In this era of once unimaginable bullet design and construction, the superb quality of factory loaded ammunition, the excellence of CNC manufactured rifle barrels and actions, and the equally impressive quality and reliability of telescopic sights, there is notta lotta difference in the performance of hunting rifles.
Notta lotta difference
Not that it will put an end to the great debate, but I’ll state my two cents’ worth regarding the caliber of the rifle you choose to do your hunting on the North American continent: It does not make a lot of difference.
Pick the style of rifle that strikes your fancy (bolt action, lever action, slide action, single shot…) in the caliber that most appeals to your practical nature (or your quirky fascination) and get out in the field. After following deer camp disputes and hunters’ off-season harangues for decades, I’m here to proclaim an end to the hostilities. In regard to ballistics and bullet performance on game there is so little difference among the hunting calibers of rifles that it is a waste of time and energy (and often good beer spilled) to argue that one is superior to another.
The “no difference rule” does have its exceptions. I’m not including the varmint calibers – although a departed friend took his deer every autumn for 30 year-plus years with either a .22-250 Remington, a .220 Swift, or a .243 Winchester – and I’m excluding the strictly woods-hunting calibers such as the .32 Winchester and the .44 Remington Magnum – although for an all-around rifle you would now do just fine with a .30-30 Winchester loaded with Hornady LEVERevolution cartridges with 160-grain spire point bullets.
Between those two extremes – the varmint rifles at one end of the spectrum and the woods rifles at the other– you could go afield with your favorite rifle in any caliber and be assured that it will kill any and all North American game animals, in the manner of the Wicked Witch of the East, “not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead.”
Of course you have to do your part: put the bullet in a vital area. This lesson was brought home to me 40 years ago when a hunting companion shot a small whitetail doe three times with a .300 Winchester Magnum and we had to track it two miles on a windy afternoon. He determined he was not hunting with enough gun. I determined he had shot the deer in the right front leg, the nose, and the left ham. The aforesaid hunter who put them down every year with a .22-250, he always plunked his deer in the chest cavity. One went 150 yards; the rest not as far.
Do that, and the realm of hunting rifle selection is your playground; pick a rifle of any caliber and it will serve you well, in all hunting situations, for a lifetime. As gun writer Jim Carmichael declared more than 25 years ago, you can walk into any gun shop and find at least 10 rifles in the rack that will serve as your all-purpose hunting rifle: .257 Roberts, .25-06 Remington, 6.5×55 Mauser, .260 Remington, .270 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57mm Mauser, .280 Remington, 7mm Remington Magnum, .300 Savage, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .300 Winchester Magnum, plus a dozen calibers with names like “Ultra” and “Super” and “Short” magnums that are intended, apparently, to impress tyro hunters with macho recoil and muzzle blast. (The tacit promise is that they will flip an elk like a prairie dog; they will not.)
In this era of once unimaginable bullet design and construction, the superb quality of factory loaded ammunition, the excellence of CNC manufactured rifle barrels and actions, and the equally impressive quality and reliability of telescopic sights, there is notta lotta difference in the performance of hunting rifles. Shoot a 150 grain spire point bullet at 2,800 feet per second, and it will do just fine on all game out to 300 yards, which is as far as most anyone I’ve seen can hit the mark under hunting conditions. Those ballistic figures are for a .270 Winchester, but that velocity and trajectory (and lethality) can be matched by virtually all of the calibers mentioned above. The hunter’s job is to put the bullet within five inches of the point of aim, and it’s a rare rifle that cannot do that. There are lots of missed shots and wounded game each year that can be attributed to “operator error,” but that is a subject for another essay altogether.
I can hear several former hunting companions spitting and sputtering in outrage about this “one rifle for all needs” premise I’m proposing. Phil Riley in particular, a friend from back in the days when we played a game called “Three Guns,” was an advocate for the theory that one must have a specific rifle for each type of game animal: a .240 Weatherby Magnum for pronghorn, a 7mm Remington Magnum for mountain sheep, a .338 Winchester Magnum for elk, a .444 Marlin for black bear, a .375 H&H Magnum for grizzlies and brown bear, and so on. Representing the all-purpose-rifle faction, I believed (and still believe) that a .30-06 can be used to successfully hunt each and every one of these species, albeit with cartridges loaded with different powder and bullet combinations.
Eventually I figured out that buying several different hunting rifles had little to do with “need” and much to do with “want.” There’s nothing wrong with having a gun safe stocked with 15 or 20 different rifles, I suppose, but when I learn that all but two or three of them are unblooded – never taken on a single hunt – I’m perplexed. Wouldn’t those thousands of dollars have been better spent on booking a few memorable big game hunts rather than buying never-used rifles to be auctioned at your posthumous estate sale?
I’ll repeat the adage an old Czech farmer in northeast Nebraska told me some 40 years ago: “What do you need except a .22 and a .30-06?” In the intervening years I’ve also owned and/or hunted with a .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .25-06 Remington, 7x57mm Mauser, .308 Winchester, .35 Remington, and 44 Remington Magnum – and taken at least one head of game with each of them. But the reality is that my old .30-06 would have done the job just as well, every time.
I sure wish I had bought a half-dozen fewer rifles and gone on a dozen more hunts. Looking back, I think that would have made a lotta difference.
More stories about wildlife, outdoor ventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.