Cartridge/Bullet Selection for Yukon Big Game Hunting

July 5, 2023


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There is a tremendous amount of information available about the tools hunters use to harvest game, from fitness and ballistics programs, to boots, optics and firearms.  But in the end, the only interaction between the hunter and game that really matters is that which occurs when the bullet hits the animal.  Understanding your quarry, the capabilities and limitations of the cartridge you choose to hunt with, and what your bullet does on impact are all essential parts of being an ethical and effective hunter.

Thinking this through I have come to believe the “rule of threes” works with regards to the above-noted points.  Following are the 3-rules of three I think are important for hunting big game in the Yukon.

The 3 levels of “critter toughness”

The 3 classes of cartridge power

The 3 types of bullets construction

Before digging into the rules, it has to be acknowledged that there are countless other factors hunters have to consider before and while in the field; for instance, their own health and safety, confidence and familiarity with their equipment, as well as the capabilities and limitations of themselves and their gear.  But for now, I’ll only expand on the “law”, and share a few lessons learned over the years.


The Law in the Yukon
While animals can be effectively harvested with relatively small cartridges/bullets under limited/ideal circumstances, the law prescribes minimum rifle requirements for hunting big game in the Yukon that must be adhered to.

Big game hunting - .24” minimum bullet diameter

Bison - .30” minimum bullet diameter, 180 grain bullet and 2800-foot pounds of muzzle energy (the 30-06 Springfield is considered the baseline cartridge), plus additional limitations for muzzleloaders.


Lessons from Experience

Whatever the rifle/cartridge combination you use, you must be able to shoot it well – accurately, consistently and know your personal effective range (not someone else’s effective range or what the ballistic stable says).  This means spending time and money.  PRACTICE!

Shot placement is critically important, especially with smaller calibre cartridges and on the tough/toughest critters.  Some species, notably goats, elk and bison, are well-known to be able to be hit “around the edges” and simply will not be recovered without follow-up shots and/or lengthy tracking efforts.

If using a cartridge considered light for the game you are hunting or if you are shooting a high velocity cartridge you should select a tougher bullet type to provide a better balance of bullet size/performance.

And lastly, you can’t kill an animal too dead!  There is no such thing as too much gun, only too much gun for a shooter.  The upper limit of cartridge power a hunter can shoot effectively is typically based on felt recoil, and is uniquely personal.  It can be influenced by experience, body size/shape, as well as the weight of the rifle and configuration of the stock.  A powerful magnum rifle, shot with a flinch, will not bring home much game at best, and leave wounded animals in the field at worst.  And a small, inadequate cartridge, even with proper shot placement is likely to result in the same outcome.  So, use the most gun you can, but honestly acknowledge where your personal recoil threshold is.  And how do you determine your threshold?  PRACTICE!

Among experienced hunters there are countless stories and examples of the animal that “fell like it was struck by lightening”, or “kept absorbing lead and wouldn’t go down”. And yes, the range of reactions is tremendously broad, based on everything from shot placement to the animal’s state-of-mind and all things in between.  A big bull moose, for example, in the rut and after a battle with a competitor is likely pretty jacked up, and may be one of those critters that will absorb a lot of lead before going down.  But maybe not – like hunters, every animal is unique.

So, with the recognition that nothing in life is written in stone and we live in a world of greys, following are my thoughts on the 3-Rulesof Threes.  The quick reference chart, for the visual learners in the crowd, shows how the three factors of animal/cartridge/bullet interact and hopefully will help make the selection of your rifle/cartridge combination easier.

And importantly, share your stories and experiences, ask questions, and never stop learning. Hunters and the wildlife we manage, pursue and cherish will all benefit.



These general grouping can get a bit fuzzy and have some overlap based on individual animal size, stress levels, and other factors.

Soft: light-boned, thin-skinned, non-dangerous game (wolf, deer, sheep, barren-ground caribou), typically considered easy to kill even with marginal shot placement and bullet performance

Tough: medium/heavy-boned, thin-skinned, non-dangerous/potentially dangerous game (black bear, mountain caribou, mountain goat, elk, moose),typically considered tenacious and require good shot placement, multiple shots and good bullet performance

Toughest: heavy-boned, thin/thick-skinned, potentially dangerous game (grizzly bear, bison), typically considered difficult to kill and require very good shot placement, multiple shots and completely dependable bullet performance


3 Classes of Cartridge Power

There are numerous cartridges that can be argued are more or less powerful and could fall within or outside the classes listed.  However, based only on ballistics, which is solely dependent upon bullet diameter, weight, velocity and shape, the majority of legal, big game hunting cartridges can be lumped into three classes.

Light: smaller calibre (.243 to .308), moderate velocity, marginal energy at moderate ranges, light to medium bullet weights.

Medium: medium calibre (.257 to .308), moderate to high velocity, adequate energy at moderate to longer ranges, medium to heavy bullet weights.

Heavy: large calibre (.308 to .375), moderate to high velocity, abundant energy at moderate to longer ranges, heavy bullet weights.

3 Types of Bullets Construction

Terminal bullet performance (i.e., what it does on arrival at the target) is determined, and largely predictable, based on how the bullet is built and how fast it is travelling.

Light: rapid expansion/shallow penetration (thin copper jacket, non-bonded lead core)

examples: Nosler Ballistic Tip and Sierra GameKing

Medium: controlled expansion/moderate penetration(thicker copper jacket, mechanically or chemically-bonded lead core)

examples: Remington Core-Lokt and Nosler Accubond

Heavy: controlled expansion/maximum penetration(heavy copper jacket, chemically-bonded lead core / copper “bridged” jacket, lead core / solid copper)

examples: Barnes TSX and Nosler Partition