Everyday Outdoors: Picking an all-around hunting rifle

Folks often ask me what I recommend as an “all around” hunting rifle. The answer can vary greatly, depending on their definition of “all around.”

For many hunters in this neck of the woods, that means a good setup for whitetail deer and possibly black bear, that will also serve them well on a Western hunt for mule deer, antelope, or elk. Some may want to add a trip north for moose to the list of possibilities.

In my case, on a recent hunt out West, I used my Tikka T3 chambered in .300 Win. Mag., topped with a 3-18×50 Leupold riflescope, to take, in three consecutive days, a coyote at 470 yds., a very large whitetail buck at 220 yds., and a spike elk at 200 yds. That rig performed perfectly on three very different sized animals, at a variety of distances. I then used it, with complete satisfaction, for the various deer seasons when I got back to West Virginia. I think that qualifies as a very versatile rig.

The author’s favorite “all-around” rifle.

There are lots of combinations of rifle, cartridge, and sighting system that serve very well for those purposes. But the idea here will be to try to get to a short list of the most practical.

To clarify our goal, we are not going to address extreme long range shooting here. But we will discuss what is needed to consistently and ethically take game animals at distances out to five or six hundred yards, which can be a huge advantage on the hunting trip of a lifetime.

Let’s start with the rifle type. I believe that most hunters looking for a rugged, versatile, accurate rifle, chambered in cartridges suitable for the task, will be best served by a bolt action repeater. I’m not saying that other types of rifles won’t work. But the bolt action is king of the hill.

Also, even though wood has served very well for centuries as gunstock material, for durability purposes, we probably want some sort of synthetic stock. Likewise, blued steel is the traditional metal finish, and with reasonable care will last decades, but we may want to consider stainless steel or some type of modern finish.

In most hunting scenarios, we will be pretty well served with a rifle/scope combo that weighs in at around 7-9 lbs. That makes it heavy enough to hold steady and help absorb recoil, but not prohibitively heavy for most folks to carry around. There are too many good makes and models to list. Research tests from credible outdoor and firearms publications, then visit some local gun stores to see what you like.

Next, let’s look at sighting systems. To work well under the wide variety of conditions that we may encounter, I believe the logical choice is a variable powered rifle scope. Standards such as the 3-9×40 (3 through 9 times magnification, with a 40mm objective lens) offered by all major manufacturers will serve pretty well. When we include open country hunting into the mix, I prefer a bit more magnification — something in the neighborhood of 14-18 power available on the top end. But don’t get carried away. As magnification increases, field of view decreases, as does light transmission and eye relief. A bigger objective (front) lens lets in more light, but also makes the scope bigger, heavier, and requires it to be mounted higher above the bore. There is no free lunch.

I also want my scope to be capable of dialing down to no more than three or four power, for use in heavy timber. Therefore, I think the optic sitting on top of our project rifle should probably be something in the 3-15, 4-16, 3-18 class, or something similar, with a 40-50 mm objective lens.

Since we are looking for something that will help with accurate first round hits, the scope for our all-around rifle should have a reticle with some sort of hashmarks for precise holdovers at different distances and precise holdoffs for wind. External target type adjustments afford an even higher level of precision, but require a bit more training and practice to use effectively.

Now, we will start looking at suitable chamberings. For our purposes, we have to eliminate some very good cartridges.

Our project rifle will need to be chambered in a cartridge for which ammo is widely available at retail chain stores, hardware stores, and even country stores and gas stations in rural areas. This eliminates most proprietary cartridges such as those produced by Nosler, Weatherby, and other manufacturers, as well as the various “short mags,” and any cartridge that must be produced by handloading. Your wants and needs may not make this a consideration, but this is the direction we are taking with our all-around rifle.

Since we have thrown elk into the equation, I want my all-around rifle to have at least 1,200 ft. lbs of energy, at the maximum distance at which I’m willing to shoot a game animal. Opinions vary widely in this, but after many years of hunting, and seeing many game animals taken, this is the figure I’m comfortable with.

The lineup of chamberings that meet the desired energy level at extended distances shortens the list even more. The .243 Winchester, which is a great deer cartridge, drops below the energy level that I want for elk at around 350 yds., with its best loadings. The 25-06, another awesome round for deer, drops below that figure at around 500 yds., which is marginal for our purposes. Other great cartridges, such as the .308 Winchester, 6.5 Creedmoor, and similar rounds, reach minimum levels at around 600 yds, which is adequate, but barely.

To be clear, I’m not saying that any of these cartridges won’t work, or even that they aren’t the best choice for your requirements, but we are looking for maximum versatility, with minimum compromise.

Rifle cartridges, lined up from lowest to highest energy. The four to the right are the author’s top chambering picks for an all-around rifle. Pictured, from left, are .243 Winchester, 6.5 Creedmor, .308 Winchester, .270 Winchester, 30-06 Springfield, 7mm Remington Magnum and .300 Winchester Magnum.

I think the minimum chambering for our all-around rifle starts with the venerable .270 Winchester. With its best loadings, it maintains the energy levels we want to around 650 yds. It is relatively light recoiling, and ammo is available almost anywhere. If you prefer a little bigger bore, even more ammo availability and choices, the iconic 30-06 Springfield will do anything we could reasonably expect from our do-all rifle, and with proper ammo, also retains the energy that we want to about 650 yds.

If you want to raise the bar just a bit, with longer sleeker bullets for less drop, wind drift, and retained velocity and energy at longer ranges, the 7mm Remington Magnum is a great choice. Ammo is still very widely available, and carries the ft. lbs. that we want to around 800 yds., which is well beyond the goal for this project. If you wish to take it one step further, and can handle the recoil, the .300 Winchester Magnum will do anything we need on any game in North America, and much of the rest of the world as well. Ammo is widely available almost anywhere a person might be hunting. This cartridge meets the energy level that we have set to at least 850 yds., again probably further than we need.

For a general-purpose hunting rifle, we are not going to look at anything over .30 caliber. Even though the bigger cartridges are very capable, for reasons of ammo availability, recoil, and expense, they simply aren’t needed for our requirements.

As I said, lots of stuff will work. If you want something light recoiling and inherently accurate, a 6.5 Creedmoor might be the bee’s knees for you. If you elk hunt every year, and don’t mind shooting a big rifle on deer, you might absolutely love a .338 Win. Mag. But for most of us, something in between will serve very well.

I think the best rig, for the criteria we have set for an all-around hunting rifle, will be a bolt action repeater, with a synthetic stock. It should be topped with a good variable power scope in the 4-16, 3-18 or similar magnification range. A reticle configured for holdovers and wind holds, and/or target type adjustable turrets, can be a great help on longer shots. Our rifle will likely be chambered in .270, 30-06. 7mm Rem. Mag., or .300 Win Mag. I don’t think there is anything shocking in that conclusion for knowledgeable hunters. Sometimes we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Wade Shambaugh has lived in Morgan County his whole life and is a lifelong outdoorsman.