Is cartridge selection important for mountain play?

For most people, hunting sheep and mountain goats is a rare and expensive prospect. So when you have planned a hunt of this magnitude, it is natural to wonder what is the best cartridge to use for sheep and mountain goats? This is one of the most common questions I see and receive. In fact, this question kept guys like me – obsessed hunters posing as writers – from entering soup kitchens for almost a hundred years.

Since the invention of smokeless powder, a slew of new cartridges and developments has been relentlessly promoted for hunters. Some hunters view each new offering as the cartridge they’ve been waiting for their whole life. Others are not so easily impressed. Many are completely content to stick with what they know works.

I have hunted sheep for 18 years and also have a few mountain goat hunts. I’ve been lucky enough to have these opportunities, and have seen my hunting buddies take high mountain game in a variety of calibers. So, does your choice of caliber really matter when it comes to hunting sheep and mountain goats? No, but yes too. How’s that for clarity?

Medium calibers are great for sheep – the .25-06 is one of my favorites. Tyler Freel

The purpose of selecting cartridges

You want to choose a chambering that you can shoot with precision, that will be suitable for the conditions, and that will do enough damage to kill your target animal quickly and cleanly. With this in mind, nearly all modern big game cartridges have enough power to cleanly kill sheep and mountain goats when used responsibly.

There are certainly irresponsible choices. For example, I wouldn’t recommend taking .204, .223 or .300 BLK cartridges – you want a bit more juice than these will give you. But when it comes to what is adequate, a hunter of sheep thinking he need an upgraded .280 Ackley, .300 WSM, or something even bigger or fancier to pull off is insane.

Guys like Frank Glaser were killing sheep by the bushel with the old .250-3000 Savage hot rod back in the late 1910s. Frankly, that would still be a good fit. Glaser claimed that a .220 Swift killed hoofed game faster than any other cartridge he had ever tried (when the animals were hit with a solid lung shot). I think if you were mindful of the wind conditions, the .22-250 with a 50 grain copper ballistic tip would be dynamite on the sheep.

In some ways, the selection of cartridges for sheep and mountain goats does not matter much. It’s a safe bet that with a good bullet that will hold together, no matter what caliber your deer rifle is, it’s perfectly capable of cleanly killing sheep and goats under the right circumstances. By other means, often less tangible or predictable, your choice of cartridge Is question.

mountain goat
Mountain goats are tougher than sheep and are often found in much more rugged country. Tyler Freel

Choosing a cartridge is not always easy

Besides the physics needed to kill game cleanly, there are several considerations a hunter must take into account when choosing the cartridge they will depend on to get the job done. Shooting sheep and goats is often done in difficult wind conditions and at steep camera angles.

Harsh or windy conditions don’t mean you need a modern, ultra-efficient, high CB cartridge, you just need to understand how those conditions will affect your shot. It’s up to you to stay within your effective range. The flip side is that fast cartridges with high BC bullets provide a higher margin of error in tough conditions.

Mountain Goat .25-06
Medium calibers kill goats very well, but they aren’t as forgiving when you need to anchor them. Tyler Freel

Another benefit of some of these cartridges is that they are more efficient and can deliver excellent low end performance with reduced recoil compared to many old favorites. An example of this is the 6.8 Western, which has only 5% less energy at 200 yards than a .300 Win Mag. This compares the factory 175 grain Browning load to the factory strong Barnes 180 grain TSX .300 Win Mag load. But the 6.8 Western brings much less felt recoil. It is a more compact cartridge with better ballistics. There are many excellent cartridges for sheep and mountain goats, but some of the newer ones have advantages.

In general, you’ll want to select a shotgun-cartridge combo that doesn’t beat you and is fairly easy to carry in the mountains.

Goats can be hard to kill

One factor that should not be overlooked when selecting a cartridge for hunting sheep or goats is the animal itself. Because sheep and goats are usually found in harsh country, it is common to think that both species are difficult to kill. In my experience, I found this to be a dividing point between sheep and mountain goats.

