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Three Guns Every Hunter Must Have

LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.


The current gun market is saturated with options for hunters. Semi-automatics, lever-actions, bolt-actions, pump-actions, and break-actions all beckon from gun store shelves; the only limit is a hunter’s budget and available storage space. While few would argue a hunter shouldn't have as many guns as is practical, what gun or guns are the absolute minimum a hunter needs? Here are three indispensable choices.

1. Rimfire Rifle

The tried-and-true .22, or the new .17, is a fantastic gun to own. It has almost no recoil which makes it perfect for novices. Almost everyone’s first gun is a rimfire rifle. Inexpensive ammunition encourages extensive practice at the firing range which hones marksmanship skills.

In the field, the rimfire rifle does yeoman service both on small game and pests. It is perfect for squirrels, rabbits, upland birds such as mountain grouse and ptarmigan, and even turkeys (where legal). Around rural property, it helps reduce unwanted pests such as marmots, pack rats, and ground squirrels.

Ammunition is available for every mission. For learning and practice, basic, round nose lead bullets are relatively cheap and great for plinking or paper targets. Copper-jacketed solid lead bullets are best for small game. The tougher jacket allows better penetration on birds whose feathers act almost like soft body armor, and the solid nose reduces meat damage. Larger animals such as turkeys respond well to jacketed hollow points as do foxes and coyotes at close range. Low velocity, sub-sonic cartridges are a great match for vermin. They are much quieter than high-velocity rounds, especially when used with a suppressor, and have less ricochet potential.

Almost every reputable gun maker offers at least one rimfire model and often more. They come in every action type. Young novice shooters are best matched to single-shot rifles, either bolt action or break action. More experienced hunters gravitate to semi-autos, lever guns, or pumps for quick follow-up shots at small, skittish game.

It’s hard to beat a good rimfire gun for versatility and fun.

Ruger 10/22 Semi-auto .22 Rifle

Ruger 10/22 Semi-auto .22 Rifle

2. Shotgun

Often classified as a self- and home-defense weapon, the shotgun is a real do it all firearm and indispensable for every hunter.

The shotgun’s versatility comes from its varied ammunition. Light recoiling skeet and trap loads make an afternoon at the range a pleasure. Loaded with small number eight through number six shot, the gun comes into its own on rabbits and upland birds. Number six through number four shot is perfect for duck, geese, and turkeys. Buck shot and slugs turn the lowly shotgun into a close-range deer getter—just the thing in thick forest or hunting from a tree stand—and as a bonus, are suitable for defensive use. A specialized slug from Brenneke enables the shotgun to stop dangerous animals such as bears.

Shotguns are available in pump, lever, and bolt actions as well as single- and double-barreled break-open actions, and semi-autos. The pump and break-open are by far the most popular, although semi-autos run a close third these days.

Here are suggested match-ups between shotgun gauges and game categories:

  • .410 gauge: small vermin, squirrels, rabbits, grouse, and partridges
  • 28 gauge: all the above, plus larger upland birds, and ducks
  • 20 gauge: all above plus turkeys, geese, smaller predators (coyote, fox) at close range, and home defense
  • 16 gauge: all above
  • 12 gauge: all above, plus deer (with slugs or buckshot), and bears (with slugs)
  • 10 gauge: all above

It’s hard to go wrong with a shotgun.

A Break-Action 12 Gauge Shotgun

A Break-Action 12 Gauge Shotgun

Pump Shotgun

Pump Shotgun

12 Ga. slugs recovered from test media.  Foster type (left), Brenneke (right).  The Brenneke turns the lowly 12 gauge into a poor-man's Nitro Express.  The Foster is well suited to medium, soft-skinned game.

12 Ga. slugs recovered from test media. Foster type (left), Brenneke (right). The Brenneke turns the lowly 12 gauge into a poor-man's Nitro Express. The Foster is well suited to medium, soft-skinned game.

Bolt-action hunting rifle with scope

Bolt-action hunting rifle with scope

3. Centerfire Bolt-Action Rifle

The third must-have hunting gun is a bolt-action rifle chambered in an effective big-game caliber.

Although any good quality centerfire rifle will do the job, the bolt-action is the most reliable under all hunting conditions. Also, the bolt-action can use any ammunition in a given caliber, unlike many semi-autos which often only operate correctly with particular loads. This means a hunter can use lightweight bullets for smaller game and heavy bullets for larger game. The bolt action is also simpler to operate and maintain, stronger, and often more accurate than any other action type.

Hunters should avoid rifles chambered in exotic calibers and choose from the more popular ones, because ammunition for them is less expensive and is available just about anywhere. Game size and anticipated shooting distance dictate which caliber is best.

These calibers are good for deer-sized animals:

  • .243 Winchester
  • 6.5 Creedmoor
  • 6.5x55mm Swedish
  • .270 Winchester
  • 7mm-08 Remington
  • .308 Winchester
  • .30-06 Springfield

For larger game, try these calibers:

  • 270 Winchester
  • .308
  • .30-06
  • 7mm Remington Magnum
  • .300 Winchester Magnum
  • .375 H&H Magnum

The reliable, strong, and accurate bolt-action rifle will serve any hunter well.

Anyone Can Hunt With These Guns

Three must-have guns for any hunter are the user-friendly rimfire rifle, the versatile shotgun, and the reliable centerfire bolt-action rifle. With these, in the right caliber and with the right ammo, anyone can hunt almost everything on the planet.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 LJ Bonham