It is the oldest topic of discussion in big-game hunting. It has been the subject of innumerable magazine articles and book chapters, to say nothing of discussions around dinner tables and campfires. Wherever riflemen gather, you hear the question asked, “What makes the ideal three- (or five-, or seven-) rifle battery for big game?
Sometimes the topic is limited to North America, with or without the big bears; occasionally it is applied to Africa. Always, it has readers, because anyone who hunts with a rifle has an abiding interest in what works best.
The major problem with having someone else tell you what you should shoot is that they do not know you. They don’t know what you hunt primarily, or where, whether you are right- or left-handed, or whether you have limitations on the kind of action or scope you can use, or even what ammunition and components are readily available where you live.
All of these factors have a bearing on what is the best combination of rifles for you. Only you can take them all into account and decide what you need and what you can afford.
There are some guidelines you can follow, however, to help make these decisions easier.
During a lifetime of listening to discussions about the “perfect battery,” I have noticed one thing. Very rarely are the practical considerations taken into account. For example, it is one thing to say the very best cartridge for hunting elephant is the .505 Gibbs. It is quite another to find a supply of .505 Gibbs or a rifle to shoot it.
Similarly, when a writer tells you to head for Alaska with a .375 H&H for bears and a .270 for everything else, he is not taking into account the possibility that one rifle might get damaged, lost or stolen and you will have to use the other rifle for everything. In the real world of long-range hunting travel, scopes go out of whack, stocks break, and ammunition is misplaced. All too often, you end up hunting your primary game with a back-up rifle.
The common denominator of most “all-around battery” prescriptions is the high level of specialization of each rifle and the lack of a rifle that will do a large number of things pretty well and serve in a wide range of uses.
If I had to choose one rifle for all of North America, I would pick the .30-06. If I had to choose five rifles for all of North America, the first would be a .30-06. Not only will it do many things well, it is also a supremely useful back-up rifle if the more specialized rigs come to grief.
If I were picking a second rifle, it would be something along the line of a .300 Weatherby. While the bullet diameter is the same, the rifles themselves would be radically different. The .30-06 would have a 22- or 23-inch barrel, a compact scope, and weigh about seven pounds. The .300 would have a 26-inch, heavier barrel, a more powerful scope, and weigh closer to nine pounds. One would be a mountain and woods rifle, the other a plains and long-range rig.
While the mixed-bag safari to Africa where you hunt everything from dik-dik to elephant is largely a thing of the past, as is the full-bag bear hunt in Alaska, you often find yourself hunting in either bear country or elephant country. Both are unpredictable animals that have killed many hunters, and you have to be prepared for any eventuality.
In the late 1980s, I went to Alaska to hunt brown bears on the coast, but I also had licenses for mountain goat, black bear, and black-tailed deer. That, as you can see, is a wide range of uses, especially when you consider that hunting the goats meant climbing heavily timbered, almost vertical slopes covered with icy rocks. I took a .375 H&H for the bears, and a .300 Weatherby for everything else. To be on the safe side, I loaded some 200-grain Bear Claws for the Weatherby just in case I ran into a bear, but everything else would be hunted with factory 150-grain Nosler Partitions.
Great plan, in theory. As it turned out, I took only one animal: a brown bear that appeared unexpectedly while we were hunting deer. I shot him three times with the 150-grain Partitions. The third shot broke his neck, luckily, and that was that. The lesson I learned, however, was that when you are in bear country, you should carry a bear rifle regardless–and that means having it loaded with bear ammunition, too.
Almost no one travels to Alaska or Africa with just one rifle, nor should you unless you don’t mind shooting whatever old relic your guide can dig up for you if something goes wrong. Personally, I devoutly hope I have hunted big game with a borrowed rifle for the last time. Never once–never–have I been given a rifle to use that I would even keep behind the henhouse door. If you want to ensure that you will take your trophy with your own rifle, you had better carry two.
ONE AND ONLY
The first step, then, is to pick out the rifle you would have if you could have only one, and use that as the cornerstone of a multiple-rifle battery later. In my own case, it is my Dakota .30-06. For an Alaskan, it might be a .338 Winchester, and for a Texan, a .270. All three of these are versatile calibers that make good all-around rifles, and excellent back-ups.
If you hunt dangerous game or live in bear country, that will distinctly color your next selection, because a dangerous-game rifle becomes a necessity. This has been the subject of entire books, and many factors come into play. Not least of these is the availability of ammunition, because for many large-bore rifles, factory ammunition with good bullets is neither cheap nor easy to come by.
Fortunately, one of the best all-around calibers, the .375 H&H, is not only versatile, it is powerful, easy to shoot, and ammunition is readily available from Alaska to Zambia.
