Smokey Merkley

As the Christmas season approaches, I am getting a few questions about what the best rife caliber for hunting North American big game might be. I assume some people are planning to buy their spouses or children hunting rifles for Christmas. To be honest, unless your spouse or children have told you what rife caliber they want, you might be as disappointed as they are when they see what you decided to get them.

When my wife has purchased a rifle for me, I have told her exactly what I wanted and then I have only had to go through the anguish of waiting for Christmas or my birthday before I could unwrap the rifle and enjoy sighting it in. I think a lot of spouses and parents enjoy getting the rifle requested, and then making the recipient wait for that special day when they can finally take possession of it.

Sometimes a friend plans to buy the rifle himself and asks what rifle and caliber he should get. My plan in that case is to ask what the rifle is going to be used for, how many members of the family might be using it and how much recoil they think they and other members of the family can tolerate. I don’t actually recommend a rifle and caliber, but by the time we talk about the major considerations they should be aware of, they usually pick the rifle and caliber they feel comfortable with, or they go to the gun shop and ask the clerk the same question.

Although I try very hard not to tell people what rifle and caliber they should get, I don’t mind discussing some of my favorite rifles and calibers as long as people know that my favorites might not be ideal choices for them.

First off, I love my Daisy Model 94 BB rifle. It was almost my first BB gun, but that honor goes to the Daisy Red Ryder BB rifle. The Red Ryder gave up the ghost about the time I was 14 years old, when it accidentally fell into the Portnuef River. I still own my Model 94 Daisy BB rifle, though, and occasionally shoot aluminum cans with it.

High on my list of favorite rifles is a Winchester Model 62, pump action .22 rim fire. I have shot more tin or aluminum cans and jack rabbits with that rifle than any other. It is pinpoint accurate and holds 15 .22 rim-fire cartridges in it’s tube magazine. I also use it to teach the grandkids marksmanship skills, just as I did their parents.

One of the best rifles I ever owned was a Remington Model 700 in .243 Winchester caliber. The .243 Winchester was introduced in 1955 and it quickly gained popularity with sportsmen world wide.

The .243 Winchester develops a velocity of 2,960 feet per second with a 100-grain bullet from a 24-inch barrel. Commercially loaded .243 ammunition is available in bullet weights of 55 to 103 grains.

There are those who recommend the .243 Winchester for youth who want to hunt deer. I think it has a lot more going for it than that. The .243 Winchester is popular in Africa for hunting Springbok/blesbuck category, where ranges can reach 300 meters. It is also ideal for white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and black bears.

Another of my favorite rifles is the Winchester center-fire lever-action in .30-30, which was first marketed in 1895 for the Winchester model 1894 lever-action rifle. It was America’s first small-bore sporting rifle designed for smokeless powder.

One of the primary reasons for the .30-30’s popularity is its relatively mild recoil. The .30-30 is normally loaded with bullets in either 150 or 170 grains and will take deer- and black bear-sized game.

Effective range of the .30-30 is about 200 yards.

Although I have never owned one, I really like the .270 Winchester. Driving a 130-grain bullet at approximately 3,140 feet per second, the cartridge has demonstrated high performance and is suitable for long-range shooting of most North American big game.

Hosea Sarber, a game warden out of Petersburg, Alaska, normally carried a .270 Winchester on patrol. He stated many times that the .270 Winchester would take any game animal in Alaska and proved it by taking the big bears, caribou and moose with a .270.

Jack O Conner, one of my favorite gun writers from the 1950s through the early 1970s, promoted the .270 Winchester as his favorite Rocky Mountain Sheep rifle.

If I am going deer hunting, I rarely leave home without a .30-06 Springfield rifle. I bought my father’s old Remington Model 721, .30-06 rifle from my brother. My brother inherited that rifle, but instead of going and buying my own .30-06 , I pestered my brother until he sold it to me.

The .30-06 is the reason I don’t own a .270, or 308. I couldn’t see any use in owning more than one rifle where the performance was so similar. I simply preferred the .30 caliber .30-06 Springfield with 180-grain bullets.

Many believe that the .30-06 Springfield is the perfect all-around caliber for North American big game hunting. I don’t believe there is a perfect all around rifle for anything, but I would be willing to go along with Jack O’ Conner’s statement that “the .30-06 is the work horse of the .30 caliber big game rifles.” That might sound like the same thing as the perfect all around caliber for big game, but it really isn’t the same thing. The designation of work horse of the .30 calibers simply refers to the fact that the old .30-06 has been around since blimey, and does what ever is asked of it, whether taking a deer, moose elk or The big bears in North America, a tiger in India where we can’t hunt anymore, or plains game and lions in Africa. Perfect or not, the .30-06 has done it all and done it decisively.

The last rifle and caliber I will discuss is the .300 Weatherby Magnum in either the Weatherby Mark V or the Weatherby Vanguard rifles.

First off, I have nothing against the .300 Winchester Magnum, but I see no reason for both the .300 Winchester Magnum and the .300 Weatherby Magnum to exist. So, since the Weatherby shades the Winchester by several hundred feet per second with similar bullets and gives a flatter trajectory over distance as well as more energy on target, the .300 Weatherby is my preference.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now. The .300 Weatherby Magnum kicks pretty hard. Too hard for many people. My .300 Weatherby pastes me in the shoulder with about 35 foot-pounds coming back at me at 15 feet per second. The first time I fired a friend’s .300 Weatherby Magnum, I was 16 years old. It almost knocked me down and my jaw and shoulder hurt for a couple of days. I just handed the rifle back to him and said, “I have to get me one of these.”

I have since that time learned how to shoot the caliber accurately without any pain or flinching.

The .300 Weatherby Magnum fires a 180-grain bullet out of the barrel at 3,240 feet per second and give the hunter enough energy on target at several hundred yards to take any North American game. It is also very popular for hunting plains game in Africa.

The seven calibers I have included here are either calibers I own or have had a lot of experience with. If I didn’t mention your favorite caliber, drop me a note and I’ll try to get back to you.

Smokey Merkley was raised in Idaho and has been hunting since he was 10 years old. He can be contacted at