For the sheep – Dall’s sheep anyway – I found they descended easily. A ram may seem out of phase for a few seconds when hit in the lungs with a .300 WSM, but that’s a temporary deception – it’s not going anywhere. I’ve seen quite a few rams fall backwards within a second or two of being hit by a 6.5 Creedmoor, and I’ve yet to see a ram hit solidly – with any shotgun shell – do more than a hundred meters. Choosing a sheep rifle and cartridge, I focus almost entirely on accuracy and relatively smooth recoil.

Mountain goats are another story. They are considerably more resistant to giving up the ghost, or at least that is my perception. They have a reputation for absorbing lead, then using their last ditch efforts to hurl themselves from the cliffs into the unrecoverable chasms below. From what I’ve seen, goats are definitely tougher than sheep, but a lot of their reputation has to do with the generally precarious places they live in. Most of the time it is of no consequence if a sheep runs 50 meters before expiring, but often that same distance could render a goat unrecoverable.

goats on the mountain
Places where goats live can make it difficult for them to recover if they move far after being hit. Tyler Freel

It doesn’t take much of a gun to kill a mountain goat, but goats can also seem impossible to ground. The first goat I killed was with a Ruger .375, and after being flattened by the first shot and rolling, the goat tried to get back up and I had to shoot it again. The following year I killed a big lead with my .25-06 which also took a second shot.

The most recent goat I killed was a nanny on Kodiak Island, shot with a .300 Win Mag. At the shot, she collapsed, acting like this would be it, then threw herself into the air and started rolling down the nearly vertical side of the mountain.

For goats, bigger is better, up to a point

Goat hunting often seems to boil down to finding a goat in a location where you can successfully shoot and retrieve it. Sometimes this recovery depends on the ability to stop the goat from running. Favoring more powerful cartridges will usually help you in this regard, just remember that it still cannot guarantee the result.

Many guides will tell hunters to bring the most powerful cartridge they can comfortably shoot, especially for goats. It’s not that these guides worry about the inability of a smaller rifle, but that they’ve seen things go wrong and welcome the extra margin of error that more powerful cartridges offer. often. The amount of recoil a hunter can handle is completely personal. .30 magnums and even .338 cartridges aren’t overkill for goats if you can shoot them well.

The more punch your cartridge can hold, the better the chance of anchoring a goat, but goats will be goats, and sometimes it seems like nothing will stop them. Even our editor, Alex Robinson, experienced just how stubborn Goats can be when the Goat he hit hard with the previously mentioned 6.8 Western Charge took just a few steps too far.

Years ago I saw a big billy hit a .340 Weatherby multiple times, all in the ribs. Each shot knocked him to his knees, but he immediately got up and kept walking. He traveled about 75 meters.

Chase the situation

Trying to choose the perfect sheep or goat cartridge is an ambiguous endeavor that is clouded by a litany of variables and circumstances. There are plenty of great options and even more that are, at worst, quite adequate. Whichever mountain game cartridge you choose, remember that you are hunting the situation as much as the animal itself. You need to find that big ram or billy in a set of circumstances that will give you the best chance of killing it and recovering it cleanly and without incident.

Read next: Aoudad in West Texas: Is the ‘poor man’s sheep hunt’ really a sheep hunt?

There is nothing wrong with choosing a number of century-old cartridges for hunting sheep and goats, and there is no shame in admitting that a newer cartridge that is slightly more powerful, or more effective or more easy to pull, can increase the chances of a happy ending.

So what to choose then? Choose the sheep and mountain goat cartridge that makes you feel good. Seriously. Choose the cartridge/bullet/gun combination that gives you confidence. If you have a lucky deer gun that never misses, use it. If you’re a cartridge enthusiast, eat your heart out on the ballistics tables and choose the cartridge that gives you the greatest mathematical advantage – just make sure you can fire it well in a hunting scenario.

Writers like me often dive into the details of firearms, gear, and cartridges, but I never lose sleep over which cartridge to choose for my own hunts – and neither should you.

Helen L. Cuellar