Contrary to popular belief, black bears are not that hard to kill. On average, they go under 250 pounds. Shots are usually close, and the fact that many bruins are taken incidentally by deer hunters, with deer-hunting rifles should tell you something. But they’re still bears. As a rule, it doesn’t hurt to make a big hole.

Choosing the best cartridge, however, depends on how you hunt. Black bears are typically gotten after in one of three ways: behind hounds, over bait, or via spot and stalk. Hunters trailing hounds don't need a round with reach, as shots are very close and you have plenty of time to take careful aim. Hunting over bait is a short-range affair, too, but the brush is typically thick and shots more unpredictable, so a hard-hitting cartridge in a repeating rifle is the way to go. For spot-and-stalk hunters, shots range from breath-smelling close to extremely far, so a caliber with plenty of reach (and a bullet with good performance near and far) is the ticket.

Here are 10 of the very best black bear cartridges—three for each hunting method and one all-round top choice.

For Bears with Hounds

.30/30 Winchester

30 30 Winchester
The .30/30 Winchester.Richard Mann

If you’ve ever hunted black bears with dogs, you know that the trail can be long and rough enough to stop a mule. For that, a lightweight, easy-carrying, rugged rifle, like an open-sighted Winchester Model 94, is ideal. The shot will be short, and if you fall and roll down the mountain before you get to the tree, you don’t have to worry about a scope losing its zero. The .30/30 is not just a proven bear killer, it is probably the most-proven bear killer. Select a quick-expanding bullet for this kind of hunting.

  • Bullet Weight: 155 grains
  • Muzzle Velocity: 2,390 fps
  • Muzzle Energy: 1,966 ft/lbs

.35 Remington

.35 Remington
The .35 Remington.Richard Mann

Almost forgotten, the .35 Remington is a favorite of hunters who chase black bears with dogs. This antique cartridge seems to kill out of proportion to its ballistic numbers, and old-timers trust it. So should you. I keep a custom takedown Marlin 336 in .35 Remington behind my truck seat. Standard .35 Rem loads will do the job, but Buffalo Bore’s Heavy load operates at the maximum allowable pressure for this cartridge and delivers more copper and lead than any black bear can handle.

  • Bullet Weight: 220 grains
  • Muzzle Velocity: 2,200 fps
  • Muzzle Energy: 2,364 ft/lbs

.44 Remington Magnum

.44 Remington Magnum
The .44 Remington Magnum.Richard Mann

Mostly considered a revolver cartridge, the .44 Magnum is often chambered in rifles. And those rifles—like the Marlin 1894 or Ruger 77/44—are lightweight, compact, and ideal for hound hunting. Match one with a great .44 Magnum load and you’ll drop bears stone dead, no matter how tall the tree he climbed into is. Make sure you select a tough bullet that will hold up to rifle velocities. (For maximum packing comfort when following hounds in mountain country, check out the Scandium-framed, 25.2-ounce, S&W Model 329PD revolver.)

  • Bullet Weight: 240 grains
  • Muzzle Velocity: 1,600 fps (rifle); 1,300 fps (pistol)
  • Muzzle Energy: 1,364 ft/lbs (rifle); 901 ft/lbs (pistol)

For Bears Over Bait

.45/70 Government

.45/70 Government
The .45/70 Government.Richard Mann

Yep, it’s old-fashioned, but with modern ammunition the .45/70 is far from antiquated. This cartridge is available in fast-handling lever guns, like the 16.5-inch-barreled Marlin 1895 Trapper. Load it with the latest .45/70 ammo, and it will provide all the short-range bear-busting muscle you’ll ever need. And if you happen to make a bad shot and have to trail a wounded bear into the pucker brush, there’s no better rifle/cartridge combo to be carrying.

Top Load: Barnes VORTX

  • Bullet Weight: 300 grains
  • Muzzle Velocity: 1,905 fps
  • Muzzle Energy: 2,418 ft/lbs
Dead Alberta Black Bear
The author put down this Alberta black bear over bait with a .45/70 lever action.Richard Mann

12 Gauge

12 Gauge
The 12 Gauge.Richard Mann

A 12-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs is more often thought of for bear defense than for bear hunting. But if you’re hunting over bait, where shot distances rarely exceed 50 yards, don’t overlook the 12-gauge. More than 300 grains of lead and copper will knock a mouthful of week-old donuts out of any black bear. And if a particularly curious or aggressive bruin tries to climb into your treestand, you’ll be glad you’ve got a fully loaded slug-slinger in your hands.

  • Bullet Weight: 385 grains
  • Muzzle Velocity: 1,850 fps
  • Muzzle Energy: 2,925 ft/lbs

.300 HAM’R

.300 HAM’R
The .300 HAM’R.Richard Mann

There are a number AR-15-compatible cartridges that you can hunt bears with, but this is my top choice. At bear-baiting distances, the Wilson Combat 300 HAM’R will do anything the .30/30 Winchester will, and from a lighter package that holds more ammunition. Attach a reflex sight and you’ll have a nimble rifle chambered for a cartridge that’ll hammer black bears of any size. And if you need a quick second shot, nothing is faster than an AR-15.

