My favorite cartridges have changed over time. When I was 12 or so, I began hunting small game. One of my favorite rifle cartridges was the .22 Long Rifle. There was nothing like it. I could afford the cartridge, and the simple bolt-action Marlin rifle was unerringly accurate. Sometime later, I obtained my first .30-30 WCF. That was a great step up.
Later, when hunting rather than shooting paper, I found the .30-06 Springfield a great choice. I toyed with the excellent .25-06 and the 7mm-08. The .270 was tested but not adopted, and I have the greatest respect for the 7mm Remington Magnum.
I was late coming to the .223 rifle, but it was inevitable as I embraced America’s rifle. The continuing series on the three great cartridges is immensely interesting but hard to narrow down as well. I based my favorites on personal choice but also on sales, performance, and use by a wide circle of friends. If I lived in the northwest where game is much heavier, or in Alaska, my choices would be different. However, for me and most of us, my big three are pretty big indeed.
.22 Long Rifle
This little giant almost wasn’t included. The .22 Long Rifle is too big to ignore. I considered including only centerfire cartridges, but that would not have been fair. After all, the major makers tell us that well over three billion .22 Long Rifle cartridges are manufactured each year. Perhaps the latest figures will be much greater.
The .22 Long Rifle uses a 40-grain round nose lead bullet in most loadings. Whether high production numbers such as the Winchester Wildcat, or target grade loads such as the Winchester T22, the .22 Long Rifle is a great cartridge. For training, marksmanship contests, informal target practice, introducing young shooters to rifle shooting, and small game hunting, there is nothing like the .22 Long Rifle.
Loads such as the Federal Hunter Match maximize the .22’s performance at long range. The CCI Stinger is a pest popper that ups the ante in .22 Long Rifle velocity. Small game such as rabbits and squirrels are choice table fare and best taken with the .22. While I recommend something stronger for feral dogs and coyotes, quite a few who own a .22 and nothing else have defended their homestead with a .22.
Penetration and accuracy may make up for power, but the reverse is seldom true. The .22 self-loading rifle is a staple of rural self-defense. In this role, the Winchester Silvertip, a newly introduced load, is a good fit. The Federal Velocitor is something of a wonder load, in many ways, that is both accurate and powerful. There really isn’t anything quite like the .22. Inoffensive in recoil and accurate even in the least expensive rifles, the .22 is a giant.
The .223 Remington is a given as this is the cartridge the AR-15, America’s rifle, chambers. While there are also highly accurate .223 bolt-action rifles, by far the most numerous are the self-loading rifles. This category includes not only the AR platform, but the AK and Kel-Tec types, not to mention the Steyr.
The .223 has several attributes that are sterling. The cartridge is economical. If you handload, the cartridge performs with bullets that are less expensive than .30 bullets, with less powder, and .223 brass is plentiful. The 40-grain loads nip the heels of 4,000 fps and may vaporize varmints at short range.
It isn’t difficult to launch 52–55 grain bullets at 3,000 fps. The effect on varmint and coyote is immediate. The .223 is superbly accurate even in affordable rifles. Accurate enough for a perfect shot on a broadside deer with a load such as the Hornady Full Boar for good penetration.
The 69-grain SMK loads, including one from Fiocchi that I have used extensively, are among the most accurate combinations in any caliber I have tested. The .223 has taken its toll on insurgents and terrorists with the Black Hills 77-grain load used by our steely-eyed snipers. There really isn’t anything like the .223 Remington. Available, affordable, and effective, the .223 is America’s cartridge for America’s rifle.
I studied the last entry for some time. The .30-06 Springfield is among my favorite hunting cartridges. The .270 has longer legs. In sheer numbers and types of rifles currently chambered, the .308 Winchester is at the top of my list. That doesn’t make other cartridges a bad choice, but especially for beginners, the .308 is ideal. And many experts with decades of experience use this cartridge as well.
The PTR 91 rifle chambers this cartridge and so does the Springfield M1A1. AR-10 rifles chamber this cartridge. There are single-shot hunting rifles, long-range heavy-barrel rifles, and Scout Rifles. I have fired most of them including the Savage Chassis rifle. Even in inexpensive $300 ‘package rifles’ with a simple 3×9 bore-sighted scope, the .308 is an accurate combination.
The 168-grain MATCH load has been considered one of the best balanced and most accurate cartridges in the world. Just the same, I have enjoyed excellent results with the Hornady 152-grain Dual Bond bullet and find it a truly accurate number. I have loaded heavy bullet combinations of 220 grains (just for my own education), and 125-grain bullets at sizzling velocity.
However, what counts is the performance of the 152–168-grain working loads. The .308 features modest recoil, good effectiveness on medium-sized game, and gilt-edged accuracy in most any quality rifle. If I could keep only one of three cartridges outlined in this report, and that would be an emergency of some sort, it would be the .308 Win.
Conclusion: Rifle Cartridges
These are my choices. There are other very good rifle cartridges. Some are about out of breath and not as popular as they once were. The panic-driven shortages took their toll and lowered production. The .243 Winchester and .45-70 became very difficult to come by. At no point were the .223 or .308 impossible to find. The author found these three cartridges do everything he needed to be done with a rifle cartridge.