense muscle and bone are very important.

For these closer encounters (25-150 yards), a 16.5 to 20-inch barrel might be the better choice and I would also go with much larger bore/flatter nose/heavier bullet choices.

These might include .35 Whelen, .375 Ruger, .375 H&H, .450 Marlin or a stout .45-70 load. Of these, only the last two are common in lever guns.

For those who are very practiced with a quick rechamber, a bolt gun might work up close. I am not in that camp.

rifle with box magazine

Henry All-Weather Side Gate (.45-70)

This lever-action rifle comes with an 18.43-inch barrel, carries four plus one cartridges in a chrome and steel package 37.5-inches long and weighing in at 7.5 pounds without an optic.

This means you have a very quick-handling big-game rifle that isn’t very heavy, even if you choose to add an optic.

I might choose a reflex or a red-dot scope zeroed at 125 yards.

This gives me plus or minus 1.5-inches from zero to 150 yards and plenty of hitting power from a 325-grain flat-nosed bullet.

A 1×6 scope might also be a good idea. I would set it at 1.5x, as I can still run both eyes open at that zoom.

Should a further shot present itself, I would still have the option of zooming out to 4x or 6x.

Winchester 1894

Current production models are offered in .450 Marlin.

This cartridge is essentially a modern version of the .45-70 that has a rim diameter that easily fits in the 1894 action.

The round is capable of sending a 350-grain fn bullet at 2,200 fps and 3,450 ft/lbs muzzle energy.

The rifle comes with a 20-inch barrel, six plus one rounds in a 38-inch package that weighs just under seven pounds, sans optic.

The newer-production models have angled ejection, which allows for simple scope mounting.  

If I chose to run optics on my big-game rifles, I would take a similar path to that mentioned above.

What are your favorite big-game rifles? Let us know in the comments section below!

About the Author:

John Bibby

John Bibby is an American gun writer who had the misfortune of being born in the occupied territory of New Jersey. His parents moved to the much freer state of Florida when he was 3. This allowed his father start teaching him about shooting prior to age 6. By age 8, he was regularly shooting with his father and parents of his friends. At age 12, despite the strong suggestions that he shouldn’t, he shot a neighbor’s “elephant rifle."

The rifle was a .375 H&H Magnum and, as such, precautions were taken. He had to shoot from prone. The recoil-induced, grass-stained shirt was a badge of honor. Shooting has been a constant in his life, as has cooking.

He is an (early) retired Executive Chef. Food is his other great passion. Currently, he is a semi-frequent 3-Gun competitor, with a solid weak spot on shotgun stages. When his business and travel schedule allow, you will often find him, ringing steel out well past 600 yards. In order to be consistent while going long, reloading is fairly mandatory. The 3-Gun matches work his progressive presses with volume work. Precision loading for long-range shooting and whitetail hunting keeps the single-stage presses from getting dusty.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (16)

  1. I disagree about the Sako 85. I have a Kodiak in .375 H&H. It and many others r85’s have a flaw. The ejector sends cases straight up into the scope and they fall back into the action. I sent it back to Beretta and they said to use high mounts and the speed of operating the bolt. I use their highest mounts and a 1″ scope. It still jams when the empty hits the scope and the case falls back into the action. I like the rifle otherwise. Unfortunately, I am going to sell it due to this problem. It is not reliable with a scope.

  2. Randy Sevde—-I think the Weatherby Magnum variations of each caliber probably weren’t mentioned because it goes without saying,,,, universally understood. Wherever the article says 300 or 7mm Magnum, the Weatherby version is definitely included.

  3. I have shot a Browning 7mm mag for 45 years now, I am 72 years now and still shot my A-bolt
    or my BAR in 7mm mag.
    I used in overseas and around the USA. I love my Browning’s in bolt or auto

  4. I see you’re favoritism towards the Winchester and Remington. But you failed to mention the elephant in the room, Weatherby magnums. 300, 7mm- 300 and so on. My 300 Weatherby with a Shilen magnaported barrel, will also hit quarters at 300 yards. Although I do agree on size of calibers for appropriate sized game, pointing out the big dog on the porch would have been a better story.

