The “Perfect” Caribou Rifle…Hunting Rangifer Tarandus
By: Michael Rogers
I guess when all things are considered; I am primarily a caribou hunter. Everyone has their opinions on the subject, but when I think of hunting in the Arctic and the North, I think of caribou. At this point in my career, I’ve seen something over one hundred caribou harvested. That number is between my partners and myself and I’ve dropped the hammer personally on a few dozen. That doesn’t exactly make me an expert, but it does give me a good idea as to what sort of shooting is involved in killing a caribou. The question comes up often enough in correspondence and conversation with new Alaskan hunters and non- residents looking to come up for a caribou that I decided to write a bit about it, and see if I can shed some light on what could be considered the perfect Caribou rifle.
Caribou occupy an unusual sort of space in the taxonomy of North America; as they are an Ice Age throwback. Long ago they once occupied a large swath of the ‘Lower 48’ but they are now only found in a particular mountain range in Idaho along the Canadian border. That herd numbers only a few dozen animals and is considered threatened. That means that in North America, you’re going to only hunt Alaska and Canada, where there are more caribou than people. They are relatively abundant in the North. That said, it is a mistake to think of caribou as either a deer or an elk for the purposes of hunting them. They are typically larger than deer, yet smaller than elk and likely easier to take down than either. A large bull may top 500 pounds but a more usual weight is on the order of 250-300 pounds. Females are typically much lighter, on average between 150-250 pounds. Caribou also have heavier skeletal structures than deer and tend to be “lankier” as well with longer legs and longer necks. They also have the largest antlers for body size of any antlered game and (unusual among ungulates) the females grow antlers as well as males.
Caribou tend to favor open country, in the Lower 48 the most analogous example would be pronghorn antelope or sagebrush mule deer. In the summer and the early hunting season it is not unusual to find caribou in the high mountains clinging to snowpack above the vegetation line trying to escape biting insects and in the winter they can be found in the river bottoms in the black spruce forests. There are a number of subspecies and some folks have a tendency to want to further separate those into further subspecies and some hunting organizations will recognize more still. For the purpose of this article, we’ll consider them all collectively as the variations between “mountain caribou” and “barren ground caribou” are too slight to bother about. There are some differences, but all caribou (even the “woodland” variety of Eastern and Central Canada) all occupy fairly open country. Experts can argue endlessly about the genetic variations among caribou but I won’t since from a hunting perspective there’s simply no difference at all.
I’ve seen caribou taken with all sorts of cartridges from the diminutive .223 Remington up to the .375 H&H with many steps in between. I’ll say outright that the smallest and the largest cartridges are (for different reasons) not particularly suitable as the “perfect caribou rifle”. I think the .223 and the .22-250 aren’t particularly suitable even though some folks use them well in that role. I also don’t think the .243 Winchester and 6mm Remington class of cartridges are really very ideal either. They can work but remember we’re talking about “ideal”, not “adequate”. While caribou are soft for their size they can still take a good deal of killing and it may occur at longer range as well. When caribou are migrating, the little .243 Winchester can do good service for recoil sensitive individuals but I don’t really see them as a best choice for the general run of caribou hunting.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the large cartridges such as the .375 H&H and the .338 Winchester Magnum are simply a lot more gun than you need for even the biggest caribou walking. That said, caribou are often hunted in conjunction with other species such as grizzly bears and moose and “too dead” is not nearly the problem “not quite dead enough” represents. In the words of Mae West, “Too much of a good thing…is marvelous!” My frequent hunting partner tends to favor the .338 Winchester Magnum and .375 H&H and he’s killed a truckload of caribou with authority. I still can’t say that they are really “perfect” when considering the caribou as a single species. In fact, the caribou rifle cartridge I’ve taken the bulk of my caribou with, the .300WSM, isn’t really required either. In fact, when we talk about the “perfect” caribou rifle it probably doesn’t even need to be a .30 caliber. Many hunters here use the .300 classes of cartridges for everything and there is nothing wrong with it. Those folks have the range and power to deal with any animal at any practical range. Additionally, as is the case will all North American hunting, a .308 Winchester or the .30 -06 Springfield isn’t really ever the wrong answer either.
The bulk of the caribou I’ve seen taken were between 200-250 yards. I’ve taken very few over 300 yards and very few under 100 yards. While I personally detest true “long range hunting”, caribou are typically taken at longer than normal ranges compared to deer or moose. Informal surveys indicate that the first shot on an unwounded caribou tends to be the longest shooting Alaska hunters do. It’s mostly a function of the terrain, dead open country like tundra and alpine. That would indicate that the “perfect” caribou rifle would need to shoot relatively flat. I don’t think the new crop of “super magnums” like the 26 Nosler or the 6.5 Weatherby are really required for such shooting; any cartridge with a 350-yard Maximum Point Blank Range on a 12″ target should suffice. Approaching caribou can be difficult due to herding (that’s a lot of eyes and ears and noses!) but a reasonable stalking technique can close the distance to well within good shooting range. Caribou also tend to be pretty accommodating unlike furtive whitetails that bolt at the first twitch of their senses. The other consideration is that taking a really long poke is hard to justify when caribou are typically herding during hunting season. You can simply keep looking until you find one closer. Also consider that curious caribou will often approach hunters to well within nominal rifle range. Given the distances involved, it’s hard to think of either the brush guns or the super-magnums as being part of the “perfect” caribou rifle.
