Times change, it is a fact. In decades past when more people lived in rural areas and many grew up on farms and ranches, boys grew up with their dads or granddads hunting and shooting. Most homes had guns of some kind, even if it was an old shotgun, or just a .22. Now more and more people who engage in firearms related pursuits are coming to it as adults. Better yet, a very large segment of new shooters are women. It was not unheard of but certainly rare for young women to go hunting with their dads many moons ago. This is not to say that no women hunted, or no dads (or moms) took their daughters to the ranges or deer woods, but it was not as common. We used to have more strictly defined gender roles. Daughters, and girls in general are amazing creatures nowadays, equally comfortable having a spa day as they are riding ATVs and gutting deer or competing in marksmanship events. Girls today can bake cookies and reload ammo. It’s fantastic.
It’s a really great time to be a gun aficionado and see this happening. In order for the Second Amendment to continue to exist, people need to keep enjoying their right to bear arms, and women and youth are key to this. This is a very long winded way to get to the point, which is this: Many new shooters (male and female) who want to get into hunting do not have the benefit of three or four guns handed down through the generations, and a teacher to get them started. So the question then becomes, with a positively maddening amount of choice in the marketplace, what guns should be on a new shooters wish list? What calibers make the most sense, and which ones are interesting to true fans, but may or may not really fit from a philosophy of use and test of time perspective?
To that end here is some quick guidance on choosing the 5 cartridges that will take care of 99.00% of things most anyone can ask a gun to do, these are all cartridges that have a rich history and a bright future.
.22lr this should be everyone’s first caliber/first gun. Inexpensive and fun to shoot, accurate, and capable of doing quite a lot despite their small size and polite manners. This is the caliber that teaches the fundamentals the best. As far as hunting goes they are great for squirrels, rabbits, and other small critters. Back in the day a box of 50 was .99 cents, a few years ago they were scarce as hen’s teeth, but now they are back and they are about $5 for 50. The industry leading rifle for this caliber is the Ruger 10/22 although a myriad of excellent choices exist in the market. A Mossberg 702 plinkster is also worth considering, as are many fine examples of used rifles. A good used (or new) Marlin Model 60 is tough to beat.
5.56/.223 Remington – much more powerful than a .22lr; the .223 and it’s 5.56 x 45 military brother are still very easy to shoot. #1 in sales for the last many years, and still gaining. Very accurate, good for long or short range target shooting, or killing varmints or small predators. In addition to this it is a great choice for a defensive rifle. Cheap ammunition, easy to shoot, and very plentiful. Obviously the go-to rifle for this caliber is one of the dizzying array of Modern Sporting Rifles commonly called an AR15 but made by dozens of manufacturers. (See AR 15 101) Many choices rifles are available from any major rifle company in a bolt action rifle and even a few in different styles of semi auto rifle. Smith & Wesson’s M&P Sport II and the Ruger 556 ( I have one of each, well I did until that horrific canoeing incident (!) are two excellent options, but many others exist at all price points.
.243 Winchester when a young or smaller framed shooter is ready to start hunting deer sized critters a .243 is very very hard to beat. Generally poo-pooed by the ‘mo- powah’ crowd who like to hunt with howitzers, the .243 has been getting it done in the woods, plains, and fields on everything from coyotes to elk for over 60 years at this point. It is entry level for recoil and very capable as long as the shooter has practiced enough to put the bullet where it needs to go. Pick a rifle you like, and it is probably available in .243. This is one of the cartridges offered in most youth firearms; which are also good for anyone of smaller size. Personal opinion is that it is hard to beat the Mossberg Patriot, or a Savage 110/111, Ruger makes fine rifles, and a good used Winchester or Remington are certainly hard to beat. (For an alternate take see this article)
.308 Winchester – There is a reason that the .308 takes the number two spot in the 2015 USA sales figures for rifle cartridges (.223 is #1). It is probably the second most popular round for hunting in the USA. The top honor for strictly hunting probably still belongs to the .30-06, but that is largely due to nostalgia more than performance. Using factory loads the .308 can do everything the .30-06 can do. Deer, hogs, pronghorn, elk, black bears and even moose, are all possible out to beyond 200 yards. It will do it in a shorter and lighter rifle than an aught six, and it will do it with slightly less recoil. This should appeal to everyone, but especially the youth and those without lumberjack shoulders. Every mainstream rifle manufacturer chambers rifles in .308. .308 can also be had in semi-auto AR style rifles, which can further reduce perceived recoil. As for rifles a Ruger Hawkeye is a fantastic choice, a personal favorite is the Ruger Gunsite Scout, and there is always the venerable Remington 700.
.12 or .20 gauge shotgun. The pros and cons between these two are thus: the 12 gauge kicks harder and in some cases will be more effective. The 12 gauge guns will be slightly easier to find and ammo choices will be slightly more plentiful. The .20 gauge will recoil less, do about 90% of the jobs a 12Ga will do and can be more easily found in in youth configuration. The choice here is yours. A shotgun is a very versatile and useful tool. They are good close range varmint dispatchers, good for property defense, and depending on ammo and configuration can take all manner of critter up to deer and black bear. Where they really excel is in bird hunting, and the very enjoyable pastime of shooting clay pigeons. Top choices for a pump shotgun are the Remington 870 Or Mossberg 500. To learn more about Shotguns read this.
This list would not be complete if we did not mention that you need a defensive handgun in a suitable caliber. The choices for that decision are in this article.
If this has been helpful to you or just interesting to read we appreciate that. Here are a few more thoughts. When the new or young shooter is ready it is better to choose a caliber than will serve them as their experience increases than it is to choose something unsuitable for a wide variety of situations. This is not to say they should get a gun that has too much power for them and expect them to “grow into it” or “toughen up”. Recoil is a fact of firearms but it can be managed by choosing reasonable calibers, honing marksmanship skills, and selecting quality firearms with a bit of heft. A lightweight gun will punish the operator more than a nicely stocked, slightly heftier firearm even if in a larger caliber. Also, try not to be swayed by the newest and greatest thing to just hit the market, or the obscure. There was a craze a few years ago for ultra-short, crazy powerful cartridges in every caliber imaginable. It was supposed to be the next revolution in cartridges. All but one of the dozen or so new rounds has faded into the mists. Firearms are an investment, a legacy, and an inheritance. So although it is wise to choose a gun that is not too large or powerful for a newer, younger, or smaller shooter, do not simply choose one because it is inexpensive, or “cute”. Similar to buying guns that are marketed specifically to women, (unless it is one of these) buying guns that are marketed specifically to be cutesy are not always the best choices. A nice looking firearm in a timeless and useful caliber will almost always be worth as much or more later than it was purchased for.
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Notes to the fans: Yes a .22-250 shoots flatter and faster. No I didn’t overlook the .22 wmr, Yes a .17hmr is cooler. I know a .25-06 can do all of that. Sure, you could get a .244, or a .260, or a 220 swift or whatever. No, I didn’t forget about a 7mm-08, .270, .257, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 Swede, 7 x 57 Mauser, .375 H&H, 7mm Mag, or 300 Win Mag. I certainly did not mean to diss a .30-30. I know about the sweet 16Ga. I have heard about your 8 year old that shoots a 7mm RUM, I love .45-70’s as much as any guy. Yes, you can hunt bears with a switch. Sure, I believe you routinely re-use the same target for days because it only has the one hole in it. And I know that the only rifle needed is a .30-06 for everything from mosquitoes to dragons.