Ammunition

The Big Three: Rifle Cartridges

young man at an outdoor range shooting the AR-15 offhand

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.

Springfield Saint rifle with SIG Romeo sight, right, profile
The Springfield Saint is the author’s favorite among America’s rifles.

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.

Federal Hunter Match .22 cartridge next to an upset bullet
The Federal Hunter Match .22 expands well at extended range.

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.       

.223 Remington

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.

Springfield Saint .223/5.56 AR-15 pistol with CQB scope and magnifier
Some interesting firearms are chambered in .223 and not all are rifles. This is the Springfield Saint pistol.

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.

.308 Winchester

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.

Savage Chassis rifle and Federal ammunition
The .308 offers excellent long-range accuracy in the right firearm. The Savage Chassis rifle and Federal ammunition make for a powerful 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.

Some of you are nodding your heads in agreement, and others are champing at the bit to express an alternate view. The big question, is “What are your top three rifle cartridges and why?” Share your answers in the comment section.

  • Ruger 10/22 rifle with steel target lying in the grass
  • red and white bullseye target with 10 bullet holes in the 10 and 9 rings
  • Henry .22 LR lever-action rifle with with wood stock and forend, black, left, profile
  • Federal Hunter Match .22 cartridge next to an upset bullet
  • Savage Chassis rifle and Federal ammunition
  • Springfield M1A rifle with an EOTech sight and two boxes of Hornady ammunition
  • Savage Chassis rifle with scope chambered in .308, right, profile
  • Savage Scout with Picatinny top rail and sling, chambered in .308 Win.
  • Man and woman in a indoor shooting range adjusting the scope on an AR-15/22 rifle
  • Box of .22 cal 55-grain Hornady V-Max bullets
  • young man at an outdoor range shooting the AR-15 offhand
  • Springfield Saint .223/5.56 AR-15 pistol with CQB scope and magnifier
  • Springfield Saint rifle with SIG Romeo sight, right, profile
  • Hornady .223/5.56 cartridges and box

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (27)

  1. Plinking,training,or scary protection.,
    My choice is ruger 10-22 with hot lips
    25 round mag,
    For dear,Ferrell hogs and coyotes.,I use
    Smith&wesson AR 15 .223 with aim point Duty RDS RED DOT SIGHT.,
    For 300 plus yards game.,I use a browning
    25-06 coupled with a nightforce ATACR
    7-35-56..
    Duty carry and personal carry….ED BROWN
    9MM MP-F4…

  2. I agree with the author. 22, 223, and 308
    However, being on blood thinners the doctor wants me to quit the 308 as I get black and blue and he is worried about clots. So I sold my beloved M1A’s, and FN/FAL’s.
    I bought an AR in 6.5 Grendel which is about half way between 223 and 308. it is 264.

  3. Joe Tonaus

    I dont know if you are testing the gullibility of the reader or you just dont know any better than to throw that out there!
    A .22 Magnum 40 grain bullet sighted 1.5 inch high at 100 yards will drop 60 plus inches at 300 meters- and has dropped to 900 fps- not even accounting for wind. That is a whole lot short of 1000 meters!!
    I dont think we will give up what the real life snipers with actual experience use at 1000 meters==
    .300 Winchester Magnum, .338 Magnums or better.

  4. I agree with.22LR and.223. And .223 is a very lethal deer cartridge when loaded with a 62 grain soft point and shots kept to within 150 yards. I’ve killed 2 8 point bucks with them, both one shot kills. My 3rd choice would be the venerable 30-06.

  5. I started shooting T 6 yrs old with a fine shooting 22 long rifle pump action Winchester which I think was the sweetest shooting 22 made, moved to 30-30 savage, have had other 30 caliber rifles. I am now 80 yrs old and still shoot pretty good, but my favorites are 223, 308, and if a person has been shooting as long as I have and if you got a good pad, at my age, you can’t beat a 30.06 it will take anything on the North American continent

  6. Agree with your choices. Grew up with the .22. Trained on the 5.56 in the military. Also trained with the .308 as a sniper in both the military and later law enforcement SWAT. Now use the .308 for long range shooting and hunting. Have come to love my 6.5 Grendel on the AR platform – 3 holes touching at 100 yards and 3″ group at 500 yards.
    Thanks for your article.

  7. Happy Easter, Bob! Rifles & calibers are like boats. Every boat is either designed for a specific purpose -or- it is a compromise.
    Can not disagree with your top three for the compromise at all. I have a couple others that I’ve used lovingly including grampa’s 1915-ish mod 99 Savage in .303 Sav and my first deer gun, a sporterized .303 British that I paid $45 for in the 70’s. Our farm gun is a .22mag over .410 double badger. Our AR pistol in 30 Blackout could be useful if needed also.
    Lots of guns & calibers are part of the joy of shooting!

