What is the best caliber rifle for hunting moose?
I get asked this question all the time, but I’d like to speak to the issue a bit longer than usual. So here is the first in my series on good, better, best moose guns.
Part 1 – Matching the firearm to the hunter.
A few years ago my daughter Kalissa on her first attempt after getting her hunting license drew a moose tag, which for us as locals often takes 10 years. We were surprised that she did draw, but with such difficult odds there was no question she would be going hunting. Plus Kalissa from a very young age had eagerly skinned our client’s moose – she had more than earned her opportunity to shoot one herself.
There was just one problem, she was just 11 years old and weighed maybe 80 pounds with her hunting boots on. How was I as a father to help one this little girl shoot a 1200 pound bull moose? At this point, she’d never shot anything bigger than a grouse. I’d had her down at the range shooting various firearms, and it was painfully obvious that she was still a bit small for most rifles. I’d had her shoot a .270 Win, which she did willingly, but the recoil jolted her badly, even if Kalissa was grinning ear to ear.
A few years earlier I had purchased a youth Browning X-Bolt .243 Win for her older sisters who had shot a couple black bears and a young mule deer with it. I had picked this firearms for a few different features. First – it’s short. The youth model had a shorter stock appropriate to the arms of an 11 year old girl. The barrel was also shorter making it easier for her to manage, and I don’t think the whole package weighed more than 8 pounds. The X-Bolt has another feature I like particularly for kids, the detachable magazine. If 20 years of guiding has taught me one lesson above all others with firearms safety, it’s that the most dangerous moment in my day is when my hunter is loading or unloading his firearm. That moment seems to be particularly sketchy with barrels leveled in the wrong direction and ammunition rapidly cycled and ejected. For a young hunter it is easy to be flustered in this moment, and it’s never good to be flustered while handling a firearm. A detachable magazine simplifies this process for the youth hunter. I also like the fact that the X-Bolt action can be opened and closed while the safety is on, again good for kids.
The only problem with the .243 Win is that it’s not really intended for big game like moose. I would have chastised a hunter had he showed up with such a small caliber, but as the only firearm I had that Kalissa was capable of handling I was determined to try. We practiced with it extensively at the range, but more valuable than that I took a copper wire bent into the shape of a 2″ ring and taped two pieces of fishing line across it in the shape of a cross hair. For hours the two of us would sit on the couch going through my library of moose books and with each picture she would place the mock cross hairs where she would shoot the bull. It was a tremendous experience, not only for the time spent with my daughter but the lesson she learned in bullet placement. While doing so, I also lectured her extensively on the limits of the .243 Win. She wouldn’t be able to shoot a bull over 200 yards, the loss of energy after that distance would be too great. She was also not to shoot a moose unless she had a clear view of the vitals, it simply wasn’t a big enough caliber to pass through a shoulder and kill the bull.
When the time came for Kalissa’s hunt I was very excited. The first night out with her I called a bull, who answered me but never came in. It was good though, she started feeling the adrenaline rush of moose hunting. The following afternoon we rode quads to Rona Lake, and arrived very early. We got settled in for a long hunt, expecting moose to show up closer to sunset than noon. We hadn’t been there 15 minutes though before we spotted 2 moose emerge from the timber about 400 yards away on the lakeshore. They no sooner appeared than we saw antlers on the one, and they disappeared again as they wandered out of sight into an adjoining bay.
Kalissa got set up with shooting sticks in the direction the moose had disappeared. My heart was just pounding, between us and the bay where the bull had disappeared was a peninsula only 180 yards, and with luck the bull would continue down the lakeshore and emerge again within shooting distance. It happened exactly that way. As the bull walked out onto the peninsula I whispered to Kalissa, who was intently looking through her scope, “whenever you’re ready, shoot him.” I had no sooner said it than she shot. It was quick, I hadn’t expected her to shoot so fast. I wasn’t prepared so I’d missed whether the bull had reacted or not, it was still standing broadside. Kalissa didn’t wait for further instruction, she reloaded and shot again. The bull turned and began walking back to the trees and disappeared.
We walked over to the spot and found her moose expired not 20 yards from where she’d shot. I was one mighty proud Dad. I found two tiny bullet holes about 4 inches apart through the heart and lungs. Kalissa had got her bull, and the .243 Win was the right gun to use.
Every firearm has it’s limitations, and so long as you understand, accept, and hunt according to those limitations it doesn’t matter what the caliber. Being comfortable and confident with your firearm is better than a rifle that is too big, too loud, too much recoil, too heavy, too long, etc. The first consideration should be matching the rifle to the hunter’s physique and abilities.
Now presuming you aren’t a little 11 year old girl and can handle a bigger magnum, I’ll talk more about what other considerations make a great moose gun in my next post.