TWO OF A KIND
I have heard of hunters making a trip to Africa who took two rifles, but both were .375s. One was sighted in for 300-grain softs and solids, the other for a lighter expanding bullet. In a pinch, though, either could stand in for the other. Not a bad idea. In Alaska, you can hunt bears with it (and defend yourself if need be), but it also makes a good moose rifle, and will do for caribou and black bear.
For Africa, I personally favor a big .450 such as the Ackley or the .458 Lott. Both are highly versatile if you handload, and with both you can use .458 Winchester factory ammunition in an emergency. I have gone to Africa and hunted a range of game with just the .450 Ackley, and will likely do so again. I would also choose a .450 for prowling around the alder thickets of coastal Alaska. While not quite as versatile as the .375 H&H, the .450s are distinctly more powerful.
And, each of these calibers has the advantage of being a good back-up in a pinch.
At this point, we can get specialized. If you hunt pronghorns on the plains, or whitetails either in the desert or across southern beanfields, you will obviously want a pure long-range combination in a small magnum caliber.
On the other hand, an eastern hunter who chases whitetails, black bear, and eastern moose in thick woods and swamps might want to add a lighter, faster-handling rifle–a lever action or a pump, perhaps.
In the Rockies, a hunter might want a mountain rifle in a light caliber for backpacking, or a heavier caliber like the .340 Weatherby that will reach way out for bull elk.
Finally, of course, there is the whole range of varmint rifles, for shooting woodchucks, coyotes, and similar small game. Here we get into the benchrest-quality, ultra-accurate smallbores, like the .223 Remington and the .22-250.
If you look at each of these rifles, you will see they are quite specialized and there is not a great deal of cross-over among them. Also, none of them makes a particularly versatile back-up.
One smallbore that will perform a great number of tasks, and fill in for many others, is the .243 Winchester. It will handle everything from prairie dogs to mule deer, under the right conditions. High quality ammunition is readily available and with a gratifying array of bullet weights and types. It can be had in rifles that are highly accurate, light of weight, and low-priced–and that is a rare combination in itself.
In something like the Remington Model Seven, a .243 Winchester can fill in as either a woods rifle or a mountain rifle. Or, you could get a completely different configuration with a longer, heavier barrel and a more powerful scope, and have a good fill-in for long range applications.
Actually, there is a lot to be said for having two different rifles in the same caliber. It saves money on bullets and other components, and you become intimately familiar with the cartridge and its capabilities.
One cartridge that lends itself to this is the .280 Remington. There is a wide array of bullet weights in 7mm, which gives the .280 great versatility. The hitch here is that often we don’t pay enough attention to the rifling twist, and having the wrong twist will either under-stabilize or spin the bullets too fast, giving poor accuracy.
The worst example of this is the 6.5×55, a cartridge that should qualify as a fine all-arounder except that with the standard rifling of 1-in-8 or even 1-in-71⁄2 inches, it never (in my experience) shoots well with light bullets. Unless you go for the 140-grain bullets, with their medium velocity, rainbow trajectory, and practical limit of 300 yards, you are out of luck. As much as I love the 6.5×55 for one or two specific purposes, I would give it a wide berth if I was looking for versatility.
As the caliber becomes larger, the degree of twist becomes less critical–something to keep in mind when choosing a rifle if super-accuracy is one of your requirements.
A recent series of developments that may have a profound effect on how we put together a rifle battery are the short magnum cartridges from Lazzeroni, Winchester and Remington. Ballistically, these cartridges threaten to revolutionize rifle making because they deliver higher velocities from smaller cartridges that fit in more compact actions. At this point, none of them has been around long enough to establish whether the same limitations will apply to the same extent they do with cartridges we know intimately–whether, for example, seating a long bullet will reduce powder capacity to the point that we are back where we started.
Regardless, good as they undoubtedly are, none will qualify as a great back-up until you can buy ammunition in the corner store of a small town in Wyoming, or find it in a ducca in Tanzania. For that reason alone, the .30-06 and .375 H&H will reign for a long time.
So, in summary, here are my personal picks as the best five rifle calibers to serve as either all-around rifles, or to be a general purpose back-up in a battery of more specialized rifles.
.30-06 Springfield. Three years shy of the century old mark, the .30-06 is the veteran left-handed reliever of rifle cartridges. With the .30-06, you can almost never go wrong.
.375 H&H. It’s almost as old as the .30-06. If you spend muc
h time in Africa or Alaska, this would be #1.
.280 Remington. The array of 7mm bullets makes this cartridge a real winner.
.243 Winchester. A cartridge that will fill in nicely for anything from the .22 Hornet to the .30-06.
.458 Lott. An oddball, I agree, but with bullets available in every configuration, in weights from 300 to 600 grains, it is a handloader’s dream cartridge when teamed with H4198. In a pinch, you can shoot factory .458 Winchester ammunition. If I wanted to hunt the world and own only one rifle, this would be it.