Choosing the right ammunition is both the most important and divisive decision you can make when loading your hunting rifle. There is no one right option. If you want to start a long debate, head to a gun store and ask what the best hunting ammo is. Almost everyone in the room will likely have a different opinion. To narrow down the choices, ask yourself what you'll primarily be hunting. This will determine how much or how little power is needed. Your ammunition should be capable of taking down game with a single shot, so knowing your target will allow you to research and make an educated decision.
For small game, the preference is usually a small caliber, low-power cartridge. This includes animals between 2-15 pounds with a typical range of fewer than 100 yards, such as rabbits, raccoons, and opossums. A primary goal here is to avoid meat and pelt damage as much as possible. A non-expanding solid lead or full metal jacket will help keep the pelt intact if you're mainly hunting for pelts. If meat is your focus, expanding lead or jacketed bullets provide a quick kill while keeping the most meat viable. For short-range hunting, at a maximum of 100 yards, consider rimfire cartridges such as .17 Mach 2, .22 LR, and .22 WMR; these are popular for their availability and low cost. Centerfires will provide added range and striking energy but come at a slightly higher price. Small capacity .22s such as the .222 Rem. and .218 Bree, or .25 caliber soft or hollow point bullets are great centerfire options.
Pests and Varmints
Varmint hunting is distinct from other types of hunting because of the end goal: eliminating pests. Prairie dogs, gophers, and pigeons are all found in this category of animals weighing between 1-30 pounds with a range between 100-400 yards. Because these animals aren't often considered edible or desirable, damage to the meat and pelt isn't usually a concern. However, they can be challenging to hunt as their ranges can exceed 300 yards. When choosing ammunition for this type of game, focus on high striking velocity and rapid bullet expansion. Up to 50 yards, rimfire cartridges with hollow point bullets are a great choice. More popular long-range options include .22-.250 Rem., .243 Win., .204 Ruger, and .17 HMR. Whatever you choose, focus on lightweight bullets with hollow or soft point designs and thin jackets.
Medium game is perhaps the most popular hunting category in North America. Hunters can focus on the same ammunition whether their aim is deer, caribou, or even antelope. These animals range between 50-300 yards and can weigh between 50 and 350 pounds. Because of this, not every bullet will be effective for all medium-sized game. Many deer hunting regulations require a centerfire rifle cartridge greater than 6mm to produce a specified striking energy level at 100 yards. This is because ammunition needs to reliably produce sufficient penetration to reach vital organs, then expand to create a permanent wound track. In animals of this size, that can require quite a bit of power. There are two schools of thought on the most effective bullet choice. Some experts believe all expended energy should be inside the animal, with the bullet penetrating vital organs but not exiting the body. Others prefer that the bullet does exit the animal and creates a large wound and blood trail. Both sides agree, however, that the bullet must reach vital organs. This means small capacity and target ammunition won't be enough; popular bullets include a .243 Win. and .35 Rem.
If you're looking for a challenge, large game could be a consideration. These animals reach well over 500 pounds and include everything from black bears and bison to zebras and crocodiles. They commonly have a range between 50 and 300 yards. Most are hunted at a relatively close range due to their ability to run. After a poor hit, these animals can run well out of range, avoiding the opportunity for a second shot. For this category, bullets need high striking energy, deep bullet penetration, and reliable bullet expansion. Large caliber ammunition of at least .308 inches in diameter and 180 or more grains is required. Be sure to look for bullets with hearty construction so they can maintain their weight and expand slowly inside the target.
It's very difficult to choose one bullet that will be effective for every type of game. Preferably, focus your ammunition purchase on the game you're targeting. However, for the best all-around bullet opinions will vary, so here are just a couple of options to get started.
Wayne Van Zwoll, the author of 16 books and thousands of articles on firearms and hunting, suggests .308 ammunition if you must pick just one bullet. "Pinned to one cartridge, I might take the .308. Its availability in more rifle types than any other centerfire cartridge, its reputation for accuracy in a variety of rifles… excel on tough game in cover." In a world where ammunition isn't always available, the .308 isn't usually hard to find. This mild recoil bullet packs enough power for some larger game, but not so much that it can't be used for medium-sized targets.
A similar, but slightly different, choice is the .30-06 bullet. The casing is slightly longer than the .308 and has a bit more power at the cost of higher recoil. Again, this can be commonly picked up at gun stores and many full-service retailers alike. While many different grains are available, the 165-grain bullet produces great performance with a flat trajectory.
In the end, no one cartridge is ideal for every hunter. Opinions and experiences will vary with every type of ammunition. Do your research and practice with different bullets to see what you prefer; using what you're comfortable with will increase accuracy and enjoyment. Remember that there isn't a single right choice, so try out a large selection. Experiment with different ammo and enjoy your new hobby.