Discussing the best big game rifle could cause a civil war. This is a topic more serious than politics. There’s be a better chance of seeing Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump holding hands walking down Main Street drinking a latte than for an ardent 30-06 lover to set down and have a civil talk with a .270 fanatic.
Why is this such a touchy subject, the non-hunter may ask? I’ll tell you why: Not only are there arguments as to which is the best rifle manufacturer, but also as to what type of actions. Bolt-actions, lever-actions, pumps or semi-automatics. And for sure the most vehement arguments will be about the best caliber.
A lot of your choices will be strictly sentimental. Your dad or uncle used this rifle and you bought a rifle just like theirs and killed your first deer with it. It would almost be sacrilegious to change your beliefs.
So everyone will have their own rationale as to the best caliber. It may be for sentimental reasons as stated above. It may be because you saw John Wayne use such and such rifle or you may scientifically decide that this rifle has the fastest feet per second, knock-down power or whatever. And even among the scientific thinkers, they can err. Do you really think it matters if a bullet is zipping along at 2,800 feet per second as compared with brand X that only flies along at 2,700 feet per second?
And then a lot of it can be because of marketing. Here’s what I mean by that. How come the rifle that last year was advertised as the absolute best rifle ever designed is suddenly outdated? In one year! Because they have to advertise and breed contempt or you’ll buy one rifle and keep it for the rest of your life, pass it on to your kids and then it will be passed along to your grandkids. That’s not good for business.
I had to ditch my old Remington 742 I bought when I was 12 years old with my paper route earnings. Everyone knows bolt-actions are more accurate, so I bought a new Remington 700 .338 Win Mag — and missed the first bull I saw. Hold on — wait a minute. I thought they were the ultimate. I’d shot turkeys in the head at 60 yards with my old 742 and made dozens of head shots on deer with it. I’d been hoodwinked.
I say all of the above to show that people make up their minds as to which rifle/caliber is the best based on a lot of sub-standard reasoning and emotions. Or it may just be preferences. It’s like saying what is the best wife? Black haired? Blonde? Red haired? Pink, blue or orange haired? It’s a preference, not a right or wrong.
So with all of the above said, if you’re new to Idaho and trying to decide which rifle to buy, I’ll try to help you out. Forever, I used my old Remington 742 semi-automatic 30-06. It worked fine. For close shots, it was plenty accurate, but most people would agree that a bolt-action rifle is the most accurate and dependable. So I’d tell you to get a bolt-action rifle.
Years ago, to get a 1- to 1 ½-inch group, you had to get a custom rifle and reload. Now, there are a few factory rifles that are capable of getting 1 ½-inch groups with factory ammo. I’ve tested a couple of Mossbergs and been able to do this with them. So you don’t have to buy a super expensive custom-made rifle anymore to get good groups. (To tighten down your groups, you probably will need a trigger job.)
Now what about calibers? If you can only afford one rifle, I’d say get a 30-06. You can kill anything in America with it, but the .300 Winchester Magnum is better. They’ll be a little bit of an over kill on antelope and small deer, but still you’ll have a rifle that you can hunt everything in North America with. Then you have all of the other popular rounds, .308s, .270s, .243s, etc. Too many to list. Then, of course, right now everyone is in love with the 6.5 Creedmoor. But if you’re new to Idaho, I’d say get a 30-06 or more likely a .300 Winchester Magnum. I have a .338 Win. Mag. but wish I had of gotten a .300.
Almost as big of a factor as which caliber you choose is which ammo you use. I test a lot of ammo and am constantly amazed at how accuracy varies from ammo to ammo in my rifle. Just as important is how it performs when it hits an animal.
For years, I used the old Remington Core-Lokt ammo. As a kid, it only cost $10/box, so I couldn’t see paying $40 to $50 per box for the higher priced stuff. But it’d perform great on 10 to 15 deer in a row and then suddenly it wouldn’t. I remember one year I had to shoot a deer three times to drop it and an antelope twice all in the same year. That got me checking out better performing ammo.
Well, we are way out of room and have barely gotten started. Hopefully this short article will get you started. Or you maybe want to play it safe and just buy one of every caliber!
Tom Claycomb lives in Idaho and has outdoors columns in newspapers in Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Louisiana. He also writes for various outdoors magazines and teaches outdoors seminars at stores like Cabela’s, Sportsman’s Warehouse and Bass Pro Shop.