Discussing the best bear cartridges is probably the most contentious debate on firepower in the outdoor space. Compared to other common cartridge topics such as elk hunting, bears bring an additional element of danger to the table. Bears can indeed be dangerous game to pursue, and countless threads have been woven deep in the bowels of the internet debating over which cartridges are best. Most of these arguments are terribly over-thought; great bear cartridges are simple and plentiful.
Picking a list of the best bear cartridges is something that most seasoned bear hunters roll their eyes at because they know the truth: there are copious amounts of perfectly suitable and effective bear cartridges available, and your average deer rifle is perfectly capable of killing any bear on this continent. Still, it’s a question I get asked frequently, and an answer of “pick whatever you want” isn’t especially helpful to anyone who genuinely wants to know what they need.
The author with an aggressive black bear he shot at 12 feet with a .375 Ruger. Tom Clum
The Cartridge Gets All the Credit; or All the Blame
When we have a very positive experience with a cartridge, it tends to be cemented into our memory and future opinions on how well that cartridge works for a given animal or situation. The same is true when we have a bad experience. The truth is that our success or failure when hunting bears depends a lot more on the situation, our decision making, and how well we execute than on the cartridge. Just as we are quick to credit our big magnums as universal bear stompers after a short recovery, we’ll throw a cartridge under the bus rather than acknowledge our poor decisions or shooting to save a little face. Jack O’Connor said it well when talking about the .270 Winchester:
“Like most hunters, I’ve done some bum shooting with the .270, and some good. I have yet to find a cartridge that would make up for my bum shooting, be it .270, .30/06, or .375 Magnum.”
Some of the best bear hunting cartridges are better suited for certain subspecies and situations than others, but the keys to success are:
Using a good bullet that will penetrate adequately and expand at the velocities you’re shooting
Considering the terrain, vegetation, distance, and how easy the bear will be to recover before you shoot
Shooting the bear through both lungs with the first shot
Keep shooting if you can
When you shoot a bear through both lungs with a half-decent bullet, they die quickly. Always. They likely won’t be anchored right where they stand, but they won’t make it far. The old-timey myth about shooting a bear in the front shoulders to “break him down” is bullshit. Sure if you happen to break both front leg bones clean-thru, he’ll likely ball up and not run off. But there’s nothing of value between those shoulders—the lion’s share of the vitals sits lower and further back. A bear’s scapulas are pretty high. Miss one of the lungs and break a shoulder, that bear will still run off—and he’ll be pissed when, or if, you find him.
Shot placement is always key. This enormous Kodiak brown bear was taken cleanly with a .308 Win. Nikkia Atkins
If you break a shoulder incidentally, all the better, but your goal should be a clean pass through both lungs first. Yes, the bear will likely run a bit. He’ll be dead when you find him though. If you’re not up to exercising a little woodsmanship and tracking, or following them into the thick stuff, don’t shoot one.
Picking the Best Bear Cartridges
Lining someone out with suggestions for the best bear cartridges isn’t easy, because there are so many good options. Tasked with picking what I think are some of the best bear cartridges going, I base my picks on a few factors. Having killed enough bears to fill a dump truck myself, and being there to watch just as many more, I’ve got a pretty good idea on what it takes to kill bears quickly and cleanly. My picks represent generally good bear cartridges that I’d recommend to anyone, but if your favorite isn’t on the list, don’t fret. It’s probably a great choice too. One could make an excellent list of all classic cartridges or all contemporary MCD cartridges, and neither would be wrong. Many hunters tend to err on the side of “bigger is always better” for bears, but I don’t really buy into it. It’s not that simple. My selections are a mix based on what I would suggest to a hunter wanting to be steered in the right direction for bears.
The Best Bear Hunting Cartridges: Black Bears
Most bear hunters target black bears—an increasingly abundant animal that’s fun to hunt and generally great to eat. Black bears are typically pretty easy to kill. Even big black bears aren’t built much tougher than a deer—and their hides and bones are not nearly as big or tough as an elk. Here are some of my top picks for hunting black bears:
I’d normally bypass this mild deer cartridge for more potent options, but it’s a long-time staple here in Alaska—and even an excellent moose cartridge when used within proper parameters. The .243 has long been a favorite black bear gun of my uncle and especially at short distances, a 100-grain Nosler Partition or 90-grain Accubond is absolutely devastating on black bears. We’ve killed piles of them with this classic cartridge that edged out the .244 Remington because of its ability to handle heavier bullets. Under 200 yards, a bear won’t be able to tell the difference between this and newer cartridges like the 6mm Creedmoor, and the .243 is what I’d pick.