  5. My 1993 Remington 700 BDL .270 has dropped many larger game at over 300yds with solid neck shots… I’ve never been let down. Hornady 140gr Superformance SST is a hammer… have found lead in vertebrae looking like a any core-lokt I’ve ever dug out of a whitetail! Knowing your weapon and having the confidence that comes with it means more than anything to me.

  6. My preferred choice for getting up close and personal with a large animal is my Ruger Guide Gun in 375 Ruger with 350gr Barnes tsx bullets that I hand load. The rifle is very easy to aim quickly with the factory express sights and its extremely accurate.

  7. Ok now everyone has an opinion on north american hunting calibers. I shoot everything with a 30-06 Ruger No.1. Elk,Deer, Antelope and Black Bears Have yet to draw a Moose tag here in Wyoming but don’t think I will buy a bigger rifle when I do. unless your hunting Alaska or Canada the old 06 will do for most of us my longest shot to date on a 7×7 bull elk 508 yards at the far edge of my comfort zone the bull trotted into the brush and pilled up. He didn’t ask was that just an 06 or a300 win mag. I have hunted with this set up since 2011 and have yet to eat tag soup. last fall and my Antelope at 375 my deer at 150. I love having options but don’t forget there are plenty of non magnum calibers more than up to the task short of Grizzly bears I would be comfortable putting my single shot up against any other north American game animal.

  8. While not commonly found before moving to Tennessee, I have used a Winchester 71 (made in 1953) in .348 for both Moose and Bear in Alaska. Not long range but works good out to 150 yards.

  9. Nevermind… After putting on my old man glasses, I see the pic is wide angle and those are rifle shells…

  10. Am I the only one confused by the picture of the all weather lever action? I can get over the tactical style furniture, but what good are shotgun shells to a .45-70?

  11. I enjoyed this article however I find your comments concerning the Remington 700 somewhat disheartening. My main target rifle currently is the REM 700 in 6.5 Creedmoor, 24” barrel with tactical chassis. I regularly hit sub 1 MOA on factory loads and smaller on specific reloads. By no means am I a skilled marksman but I’ve found it to be a comfortable and forgiving rifle.

  12. I forgot to mention the scope & sights on my ‘76 Remington 700 BDL. It does retain the original iron sights, & is very accurate when using those at 75 yards or less. White triangle on the rear sight-pointing at the notch. The hooded front sight is painted with red fluorescent paint, See through scope mounts with a vintage solid steel Weaver V-7 scope, 2.5–7X, 32mm. The scope & rifle were both new, available gear in 1976, and it even has the leather sling from 1976. The close up shots of bear would be easy with the iron sights, & the bolt locking down with the safety would be a feature ANYONE considering a bolt action for bear should be sure to have.

  13. My choice for bear or elk would have to be 7mm Magnum from a 1976 Remington 700 BDL Deluxe rifle. It’s just a whitetail blaster, as there’s not a grizzly or elk within 9 area codes of here…. but I definitely wouldn’t buy a specific rifle for a few hunts if I could just get the right ammunition for the 7mm Magnum. I would most likely just get the correct 7mm projectiles/load data, & handload for the occasion. AND TEST THE HANDLOADED AMMUNITION!!!!!!

  14. A 24″barreled 30-06[Win 70 Stainless Classic]with 2.5-8×36 Leupold wilk do the job.
    If I want more powe5,a 26″barreled 375H&H will do better than a 300Win Mag or 338Win Mag.Up close a Savage 99F 358Win or Remington 7600 35 Whelen ,or the Marlin 1895GS Guide Gun with Williams WGRS receiver sight[with Twilight aperture .150″ will be very fast[use a 450gr hard cast slug]

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