The One Rifle Big Game Hunter

By Chuck Hawks

There is an old saying: Beware of the one gun man! The implication is that he knows his weapon and can hit what he (or she) shoots at. I am not sure that saying is entirely valid, since the person who owns only one hunting rifle is probably not particularly interested in guns, may not practice much, and probably doesn't regard shooting as a major recreational activity. Still, familiarity with one's rifle is certainly a good thing.

For the recreational shooter and hunter, one gun simply won't get the job done. But one good rimfire handgun, one good centerfire handgun, one good upland/skeet shotgun, one good waterfowl/trap shotgun, one good rimfire rifle, and one good centerfire rifle might. The subject of this article is choosing that one good centerfire rifle. Along the way I will include examples of suitable rifles and cartridges with which I have had some experience.

I tend to think of the one rifle big game hunter as a recreational shooter who owns a small battery (as above), but for whatever reason cannot own more than one centerfire hunting rifle. I have been there myself. That person should focus on finding the best rifle/cartridge combination for the particular area and game he or she intends to hunt.

The recreational shooter who has to rely on just one rifle is probably going to shoot it a lot, so that one rifle must not only get the job done, it should be fun to shoot. It should fit well, operate naturally, and not kick so hard that frequent range sessions become unpleasant. For instance, as long as it is adequate for the game to be hunted, a 7mm-08 would be a better choice than a 7mm Magnum.

The first and most important thing to remember is that there is never any substitute for quality. A single high quality, name brand rifle is far more desirable than several of indifferent quality. Select a rifle you can be proud to own. Some of the popular but high quality brand names on my personal list are Browning, Henry, Kimber, Marlin, Ruger, Sako, Steyr-Mannlicher, Weatherby, and Winchester. This is not a comprehensive list, just some examples to let you know the sort of rifles to which I am referring. See the article "Recommended Centerfire Hunting Rifles" for more specific suggestions.

Unfortunately, no single rifle is appropriate (or perhaps even legal) for all species of what we call big game animals--creatures ranging in size from about 75 pounds to, I suppose, pachyderms. But I am going to omit pachyderms and all other thick-skinned game; they are beyond the scope of this article.

Two key factors to consider are the type of country to be hunted, and the size of game to be hunted. Of course, some people are lucky enough to hunt all over the country, the continent, or the world, but most people cannot afford to do so. For us, hunting will be more of a local endeavor.

To narrow down the choices, consider the country to be hunted. For woods, rain forest, or brush country, a fast handling, medium range rifle in a caliber appropriate to the game would probably be a good choice. If it is steep country where a lot of climbing is required to hunt alpine species like sheep and goats, a lightweight, reasonably flat shooting "mountain rifle" is probably the way to go. If you are hunting open country like desert, plains, or savannas where long range shots are likely, an exceptionally accurate, medium-heavy, long barreled rifle might be appropriate. The point is to match the rifle to the anticipated use. A 10.5 pound "bean field" rifle with a 26" barrel is not going to be a good choice for the mountain hunter, and a .47-70 Guide Gun is not the plains hunter's cup of tea.

The quarry must also be considered. A sweet shooting .243 is not an adequate elk rifle, and a .358 Win. carbine is not a very good pronghorn antelope rifle. A .30-30 is not the best choice for brown bear, and a .338 Ultra Magnum is an equally poor choice for whitetail deer.

All of those would be bad choices, so what follows are some examples of good choices. Let me add up front that a high quality scope is as important as the rifle itself, and any rifle owned by a one rifle hunter (who by definition does not have a back-up rifle) had better be wearing a good scope suitable for its intended purpose. You can't hit what you can't see.

Hunt medium size big game like sheep and goats in mountainous country and a fairly short, light weight, flat shooting, single shot or bolt action rifle is the usual choice. My favorite current examples are the Ruger No. 1-A Light Sporter in 7x57, Remington Model 700 Mountain Rifle in .260 Remington, and Winchester Model 70 Classic Featherweight in 6.5x55. A 2.5-8x scope nicely complements these rifles. For the traditionalist, a bolt action Mannlicher carbine in 6.5x54 or 6.5x55 would be hard to pass up.

For medium size animals in open country (like antelope, deer, and sundry plains game of about 75-200 pounds live weight), a flat shooting cartridge in a medium weight bolt action or single shot rifle with at least a 22" barrel (24" or 26" barrels are even better) is a reasonable choice. A 3-9x or 3-10x scope nicely complements such a rifle. One of my favorite rifles of this type is the bolt action Weatherby Mark V Deluxe in .240 or .257 Weatherby Magnum calibers.

Add Rocky Mountain elk, zebra, kudu, or other large game to the mix in open or broken country and a powerful all-around rifle is called for; particularly if there is the possibility of an encounter with bears or big cats. The bolt action Winchester Model 70 Sporter LT and Browning A-Bolt Medallion rifles in .270 Winchester, 7mm Magnum, or .30-06 calibers with a quality 2.5-8x or 3-9x scope are classy examples.

For medium size big game in brush, woods, and forested country it is hard to beat a fast handling lever, pump, autoloading, or bolt action carbine in a "deer and black bear" caliber. A Marlin 336 lever action in .30-30 with a 1-4x scope fills the bill perfectly.

Add Roosevelt elk, Swedish moose, or similar size large game to the mix in forested country and a more powerful caliber becomes desirable. The Ruger M-77RSI bolt action carbine in .308 Winchester or .30-06 with a 2-7x scope is a favorite of mine.

No single rifle can do everything perfectly. But a little time spent pondering the alternatives and realistically analyzing one's needs, can lead to a satisfactory choice for the one rifle hunter.

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Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.