Hunting Bullet Guide – Part 1: Caliber and Weight

By Chuck Hawks:


I have decided to approach the question of hunting bullet selection by dividing it into two general topics. This article is Part One of the “Hunting Bullet Guide,” and addresses big game hunting bullets by caliber, weight, and application. Part Two addresses the bullet designs of the various major manufacturers.

The purpose of these articles is to assist the reader in choosing an appropriate jacketed, expanding bullet for hunting medium and large game animals. For our purposes, “big game” starts at animals weighing perhaps 80 pounds and goes up from there to animals as large as pachyderms.

Varmint bullets are frangible and should not be used for hunting big game animals; they are not included in the Hunting Bullet Guide articles. Neither are non-expanding practice, match, and military (FMJ) bullets. These are usually illegal for hunting big game, at least in North America, and should not be used. They are not designed for proper expansion and cannot be modified to expand reliably. For hunting big game animals, buy bullets specifically intended for the purpose.

A special class of hunting bullets is the “solids.” These are typically round-nose or flat tip bullets specifically designed to provide maximum penetration on the largest (CXP4 class) dangerous game animals, principally African rhinos and elephants. These special purpose bullets are also largely beyond the scope of the Hunting Bullet Guide.

I use Winchester’s “CXP” (Controlled eXPansion) scale to describe the various classes of game animals, so if you are not familiar with it, please read the article “The CXP Rating System for Hunting Cartridges.” I have previously written fairly extensively about the subject of hunting bullets, and most of those articles can be found in the same place, the Ammunition, Bullets and Ballistics index page of the Rifle Information Page here on Guns and Shooting Online. Links to all of the bullet makers mentioned in this series are provided on the Guns and Shooting Online Links Page.

Fortunately, the big name ammo manufacturers (Winchester, Remington, Federal, Hornady) basically know what they are doing and provide bullets adequate for the caliber and purpose in their factory loaded ammunition. Some of the specialty ammo companies (Stars and Stripes Custom Ammunition, for example) are also competent, able to provide information and advice, and are willing to create custom loads for specific purposes. Some are not, though, and seem more interested in selling some proprietary bullet or theory of killing power than addressing the customer’s actual needs, so buyer beware. Usually, if you pick a suitable caliber and bullet weight in a factory load for the game you intend to hunt, and put that bullet into the heart/lung area of the animal, the bullet will do its job satisfactorily.

A good rule of thumb for selecting an appropriate weight bullet within any given caliber is that lighter bullets are usually intended for the smaller species of game appropriate for that caliber, and the heavier bullets are intended for the larger appropriate species. The lightest bullets in calibers below 8mm are generally intended for varmint shooting, not big game hunting. Here are some general guidelines concerning suitable bullet weights for the popular hunting rifle calibers.

6mm caliber (.243″ diameter) bullets weighing less than about 85 grains are almost always varmint bullets, not intended for big game hunting. 85-87 grain bullets may be either varmint or big game bullets. Bullets of 90-99 grains are usually intended for small to medium size CXP2 game, such as pronghorn antelope, Colombian blacktail deer, and whitetail deer. Bullets in the 100-110 grain range are normally intended for the largest species of CXP2 game, such as wild sheep, mule deer, and caribou.

.25 caliber (.257″ diameter) varmint bullets usually weigh 87 grains or less. The 100 grain bullets are usually for small to medium size CXP2 game. 115 to 120 grain bullets are usually the best choice for all-around use on CXP2 game, with the long 120 grain bullets generally preferred for the largest species, such as caribou and black bear.

6.5mm caliber (.264″ diameter) bullets of less than 100 grains are usually varmint bullets. 100 grain bullets are often designed for the smallest species of “big game,” such as European chamois and the smallest African antelope. The 120-130 grain bullets are usually a good choice for medium size CXP2 game, such as pronghorn antelope, most deer species, wild sheep and goats. The 140 grain bullets are the all-around bullets, suitable for all CXP2 and the smaller species or CXP3 game, while the heavy 156-160 grain bullets are usually intended for CXP3 game on the order of Scandinavian moose.

.270 caliber bullets (.277″ diameter) bullets weighing 110 grains and less are usually varmint bullets. The new 115 grain Core-Lokt Ultra bullet designed by Remington for the 6.8mm SPC cartridge is a CXP2 game hunting bullet.

The popular 130-150 grain slugs are useful for a wide variety of CXP2 and CXP3 game, depending on the individual bullet’s design, in the standard .270 Winchester cartridge and the .270 Magnums. I generally recommend 130 grain bullets for all CXP2 game, the 140 grain bullets for mixed bag CXP2 and CXP3 hunts, and the 150 grain or heavier bullets primarily for CXP3 game.

I also tend to prefer 130-140 grain bullets in the standard .270 Winchester and 140-150 grain bullets in the .270 Magnum calibers. But I would be the first to admit that controlled expansion 130 grain .270 bullets have been used successfully on the largest antlered game all over the world for decades, from both standard and magnum caliber rifles.

7mm caliber (.284″ diameter) bullets weighing less than 120 grains are usually varmint bullets, while 130-140 grain bullets are normally suggested for CXP2 game. 139-140 grain bullets are a good all-around (CXP2/CXP3 game) choice in the standard 7mm calibers, as are 150-160 grain bullets in the 7mm Magnum calibers. The 175 grain bullets are usually reserved for use on the very largest or dangerous game.

