Special Report

The Most Versatile Hunting Rifle Cartridges

Hunting season is underway, and every weekend, millions of Americans are taking to the forests and fields in pursuit of game of all sizes – from rabbits and squirrels, to deer, elk, and bear. And as with anything else, each hunter must choose the appropriate tool for the task at hand. 

For any hunting trip, the right rifle is one that can generate enough power to deliver a clean and humane kill – but not so much that nothing is left to harvest after the bullet makes contact. 

Generally speaking, small game like squirrel and groundhog require a bullet that can deliver a minimum of 300 to 500 foot-pounds of energy. Medium-sized game, such as deer and antelope, typically need at least 1,000 to 1,200 foot-pounds, and large game like elk and black bear require over 1,500 foot-pounds. The toughest game, including grizzly bear and moose, may take more than 2,000 or even 3,000 foot-pounds of energy. 

Suffice it to say, the necessary payload can vary significantly from one hunt to the next, depending on the quarry. And while there is no such thing as a “do-it-all rifle,” some firearms are far more versatile than others. (Here is a look at the states where people buy the most guns.) 

Using ballistic data compiled by outdoor gear retailer Sportsman’s Warehouse, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 14 most versatile hunting rifle calibers. We considered over 90 different rifle calibers, measuring their capabilities at ranges between 100 and 500 yards in 100 yard increments, while accounting for variations in bullet mass. We then ranked the rifle chamberings with a versatility index score, ranging from 0, the least versatile, to 5, the most versatile. 

For many, the right gun is a matter of personal preference. But when it comes to versatility, the numbers do not lie. With the proper ammunition, used within a certain range, the highest-ranking rifle chamberings on this list can take game of nearly any size.

It is important to note that the index rankings on this list are approximations – they do not account for variations in barrel length and are based on a limited, and not necessarily comprehensive, list of available bullet weights. Additionally, hunting laws vary by state and municipality, and in some parts of the country, hunting with a rifle is not permitted. It is always important to be familiar with your quarry and with all local rules and regulations before selecting a firearm for your next hunt. (Here is a look at the 50 most popular guns in the world.)

Click here to see the most versatile rifles for big game hunting.

Click here to see our detailed methodology.

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