  8. Hey, .30 cal carbine! Best of both worlds, light recoil plus decent power. Defence loads by Hornady up the ante! Just my opinion.

  9. I love my 22’s and may 308 BUT when this great country of ours is ever violated the violators will likely be caring 7.62×39 ammo . so I built a ak15. An Ar that shoots 7.62×39 . so I say 308, 22 & 7.62×29 with a 12 guage thrown in . god bless america& keep her free .

  10. I’d have to agree with the Author- .22LR, 5.56 NATO and .308Winchester. That said, 6.5 Creedmoor is a great cartridge, not to mention 6.8 Western, .277 Fury and other new cartridges that are all pushing technology forward. When push comes to shove, I can swap uppers on my AR-15/AR10 for any given situation, but I come back to those basic three calibers because of cost and availability and the fact that those three particular rounds are almost universally able to be found anywhere and everywhere. If you could only have ONE firearm for hunting, self defense and carry, what would you pick? .357Mag? Or something else? Merely an opinion from a backwards Hillbilly.

  11. #1 ruger 77/22 mag. with 3-9×40 scope.
    #2 radical firearms ar-15 chambered in 5.57/223 with a hawk red dot reflex sight
    #3 ruger american compact in 308 with a hammers 3-9×42 scope.

  12. I agree the .22 is accurate but I prefer the.22 magnum i practiced as a sniper in the 70’s and could hit targets at 1000 meters and you could not tell where the shot came from. A .22 LR won’t do that. I haven’t shot in years so I will agree with the other calibers.

  13. Im 67 and have been shooting since I was 6. Ive watched all the caliber combinations each year, read the ballistics reports etc. and see different advantages of some over others but if you throw survival (availability of certain calsibers if you have to go scrounging for ammo) into the mix along with bullet types and weights, stopping powers etc Ive always considered the .06 and the .308 all anyone would need in the USA.

    I dont consider the .223 to be any use other than varmits and messing up humans in a war invironment. I dont see it even as a high stopping -power for human war. Sure, you can carry abunch of ammo compared to larger calibers so it makes sense as a war caliber. Have never used .223 on anything over a rabbit so dont speak from experience but I wouldnt use it on a larger animal. I dont want to wound or cause dragged out death. I want em dead fast

    My first larger than .22 was the good old lever action 30.30 Straight shooter. Good enough wallop for deer. My pick for ONE caliber would be the .308 for all around, since Im not after bear, moose or elephants!

  14. Where is my comment? I wrote a good paragraph, basically agreeing with writer. Why is it NOT posted.

  15. I am partial to .223 loaded with 52gr OTM style bullets. This bullet is very consistent with all loads and expands just fine on coyotes. My fave load in a larger caliber doesn’t really exist commercially. It would be a .270-08. I love the .270 Win, but in this day and age I don’t think it is necessary to use a long-action parent cartridge (.30-06) to get good performance. Hence, the idea of my .270-08. God bless and stay safe.

  16. The .22 LR is essential to control small predator/nuisance critters and should be on everyone’s survival list with a reliable Rifle such as Rugers 10/22. For back country trips I also carry. S&W .44 Mag 3” Revolver with Shoulder Holster and a Lever Action .44 Mag.

  17. I too love the 22LR as I have around 13k rounds for my various 22’s, however when it comes to my other 2 favorite rifles I differ in what you have chosen. My favorite go to game rifle is a custom built Mauser in 257 Robert’s that I prefer above all else for accuracy, recoil, and game stopping power for the different animals on my game ranch here in Texas. If I need something bigger I have a Browning BAR made in Belgium chambered in 300 Win mag that with hand loads will shoot 5 shots at a 100 yds that you can cover with a quarter if I do my part.

  18. My favorite 3 rifle calibers are the .17 HMR, .270 Winchester, and .450 Bushmaster. I have all three of them in Bolt Action Rifles.

  19. Although I like some cartridges better, for pure utility, those are the best choices. Heh, your 10-22 will do most anything a 22 needs to, the .223 IS the most common small bore around & can always be found & the 308 is just a fine all around bullet. It will take anything in the US, including big bears & moose. Not the best choice but, will work. It is a very good long range bullet. I have shot 5 shot 1.9″ groups at 500 (consistently) with my M40 clone, as well as, 10 shot group at 1k, averaging a 9, with a minute size of 10.2″ with 175s at 2700. Yep can’t argue with those choices. (but, I really would prefer a nice 375 for brownies)

  20. 308 is also very economical if you reload. You can get 10-15 shots out of a quality casing. Just as well since in my experience most .308 factory loads are hotter than they need to be.

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