4 Rifle Calibers Female Hunters Need to Know

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AJ and I have our own favorites and preferences when it comes to firearms. We’ve experimented over the years with different calibers and a variety of manufacturers. Everything has a purpose and an ideal use. Choosing a firearm for your hunting adventures is no different. When we hunt rabbit or squirrel, we have our preferred .22 LRs. Boar and deer, we very a bit. Depending on what you want to start your hunting adventures pursuing, you’re going to have your preference as well.

Local shooting ranges and firearms stores can have very competent and knowledgeable staff ready to help you pick the right firearm for you. Unfortunately, not all women are fortunate enough to find such facilities. Hunting and firearms, in general, are still, very much, a “boy’s club” environment. If you are one of those newly budding hunters who has found herself not getting the grounded knowledge she needs to make an informed decision, this breakdown of hunting firearms will start you down the right path.

When I started shooting, a 12 gauge shotgun was put in my hands and I was told to shoot the objects flying through the air. I wasn’t given a great deal of instruction on how the firearm worked or why it functioned the way it did. I just pulled the trigger, loaded a new round, and pulled the trigger again. Being what was considered a “natural” at skeet shooting, no one felt the need to teach me the details of the mechanics and I never thought to ask. 

Jump ahead 15 or so years and I was still in a predicament where I didn’t understand why or how the machine in my hands worked. I just knew how to fire it and had fun doing so. It didn’t take long, though, for me to discover that I would need to know substantially more if I was going to expand my activities beyond the occasional skeet shooting adventure into actual hunting.

Types of long-guns

Now, we’re not going to get into the details of every form of firearm used for hunting. Rather, we’ll focus on what you can hunt for with the most common and ideal calibers you have to choose from. Below we’ll discuss the three most common types of long-guns you will likely choose and the calibers best suited for your choices.

A 20 gauge shotgun, over/under platform, is a common starting gun for many of the first time bird hunters.
A bolt action rifle, such as this .308 Winchester, is a popular choice for small to large game hunters.

Shotguns

When you’re hunting something that flies through the air, be it ducks, cranes, doves, geese, or something else, you’re going to want a shotgun. You are pretty much limited to 4 actions: pump, lever, semi-auto, or break action. These choices may be limited by the area you choose to hunt in, so always check with your local fish and game agency. The same regulating agency will frequently determine what gauge you are allowed to use (10, 12, 16, 20, 28, or 410) and what size cartridges you will be required to use.  

Most commonly, you will use a 12, 20, or 410 for hunting.

12 gauge is arguably the most common hunting gauge on the market. It is sufficient for everything from pheasant to bear and will, with the correct cartridge, take down your target with minimal damage to the meat. Anything smaller than pheasant (especially rabbit, squirrel, and quale) you’re best choice is going to be a 20 gauge.

Yes, 20 is a larger number than 12. No, a 20 gauge is not a larger “bullet” than a 12 gauge.

In the world of shotguns, the larger the number, the smaller the cartridge. I know, it goes completely against the rules of logic for modern measurements, but there was a method to their madness. The original sizing was determined by the number of equally sized projectiles that would be able to fit in the shell (casing) to equal one pound of “shot.” In a 20 gauge, for the projectiles to be equal in size, they had to be smaller, so it took more to amount to one pound. 20 pieces, to be exact. A 12 gauge, with a larger bore, allowed for larger projectiles to be used. As a result, it only took 12 projectiles to equal a pound. 

For now, however, your one takeaway is that 12 gauge is going to be bigger than 20 which means you’ll have a bigger cartridge, more recoil, and a stronger projectile capable of inflicting more damage on your target.

So, to choose the best shotgun for you, ask yourself these questions:

What am I hunting?
Bear: 12 Gauge Goose: 12 Gauge Turkey: 12 Gauge
Boar: 12 Gauge Dove: 12 or 20 Gauge Pheasant: 12 Gauge
Deer: 12 Gauge Rabbit: 20 Gauge (or 410) Snipe: 20 Gauge
Duck: 12 Gauge Squirrel: 20 Gauge (or 410)
If I am required to use a shotgun, are there gauge or style restrictions for me?

Successful Hunts in 5 Steps” has a list of the game agencies for all 50 states. This would be a good place to start with learning what your restrictions will be.

Then you can begin looking into the different brands of shotguns produced to meet your requirements.

Savage, Winchester, Remington, Browning, Benelli, Weatherby, and Mossberg make models excellent for deer and boar hunting.

Remington, Browning, Weatherby, Stoeger, Winchester, and Mossberg make shotguns well suited to Turkey hunting (just to name a few).

If you find a manufacturer that you like, that provides the features you prefer, you are likely to find a shotgun that can accommodate all or most of the target species you intend to pursue.

Bolt action rifles

Modern rifles popular among hunting enthusiasts are either bolt action or semi-automatic. The bolt actions are considered more of the “traditional” style of hunting while semi-automatic is considered more “modern.” In the true timeline of firearms, however, both are modern firearms.

Bolt Action rifles are the most common hunting rifles, but don't limit yourself. Lever action, semi-automatic, pump action, and more are also available.
There are a few significant advantages to choosing a bolt action rifle for your hunting. 
Many public lands, and private as well, require you to collect your spent casings when hunting.

Semi-automatic Rifles

Your third option is a semi-auto. The most recognizable model of the Semi-automatic rifle is the AR (ArmaLite) 15. While there are other platforms available, the most common format you will find on today’s market is this AR-15 style. Why are they becoming a popular option for hunters?