So where does that leave us? I’d say the .25s represent the minimum bore for serious consideration. Something on the order of the .25-06 Remington or the .257 Weatherby is probably a good place to start. Better still yet is something in the 6.5mm category; cartridges like the .260 Remington, the 6.5-284, the 6.5 Creedmore and even the old (and very, very good 6.5×55 Swede) would meet the criteria. I think the next step up are probably the best “perfect” caribou rifle cartridges going. The .270 and 7mm classes- the .270 Winchester, the .280 Remington, the 7-08 Remington, 7WSM and the 7 Remington Magnum are, at least to my mind, the closest you can get to the “perfect” caribou rifle cartridges. I’ve taken caribou with both the .270 Winchester and the 7-08 Remington and found neither wanting. I’ve witnessed the .280 Remington, 7WSM and the 7mm Remington Mag in action and all of those cartridges have both the range and the power for typically long shots at even the biggest bulls. Bullet selection and factory ammunition is abundant and all can be pressed into service on larger animals if required. I’d likely forego both the 7WSM and 7 Remington Magnum from this list and concentrate on the .270, .280 and 7-08 out of ammunition cost and recoil concerns. The 7mm magnums don’t kick unduly hard, but there’s no reason to live with it if you don’t have to. For mixed bag hunting, I typically rely on heavier cartridges but that is something the caribou specialist can easily do without.
Within the .270/7mm class, the 130-150 grain bullets are common and all have 300-yard drops between 6″ and 8″ with a 200 yard zero and that’s plenty flat enough. In terms of energy all retain in excess of 1500 ft./lbs., which is plenty of wounding potential. I used the 7-08 Remington this year in a lightweight carbine on a nice bull at 250 yards and crumpled him with a single shot. Those longer .277” and 7mm bullets buck the wind a little better and caribou country is windy as a rule. I’ve seen all of these cartridges used and all performed well. The other consideration is recoil- the 270/7mm class tends to be pretty moderate in the recoil department, especially with 130-150 grain bullets. Moderate recoil encourages good shooting and good shooting is the bulk of the problem for the most part. An animal has never died from a ballistic table or a cartridge head stamp, but bullet placement is a different matter!
Now that we’ve got the cartridge sorted out…what sort of rifle to house it in? I really think when we’re talking caribou we’re thinking bolt action rifles. For one, the bolt actions typically have the accuracy required and are easier to shoot prone. In the high tundra and mountain areas caribou are typically hunted, standing shots are seldom taken. I shoot about half of my shots on game prone and the other half sitting and the bolt action is just the easiest to operate without losing sight of the animal in the scope. I also think we need to consider gun weight. The idea of a 12-pound tack driving caribou rifle is not really ideal despite the accuracy benefit. Caribou hunting typically entails a fair bit of walking, so a lightweight rifle is pretty desirable. For the record, I’m not sold of the current crop of super light rifles either- I’ve found them difficult to shoot well after even moderate exertion. Something between 7.5 to 8.5 pounds scoped would be about right. That’s light enough to carry all day but heavy enough to settle when you’re winded. Since the weather in caribou country is frequently just horrible, a weatherproof gun is not a bad idea either. I really like the current crop of Cerakoted rifles housed in impervious Kevlar stocks for this kind of duty. On a tighter budget, stainless steel and plastic work well too. I’ve hauled a walnut stocked rifle into the caribou hills and found it heartbreaking. It works, but it will show the scars afterward. Rocky, wet country can be hard on a rifle’s finish.
On top of that rifle, a scope of moderate magnification seems to be right. I really like the fixed 6x for this kind of thing, but I realize I’m in the minority. A 2-8x, 3-9x or 4-12 represents a good selection of variables should that be choice. I don’t think 30mm tubes or objective lenses over 40mm really bring many benefits to the table. Shooting will most likely be in good light over open terrain, not very many low light shots in dark timber to be had out there. I also don’t think you need a giant scope like the 5-25x or 6-20x that seem so popular for long-range hunting. Those seem really good for adding cost and gun weight without a really useful benefit. Selecting a decent 3-9x and buying more ammunition for shooting practice seems a surer bet than a fancy scope with swanky features. Since it rains a lot in the North, a good scope cover or lens cover is essential and worth their weight in gold. There is a variety available and most of them work as advertised. We’ve used the Defender Flip Caps from Vortex and also the Butler Creek version both with good results
As far as rifles go- there are numerous models and manufacturers that will do. The ones I have personal experience with are the Tikka T3, the Ruger American, the Browning X-Bolt, the Nosler 48, the Kimber Montana, the Remington 700, the Savage 16, the Winchester 70 and if there’s a bad one, I’m not aware of it. That list is certainly not exhaustive, but should give the reader a place to start should they choose.
For what it’s worth, my Browning Stainless Stalker X-bolt in .270 Winchester has made an excellent caribou rifle. If I were going to buy a new one I’d strongly consider a Remington 700 Mountain Rifle in stainless and the .280 Remington chambering. The Tikka T3and the Ruger American make a pretty compelling rifle for the cost-conscious hunter. My son’s compact Ruger American in 7-08 Remington shoots Federal Fusion 140 grain ammo into ragged holes at 100 yards and has toppled a few caribou already and it cost under $500 with a scope. His new rifle is a Tikka T3 in .270 Winchester that shows no flaws for the purpose. For the first time caribou hunter or the visiting sportsman, there’s a very good chance you have not only a perfectly adequate caribou rifle masquerading as your deer rifle, but it might be more “ideal” than you’d imagine.
Michael Rogers is an Alaskan hunter, an inveterate rifle crank, and an unrepentant caribou junkie. August and September finds him prowling the Alaska Range looking for caribou, rifle in hand.
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