.30-.303 caliber (.308″-.312″ diameter) bullets weighing 125 grains and less are usually varmint bullets. The following remarks apply to cartridges on the order of the .30-30 and .303 Savage or larger.

Bullets in the 130 grain range are normally intended for use on light CXP2 game. Bullets in the 150-155 grain range are intended for a broad spectrum of CXP2 game, such as most deer, antelope, sheep, and caribou. The heavier 165-180 grain bullets are typically the all-around bullets for mixed bag CXP2 and CXP3 game hunts. These are the bullets most commonly chosen for most elk and moose hunting, for example. The heavy 200-220 grain bullets are generally reserved for use on very large and/or dangerous game, such as Alaskan moose and brown bear.

.32/8mm caliber (.321-.323″ diameter) bullets are generally intended for hunting medium and large game. As with the .30-.303 calibers, to which the .32’s are quite similar in bullet weight and application, bullets weighing less than 125 grains are often varmint bullets. Hunting bullets in the 150 grain range are usually good CXP2 game bullets, while the 170-180 grain numbers are the all-around bullets most suitable for mixed bag hunts. The comparatively heavy 195-220 grain bullets are generally reserved for the largest CXP3 game, with the 220 grain bullets favored for use on dangerous game.

.33 caliber (.338″ diameter) marks the beginning of the medium bore calibers. In general, most .338 cartridges are primarily intended for use on CXP3 hoofed game and large, dangerous predators such as lions, tigers, and bears.

180 grain bullets are usually recommended only for CXP2 class game, such as caribou and black bear. The 200 grain bullets are generally the combination CXP2/CXP3 game bullets, and very popular with elk hunters. The 225-250 grain bullets are recommended for large CXP3 game and dangerous predators. Deep penetrating 250 grain bullets are the ticket for use on CXP4 game, as well as the largest and most dangerous predators.

.35 caliber (.358″ diameter) bullets weighing 150-160 grains are best reserved for practice or small to medium size CXP2 game. Their poor sectional density (SD) severely limits penetration. From 180 grains on up, the bullet weight recommendations for the high intensity and magnum .35 calibers are basically the same as those for the .338 calibers. The .35’s offer greater bullet diameter and the .338’s offer better SD. In terms of killing power, it seems to pretty much balance out.

Naturally, the smallest .35 caliber rifle cartridges such as the .35 Remington do quite will with 180 grain bullets. The .358 Winchester is probably at its best with 180-200 grain bullets. The medium size cases such as the .35 Whelen and .350 Rem. Mag. seem to be most efficient with 200-225 grain bullets, while the biggest cases, such as the .358 Norma Magnum, are tremendously potent with 250 grain bullets.

9.3mm caliber (.366″ diameter) rifles are seldom seen in Australia and the New World, but they are reasonably popular in Europe and Africa as an alternative to .375 caliber rifles. Bullet weights typically run in the 250-300 grain range. The lighter weight bullets are for CXP3 game, and the 270 grain and heavier bullets are usually for large, dangerous predators and heavy hoofed game. Controlled expansion 285 grain (and heavier) bullets designed for deep penetration are suitable for CXP4 game.

.375 caliber (.375″ diameter) marks the upper limit of what are normally described as medium bore rifle cartridges. 200-235 grain bullets are loaded to moderate velocity for hunting CXP2/CXP3 game. Starting in power with cartridges on the order of the .376 Steyer and going all the way up to the most powerful of the .375 Magnums, the most common CXP3/dangerous predator bullet for full power loads weighs about 270 grains. The heavy 300 grain bullets are the recommended choice for CXP4 game.

.416 caliber (.416″ diameter) gets us into the area of big bore cartridges intended for CXP4 game, principally buffalo, rhino, and elephant. For such massive creatures bullets must have exceptional SD (typically over .300) for deep penetration. The choice of bullets in .416 caliber centers around 400 grains, soft points for lung shots on CXP4 game and to break down the largest and most dangerous predators, and solids for brain shots on elephant.

.44 caliber (.429″ diameter) rifle bullets are used primarily in the .444 Marlin cartridge. The standard .444 factory load uses a 240 grain soft point pistol bullet. This is fine for deer and most other CXP2 game, but for larger animals something more is needed. Hornady was the first to offer a bullet designed specifically for the .444 cartridge, a 265 grain FP InterLock. This bullet is designed for use on CXP2 and CXP3 game, with the emphasis on the latter. Subsequently, other companies have offered controlled expansion bullets of 270-300 grains that are also recommended for CXP3 game in the .444 Marlin.

.45 caliber (.458″ diameter) rifle cartridges generally fall into two classes, traditional North American buffalo (bison) cartridges, and elephant cartridges. The .45-70 is the best known of the former, and the .458 Winchester Magnum is the most common of the latter, although there are others to be sure. For CXP4 game, bullets weighing 450-500 grains are the best choice in either type of cartridge, with the 500 grain bullet being the most common.

Both of these cartridges can also handle reduced loads, making them suitable for other purposes, such as hunting North American antlered game. For CXP2 game the 300 grain HP bullets commonly factory loaded for the .45-70 are a good choice. For CXP3 game, 350-405 grain soft point bullets are a good choice in either bison or elephant cartridges. The tougher versions of these bullets are also excellent for large, dangerous predators such as lion and the great bears.


All of the recommendations given above are, of course, generalizations–not hard and fast rules. But they are pretty useful generalizations, particularly considering the paucity of information provided by most of the bullet and ammunition manufacturers, who seem to assume that everyone already knows these things.