  • Bullet Weight: 150 grains
  • Muzzle Velocity: 2,265 fps
  • Muzzle Energy: 1,708 ft/lbs

For Spot-and-Stalk Bears

6.5 Creedmoor

6.5 Creedmoor
The 6.5 Creedmoor.Richard Mann

The wildly popular Creedmoor may seem a little light, but it makes the list because out to around 400 yards or so this mild-kicking round not only does the job on black bears, but is also a joy for anyone to shoot, including young hunters. It also flies flat and the sectional density of the best 6.5 bullets helps them penetrate deeply. I took my largest spot-and-stalk bear—a 355 pounder—with a 6.5 Creedmoor. Make sure you select a bullet that will hold together at close range and still deform at distance, because you never know how far you might have to shoot.

  • Bullet Weight: 143 grains
  • Muzzle Velocity: 2,700 gps
  • Muzzle Energy: 2,315 ft/lbs
355-pound Newfoundland black bear
The author took this 355-pound Newfoundland black bear with a 6.5 Creedmoor.Richard Mann

.338 Federal

.338 Federal
The .338 Federal.Richard Mann

If ever there was a cartridge made for bear hunting, it was the .358 Winchester. I killed my first bear with a .358, and for deep-woods stalks, it has plenty of reach and mojo to get the job done. Buffalo Bore’s 225-grain Heavy load is the best option still going, but the .358 has largely gone the way of the dodo. The .338 Federal is the modern version of the .358—but even better. It hits harder, shoots flatter, and you can actually find factory ammunition for it. For spot-and-stalk bear hunting in cluttered country, this one is tough to beat.

Top Load: Federal Fusion

  • Bullet Weight: 200 grains
  • Muzzle Velocity: 2,660 fps
  • Muzzle Energy: 3,140 ft/lbs

.300 Winchester Magnum

.300 Winchester Magnum
The .300 Winchester Magnum.Richard Mann

As a rule, magnums are not necessary for black bears. But when a big boar is looking for love in the spring, he’ll cover a whole lot of ground. And he probably won’t wait around for you to get up close and personal. Your only opportunity might be brief, and it might max out the limits of your skill and equipment. If you’re capable and you think you might have to shoot across a wide canyon, you need a cartridge that flies flat and hits hard at distance—and the .300 Win Mag does just that.

  • Bullet Weight: 190 grains
  • Muzzle Velocity: 2,900 fps
  • Muzzle Energy: 3,547 ft/lbs

Best All-Round Black Bear Cartridge

.308 Winchester

.308 Winchester
The .308 Winchester.Richard Mann

If you’re looking for a one-cartridge answer for all methods of black-bear hunting, it boils down to the .308 Winchester, as it does for just about every other type of big-game hunting in North America. The .308 fits in compact rifles of all action types. You can find ammo at gas stations, roadside markets, and probably under your truck seat. Bullet options are endless for the .308, and it offers a great ballistic balance for shooting up close and far away. What about the .30-06? Well, there’s never been a black bear that could tell the difference between a .308 and a .30-06. And when you’re behind the gun, you can’t either.

  • Bullet Weight: 165 grains
  • Muzzle Velocity: 2,700 fps
  • Muzzle Energy: 2,671 ft/lbs
silver-backed black bear
The author with a silver-backed black bear taken in Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness at 400 yards with a .308 Winchester.Richard Mann

The Three Worst Black Bear Loads

Black bears are not that hard to kill. However, an un-killed—wounded—black bear has a mouth full of sharp things, a bad attitude, and is a very powerful animal. You want to shoot a black bear with a bullet that will create a wide wound cavity, and one that will exit to let as much air out, and put as much blood on the ground, as possible. Here are three to avoid.

FMJ Bullets

Full metal jacket bullets from just about any cartridge should shoot completely through just about any black bear. But these bullets do not expand, thus creating minimal internal damage. FMJ bullets work great on paper and steel, not so much on critters.

Varmint Bullets

Some hunters have found varmint bullets instantly lethal on deer. But a black bear is not a deer. Black bears are fatty, hard-boned creatures. If you can slip an explosive varmint bullet into their lungs It’ll work. However, hit a bone, the paunch, or a lot of fat, and the wound will be nasty but superficial. And, the bear will be as pissed off as agitated hornet’s nest. You don’t need premium bullets for black bear, but you do need an expanding bullet that’ll hold together and drive deep.

Buckshot

Many consider buckshot the ultimate equalizer. If you’re shooting a bad guy who just broke into your home to maim, rape, or kill, buckshot works pretty damn well. However, Buckshot and bears do not mix. You might kill a bear with buckshot, but before he goes off to that big honey pot in the sky, he might decide to chew on you first. Shotguns can work great for bear, but load them with slugs, not buckshot.