Semi-automatic rifles are available in a variety of hunting calibers these days.
Two major advantages stand out:

These two advantages are significant for many hunters. As discussed above, however, the local regulations may prevent the use of these modern firearms for all or some of your hunting season.

So you’ve decided on the type of rifle you want, but how do you choose the caliber?

Remember when I mentioned earlier that there’s over 150 caliber’s in production these days? Truth of the matter is, a rifle can be found in almost every caliber produced. Reality of the situation, however, is that not every caliber is suitable for hunting. While bow hunters are focused on that 20-60 yard range, rifle hunters are looking more at a 100-200 yard range.

.223 Remington

A .223 Remington bullet can travel almost 4,000 yards (NRA) but its accuracy will be significantly diminished after 200 yards and will be generally ineffective after 300 yards. This makes it a decent choice for varmints (rabbit, coyote, smaller pigs, goats) and even short-distance smaller deer. Keep in mind, however, that it is not legal to use a .223 for deer in some states. Once you start getting into larger or thicker-skinned animals, however, you’re going to want a bullet with a bigger kick.

One side note here is that the 5.56 NATO is the equivalent size to the .223 Remington, is commonly interchangeable (a subject for later research if you are interested), and is equally effective at the same ranges on the same potential game. You are not getting a significantly larger or more powerful firearm if you choose the 5.56 NATO over the .223 Remington. I mention this, because many dealers today, present the 5.56 NATO as an upgrade or a step up from the “introductory” format of the .223 Remington.

.308 Winchester

The .308 is one of the most popular calibers on today’s market for mid-sized game. It is a solid choice for short to mid-range shots when hunting deer, elk, pronghorn, moose, and even smaller bears. Many hunters have used the .308 at 700 yards with little to no loss of effectiveness. 

While I would never recommend a new hunter attempt such long-distance shots, it is still reassuring to know the effectiveness of your chosen weapon will be consistent beyond the distances you may anticipate needing. 

Another advantage to the .308 is that the diameter of the bullet combined with its overall weight and velocity will provide adequate damage to drop your target quickly without causing significant damage to the meat.

One other factor to consider for the .308 is its versatility. By selecting a lighter grain bullet (110-125 grain) you can easily use the gun for varmint at 100 yards or less. To upgrade to mid-range shots or larger game (deer, elk, etc.) simply upgrade to a 150-180 grain bullet. As a new shooter, you’ll be dealing with a bit more recoil than a .223 Remington, but gain a significant range of versatility.

6.5 Creedmoor

A rather new caliber on the market is the 6.5 Creedmoor. Originally designed for long-range competitive shooters, the bullet has found a solid following among hunters as well. As designed by Hornaday, the 6.5 Creedmoor has significantly less recoil than the .308, exceptionally consistent long-range accuracy, is a relatively low-cost round, is capable of handling short action weapons, and has better wind resistance due to its flat trajectory. 

These are all qualities prized by the hunting community. 

Since its introduction to the market in the early 2000s, the 6.5 Creedmoor has grown in popularity due to its accuracy and impact on target game. Even at long distances (400 yards and more) it can carry the same impact and stopping power as the .308 with less cost per bullet and less recoil. The major disadvantage, however, is the barrel degradation. While a .308 is estimated to handle 5,000 rounds before noticeable degradation to the barrel, a 6.5 Creedmoor is expected to show signs of wear at approximately 2,500 rounds.

Keep in mind, the degradation I’m referring to is minute changes in the barrel that a typical hunter will almost never notice. This is fraction of a millimeter type changes that a competitive shooter who fires thousands of rounds every month will notice. It is, however, a wear on the gun that any gun owner should be aware of.

.30-06

Looking at the designation, you may think there is a size difference between this .30-06 and other common .30 caliber bullets you may have heard of. In reality, this is still a .30 caliber bullet. In 1906 the .30 caliber bullet was tweaked, ever so slightly, to adequately fit the M1903 Springfield being used by the US Army. As a modified .30 caliber they opted to give it its own designation. Military personnel returning home were so comfortable with its accuracy, capabilities with long-distance shots (even in heavy winds), and its versatility that they continued using it for their hunting endeavors. The popularity quickly expanded to civilian hunters as well. To this day, it is one of the most popular, most frequently used, and most accessible hunting calibers on the American market.

AJ and I each started our hunting adventures with a .30-06 and found them to be exceptionally accurate, easy to use, and easy to learn. While there is a bit of a recoil with this platform, modern rifles allow for modifications that can reduce the impact of the recoil as well as modifications that can help the user stabilize the weapon during targeting. We are, both, rather thankful that we started our hunting paths with this choice of caliber.

So, in a nutshell, what rifle should you choose?

Ultimately, the choice is yours. Your goal should always be to legally and ethically take down your target game the best way possible for you. That being said, there are a lot of options to make each person’s choice customized to her needs and comfort level.

Caliber Target Game Target Distance Key Advantage Key Disadvantage
.223 Remington Small & mid-sized game 200 yards or less Low Recoil Low impact at longer distances
.308 Winchester Small & mid-sized game 700 yards or less Versatility Recoil can be difficult
6.5 Creedmoor Mid-sized & larger game 400 yards plus Definitive impact with low recoil Not suitable at short distances
.30-06 Springfield Mid-sized game 400-1,000 yards plus Accuracy even in wind Recoil is harsh to some users

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