A rancher, Steve Simpson worked in law enforcement and has hunted big game (pronghorn antelope). He is a lifelong shooter and reloader.
What Are the Best All-Around Firearms Options for You?
There have been a number of articles in firearms circles over the years about what some author thinks are the best all around firearms options for you, considering what you may or may not do with your guns. In this piece, I’m shooting for an outlook that covers the widest array of options and is broad and capable. There are no shortage of opinions in the firearms world, as I’m sure you know. Most are based on the author’s experience or maybe the experience of someone he or she knows and what they’ve done with their guns in the past. Sometimes it’s hunting, sometimes shooting for fun, sometimes it’s tactical work and sometimes it’s more than one of these things or something else. Many of us hunt for meat as well as personal fulfillment and adventure, along with a connection to nature that we long for. Many of us have guns for recreational shooting purposes and many more of us have guns for self defense purposes. Some of us have and use guns as a matter of professional need, with military and law enforcement applications being the most obvious two.
Most of us are not rich and have to operate within a budget. We have families to support and bills to pay, as well as the ever present unexpected expense that challenges our finances from time to time. Even with that being the case, one can assemble a very capable, straightforward battery of guns that will allow for accomplishing most any task that calls for a firearm.
When thinking on this matter, I considered the potential needs detailed in the list below. You may or may not actually participate in all of them. Or, you might want to or might have to some day and you may want to have the capability to cover those bases should the need arise. I think this list represents the vast majority of scenarios that most of us may encounter as outdoors people and armed citizens. Most situations that call for the use of firearms in a hunting, recreational or defensive need fall into one of those areas.
The 10 Most Likely Uses for a Sporting or Defensive Firearm
- Target Shooting / Plinking
- Small Game Hunting (Short Range)
- Small Game Hunting / Varmint Shooting (Long Range)
- Medium Game Hunting—Under 300 Pounds (Short Range / Long Range)
- Large Game Hunting—Over 300 Pounds (Short Range / Long Range)
- Potentially Dangerous Large Game (Short Range / Long Range)
- Upland Game Bird Hunting
- Waterfowl and Turkey Hunting
- Close-Range Self Defense Against Dangerous Animals
- Close-Range Self Defense Against Dangerous Human Beings
Cartridges That Will Fulfill the 10 Most Likely Needs for a Sporting or Defensive Firearm
I am mainly concerned with hunting and defensive activities that occur in the Lower 48, with the possibility of going to Alaska or Canada as a potential bonus. Most of us will never hunt Africa, and for those that are well monied enough to do so, the cost of a suitable dangerous game rifle is probably one of the cheaper aspects of your trip and therefore I’m not going to discuss that here. I am looking at this strategy from the perspective of a normal man or woman who has a pretty normal life and a pretty normal income stream, who can acquire what we’ll talk about over a period of years and have a very capable set up for the vast majority of circumstances.
There are obviously a large number of firearms manufacturers that produce a wide variety of different handguns, rifles and shotguns. There are variations in calibers, barrel lengths, sighting systems, stocks, sling options, holsters, ammunition and so on.
Another truth of the firearms world is that there are hundreds of different cartridges out there and many of them have overlapping capabilities. For instance, what you can kill with a 7mm Remington Magnum is substantially similar to what you can kill with a .300 Winchester Magnum. The .300 Win. Mag. fires a slightly larger and heavier bullet at similar velocity and it might perform a bit better on large, heavy animals. But the reality in most situations is that staying within your capabilities as a hunter and shooter and placing the shot in the right place will do much more to increase your chances of success than the difference between two calibers like this that are fairly close in capability.
I am convinced the reason there are so many cartridges out there is two fold. One is profitability for the firearms and ammunition industry and the other is because we who love guns and shooting love to tinker and make variations on a theme that are “just perfect” for a particular situation. I’m not complaining, I love choices and the freedom to choose, however realistically there is enough cross capability out there that the average person in the Lower 48 can satisfy all of the above needs with about 8 different cartridges and about 9 or 10 different guns and still have breathing room for the unknown. Throw in Alaska and we’ll bump it up to 9 cartridges and 10 or 11 guns. But, once again that last number is based on a margin of safety and not because something a little smaller won’t do the job.
At the end of the article, I detail a basic, bare bones battery that will serve most people well that consists of 6 calibers and 6 guns that still satisfy most of our list, albeit not as well. That is your basic list. What immediately follows below is the gravy; the nice to have options if means allow.