The 6.5mm class of cartridges have long been a good choice for black bears, and you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think that the 6.5 Creedmoor applies. Like the .243, I’d recommend keeping shots under 300 yards or so, but you’ll have a hard time finding a more accurate factory cartridge. Shoot a bear through both lungs with a 143-grain ELDX, and he won’t go far. If you don’t like the Creed, shoot a 6.5 Swede or .260 Remington—I don’t care. They’re all good. If you feel like you want more juice, maybe a 6.5 PRC or 6.5 WBY RPM are right for you. With the right bullets, both hang on to more energy than the average .300 Win. Mag. load beyond 500 yards. If you’re hunting more open country, the 6.5 PRC is definitely the more forgiving option, but I’d still recommend the 6.5 Creedmoor for the average black bear hunter who uses factory ammo and doesn’t shoot beyond 300 yards.
For black bears, it’s hard to beat the old .270 Winchester. There are some metrics by which the old workhorse has been surpassed, but it’s still perfectly relevant. In one of many articles discussing the .270, The Controversial .270, Jack O’Connor mentioned it as a sort of magnum on its own, with about as much powder as can be efficiently burned behind a .277-inch bullet in a long-action cartridge. With comparable bullets, the .270 doesn’t lag far behind the .30/06 or 7mm Rem. Mag, and it’s excellent black bear medicine. Cartridges like the 6.8 Western are great too—and more efficient—but the .270 holds its own. Browning is even barreling some X-Bolt models with 7.5-inch-twist barrels to handle heavy-for-caliber bullets like the 155-grain Barnes LRX and the 175-grain Sierra Tipped Game King. For normal hunting distances, you don’t need anything bigger than a .270 Win for black bears.
Another reliable choice, the .308 Winchester is common, accurate, has a wide selection of ammunition, and is very effective on black bears at reasonable distances. Although it’s overshadowed by the 6.5mm and 6mm bullets for long-range target shooting, the .308 with a good 150-, 168-, or 175-grain bullet is excellent for black bears, and it’s one of the best bear cartridges overall. It wouldn’t be my first choice for brown bears, but I know of more than a few hunters who cleanly kill giant coastal brownies with the .308. One friend killed a legitimate 11-foot-squared Kodiak brown bear with his .308 shooting Barnes TSX loads. Interior grizzlies? No sweat. I’ve done a lot of accuracy testing with .308 ammo in the past year, and a couple standouts are Remington’s 150-grain Core Lokt Tipped, and Federal Premium 175-grain Terminal Ascent—both of them would be great choices for black bears.
This quintessential whitetail cartridge also happens to be a hell of a good deepwoods black bear round. All the focus on western hunting at longer distances might seem to leave the .30/30 in obscurity, but there are scores of black bear hunters who still rely on it. The .30/30 is mild-recoiling and most rifles are quick-to-point. There are lots of bullets available these days, but even a standard lead-core bullet like Federal’s 170-grain Power Shok is great bear medicine. It’s a perfect cartridge for hunting bait, over hounds, or just watching a trail in the thick timber. What it lacks in power, the .30/30 makes up for with handiness.
The .35 Remington is one of the classics, and another thick country thumper. In a Marlin 336—hopefully something that will come back—the .35 Remington is a short-range cartridge that’s tough to beat. It doesn’t have the power of the larger .35 Whelen, but does deliver a good balance of performance, shootability, and nostalgia. The .35 Remington will likely never return to its full glory and, because of straight-wall cartridge laws for deer, cartridges like the .360 Buckhammer and .350 Legend pull a lot of wind out of its sails. For hunters who are limited to straight-wall cartridges for deer hunting, either of these are great choices for black bears. I particularly like the versatility of the .355-inch diameter of the .350 Legend over the .358-inch .360 Buckhammer. I can handload 9mm bullets in the .350 for practice, and have seen great accuracy and velocity with some of Lehigh Defense’s Extreme Defense 9mm bullets. For the traditionalist though, there’s no replacement for the .35 Remington.
The .45/70 might be the oldest cartridge that’s still popular and used for hunting. In fact, the cartridge that started out using black powder has seen an overwhelming resurgence in the past couple decades. It had gone out of style, and was rarely mentioned by mid-20th century writers. But it’s back in full force. The .45/70 is most popular in lever guns, and the new Marlin models are of excellent quality. Although limited to relatively short ranges, the .45/70 is especially flexible as a bear rifle. Normal deer-type loads like Federal Premium’s 300-grain Hammerdown are wonderful for black bears at close range. Soft-pointed jacketed bullets expand well at low velocity and penetrate well. Black Hills Ammo’s factory 325-grain Honey Badger with solid Lehigh Defense Bullets penetrate bone well and the fluting produces a large wound cavity. When souped up, the .45/70 is a great hunting or backup rifle for brown or grizzly bears. My personal favorite heavy loading is a Speer 400-grain jacketed soft-point moving at 1,900 feet per second.
A nice black bear taken with 325-grain Black Hills Ammo Honey Badger in .45/70 Gov’t. Tyler Freel
.338 Lapua Magnum
Some of the best bear hunting cartridges are only ideal for certain situations, and if the terrain you hunt dictates long shots, you might as well go big. In those situations, I can validate the concern for traveling cross-canyon to try and locate a bear you’ve shot—though this should be considered carefully before ever pulling the trigger. There’s lots of cartridges that are great options for shooting black bears at longer distances; the 6.8 Western, 7mm PRC, and 300 PRC are also prime candidates. Which one of these is the best? That’s debatable. There are variables that can be manipulated, but I do love my .338 Lapua. It’s a cartridge that’s excessive for black bears under most circumstances, but at long distances, it shines.
Factory 7mm PRC and 300PRC Precision Hunter loads can’t hang with my 285-grain Hornady ELDM handloads, and if I had to pick a long-range hammer for black bears, that’s it. I normally wouldn’t recommend match bullets for game at all, but black bears are soft, and considering that our family has shot over a dozen moose with the load from 200-700 yards, I can say that I’m confident in the bullet’s ability to expand but hold together; they’ve got the mass to do it. If that bothers you, shoot a Barnes 280-grain LRX or 270-grain Hornady ELD-X.
Best Bear Cartridges: Grizzlies and Brown Bears
If folks lose their minds over-analyzing cartridge picks for black bears, it’s magnified tenfold when it comes to “Old Long Claw.” Grizzlies and brown bears have a reputation for being more dangerous and aggressive than black bears. Sometimes it’s true, but with a good first shot, they aren’t any more difficult to kill. If you screw up with a poor shot and let that bear get spun up, then all bets are off and you simply have to throw everything you’ve got at them. Make a good first shot through both lungs and they die quickly.
Even a 175-grain patched roundball will kill big bears cleanly if you shoot them through the lungs. Tyler Freel
I’ve been an assistant guide on a couple Afognak Island brown bear hunts, hunted them for myself on the Alaska Peninsula, and taken a brace of big interior Alaska grizzly bears with everything from a sharp rock tied on the end of a stick—literally—to big magnum rifles. A 175-grain .490 patched roundball fired out of a Kentucky rifle is a soft, anemic projectile at best; but slam it through the lungs of a big scarred-up grizzly bear at close range and he’s dead in seconds.
There’s some significant overlap when it comes to great cartridges for black, grizzly, and brown bears. I’d be totally comfortable shooting a grizzly or even brown bear with any of the previous cartridges under the right circumstances—but there are also times when it’s appropriate to go bigger. For instance, a brown bear guide will likely pack a much larger rifle than he’d prefer to hunt with himself. If he has to use his rifle, it’s to fix someone else’s mistake. There are many normal-sized and magnum cartridges that I think are great choices for grizzlies and brown bears, but these would be my first recommendations.
The dull and dirty 30. The .30/06 has nothing left to prove—it’s done it. Most hunters can shoot the .30/06 well, and it’s got plenty of power to get the job done on any brown bear. Alaskan legend, market hunter, and predator-control specialist Frank Glaser came to prefer the .30/06 with 220-grain bullets for stopping interior grizzly bears around 80 years ago, and it’s still a stellar option today. It doesn’t offer quite the forgiveness of some larger cartridges—but one should never depend on forgiveness or excess power in lieu of good shot choices. This past fall, I loaded some 212-grain Hornady ELD-X bullets into .30/06 cases for my 16-year-old cousin to take to Kodiak with my uncle. She killed a 9.5-foot brown bear with a 27-inch skull.
The author’s 16-year-old cousin and her 9.5-foot bear—taken with a .30/06.
.338 Winchester Magnum
The .338 Win. Mag. is a heavy-hitting and mainstream magnum that’s one of the best bear cartridges you can get. It’s authoritative on black bears, and never a bad choice for grizzlies or brown bears. The .338 Win. Mag. is a cartridge that is reasonable for other game like elk and moose, and isn’t a single-purpose howitzer. It’s got a good trajectory for most hunting situations, and generally uses bullets from 200- to 250-grains. As one of my bear baiting backup rifles, I had my .338 loaded to the max with 250-grain Hornady Interlock bullets, and shot a big sow grizzly that came running towards me this past season at 15 yards. It didn’t knock her flat, but certainly re-routed her direction of travel. After doing some extensive brush deflection testing, I’m switching to 225-grain Hornady CX bullets in that rifle. For a rifle you might use in thick brush, it’s worth noting that in my testing I observed that mono-metal bullets always deflected less than lead-core.
This interior grizzly was stopped at 15 yards with a .338 Win. Mag. Tyler Freel
A guide who wants an absolute showstopper might pick one of the .416’s or .458’s, but the .375 Ruger is one of the most balanced and best bear hunting cartridges on the planet. The .375 H&H and .375 H&H Ackley Improved are both very similar and essentially interchangeable in this conversation. It boils down to personal preference. I favor the .375 Ruger because it delivers H&H performance out of a 20-inch barrel, and it’s neck-and-neck with the .375 Ackley out of the 22.75-inch barrel of my Ruger. It’s got a .30/06-like trajectory, and is effective at any normal hunting distance. If you can shoot it well, it would be like Thor’s hammer on elk too.
Brown bear guide Luke Randall stopping a charging bear with his .375 Ackley Improved.
The advantage of a factory chambering like the .375 Ruger over the other two is that it fits in a standard long action. I’ve shot a number of black and brown bears with both the .375 Ruger and .375 Ackley, and my friend Luke Randall used a .375 Ackley to stop a giant charging brown bear on video at just a few feet. With a 300-grain Hornady DGX Bonded, it will pass end-to-end through a big brown bear, but mono-metal bullets are a good option too.
My .375 Ruger currently gets most of its use while going into bear baits and tracking wounded bears. It’s more than what’s necessary most of the time, but in those situations it’s always nice to have a little extra. It’ll generally flatten black bears at close range, and rarely requires a second shot to stop the show. That’s not always the case with grizzlies and brown bears, but it hits hard enough to usually give you an opportunity to shoot again. If you don’t mind big, hard-kicking cartridges, the .375’s are some of the best bear hunting cartridges on the planet.
The .375 Ruger, .375 H&H, and .375 Ackley Improved are some of the best bear hunting cartridges you can get. Tyler Freel
What cartridge is good for bears?
A: Lots of cartridges are good for bears, but what’s best for you will depend on how and where you’re hunting. For most black bear hunters, a good deer rifle cartridge with quality bullets is perfectly suitable.
What is the best cartridge for grizzly bear?
A: I think that one of the best cartridges for grizzly bear is the .375 Ruger, but smaller cartridges like the .30/06 are perfectly capable too. The most important thing is choosing a cartridge that you can shoot well, and choosing your shots carefully in the field.
What is the best bear caliber?
A: Generally speaking, it’s hard to beat the versatility of .30-caliber cartridges for bear hunting. Many are great choices for black bears and totally adequate for brown bears too.
What are the best handgun cartridges for bear defense?
Power helps, but with bear defense handguns, the biggest factors are how convenient a pistol or revolver is to carry, and how well you can shoot it. I personally favor and carry a 10mm Auto loaded with quality bear defense ammo.
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