Refining a Hunting Rifle Battery
By Chuck Hawks
I am, first and foremost, a recreational shooter and gun crank. Some guys like to bowl or play golf or tennis; I like to shoot and I enjoy owning fine firearms. Like most avid shooters and gun owners, it's easy for me to accumulate more firearms than I really need. (Can't own too many guns, right?)
However, one common topic of discussion among hunters is about the most useful rifles and rifle calibers. Which rifles do we really need for a good, general purpose rifle battery and what could we live without?
In a way, it is easier to choose a rifle than a cartridge. Once you know the most appropriate cartridge for your purpose, you simply buy the rifle you like best (and can afford) in that caliber. Choose whatever style and action best fits your needs and desires. One fact to keep in mind for the traveling hunter is that some jurisdictions do not allow semi-automatic hunting rifles, so a manually operated action is more appropriate in such circumstances.
I think that a reasonably serious recreational shooter/hunter can justify owning a battery of, say, a half dozen hunting rifles that allows him (or her) to hunt pretty much anything, certainly on the continent where he lives (North America in my case) and ideally anywhere in the world. It seems to me that a first logical step is to make a list of reasonably available hunting rifle calibers and the primary purposes for which they are used and work from there. Of course, such a list will vary, depending on where the hunter lives and what calibers and rifles are available there. An example of such a list for a hunter in my area might look like this:
One caliber that will probably be on every list is the .22 LR. This is the caliber with which you learn to shoot. Practically everyone occasionally hunts small game and the .22 LR is unsurpassed for the purpose. It is also the world's most popular plinking caliber. Recoil and muzzle blast are minimal. .22 LR ammunition is very reasonably priced, allowing high volume shooting. Good .22's are available in a huge variety of rifles of every action type and many of the manually operated actions (but not autoloaders) allow the use of .22 Short and Long cartridges in addition to the ubiquitous Long Rifle.
It is clear there is a lot of overlap on this long list of potential rifle calibers and that some can be eliminated. Let's make our first priority reducing this initial list to include not more than two calibers of each type.
For instance, the .22 WMR, .17 HMR, .17 Win. Super Mag, .17 Hornet, .204 Ruger, .223, .22-250 and .220 Swift are all excellent varmint calibers within their various range limitations. The rimfires are quieter and kick less than the centerfires. Among the centerfires, the .17 Hornet is both mild and flat shooting. The mid-size .204 and .223 are noisier than the .17 Hornet, but quieter and less tiring to shoot over long sessions than the more powerful .22-250 and .220 Swift. They all have their place. However, in a battery limited to six hunting rifles, there is probably room for only one or, depending on your priorities, at most two varmint rifles. Perhaps a rimfire and a centerfire should be chosen to make the first cut.
The .24 and .25 calibers are generally regarded as suitable for long range varminting, small predators and most medium game, especially the smaller species of deer and antelope. Many experienced hunters consider the .25's more capable than the .24's, particularly if the primary emphasis is on hunting medium game at long range. The .257 Weatherby is unsurpassed for this purpose. On the other hand, the .24's are probably better combination varmint/medium game cartridges and the .243 Winchester is, by far, the most popular of the group and offers the best selection of rifles and ammunition.
The .260, 6.5x55, 7mm-08 and 7x57 serve the same purpose and all typically fire a 140 grain bullet at a MV of around 2700-2800 fps. These are versatile calibers with reasonably flat trajectories, good killing power and moderate recoil. Also worth consideration is a woods caliber for Class 2 game; of these, the .30-30 is by far the most popular. Unfortunately, to be reasonable, we must eliminate all but two of the our possible Class 2 calibers.
Another duplication are the all-around rifles in .270, .308, .30-06, 7mm Mag. and .300 Mag. All are capable all-around calibers and it will be difficult to choose between them. The .270 and the magnums offer flatter trajectories than the .308 and .30-06. As they say, the 7mm Mag. shoots as flat as a .270 and hits as hard as a .30-06. However, the two magnums, and especially the .300 Mag., kick harder and are therefore harder to shoot accurately than the .270, .308 and .30-06 in rifles of the same weight. There generally isn't much to choose between the .308 Win. (a short action cartridge) and the .30-06 (a standard length cartridge) in performance, but the longer .30-06 case undeniably handles heavy for caliber bullets more efficiently. The .30-06 is probably the most widely distributed and accepted big game cartridge in the world. Narrowing this group will require difficult choices. Perhaps we should start by choosing one standard and one magnum caliber.
There are four powerful medium bore calibers on the master list, the standard .35 Whelen and 9.3x62mm cartridges and the .338 Win. and .375 H&H Magnums. These are all versatile calibers, capable of cleanly harvesting all Class 3 game and, in a pinch, they will take down the largest and toughest animals on earth with heavy for caliber bullets. The .338 Mag. is the most popular medium bore in North America, while the 9.3x62 is popular in Europe and Africa and the .375 is the Queen of the African medium bores. Where you live and hunt may be a deciding factor. For our first cut, perhaps we can allow one standard and one magnum medium bore on our reduced list.
There are five big bore calibers on the list, two .416's, the .45-70 and two .458 Magnums. All of these calibers can kick like the devil, with the .458 Lott being the worst of the bunch in that regard. Practically speaking, most of us don't need more than one big bore. The .416 Remington and .458 Lott require a long magnum action and the .416 Rigby requires an even larger oversize action that is rare and severely limits the available rifle choices. The .458 Win. Mag. fits in a standard length action and has the additional advantage that, because of its shorter case, it can easily be loaded down to .45-70 levels for hunting smaller, less dangerous game and retain the ability to use full power magnum loads should the need arise. The .45-70 has the least recoil among the big bores on our list and is the most fun to shoot. It is also the most popular and it is available in handy lever action carbines, as well as powerful single shot rifles. However, as factory loaded, its use should be limited to Class 3 size game.
Considering these factors, we might pare down our initial master list to something like this:
The next step will be additional cuts to further shorten our list of possible hunting rifles. Looking at the most obvious areas of overlapping function among the remaining cartridges, there are two varmint calibers on the list and, unless varmint hunting is your top priority, one will probably have to go. There are also two all-around (Class 2 - Class 3) calibers remaining on the list with considerable overlap in capability. One of these will probably have to go. Likewise, a choice will have to be made between the two surviving medium bore calibers. Ditto for the big bore pair. Following these cuts, the revised list might look something like this. (These are reasonable examples, but your choices will probably vary):
Crunch time. The final and most painful deletions must be made to reduce this list of eight to only six. There is overlap between the .223 and .243 for small predator hunting, as well as between the .243, 6.5x55 and .30-30 for Class 2 game. There will be room for only one Class 2 rifle on our final list, so a choice must be made between the .243, 6.5x55 and .30-30. The .243 offers the flattest trajectory, but the least killing power. The 6.5x55 shoots flatter than the .30-30, making it more appropriate for mountain and plains hunting, while the .30-30, particularly in the form of a handy lever action carbine, is the consummate woods rifle. Carbines are also very handy when hunting from tree stands and portable ground blinds. Depending on hunting style and personal preference, the final list of six rifles might look something like this:
The result of this hypothetical exercise should be a tight, versatile, battery of hunting rifles. The actual final choices, of course, will depend on your particular needs and hunting conditions. It is the method that is the point of this article.
Copyright 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.