As we said there are a lot of guns out there and a lot of variations of those guns. The particular platform (gunmaker, model and so on) that you choose I will leave up to you. I am concerned here with a broad battery of easily obtainable calibers for the average person who does not reload their ammunition and the capabilities those calibers offer us. So, without further ado, my opinion of what can satisfy all of the above potential needs is as follows:
Nine Guns That Together Satisfy Every Conceivable Need
1. A .22 LR Rifle That Can Be Scoped and Slung
2. A .22 LR pistol with a Holster and Extra Magazines
Use: Target, plinking, short to medium range small game and varmints
These two firearms will satisfy the requirements for target shooting and plinking, as well as hunting small game and varmints at short to medium range. For those who have no choice or who don’t want to deal with the recoil of a larger caliber handgun, the .22 LR pistol can also be pressed into service as a defensive weapon against the criminal element. Granted good training and good ammo will help the situation and there are far superior calibers that would be preferable, but it’s better than nothing if you have no choice. Especially if one puts multiple rounds on target. Also, most every kind of defensive handgun training can be practiced with a .22 LR pistol on the cheap. You’ll definitely want to train with the actual defensive gun you use, but even cheap 9mm ammo is more expensive than .22 LR. More ammo equals more practice.
For small game, varmints and target shooting, the .22 LR rifle is awesome. There is a massive variety of ammunition available in everything from CB Caps that fire a light bullet at low velocity for a low noise target or pest control situation, up through hyper velocity ammo that shoots good quality hollow point bullets at up to 1640 feet per second in the case of the CCI Stinger. There are Segmented bullets from CCI, specialty rounds like .22 LR shot shells and conventional round nose and hollow point offerings. Lots of options to be had here in the ammunition department and also with the variety of rifles out there. A semi-auto like the Ruger 10/22 is lots of fun and quite capable of accuracy out to 100 yards, especially with the scope option. If a bolt or lever action is your preference, those are available too and there are several .22 LR pistols out there that are also very suitable for small game in and around a camp and other general uses.
3. A .223 / 5.56mm Rifle With a Variable Power Scope (AR-15 Variant)
Use: Target, plinking, small to medium game at short, medium and long range as well as varmint shooting and defensive needs.
This caliber satisfies once again the target shooting and plinking need, and also gets us into the short, medium and long range option for small to medium game and varmints, especially when paired with a 3-9X or 4-14X or similar variable power scope. Being a military caliber, ammunition is available everywhere and the variety of sporting loads with premium bullets is also quite large. I would not personally go after medium game like deer with a .223, but with modern bullets and ammo it will work and many a deer has fallen to this caliber. Just my preference. Especially for plains hunting in windy environments (Pronghorn, etc.) there are better calibers. But, this caliber is great for varmint shooting out to 400 or so yards and is also quite useful for animals like coyotes and hogs and other situations where there are a lot of targets and the shooting can get fast at varying ranges.
There are a lot of very nice bolt actions out there in this caliber, but my preference here would be a somewhat tricked out AR-15, with either a .223 Wylde or 5.56mm chamber to allow for the widest variety of ammo use. Everyone who owns guns should have an AR. It is America’s Rifle after all, and given modern barrels and parts, the AR offers significantly greater options than the bolt rifle, albeit with the possibility of not being quite up to the accuracy standard of the bolt action. But, with modern guns the AR is not far off of bolt action accuracy. And, with barrel options from 16-24” and rifling options from 1-7 to 1-9, one can set up their rifle for the widest array of possibilities and thereby cover more territory. For instance with an 18-20” barrel with a 1-7 or 1-8 twist, you have a relatively compact and easily maneuverable rifle that will handle anything from 55 grain or lighter up to 80 grain bullets. This set up gives you options. Options are good, and that’s what you have with the AR. And of course having been combat tested for decades, it is also a supremely useful defensive firearm depending upon the situation. To boot, there are an almost endless array of scopes and accessories for the AR, both tactical and outdoor oriented. Scopes, red dots, bipods, rail systems, weapon lights, slings, custom triggers, stocks and ammunition choices abound with this platform.
4. A Compact .308 Winchester Bolt Action Rifle With a Variable Power Scope
Use: Target, medium to large game at short, medium and long range.
