Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be an in depth or definitive discussion of which rifle caliber is most versatile for Western game. I also fully realize that, for many, this topic is about as controversial as universal healthcare, legalized marijuana or Canis lupis. Understanding this reality, I want to emphasize that I do not mean to claim that my conclusions are absolutely correct. This essay merely chronicles one novice’s attempt to find the most versatile rifle for the West.
I work for a hunting apparel brand and yet, until very recently, had never owned, or even shot a high caliber rifle. Growing up in southeastern Maryland, I used the same Fab Arm Gold Lion 12 gauge for doves, ducks and deer. In my pancake flat county it was illegal to hunt whitetails with a rifle. Some of the more serious deer hunters did have shotguns with rifled barrels and scopes but most folks just seemed to use their goose guns.
Then I moved to Idaho, which, to say the least, is not so flat. After bow season, I borrowed a rifle from a coworker and set about figuring out just how the thing worked. It was more than a bit different than firing a pumpkin ball out of a twelve gauge. Even, though the bang was a hell of a lot louder than my Fab Arm, I was quickly setting up decent groups at distances that seemed absurd in comparison to those at which I was comfortable slinging an arrow or deer slug.
When I did finally cross paths with a little four pointer the effectiveness of these weapons became apparent. One second the muley was standing about 160 yards away. The next, he was on his back with his legs splayed in the air. There was no mule kick, no running off into the gloom, no waiting or worrying. In an instant, he was piled up. And to confirm this lethality, my buddy absolutely stoned another deer with the same gun the very next day.
With the season over and the utter awesomeness of these weapons firmly imprinted in my mind, it seemed about time to find one of my own. However, to someone who had moved from the East with little or no concept of calibers, the task was daunting. Fortunately for me, First Lite employees like nothing better than debating the merits of various rifle calibers and slowly I began to get a feel for the long-range universe. My co-workers threw out everything from a .270 to a .300 Win Mag. From there, I began to whittle down the field.
Because I do have vague dreams of someday shooting a Shiras Moose, I edged out the .270 and the .280. Yes, I know you could likely still kill such a critter with these lighter guns if you used a hot enough round, were not taking a long shot and were extremely precise with your placement. However, after surveying both my co-workers and the dark rabbit hole that is rifle forums, I got a sense that a .270 or .280 was less than ideal for the task.
I then scrubbed the .30-06. Though considered by many to be the quintessential versatile round, my co-workers did not bring it up. And so I moved on. Yes, I know this is not a fully logical move. Sue me.
Next up was the .300 Win Mag. With the ability to easily down pretty much any furry critter in North America, it was the most potent of the bunch. The .300 is also an exceptionally flat shooting round and an excellent choice for long-range shots. On the flip side, it is expensive to shoot. Also, depending on who you talk with, the .300 may even be a bit too much gun for a mule deer, the species that I would probably most often pursue with my future rifle.
To learn more about this popular caliber, I went to the range to shoot a co-worker's Tikka. Puny as it sounds, I was simply taken aback by how loud a bang the thing made. I honestly did not see myself enjoying shooting the thing repeatedly. So, fully acknowledging my status as a weeny, I took the .300 off the list.
And so by process of elimination, I seemed to have arrived at the humble .308. To be perfectly honest, I was already biased towards the caliber. The rifle I had borrowed for deer season had been a .308 and I was already comfortable with its handling and performance. Its ammunition is widely available and cheap. True, it is not the flattest shooting caliber under the sun. Yet, as a bow hunter and someone who enjoys the stalk, I frankly did not plan on taking many long distance shots anyhow.
Then, when I thought I had figured it all out, a local gun nerd wandered into the office and suggested the flat-shooting 7mm might be the gun for me. Crap. I hadn’t even heard of that one. My confidence in my tentative choice wavered.
Yet ultimately, I did not stray from the .308. Like the .300, the 7mm would pack more bang and be more expensive to shoot. However, what really sunk this caliber was even less scientific. Like the .30-06, it had simply not been brought up in conversation at the First Lite office. I felt I just didn’t know much about it. And so I stayed the course and settled with finality upon the .308.
Selecting a make seemed a bit easier. Everyone I had talked with recommended Tikka and Savage as brands know for their excellent value. But which one and which model? Did I want a heavier more stable gun or a lighter rifle better for schlepping up the steep slopes of central Idaho?
Eventually, I settled on the Savage 16-116 FCSS, basing this decision on the decidedly un-scientific argument that it was a bit heavier than the comparable Tikka T3 Lite but lighter than the tactical rifles of either brand. Plus, I liked the Savage accu-trigger (despite the vague feeling that I was a complete novice falling for a gimmick). Resolved at last and at least mildly confident in my choice, I went down to Sportsman’s warehouse in Twin Falls to pick up my new gun.
Just about as soon as I walked up to the counter, the wise-looking old guy behind the counter destroyed my newfound resolve. “Buy the Tikka,” he said from behind wire rimmed glasses that definitely meant he knew what he was talking about. “The Savage is not even in the same class.”
Faced with yet another decision, I stammered about this and that, trying to buy time to make a the logical choice based on all the tidbits of gun knowledge I had attempted to jam into my brain over the last couple months. What about the weight? And the trigger? And the barrel length? I just wasn’t sure. And so, ultimately, I gave up and relinquished the decision to the expert across the counter.
“I’ll take it.”
Ford Van Fossan is the customer sales and pro staff coordinator at FLHQ and originally hails from Eastern Maryland.