Best Big-Game Rifles for North America


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!

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