This would be my preference in a short to medium range big game rifle for animals 300 pounds or under, which can also be pressed into service for heavier animals at longer ranges. I’m sure many folks will wonder why the .30-30 lever action isn’t in this slot, and again it’s personal preference. I like lever actions because they’re short and fast, but a short bolt rifle like the Remington Model 7 or a 20” barrel Model 700 is pretty compact as well and offers a stronger action, greater inherent accuracy and generally better scope mounting options, along with a caliber that will get the most out of modern optics. Most bolt rifles come with sling swivel studs and are capable of accepting bipods, which are very useful in a hasty prone position or even when shooting from another surface that will support the front of the rifle. Yes there are many other short action calibers out there like 7mm-08 Remington and the short magnums. However once again, being a military caliber the .308 is available anywhere and is factory loaded with a wide variety of bullets, including premium and super premium big game bullets. Again, possibilities and options and covering wide ground is what we’re looking for here. The .308 will cover you from varmints and target up through elk if you choose ammunition and shots wisely.
Sidenote: 6.5 Creedmoor
The 6.5 Creedmoor is very popular and I decided I should include it in this section because it would fill many of the same capabilities as the .308 as far as medium and big game, but the 6.5 does this with superior down range ballistics (trajectory) and less recoil. It is wildly popular and can be had in both bolt action and AR platforms. I have not worked with one yet, but I've read a lot about this cartridge and it's getting a look from the military as well. Several factory loads with high performance bullets are available and there will probably be even more available in the near future. For the all around battery, I still give the nod to the .308 Winchester in this slot simply because it's more easily obtainable in a wider variety of high performance factory load options, but this situation may not last much longer as the 6.5 Creedmoor is very quickly developing an excellent reputation when used within it’s capabilities. The .308 offers a bit more bullet weight and diameter if one were to press it into service on big animals, but the Creedmoor has a superior trajectory and is more user friendly on the back end of the rifle. While the 6.5 Creedmoor is better at long range, I still don't think it's quite as versatile as the .308 at this point. But if you choose it over the .308 and use it within its parameters you'll probably be very happy with it.
5. A 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-06 Springfield, or .300 Winchester Magnum Bolt Action Rifle (With a High-Quality Variable Power Scope of Course)
Use: Target, medium to large and heavy game at short, medium and long range. Potentially dangerous game under limited circumstances.
Here we have the capability to really reach out and tag animals 300 pounds and over at anywhere from short to long range. And these calibers will do anything the .308 will do and fill all of the lighter game and shorter range requirements in the bargain. Where they may fall short is in the potentially dangerous game category and in the compact and maneuverable category. My personal preference here is the 7mm Remington Magnum. Mainly because 7mm bullets have better ballistic coefficients for standard weight projectiles and can be fired at very respectable velocities with less recoil. This allows for a very nice point blank range, easier hold overs and faster follow up shots, while still retaining the ability to put down big animals. In order to get the same trajectory performance from the .300 you’ll need heavier bullets and more powder to push them fast, which means more recoil. The .30-06 has been a mainstay of hunting for generations and splits the difference between the 7mm Remington Magnum and the .300 Winchester Magnum. It’s a non-magnum caliber which is nice for reloading applications but it’s power level is closer to the 7 Mag than the .300. You have an inferior trajectory with the .30-06 compared to the other two, but not by much. To boot, you also have wide arrays of factory options and availability and heavy bullet options as well for specific applications. Of course there are a lot, and I mean a lot, of other caliber options in this range. There are numerous other 7mm Magnums and .30 Caliber Magnums. However, the 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-06 and .300 Winchester Magnum are probably three of the most popular big game cartridges of all time. They are loaded with premium and super premium bullets in factory ammo and you’ll be able to find a box of ammo almost anywhere. They all have very good records of putting meat in the freezer and as I discussed earlier, their performance crosses over with 90% or more of the other calibers in this performance envelope. The three of them can handle all likely scenarios that one would employ a caliber in this range for. The .300 will give somewhat greater options than the 7 Mag or .30-06, but at the cost of more recoil and probably a heavier rifle. Choose as you will.
6. A .338 Winchester Magnum or Heavier Bolt Action Rifle
Use: Large and heavy game at short, medium and long range. Potentially dangerous game.
