Being a GunTuber did not make me a gun person. It started for me years earlier as a big game hunter. Hunting supplies food for the table and generates many lasting memories as well as helps keep healthy populations of game animals. Millions hunt game, big and small. There is so much information and hearsay out there about what gun and caliber is best for big game hunting and there is no holy grail. I am no expert by any stretch, but I know the realities of hunting and shooting with a variety of calibers and I hope to save you time, money, and shoulder bruising.
There are dozens, if not hundreds of game cartridges out there. But, you might be prone to select a weapon and ammunition you can find locally. So these calibers are treated here. Enjoy and share your thoughts.
223 Remington- Growing up, the 223 Remington round was scoffed at in camp as a round too light for anything serious. But the reality is different, having seen the results and handled the weapons myself. The 223 round is cheap and available in a variety of loadings but even in the best case, the bullets are relatively light. Commonly 55 to 80 grains. But power wise, the light bullets of the 223 are best for light skinned animals, like deer. The battlefield stories of under-penetration on enemies would hold true on the game field too as even standard M855 tumbles on impact. So light skinned animals and varmints it is. But the 223 is a far better choice for the deer hunter compared to some other light, traditional choices like the 22 Hornet, 25-20, and 32-20. It has far more power than those three and are far less expensive and more available so you can have more trigger time without breaking the bank. On top of that, recoil is very low so new shooters need not be intimidated by a 223 bolt gun, single shot, or AR15 type rifles. About the only major downside is that the 223 and other 22 caliber center fire rounds are not legal for big game in some states. So be aware of your laws.
243 Remington- The 243 Remington was born when a 308 Winchester case was modified to take a .244 diameter bullet. Like the 223, it has a foot in the varmint hunting world at long range, but a foot into the deer hunting arena too with bullets lighter than 50 grains up to 115 grain long range projectiles. In camp, it would be called the “kid’s gun”. But that kid’s gun got respect. 100 grain softpoints brought the venison in with regularity. It does all this with more power than the 223 Remington with a touch more recoil. 243 rifles are comfortable to shoot and are available in bolt action, single shot, and a few AR10 platform rifles. The only downside to the 243 is that the rounds costs more than the 223. If you are the frugal type, the 223 round is unbeatable.
270 Winchester- The old 30-06 round was modified to take a .277 diameter bullet. This allowed for a faster moving bullet with a flatter flight path than the 30-06. The 270 was a favorite of gun writer, Jack O’Conner, who used it to dispatch elk. It was all the talk in my camp for sure. The average 270 load runs a 130 grain bullet at about 2900 fps. Equivalent speed to the 243 and 223 but with a heavier bullet. It all equivocates to more felt recoil for the shooter. Indeed, it took me a long time to get used to the 270 Winchester. On top of that the price tag for quality hunting ammunition is about $1 per round. (That’s why I started reloading.) I believe the 270 was the answer to a question no one really asked, but I have seen 130 grainers drop deer out to 400 yards with the help of a rangefinder. So the proof is in the pudding.
7mm Remington Magnum- Hunters who like taking long shots, like my grandfather, swear by the 7mm Remington Magnum. It fires a .284 diameter bullet at about the same speed as the 270. But the average hunting bullet is about 160 grains. This allows for greater long range accuracy. But at the price of even more felt recoil. The Rem. Mag is available as a single shot rifle or in a bolt action platform and is equally costly as the 270. It’s effect on deer sized game is undeniably good.
30-30 Winchester- The 30-30 is the oldest smokeless powder sporting round in existence dating back to 1895 and is arguably responsible for killing the most game of any round. Traditionally, the 30-30 is used in lever action rifles like the Winchester 94 and the Marlin series of rifles available today. Fine single shot rifles and older bolt action rifles are around too. The 30-30 Winchester 94 rifle was my first and is my favorite. The 30-30 was often joked about in camp for being short range and weak, but the pedigree speaks for itself. It sports a 150-170 grain bullet at about 2200 feet per second. It is low powered compared to more modern sporting rounds, but this means it has very light recoil. On the other hand, most ammunition available for the 30-30 features a round nosed bullet to use in lever action rifle magazines. This type is not the most aerodynamic for long range, but there are rounds out there that solve that issue. It has plenty of bullet weight to take deer and larger game. 30-30 ammunition is readily available, like guns that shoot it, and are somewhat cheaper than other rounds too. An average box of 20 bullets costs about $13-$15. If you want more versatility than the 223 but similar recoil, this round is for you.
308 Winchester- Like the 223, it is a commercial version of a military round, the 7.62×51 NATO. Like the 223, it is available in AR type rifles, as well as bolt action and single shot platforms. Because it shoots a .309 diameter bullet, there are many bullet types and weights available. Like the 223, rounds are relatively inexpensive and available. But the 308 does say hello in the recoil department, but in my experience, the recoil is milder than that of the old 270 round. The effect on deer is about the same too. I believe the 308 is a more versatile round in general.
30-06 Springfield- The US military introduced the streamlined, powerful 30-06 round in 1906. Sportsmen armed with military surplus weapons and sporting guns have killed just about any sort of game with the 30-06. Because of its ex-military origins, it is readily available in terms of bullets and rifles. Because it fires a .309 diameter bullet like the 308 Winchester and 30-30, a variety of loads are possible. It can be a little pricier than 308, but its case can hold more powder. Therefore, more power. Rifles in 30-06 range from single shots, pump actions, lever actions, bolt actions, and semi automatic rifles. It is the most popular big game cartridge in North America today with flexibility and a long reach. But on the other hand, the 30-06 is right at the limit at what most shooters can handle in terms of recoil. Like, the 270, these guns do say hello. Having shot both calibers, I can attest to that.
45-70 Government- The 45-70 is a round that refuses to die. The US military adopted it for use in 1873 and though its military usefulness was over by the end of that century, its game getting impact is still felt. Some historians point to this round in Sharps and Rolling Block rifles as responsible for the terrible killing of bison in the American West. That would come as a surprise since the original load for the 45-70 was 70 grains of black powder and a 500 grain lead round nosed bullet moving at just 1400 feet per second. Today, the old load is still around, but jacketed bullets and smokeless powder have also adapted to the old Government round. Single shot and lever action rifles in the 45-70, both old and new are around. I often see H&R single shots and Marlin lever guns in this caliber. The 45-70 kills all big game with regularity and loads for the old cartridge are numerous. It is also the largest, most commonly encountered hunting cartridge around. The 45-70 does not have a flat trajectory compared to modern cartridges, but historically, the old number has been used past 1000 yards. Depending on the load, recoil can be prohibitive or pleasant.
Hunting guns are like fighting guns. They are a compromise to what you can handle and performance in the field. There will not be a holy grail to hunting guns and this post only covers so many rounds. The fanciest new wildcat round or special bullet are not necessary to successful hunting. No matter what caliber you choose, choose one that you shoot best. You owe it to yourself and your game to get the shot right. All the power in the world will not make up for that.