Before you choose a rifle, you probably want to choose a cartridge. (While it isn’t absolutely necessary, I do recommend making your selection in this order, as the cartridge that it fires is a major factor in a rifle’s “personality,” and most rifles only come in a handful of cartridge selections. You don’t want your rifle to choose your cartridge for you.) Enough has been written about cartridge selection to fill the Library of Congress; I’ll try to keep things simple here.
Before you can choose a cartridge, you need to decide what kind of hunting you wish to do. While some cartridges are more versatile than others, none of them can are designed to handle all species of game. If you’re going after varmints (woodchucks, squirrels, rabbits and the like), you want a very different rifle than if you’re going after big game. [By the way, in hunting jargon, “big game” means anything other than varmints or birds – it doesn’t necessarily mean elephants and cape buffalo.] The rule of thumb is to choose enough cartridge to get the job done, but not much bigger than that.
For varmint hunting, you’ll be hunting smaller animals, possibly at long-range distances. Accordingly, you want a small cartridge capable of high velocities. I am very pleased with the relatively new Ruger .204 for this use.
For pretty much everything else (and I know I’m going to take some flak for this), you can do nicely with the .308 Winchester. This cartridge has several factors in its favor:
- with the right sized bullet, it provides enough stopping power for most anything you’ll find in the lower 48, with the possible exception of moose (and there are plenty of people who will assure you that it’s OK for moose, too).
- it is one of the most popular rifle cartridges in history, assuring you of a ready supply of ammunition almost no matter where you go.
- in most applications, it doesn’t give excessive recoil.
- it’s a relatively short cartridge, making it easier to use in a bolt-action rifle, and (from what I’ve heard) more reliable in a semi-automatic rifle.
For those who are wondering why I chose the .308 over the venerable .30-06, it was the last two reasons cited above that caused me to give the nod to the .308. That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the .30-06; it will give you a little more bullet velocity, and will kick a little harder (no such thing as a free lunch). Two other excellent candidates are the .270 Winchester and the 7mm Remington Magnum. All of the cartridges listed above have proven themselves field-worthy for virtually anything in the lower 48, are readily obtainable, and available in a wide variety of rifles. Another good choice, though someone less ubiquitous than the first four, is the 7mm-08 Remington, which is a .308 case with a neck that accepts a slightly smaller bullet.
There are many, many other solid choices out there, but if you want a single, all-around cartridge to handle most of your hunting needs, one of these should fill the bill.