What Calibers Do I Need For North American Hunting?

By Dr. Jim Clary

What brand rifle should I buy and in what caliber? These two questions that have been considered by sportsmen since before I was born. I won't address the brand of rifle, as there are many superb makes available for just about every budget, and everyone has their own idea as to which is best.

But, I will take a crack at the on-going question of which are the best calibers for most folks. First, my assumptions will be based on the premise that you want to have 2 or 3 rifles in your arsenal. If you are looking for just one, that is a whole new article. (Read "All-Around Rifle Calibers," found on the Ammunition and Cartridge Articles index of the Rifle Information Page.)

Okay, you are willing to buy, let us say, three rifles to hunt in North America. (This article is not intended to cover hunts in Africa or other continents.) Three different rifle calibers to cover "all the bases" in the U.S. and Canada.

Why three rifles? Here is my reasoning: One rifle for small animals and fun shooting. This caliber should combine low recoil, readily available factory ammo, and low cost of reloading for target practice, yet be powerful enough to take out any varmint or small predator (CXP1 game).

The second rifle is for medium size game animals (CXP2 game). This is the deer and antelope caliber and should offer modest recoil, readily available factory ammo, and modest cost of reloading.

And a third rifle for larger game animals (CXP3 game). Its cartridge must have tolerable recoil, readily available factory ammo, and acceptable cost of reloading, yet be powerful enough to take down elk, moose, caribou and brown bears.

I must agree with Randy Wakeman (author of "Rifle Caliber Complex") that most of the new calibers, including short mags, super short mags and ultra mags, are superfluous. They may be fun, but they don't fill any "gap" in the cartridge world. My personal opinion is that the rifle manufacturers introduced these cartridges to get the consumer to buy new rifles. After all, if you already have an effective arsenal, why buy another rifle unless it offers something new? Hence, the new faddish calibers. And, don't get me wrong, they are tempting, but unnecessary.

First Rifle Caliber

The one that will be the most fun to shoot, enables you to collect varmints and small predators, and play at the range. I can suggest three calibers that fit that requirement. These are the .243 Winchester, .220 Swift and .22-250. All are pleasurable to shoot, with recoil of less than 10 ft. lbs. (unless you load the .243 with heavy bullets at maximum pressure). The cases are readily available for reloading and factory ammo is available at most ammo retailers.

I lean toward the .243 Win, mostly because I have one, and it can be used as an effective deer/antelope rifle if I am so inclined. But, my father-in-law, who has been shooting for many more years than I have, prefers the .220 Swift and the 22-250. So, there you have it for rifle number one: .243 Winchester, .220 Swift or 22-250. Pick one!

Second Rifle Caliber

You need a cartridge with a little more punch. Lots of good calibers in this category. But, for availability of factory ammunition across North America, availability of a wide selection of bullets and lots of brass for reloading, I have to go with the .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester or 30-06. These three calibers can be loaded up or down, and have average recoil of less than 20 lbs. Not something that you would like to shoot 100 rounds through on the range, but comfortable enough to zero the weapon in for clean shots in the field.

These calibers have accounted for every game animal that walks our continent (providing you follow rule number one: proper shot placement). Which one you select is up to you. I shoot a .270 Winchester in a Ruger #1 international. Not because I like it better than the .308 or .30-06, but because that is what was available when I needed a second rifle. And, it has never let me down. So, there you have it for cartridge number two: .270 Winchester, .308, or 30-06. Pick one!

Third Rifle Caliber

This cartridge should be a powerful one that will knock down a large elk, caribou or brown bear. The choice becomes more difficult, because with the extra punch comes uncomfortable recoil. None of the calibers in this category are fun to shoot off the bench. Depending on the choice of caliber, the recoil will range from 24 to 40 ft pounds. Definitely a nasty blow. You can "reduce" the effect with Past shoulder pads, recoil pads, muzzle brakes and mercury recoil reducers, so that you don't flinch in the field. But, I guarantee that after a few rounds from these cannons at the range you will start flinching (unless you are built like superman and feel no pain). That said, it is always nice to have one of these beasts when you decide to go after the larger game animals.

Several choices come to mind, and here is the controversy: .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 Weatherby Magnum, or .338 Winchester Magnum. A lot of personal preference surrounds these three calibers.

I shot a 300 Weatherby for years. Never lost an animal, but I still have the scope-cut scars (I know, bad eye-relief) and sold it in the 90's to a younger man who didn't mind the pain. Great caliber, great gun, but ammunition is not as readily available in remote locations and is very expensive. So, I wouldn't pick that one for my third rifle.

That leaves the .300 Winchester and the .338 Winchester. Although I own three rifles chambered for the .300 Winchester Magnum, I have to recommend the 338 Winchester Magnum for large animals, brush busting capability and outright killing power for dangerous game. But, the recoil is a killer, and if you can't handle it I'd back off to the 300 Win. Mag.


So, there you have it, my idea of the perfect calibers for the all-around North American hunter. These calibers all offer readily available commercial ammunition, superb accuracy, and a wide range of reloading possibilities for varying game and hunting conditions.

A Final Note

This one may spark some argument. If you are not going for grizzly, polar or brown bears, you don't need that third rifle in the magnum caliber. The second caliber will do just fine as long as you match the load to the game and never take a shot unless you know that it will result in a clean kill. SHOT PLACEMENT is the single most important consideration in putting meat in the freezer.

My apologies to those stalwart proponents of the 7mm, .30-30, and 8mm calibers. They are great calibers available in outstanding rifles, and you would probably be more willing to give up your wife/girl friend before getting rid of them. No argument from me, I just ventured one man's opinion, and yours is just as valid as mine. So keep your powder dry, shoot straight, and enjoy life.

Back to the Rifle Information Page

Copyright 2006, 2016 by Dr. Jim Clary. All rights reserved.