Hunting Alces alces…The “Perfect” Moose Rifle
By: Michael Rogers
There is no getting around it; moose are the largest antlered game in the world and among the largest game animals routinely hunted in North America and Europe. While the bison is generally larger and some of the largest bears might outweigh even a good-sized moose; a moose is the largest animal most hunters will ever pursue in the northern hemisphere. There is simply no real way to describe the feeling of walking up on your first bull moose; I straight out gasped in shock. While some animals seem to shrink when you finally lay hands on one, moose seem to only get bigger. There is no such thing as “ground shrinkage” when Alces alces is the quarry. Alaska moose hunting is a special endeavor.
When discussing the correct armament for adequately tackling the task that is Alaska moose hunting, the first step is to not ignore the animal’s generous size. An Alaskan bull moose is best thought of as starting between 700-800 pounds for a 2 year old spike/fork and can go upwards of 1600 pounds for an old bull. The largest moose carcass ever weighed was shot on the Yukon River in 1897 and tipped the scale at 1808 pounds. One thing to remember; the heaviest wild specimens have seldom ever been weighed in the field and almost always come out in pieces. Suffice to say that “large” is pretty much the rule rather than the exception. In this article featuring an exceptionally large bull moose, you can see that when we say big…we mean BIG!
While many folks would choose to pursue a moose with an elephant cartridge just based on size alone, some traits of the animals are better considered. For one, despite their great size moose tend to be fairly easy to put down. A stopping rifle like the .416 Rigby or .458 Winchester just isn’t really necessary for Alaska moose hunting. They certainly aren’t tough like bears or elk are tough and if they were as tough as a mountain goat, you’d pursue one only with a bazooka. They also have a couple of other traits worth mentioning. The first is that moose are pretty phlegmatic and don’t really succumb to bullet shock- you’ll seldom see one drop to the shot unless you impact the central nervous system. The second is that wounded moose tend to find the nastiest, wettest, brushiest, deepest hole in which run into before dying. That is, if they don’t have a handy body of water to expire in the middle of instead.
So where does that leave us? A huge animal that is fairly easy to kill, typically fairly slow to die, and tends to stay on its feet for a surprisingly long time after being shot.
In choosing a rifle, I think we can dispense with the small bores right away. The .22s, the 6mms, the .25s…they just aren’t moose cartridges. I realize that all of these are far more deadly than I’m perhaps giving them credit for, especially with modern bullets. While I have helped butcher a moose that was killed stone dead with a single round of 22 Long Rifle (DLP shooting), it’s not something I would carry or suggest for hunting a moose. While the smaller bores are certainly capable of dispatching a smaller “meat moose” with a perfect broadside shot, there’s no guarantee you won’t get a northern giant or a hard angle or have to reach across a lake. With all due respect to the Swedes, the 6.5s aren’t really moose cartridges either.
And that perhaps merits a bit of discussion before the comments fly. While the Swedes use the marvelous 6.5×55 to harvest thousands of moose per year, Alaska moose hunting and Swedish moose hunting is a bit different. For starters, the Swedes are hunting the Eurasian “elk” version of a moose (in Sweden a “mus” is a mouse, and hunting them will get you looked at funny). While still large, the Eurasian elk (moose) is similar to the Shiras of the “lesser 48” and is considerably smaller than the Alaskan moose; in fact, about 1/3 or so smaller. Shooting a Shiras or Eurasian moose is more like shooting an elk than an Alaska/ Yukon moose with respect to size.
Below is a screenshot from the Boone and Crockett site, detailing the current World’s Record moose. You can see that the Shiras moose, even in antler size, is diminutive in comparison to its larger cousin in Alaska.
The 6.5×55, while excellent, is also analogous to the .30-06 in the U.S. It is popular there largely in part due to the fact it was widely available in very inexpensive surplus rifles. Any sort of bargain rifle will inevitably find its way into the hunting field and be used out of proportion to other options regardless of its technical merit. The other thing is that moose hunting in Sweden is very much a pastoral pursuit. The focus is on harvesting animals for market and a lot of the harvest is cows, calves, and small bulls. Hunting is generally in timber and the shooting tends to be close by our standards. In Alaska, the focus is mainly on harvesting large, mature bulls.