If I knew I was headed to Alaska or Canada to go after big bears or moose (potentially dangerous big game at short to long range), I’d probably choose something like a .338 Winchester Magnum or heavier. But, if one chooses the right ammunition and places the shot properly, the 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-06 or .300 Winchester Magnum will handle these jobs. Where this logic breaks down is in the unknown or the surprise scenario. With animals and potentialities like one might find in Alaska, the smaller caliber will work but not as well as something heavier. Just as I would not choose to go after medium game with a .223, I wouldn’t go after big bears with a 7mm or .300 Mag. But again, this article is about the all around capable firearms battery for someone who spends the vast majority of their time in the Lower 48. A possibly once in a lifetime trip like Alaska or Canada where there are higher numbers of dangerous animals can dictate we look for something bigger. If you’re going there, by all means try to invest in a .338 or bigger. If you can’t lay your hands on a big caliber like this, take your 7 Mag, .30-06 or .300 Magnum and spend a couple hundred dollars on ammunition and practice, practice, practice. Short range, long range, unknown distance, snap shots and so on. Gear is nice, but the user is far more important.
7. A 12-Gauge Shotgun
Use: Target, upland birds, waterfowl, turkeys, medium game in no-rifle areas, defensive use at short to medium range.
There are two options here to cover all your bases, depending upon financial options. The first one is to have two 12 Gauge shotguns, the first gun set up with a 28” or so barrel with interchangeable choke tubes and the second gun set up with an 18-20” Cylinder or Improved Cylinder barrel. The second option is to have one 12 Gauge shotgun with two barrels as described above. This gets you into most anything you’ll need a shotgun for. The longer barrel will serve you well for clay target shooting, upland game birds and waterfowl and turkeys. The option of interchangeable choke tubes gives you more options for game birds, long range waterfowl and load patterns. If you’re going with the two gun option, I’d choose an over and under for your bird and target gun. This gives you two barrels and two choke options in a lightweight and swingable package, but these guns are typically pretty expensive. And of course you only have two rounds if that’s a thing for you. Otherwise a pump or semi-auto might be your gig.
The 18-20” Cylinder or Improved Cylinder barrel covers you for deer hunting where shotgun slugs are the rule, short to medium range self defense scenarios for both dangerous animals and dangerous human beings and of course general target shooting. This one will probably have to be a pump or semi-auto. I’d probably rock some rifle sights on this barrel for more accurate shotgun slug shooting. If you’re going to be in dangerous game country but you’re fishing and not hunting or something like that, shotgun slugs in a gun like this are a good option for bad circumstances.
8. A .44 Magnum Revolver With a 4-6” Barrel
Use: Target, plinking, small, medium and large game handgun hunting at short range, defensive use.
I’m sure this choice for close range self defense against dangerous animals (in addition to target shooting and handgun hunting and personal defense) will be met with lots of other, shall we say, suggestions. My choice here is for the following reasons. First, while it’s true that you typically have only 6 rounds in a revolver, they are almost always reliable rounds that go off when you pull the trigger. The 10mm semi-auto is becoming a more common choice these days and you have more ammo in a respectable caliber, but the .44 Magnum is just about perfect as a hunting back up and can also be employed for close range handgun hunting. The big .44 is not the most powerful revolver out there, but it is about the most powerful revolver that most people can comfortably carry and shoot well. A .44 Magnum with a 4” barrel is easily packable in a holster. The 4” barrel sight radius is compact, but long enough to allow a practiced shooter to hit longer range targets. The .44 Magnum revolver can accommodate anything from light .44 Special ammo all the way through ammunition like that from Buffalo Bore or Grizzly Cartridge that offers a level of power significantly beyond what “normal” .44 Magnum factory ammo does. Again, we’re talking about options here and the .44 Magnum gives them to you. More powerful revolvers are bigger, heavier, less comfortable and recoil more. The 10mm is cool, but it is necessarily stuck in a narrow range of ballistic performance in order for the gun to reliably cycle, since it’s a semi-auto. The .44 Magnum has no such issues. If you’re a handloader, you’re golden here. You can shoot anything from a round that barely pushes the bullet out of the barrel all the way up to planet wreckers that will shoot all the way through a big, heavy animal with the right bullet. And again, you’ll be able to find a box of .44 Magnum ammo pretty much anywhere.
9. A double Stack (Hi-Capacity) 9mm Pistol
Use: Target, plinking, small game, light trail gun, defensive use.
