The Ideal Hunting Rifle Battery
September 23, 2010
A practical lineup of rifles can consist of as few as two or as many as two dozen, but to be most effective, they all must be equally as comfortable and familiar as an old hat. Our highly seasoned resident expert has some tips for assembling your hunting-rifle team.
Layne says the action type is unimportant as long as the cartridge it is chambered for is capable of getting the job done.
The very first book on guns and hunting I bought during my callow youth was Shots At Whitetails. Its author, Larry Koller, was of the opinion that those who choose rifles of the same type for hunting both small and large game are on the right track. Heeding his advice, I eventually got around to buying a Marlin 39A rimfire lever-action for small-game hunting and a centerfire rifle that was nearly its clone: the Marlin 336 in .35 Remington. That proved to be a good move. Since I did not reload ammunition in those days, I seldom shot more than a box of cartridges in the Model 336 each year, and that's nowhere near enough shooting to gain total familiarity with a deer rifle. But since .22 Long Rifle ammunition was much less expensive and small-game seasons were quite long, I managed to shoot the Model 39A a lot. When deer season came around, I was able to transition to the Model 336 without a hitch.
As time passed, I outgrew the need to stick with a single type of rifle. I had become as interested in the rifles as I had been in hunting. Whereas some of my friends bought rifles in order to hunt deer, I hunted deer not only because I loved it but also because it gave me a reason to accumulate rifles. In addition to those early lever-actions, I eventually owned bolt-actions, pumps, autoloaders, and single-shots. Just as important, I began to reload ammunition, and that allowed me to shoot all of those rifles to my heart's content.
Before long, I could hunt with any type of rifle without giving it a second thought. It's like using a typewriter, riding a bicycle, or driving a car with a manual transmission, once you get the hang of it, it is with you for the rest of your life. You just do it without thinking about it.
Anyone who decides to put together a hunting battery today should first decide which category of hunter they fit into. A hunter who might be wise to stick with one action type for his rifle needs is the fellow who spends most of his time target shooting, plinking, and small-game hunting with no more than an occasional hunt for larger game. This holds especially true for the hunter who does not practice with his deer rifle during the off-season. On the other hand, the hunter who shoots both rimfire and centerfire rifles enough to become familiar with more than one type of action can live happily ever after with one type for small-game hunting and another type for big-game hunting.
When it comes to big-game rifles, picking the right caliber is far more important than which type of rifle is chosen. Regardless of whether you choose a Weatherby bolt gun, a Ruger single-shot, a Remington pump gun, a Browning lever-action, or a Benelli autoloader, old standbys such as the .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, and .30-06 Springfield will never be the wrong choices for most hunting. I would not choose either for hunting costal grizzly, but for everything else in North America, they are all most of us need. In fact, if I had to do it all with just one rifle, I could get by quite nicely with the venerable .30-06. But since I don't have to--along with the fact that I enjoy owning a variety of rifles as much as I enjoy hunting big game--here is what I would work toward if I were starting out today rather than back in the 1950s.
A complete rifle battery has to include at least one rimfire for small game and plinking.
If I had to choose just one rifle for target practice, plinking, and small-game hunting, the .22 Long Rifle would be the clear winner simply because it represents the most shooting for the money. On the other hand, if I had no interest in anything but hunting small game, the .17 Hornady Mach 2 would be my choice. Its flatter trajectory makes hitting small targets at various distances much easier than with the .22 LR, and it is just as accurate, to boot. And despite what the ballistics charts tell us, I find the .17 HM2 to be as effective as the .17 HMR when both are used on small varmints such as flickertails and prairie dogs out to 150 yards or so. The ammo is also considerably less expensive.
For small game, the .22 WMR also deserves consideration here. At full power, it packs a bigger punch on varmints than the other three rounds, yet when a rifle chambered for it is reigned back with .22 WRF ammo from CCI and Winchester, it becomes an excellent .22 LR equivalent for use on small game for the pot.
When everything including accuracy, barrel life, effective range, and shooter comfort are considered, the most useful varmint cartridges ever developed are the .222 Remington, .223 Remington, and .222 Remington Magnum. Sadly, one is dead, another is dying, and we are left with the .223 Rem. But that's not to say it's a bad cartridge to be left with. The .223 is louder than the .22 Hornet, and it does not shoot as flat as the .22-250, but it is capable of handling a bigger chunk of varmint-shooting territory than either of those cartridges. It is for this reason that I consider it to be the very best choice available for a one-rifle varmint battery. But I don't consider a varmint battery containing only one rifle to be complete.
To me, the ideal varmint battery consists of four rifles. The all-arounder is a heavy-barrel rifle in .223 Rem. or .204 Ruger for shooting prairie dogs at long range, while a lighter and shorter rifle in .223 Rem. is just the ticket for calling in coyotes. I add a rifle in .22 Hornet for shooting in settled areas where lots of muzzle blast might make me unpopular. And last, but not least, I'll go with a damn-the-torpedoes, heavy-barrel rifle in .220 Swift for larger varmints such as groundhogs and coyotes at extreme ranges.
None of us really has to have a pure woods rifle simply because so many rifles are nicely suited to hunting in both open and densely timbered country. But since I am a traditionalist at heart, I consider no hunting battery to be complete without what many of us consider to be a traditional deer rifle. Pumps and autoloaders belong here, and I own several of each. But in the time and place where I grew up, a lever-action built by Winchester or Marlin was as synonymous with deer hunting as the Filson wool coat, the Marble's belt knife, and Leonard L. Bean's rubber-bottom hunting boots. It still is as far as I am concerned.