The 6.5×55 is an excellent cartridge but the evidence of the Swedes making it a moose rifle by fans of the small bore just doesn’t hold enough water for me. The same would apply to the .260 Remington, the 6.5 Creedmoor, .264 Winchester and similar cartridges. While it’s easy to be enamored with the 6.5s- easy to shoot, low recoil, and very accurate- a large moose in open country at quartering away angle might be more challenge than they’ll overcome. I realize some folks will chaff at this, but we’re talking the “perfect” Alaska moose hunting rifle, not the “smallest acceptable” Alaska moose hunting rifle and the line has to be drawn somewhere.
In my opinion the smallest cartridges that make a sensible minimum are the 7mms. While not technically a 7mm, I’d also throw the .270 Winchester in there as well. I’d also give a bit of a caveat: only with the heavier, controlled expansion bullets. The lightest bullet offerings are typically meant for deer but the heavier bullets in the 150-grain weights are built for larger game. The .270 Winchester, the 7-08, the .280 Remington with a 150 grain controlled expansion bullet would do the trick on a moose, especially for a recoil sensitive hunter. With all due respect to Jack O’Connor, his favored .270 load with a fast stepping and fast expanding 130 grain bullet is not the best for moose. The 7 magnums like the 7 Remington Mag and RUM, the 7 Weatherby Mag and the unloved 7 WSM would be just fine and can use 160 to 175 grain bullets as well.
Better yet are the “standard” .30 calibers; guns like the .308 and .30-06. Thousands of Alaskans harvest a moose with these or the like every fall. The tough 180 grain bullets are the obvious choice and most perform very well on large animals. The ’06 is basically the Ford F150 of bolt action rifles- there might be better choices, but someone is going to make it work out.
Stepping up slightly to the .300 magnums gets you in better territory with a bit more velocity, a bit better trajectory and a bit more energy. In the Interior, where Alaska moose hunting happens in more open country, some flavor of .300 is perhaps the odds on favorite for a “one rifle” solution among resident hunters. Not only do you have the power to reach out to longer ranges, you can also start to deal with less than ideal shot angles. As a confession, I’ve used the .300WSM with perfect satisfaction for the last 13 seasons. Not exclusively, but extensively. That’s including a moose decked at 350 yards with a quartering away shot. The bullet penetrated several feet of moose and anchored the bull. While I really like my smaller bores, I wouldn’t have taken that shot with any of them and went moose-less that year.
The next step up for Alaska moose hunting is likely the point at which we can say we find the real “perfect” moose rifles. The medium bores. Likely starting with the oddball .325WSM (technically an 8mm) and the obsolete 8 Remington Magnum and going up through the .375s. Guns over .30 but under the “big bore” .400” threshold of African stopping rifles. The 1958 vintage .338 Winchester Magnum was marketed as an “Alaska” cartridge since the very beginning and has an enviable reputation in the 49th state as a moose stomper. Cartridges like the .340 Weatherby, the .338RUM and the 33 Nosler all have the ability to throw heavy bullets long distance and are superb moose rifles. The .35s, while not popular, make a good moose rifle as well. Cartridges like the .358Winchester, the 35 Whelen and the .350 Remington magnums are seldom seen but effective on the largest game. The long discontinued .348 Winchester had an enviable reputation in the early 20th century as a rifle for Alaska moose hunting. The .375s like the .375 Holland and Holland or the newer .375 Ruger make excellent rifles for moose and are capable of tackling the largest specimens walking. To these I would add the 45-70; while it’s powerful, it’s not a true “big bore” due to its black powder roots and low operating pressures. Its only drawback is range, but for the hunter who pursues moose in timber and thickets common in more coastal regions it is just fine.
The drawbacks to the medium bore are obvious. In all but the smallest, recoil becomes a very real concern. Heavy bullets at high velocity come with a thump at the back end. Ammunition costs can also be substantial with some cartridges going for $5 each… or more. What you have is a rifle that is both unpleasant and expensive to fire, the result is a rifle that usually won’t get shot all that much. Many guides hate seeing a newer .338 come into camp. They know most folks just don’t practice with their big boomer enough to get really proficient and as a result their shooting suffers. Several years ago I remember watching a guy attempt to zero his new .338 out at the range. Two boxes of ammo and I don’t think he even got it close since he would squeeze his eyes shut tight before yanking the trigger. Once the scope came back and hit him he might as well have just went home.
But, for the folks who can master the medium’s substantial kick and substantial drain on their wallet, they make an excellent choice for moose rifle. For those that can’t, stepping back to the .30-06 or a .300 isn’t giving up all that much for Alaska moose hunting.
Michael Rogers is an Alaskan hunter, an inveterate rifle crank, and a casual moose fan. September finds him prowling the Alaska Range looking to pack out a moose and fill his freezer.