Of course there is the 9mm / .40 S&W / .45 Auto debate. And yes, the .357 Magnum is a fantastic cartridge which I dearly love and which also has a great street record. But, for defense against dangerous human beings, you’re stuck with 6 rounds and a pretty slow reload with the revolver. If your defense scenario follows the standard model of 0-7 feet distance against a single assailant, maybe that will be enough. I like options though, and a high capacity semi-auto with an accessory rail gives you many more of them than a 6 round revolver for tactical scenarios. When you couple that with modern 9mm +P ammo, like the 124 grain weight that’s going out of the gun at close to 1200 feet per second (not too far off 125 grain .357 Magnum performance), you have a very capable set up.
I think two factors have reliably ended the semi-auto caliber debate with respect to defense against people. The first one is the creation of really high quality 9mm defensive ammo that reliably expands and dumps it’s energy within the FBI performance window of 12-16” of penetration and offers good performance through intermediate barriers like heavy clothing, wood, residential walls and automotive glass. The second one is the exhaustive research the FBI has done to establish that the 9mm, with good ammo, is pretty much equal to the .40 S&W and .45 Auto in defensive performance. This discussion only regards using modern defensive ammo against human beings. With solid, non-expanding ammo, say for trail use against big animals, I’d consider a larger caliber or at least use the widest flat point you can find in 9mm.
A 9mm pistol can be pressed into service as a trail gun in areas where one doesn’t expect to encounter anything larger than the average black bear, but again choose appropriate ammo. If bears are your primary concern, you should probably go back to the .44 Magnum. 9mm ammunition choice is important, whatever capacity you use it in. 9mm ammo can be had in anything from 115 grain ball all the way through high performance hollow points in 115-147 grain weights, in addition to non-expanding and deep penetrating flat points and round nose offerings.
In areas like the Sierra Nevada where you have unknown personalities from all over the world coming to use the trails, 15 + 1 rounds in something like a Glock 19 sounds good to me. Especially since that 15 + 1 capacity is most likely in a compact, concealable package that can also accommodate accessories like weapon lights and tritium sights. These types of remote areas see a lot of use, but they don’t have reliable cell phone service and emergency services are few and far between. If something bad happens, you’re most likely on your own so a high quality gun with lots of ammo is a nice thing to have. And again, 9mm being the most popular handgun caliber in the country and a military caliber, you can find ammo anywhere. If you’re carrying a gun for self defense, make sure you train frequently and get some emergency medical training as well. Come to think of it, that should be on the resume of any outdoors person.
So there you have it. With the above selections, you can cover your bases from self defense against criminals to small game hunting to big game hunting to upland birds to deer in no rifle areas to dangerous animals and everything in between. The particular firearms you choose to fill these niches are your choice and of course these caliber suggestions are only my opinion, but I think they’re based on sound reasoning.
Six Choices for A Basic Gun Collection
f you’re a Lower 48 inhabitant and you don’t anticipate going to Alaska or Canada, or if you’re on a budget and you’re looking to downsize the above list a little more, you can take the list and strip it down to the following, which will save you at least a couple thousand dollars.
1. A .22 LR Rifle. (A .22 LR pistol as well if money allows because practice and fun, but the rifle should be the priority since it allows better cartridge performance and longer range shots.)
2. A .223 / 5.56mm Rifle (AR) with 18-20” barrel in 1-7 or 1-8 twist with a variable power scope and back up iron sights.
3. A 7mm Rem Mag / .30-06 / .300 Win Mag Rifle with variable power scope.
4. A pump Action 12 Gauge Shotgun with two barrels (28” barrel with variable choke tubes and 18-20” barrel with cylinder or improved cylinder choke)
5. A .44 Magnum revolver with 4-6" barrel.
6. Hi-Capacity 9mm Pistol
You’ll notice I stripped off the Compact .308 / 6.5 Creedmoor. That’s because it’s nice to have, but for a budget the 7 Mag, .30-06 or .300 Mag will take care of anything the .308 will and more, making the .308 nice due to it’s size, but unnecessary as far as the capable battery goes.
My suggestion is that you go and educate yourself as much as you can about your needs and potential scenarios and then make your decisions about what to acquire and what to acquire first. Knowledge is power, and figuring out what you want to do and what tools will handle those jobs is step one towards making all of your next decisions. As I previously stated, gear is nice but the user is far more important. Learn, train and train some more. Go out and shoot your guns and improve your skills. Skilled users have more options because they know more and they use their gear better. Thanks for sticking with me and go have fun!
Mike Teddleton from Midwest USA on December 16, 2019: