While white-tailed deer have become the country’s most popular big game game, it wasn’t long ago that black bears were considered America’s number one wild food. Clay Newcomb of MeatEater has noted that black bears fueled the expansion of the American frontier and that bear hunting figured prominently in 19th century outdoor stories.the century.
However, to new and aspiring hunters, bears can seem invincible. Although they are generally smaller and lighter than moose, all that fur and blubber makes them seem like formidable opponents.
If that’s you, or you’ve just been wondering which rifle cartridges are best for brutes, you’ve come to the right place. Most of the cartridges on the list below are good for short and long range work, stalking and hunting over a bait pile. However you choose to go after the bears, these five cartridges will get the job done.
Some might wonder if the 6.5 Creedmoor has enough power to take down a bear, and of our five picks, it produces the least amount of muzzle energy. But MeatEater’s Brody Henderson points out that the aforementioned aura of invincibility doesn’t translate to the real world.
“When it comes down to it, black bears aren’t that hard to kill, so you don’t need a high-caliber magnum,” Brody said. He once shot a large Colorado boar through the ribcage with a 6.5 Creedmoor, and it racked up 20 yards.
That should come as no surprise to those familiar with Creedmoor’s ballistic profile. These 120-grain Trophy Copper loads, for example, travel at 2,875 feet per second (fps) at the muzzle and produce 1,259 foot-pounds (foot-pounds) of energy at 400 yards. At that distance, that’s only 200 foot-pounds. less than the .308 Winchester, which is often considered one of the best black bear cartridges on the market.
As Brody showed, shot placement is almost always more important than power, and with the 6.5 Creedmoor, you can have both.
Our choice: Copper Trophy 6.5 Creedmoor
bullet weight: 120 grains
Output speed: 2875fps
Mouth energy: 2,202 ft-lbs.
Rifle: Weatherby Vanguard First Lite
The .308 Winchester made the jump from the military to the hunting market in 1952 and has never looked back. Its versatility made it one of the most popular short action big game game cartridges in the world. Black bear hunting is no exception.
The .308 offers great power at close range and can maintain that power and speed at longer ranges as well. Federal’s Trophy Copper rounds reach full expansion at velocities above 1,800 fps, and this 165-grain option goes above that velocity beyond 500 yards. At 200 yards, it hits a whopping 2,203 foot-pounds. of energy, which is more than a .30-30 Win. (another proven bear killer) on the snout.
Our choice: Copper Trophy .308 Victory.
bullet weight: 165 grains
Output speed: 2700fps
Mouth energy: 2,671 ft-lbs.
Rifle: Weatherby Mark V Hunter
If there is one cartridge that has proven it can do it all in North America, it is the .30-06 Springfield. The legendary .30 caliber cartridge has been beating bears for nearly 100 years and shows no signs of slowing down.
You could go for this 200-grain trophy bear claw, which would be great for taking down really big bears up close. But for most black bear hunting situations, these 165-grain GameKing Sierra loads will do the job. They hit over 2,800 foot-pounds. of force in the muzzle, and Sierra’s famous hunting bullet has been taking down big game for years.
Our choice: Sierra GameKing Boat-Tail SP .30-06 Springfield
bullet weight: 165 grains
Output speed: 2800fps
Mouth energy: 2,872 ft-lbs.
Rifle: Weatherby Vanguard Sporter
7mm Remington Magnum
You may not need a magnum cartridge to take a bear, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Ballistically speaking, the 7mm Rem. magazine outperforms both the .30-06 and the .308 Win. This 150-grain option, for example, files over 3,000 fps at the muzzle and produces 3,047 ft-lbs. of energy. At 500 yards, it’s still traveling north of 2000 fps.
Also, as MeatEater’s Garrett Long told me, the 7mm is available in a variety of bullets designed for close-range and long-range work.
“With the 7mm getting a little more love in bullet design, it is quickly becoming one of the best all-around calibers out there,” he said. “If you’re hunting bears in dense forest, there are plenty of good bullet options. If you’re a BC nerd and shoot through the barrel, there’s a bullet for you too.”
Federal’s 7mm Trophy Copper bullet is a good mix of both. It features a .498 BC high, and its copper construction will hold together in even the toughest bruin.
Our choice: Copper Trophy 7mm Rem Magnum
bullet weight: 150 grains
Output speed: 3025fps
Mouth energy: 3,047 ft-lbs.
Rifle: Weatherby Vanguard MeatEater Edition
.300 Winchester Magnum (and Short Magnum)
If you have any questions about black bear hunting, Clay Newcomb is your man. When I asked him about his favorite bear caliber, he had only one choice: the .300 Winchester Magnum. The .300 win. magazine has more than enough juice to get the job done at long range, and Clay has had great success with bullets weighing at least 180 grains, like this Nosler parting load.
For stalking, MeatEater’s Sam Lungren also recommends the .300 Winchester Short Magnum. The .300 WSM can be built with a short, light action, which Sam says is perfect for the high mountain hunts he often does. Plus, the .300 WSM packs a punch: This 180-grain option registers nearly 3,000 fps at the muzzle and holds 2,075 foot-pounds. of energy at 400 yards. (For context, a 6.5 Creedmoor only hits about 1,200 foot-pounds at that range.)
Sam also pointed out something I’ve heard several times when talking to the MeatEater team. Black bears take a solid hit to stop them in their tracks, but shot placement is always king. The .300 WSM does a great job, but Sam killed his bear faster with a well-placed arrow.
Our choice: Partition Nosler 300 Win Magnum
bullet weight: 180 grains
Output speed: 2960fps
Mouth energy: 3,502 ft-lbs.
Rifle: Weatherby Vanguard Badlands
There are many other cartridges that can kill a black bear. For close range work, the .45-70 Govt., .30-30 Win., or even a 12-gauge bullet will do the trick. But if you’re looking for a cartridge that can work in virtually any hunting scenario, look no further than the 6.5 Creedmoor, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, 7mm Remington Magnum, and .300 Win. magazine