Since most shots at ti
mber-dwelling whitetails come inside 100 yards, the cartridge chosen is not extremely important so long as it packs enough punch to get the job done quickly and cleanly. I have taken close to a dozen deer with the .25-35 Winchester and the .25 Remington, but serious deer cartridges start with the .30-30 Winchester, .32 Winchester Special, .35 Remington, .38-55 Winchester, and .375 Winchester.
For varmint shooting, Layne suggests having four guns in your battery. An all-arounder with a heavy barrel in .223 Rem. or .204 Ruger, a lighter and shorter rifle in .223 Rem., one chambered for .22 Hornet, and a heavy-barrel rifle in .220 Swift.
In the hands of a good shot, those cartridges will also work on moose and elk, but due to the size of those animals, I believe more power is in order in the form of cartridges such as the .307 Winchester, .308 Marlin, .348 Winchester, .356 Winchester, .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin, and .45-70 Government. If I had to pick two, I would go with the .348 Winchester and .45-70, not because they are necessarily better than the others, but because my two favorite woods rifles--a Winchester 71 and a custom New Model Marlin 1895--are chambered for them.
The thought of hunting deer and pronghorn antelope in open country where opportunities often come at great distances brings to mind a bolt-action rifle chambered for a flat-shooting cartridge. I prefer the bolt-action, but I have used rifles with other types of actions that were plenty accurate for long-range shooting. A Remington 760 pump gun in .270 Winchester, a Browning BAR autoloader in .25-06, and a Savage 99 in .308 Winchester come to mind.
Choosing a cartridge for this category is as simple as first deciding what game will be hunted. If it is whitetail deer in Texas or pronghorn antelope in Wyoming, the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .250-3000 Savage, and .257 Roberts are excellent choices. Those cartridges have also taken a lot of mule deer through the years, but since they are usually bigger than Southern whitetails, bigger cartridges such as the .25-06, .257 Weatherby Magnum, .270 Win., and .280 Rem. are better choices for the larger odocoileus species.
If a short-action rifle is your cup of tea, the .260 Remington, 6.5-284 Norma, 6.5x55mm Swedish, 7mm-08 Remington, and .308 Win. are worthy of consideration. Move farther north to, say, Alberta where whitetails look more like elk than deer, and shots are almost always at extremely long range. Here the various .270 and 7mm magnums become sensible minimums with the .300 magnums none too much.
I know a rancher and his wife who have taken more than 100 elk with a couple of rifles in .243 Win. Another rancher friend is convinced that elk cartridge development began and ended with the .25-06, while yet another has taken many elk with an old Savage Model 99 in .250-3000. In their hands, those cartridges are adequate for use on elk for several reasons, not the least of which is their ranches are located in prime elk country. They see more elk in a few weeks than many hunters see in a lifetime, and they have the entire season to wait for that perfect shot.
Most of us are not so lucky. We travel a long way to elk country, and when we get there, our time is limited. Throw in a bit of frog-drowning weather or bad luck and time grows even shorter. When opportunity does knock, it might be a now-or-never situation where you either shoot under less than favorable conditions or you go home empty-handed.
As all hunters should, I will turn down any shot that I do not feel absolutely confident I can make--even if only a few minutes are left in the hunt. The sad feeling you get when doing so will quickly pass, whereas wounding and losing a fine animal stays with you forever.
Having a pure woods rifle in a chambering such as the .450 Marlin is not an absolute necessity, but it is the traditional thing to do, and no other type of rifle is more enjoyable to hunt with.
But when the time does come and I am convinced I can make the shot, I want the cards stacked in my favor, and that means a cartridge with enough power to anchor a bull quickly. I have taken more elk with the .30-06 and 7mm Remington Magnum than any other cartridge, but my two best bulls fell victim to the .270 Win. and .300 WSM. The quickest kill I have ever made on an elk was with the .338 Winchester Magnum. The bull was running downhill, and at my shot, it tumbled forward--antlers over teakettle--and came to rest in a boil of dust.
If all the data on the perfect elk cartridge were fed into a computer, the machine would probably tell us that when all things including accuracy, recoil, trajectory, and downrange punch are considered, the .338 Win., .340 Weatherby Magnum, .358 Norma Magnum, and .358 STW stand at the very top of the heap. Even so, I'll stick with my Browning A-Bolt Ti in .300 WSM because it is light enough to tote up the tallest mountain, accurate enough for cross-canyon shots at elk, and powerful enough to make a bull stay put. On top of that, the notch in its stock represents the very best bull I have ever taken.
This one won't take long. There was a time when I considered the .375 H&H Magnum the most useful dangerous-game cartridge ever created. It is quite accurate in a good rifle, it shoots flat at long range, it delivers a terrible blow, and its recoil goes unnoticed when the target is capable of shooting back. I have loved this old cartridge since I used it to take my first Cape buffalo during the 1970s in a land once called Rhodesia--now Zimbabwe--and I hope to never be without a rifle chambered for it.
But when it comes to making potentially nasty things stop happening very quickly with one squeeze of the trigger, no other cartridge I have used comes close to the .416 Weatherby Magnum. Once on safari in Zambia, I used this cartridge to take everything from impala to lion to leopard to Cape buffalo, and every single animal I took was a one-shot kill. It is too much cartridge for the cats, and I was even more over-gunned on the smaller antelope, but it was the only rifle I took on that hunt, and it worked to perfection.
There you have them, my ideas for compiling a practical, all-around battery of rifles and cartridges. I am sorry if I have overlooked your favorite. The most important thing to remember is that you need to be extraordinarily familiar with your hunting rig because when shooting it at game, you don't need a single doubt in your mind as you take up the trigger. If you know your rifle and you're comfortable with your round of choice, your subconscious takes over and enables you to totally concentrate on safely placing a bullet where it must go. Success will follow.
For hunting elk, Layne's choice is a bolt-action chambered for a powerful cartridge that can anchor a bull quickly like the .300 WSM.