We know you already have a list in mind. This is how we came up with ours.
Coverage is the name of the game. These five firearms allow hunters to pursue everything from wingshooting to small game to big game. The calibers we chose are relatively common and inexpensive, but also panic-proof. If you’ve visited a sporting goods store lately, you know it’s a good idea to have guns not chambered in any of the common self-defense calibers.
With all that in mind, I surveyed the MeatEater crew and asked, “If you could only have five guns for the rest of your hunting life, what would they be?” Here is what the polling showed.
12-Gauge Shotgun (Any Action)
The 12-gauge shotgun was a unanimous addition to everyone’s list. A reliable 12 gauge can do triple-duty on birds, small game, and large game. Plus, they’re relatively cheap, easy to maintain, and the ammunition is readily available.
A shotgun’s versatility lies in its interchangeable chokes, shot, and barrels. For turkeys, a full choke with tungsten shot cooking out of a 26-inch barrel is a great option. For deer, the same shotgun can be easily fitted with a rifled barrel that can deliver slugs within four or five inch groups out to 150 yards. (And they get you out in the field in weapons restricted deer zones.) Or, hunters can rotate back to a smoothbore and use #7 ½ birdshot to bring home some dove dinner.
Ryan Callaghan also points out that hunters can tailor their shot to their game, as well as themselves.
“The 12-gauge owner can select a shot load that is perfect for cottontails or whitetails as well as for the frame of the shooter,” Callaghan said. “Meaning Doug Duren can choose 1 3/8 ounce of #2 shot in a 3 1/2-inch load, while Danielle Prewett can select a much lighter recoiling 1 ounce of #2 in a 2 3/4-inch load. They’ll both bring ducks home, and they’ll both be able to enjoy doing it.”
.22 Long Rifle (Any Action)
Rimfire cartridges in .22 caliber have been terrorizing small game since Smith & Wesson introduced the .22 Short in 1857. The .22 LR was introduced shortly thereafter, and today, the .22 LR is among the most widely used cartridge in existence.
Double deuce guns can be found in a variety of actions—everything from bolt action to semi-auto to lever to pump. You can’t go wrong with any of these actions from a reputable manufacturer. Bolt guns are considered inherently more accurate, but the popular semi-autos have likely accounted for more squirrel and rabbit deaths than anything in existence.
The cartridge is dead nuts on small game between zero and 60 yards. Beyond 100 yards, you’re dealing with wind drift, bullet drop, and rapidly decreasing velocity. But within appropriate ranges, a .22 rifle can take everything up to a coyote-sized animal with a well-placed shot.
“These are great for a variety of small game applications—squirrels, rabbits, ptarmigan, etc.—but they’re also perfect for introducing and training young shooters,” Steven Rinella said. “And here’s a hot tip: Get yourself a .22 caliber suppressor and some CCI sub-sonic ammo and you’ll never touch another air rifle. The combo is so stealthy that the only thing you hear when you touch the trigger is the tink noise from the beer can you just shot.”
6.5 Creedmoor (Bolt Action, Semi Auto)
Now it’s time to think about medium-to-large-sized animals. The 6.5 Creedmoor is a trendy but increasingly beloved cartridge in the hunting world, and it’s a favorite in the MeatEater office.
In the same class as the widely used 6.5x55mm Swedish, the 6.5 Creedmoor can deliver superb performance on deer and antelope and can even tackle bear and elk given appropriate conditions, moderate ranges, and good hunting bullets. But it can also step down to coyote-sized animals or hogs, which makes it an all-around performer.
The 6.5 Creedmoor pushes a 120-grain bullet over 2,900 feet per second at the muzzle and a 147-grain bullet around 2,700 FPS. Projectiles loaded in 6.5 often boast a high ballistic coefficient, which allows the bullet to shoot flat and buck the wind.
“I’ve killed two giant Montana cow elk with a 120g bullet coming out of a 6.5, but it’s nowhere near overkill for a coyote and perfect for a whitetail deer,” said Janis Putelis. “What’s more, the light recoil of 6.5 chamberings make them a joy to shoot.”
In terms of availability, this round is a nice mix of common, inexpensive, and panic-proof. You may have noticed that unlike .308 Win., 6.5 Creedmoor is still available in stores, and you’ll only pay a couple bucks more for a box of 20.
.300 Win. Mag. (Bolt Action)
But what about when conditions aren’t ideal or a shot must be taken on big game animals from a long distance? No five-gun list is complete without one of the big boy cartridges, and .300 Win. Mag. is a good choice.
While 6.5 Creedmoor can get the job done on some large game, .300 Win. Mag. leaves more room for error. Frank C. Barnes’ book, “Cartridges of the World,” calls it a “fine long-range, big-game cartridge in the same class as the .300 Weatherby” and “suitable for any North American species.” Available in a wide range of bullet weights, the .300 Win Mag can push a 200 grain bullet nearly 3,000 FPS at the muzzle and deliver nearly 4,000 foot-pounds of energy.
Think of the 6.5 Creedmoor as your choice for coyotes, hogs, whitetails, and antelope, and the .300 Win Mag as the gun for bear, mule deer, elk, and moose. Each can do the job of the other, just not as well. You can get away with owning a single big-game rifle, but it’s well worth it to have two.
“Having one big game rifle for everything from antelope to moose is a bad idea. When something like an optic breaks in the middle of a hunt, you’ll appreciate have having a backup ready,” Brody Henderson said.
.50 Caliber Muzzleloader
Ballistically speaking, a muzzleloader won’t outperform either of the two centerfire rifles on the list, but it can do one thing they can’t: get you in the field.
“Muzzleloaders, both modern in-line versions and old school flintlocks, offer big game hunters more opportunities,” Henderson said. “Many states offer early and late muzzleloader-only seasons. And if you’re interested in hunting a trophy unit, muzzleloader hunts usually have way better drawing odds than lotteries for rifle seasons. For whitetail hunters in weapons-restricted areas where high-powered, centerfire rifles aren’t legal, it’s often legal to use muzzleloaders.”
North Dakota, for example, offers a muzzleloader deer season that starts a week after the regular season ends. Nebraska has an entire month of muzzleloader deer hunting with tags available over the counter. Upstate New York’s muzzleloader bear season starts a week before the regular season. Colorado offers muzzleloader big game tags that are much easier to draw than rifle tags.
Fifty-caliber muzzleloaders are common and acceptable in all states. Steven Rinella points out that most muzzleloader hunters take shots within 150 yards, which leaves plenty of room to work in most hunting environments. Plus, the challenge and excitement of taking game with a muzzleloader might have you picking up your black powder gun even during regular firearms seasons.
You might opt for slightly different cartridges in your five-gun list. Rather than a 6.5 Creedmoor, you might go with a .45-70 if you often hunt in a straight-wall-cartridge-only area. Or, maybe there’s no need for a muzzleloader in the states you hunt and you’d rather have a second shotgun or third big game rifle.
But, we’re firm believers that these selections provide maximum coverage. A shotgun, a rimfire rifle, two centerfire rifles (that serve different but overlapping needs), and a muzzleloader can cover every game animal and season in North America.