Suppose you were tasked with whittling an imaginary gun collection down to the fewest number of firearms needed to ethically pursue every game animal in North America. Which firearms and chamberings would you include? Here’s the answer.
Hunters never ask the question, “Should I buy another gun?” Instead, we ask, “What’s the next gun I should buy?” A large part of the latter question is often answered by what cartridge the gun will be chambered in and what we’ll use it for in the field, as every hunting firearm has a purpose. Going on an elk hunt in Montana? As fun as it is to shoot and as accurate as it might be, a .243 Winchester just won’t do, so it’s time to go shopping. How about a duck hunt with the guys? Your trusty .30-06 Springfield is obviously going to have to sit that hunt out, and you’ll have to, as well, if you don’t have a shotgun on hand come duck season. As someone open to the idea of hunting every game animal North America has to offer, a new hunting opportunity is always a good excuse to purchase a new firearm.
With that being said, what if instead of adding guns to our hunting firearm inventory, we decided (hypothetically speaking—no sane hunter would actually do this) to reduce this theoretical gun collection down to the fewest number of firearms needed to pursue every game animal on the continent? What firearms and chamberings would you include and why? Think your custom 7mm wildcat tack-driver is the ultimate game-harvesting machine? Good luck pheasant hunting. So a shotgun, then? With options from lead shot to slugs, you can definitely hunt everything—well, maybe everything. Try shooting a slug at a cliff-side sheep at 400 yards and let me know how that works out for you. Since we can’t narrow it down to a single gun, what’s the ideal setup for the minimalist hunter?
Here’s my answer to the hypothetical question. I’m positive the firearm collection allowing you to take game ranging from the smallest of squirrels to the biggest of bison and all the fliers in between consists of a grand total of only three firearms with different chamberings—and no, none of them shoot a .30-caliber anything. As for the make and models of the firearm themselves, well, that’s up to you, but I chose guns that will not only do the job, but guns that even hunters on a budget like mine can afford, just in case this depressing scenario ever manifests itself and I’m forced to live the nightmare. So, if I had to create an imaginary gun collection using the fewest number of firearms possible, yet still keep every hunting option open, here’s what would be in my safe. What would be in yours? Let the debate begin.
1. 6.5 Creedmoor
Hunting distances across the country can range from 40-yard chip shots in the East, to ranges as far as an optic can see out West. The 6.5 Creedmoor is the prime candidate for most of the varmint, predator and medium-game hunting in North America, as it shoots flat, hits hard, recoils mildly and is available in a wide variety of loads from 85 to140 grains. A quick search online reveals more than 50 varieties of loaded ammo from nearly two-dozen manufactures. There is no shortage of ammo options for this cartridge.
Lighter options, such as the 85-grain Sierra Varminter Hollow Point load from Gorilla Ammunition, can leave the barrel at velocities upwards of 2900 fps. These rounds are ideal for varmints like prairie dogs, woodchucks and groundhogs, even smaller pigs and javelina. Aim at smaller predators like coyotes, bobcats, badgers and foxes, and the 6.5 Creedmoor will put them down on the spot. It could even do the trick on small game such as rabbits, if necessary.
If you’re pursuing medium-sized game like pronghorn, whitetail, mule deer etc., even sheep, goats, wolves and lions, look for ammo in the 120- to 140-grain range, such as Nosler’s 129-grain Trophy Grade Long Range load, which still delivers more than 1,400 ft.-lbs. of energy at 400 yards to make quick work of your quarry.
Looking for a good 6.5 Creedmoor rifle? The Savage Axis II XP is one of the best budget rifles available in the chambering. The composite stock provides weather resistance and keeps weight down to a light 6.5 pounds. Couple that with a 22-inch barrel, Savage’s AccuTrigger and a 3-9x40mm Bushnell scope, and you’ve got an accurate rifle well-suited for almost every game animal in North America. Almost. MSRP: $484; savagearms.com.
There’s a reason every shotgun manufacturer produces a 12-gauge in nearly every product line it offers, and no hunting safe would be complete without one. Brownell’s offers 530 different loads in 12-gauge alone from which you can take your pick. Want to hunt small game like squirrels and rabbits or small birds such as doves? A 2¾-inch shell filled with an ounce of No. 7½ shot traveling at about 1400 fps should get the job done in either case. Step it up to a 3-inch shell loaded with No. 5s and you’re ready for turkey. Grab a box of Federal Black Cloud 3-inch No. 2s and you can hunt any duck passing through your flyway.
Predators can be taken with shotguns, too. Winchester’s Varmint X 3-inch load, which launches a 1½ ounces load of BBs at 1300 fps, will make fast work of coyotes and bobcats. If you need to go bigger, buckshot (a shotgun shell with far fewer but much larger pellets) is the way to go. Hornady’s 2¾-inch Superformance 00 load, filled with eight .33-caliber balls exiting the barrel at 1600 fps, can be a viable deer or pig round inside 50 yards. Slugs can also be used, and are great options to increase your shotgun’s range—well past 100 yards in some cases—or to take down large, potentially dangerous game, like bears. Browning’s BXS load pushes a 1 ounce slug to 1600 fps, which produces 2,487 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle, all out of a 2¾-inch shell.
12-gauge shotguns are like a .30-06; everyone needs one. So what’s my pick if I were in the market for a 12-gauge? The Tristar Cobra II Synthetic pump-action provides the best bang for your buck. With its five-round magazine, 3-inch chamber and 28-inch barrel topped with a fiber optic front sight on a vented rib, the Cobra II is a great gun to fill this niche. It also comes with three Beretta-style chokes. MSRP: $274; tristararms.com.
3. .338 Winchester Magnum
The .338 Winchester Magnum is the best choice for the biggest game in North America. Why? Aside from being a hard-hitting show stopper, the .338 Win. Mag. is based on the more common .300 Win. Mag., making it more available and less expensive to consumers than some of the larger exotic rounds in production.
Sure, it’s no true “big-bore” like its .375 or .458 caliber counter parts, but the .338 Win. Mag. is certainly a round from which any game animal in North America won’t walk away. Proof comes in the form of Hornady’s new Precision Hunter load. The 230-grain ELD-X bullet is traveling faster than 2800 fps at the muzzle, and at 500 yards, it’s still impacting with a literal ton of energy. Other quality bullets include those from Barnes, and Winchester’s Expedition load, which preforms similarly to the Hornady variant.
With proper shot placement, these rounds will do the job on bison, buffalo, moose, any species of bear you decide to pursue, elk, musk ox … essentially anything that’s big and needs to be brought down immediately for one reason or another. And while it might be overkill for some smaller game, it’s especially useful if the target needs to be dropped on the spot via a shoulder shot to prevent an animal from running down a cliff face or into a ravine. On top of that, the .338 Win. Mag. is plenty of medicine for any dangerous game encounters you may be confronted with.
Again, the rifle is up to you, but my choice would have to be the Winchester XPR. With its 24-inch barrel and composite stock, the rifle’s a well-balanced seven pounds, and with a 4-round magazine, a follow-up shot will come easy. MSRP: $549; winchesterguns.com.
There you have it. The three best cartridges to cover the gamut of game you could ever want to hunt in North America, and the firearms to push them. Think I’ve chosen poorly for either cartridge or firearm? Or maybe you think you can pull of the same tasks with only two guns? You’ll be hard-pressed to outdo this hunter’s three-gun combination, but go for it.