Caliber choice is often a contentious subject for many shooters and hunters. In an era where anonymity is at an all-time high and Internet resources dominate the landscape, it’s easy for new hunters or those exploring the sport to get lost in the shuffle of strong opinions and armchair experts. But there is a legitimate conversation to be had below the surface of what is seemingly a mundane question about what gun to get for a specific hunt.

Magnum Bolt Action

Let’s take it one step at a time and start with the most popular gun in perhaps all of hunting history – the intermediate game rifle that can moonlight as a large game rifle. If you are looking at four legged mammals, this is likely to be the first gun you get as a new hunter (similarly it might be a 12 gauge shotgun for waterfowl, or a small caliber, high-powered rifle for varmint specialties). And what should be a straightforward answer to a question seems to become complicated in a hurry.

Everyone wants a gun that will last a lifetime, shoots a capable cartridge, is easy to use, and is accurate and durable, but the landscape of the hunt changes depending on which region you are in. The desert lowlands of Southern California are a far cry from the craggy, wet mountains of the Pacific Northwest, or the windswept plains of the Midwest central region. Each region demands a different type of load, caliber, or style of firearm to be optimized for the unique situation. Many shooters want an all-in one gun, and feel that’s the only way to do it.

Maybe, after a little bit of exploration, that’s not the case. In an effort to maximize value, many new hunters are opting for bigger-than-necessary caliber formats and choosing magnum calibers when they don’t need them and likely don’t want them.

So, it begs the question for deer hunting across many regions in North America: Do you need a magnum caliber rifle?

The simple answer is that if you are hunting anything in the spectrum of intermediate game at any time, you likely do not need a magnum caliber rifle. Even if you are hunting in the big game arena, you can justify several calibers without moving into the magnum platforms.

Here are a few important aspects of this argument for those considering buying a magnum rifle or trying to justify not buying one.

The most important fact you should consider when considering a new hunting rifle is the actual use. Many hunters try to avoid future outfitting costs by buying too much gun. Many others don’t do adequate research to ensure they have enough gun. But if you are never going to hunt game over 650 lbs. (and even then, there are several contingencies), you likely do not need a magnum caliber.

Why wouldn’t you want a magnum caliber?

  • Expensive ammunition and reloading

  • It’s hard to find durable, suitable, affordable optics

  • Extra punishment that is unnecessary in the from of recoil or wear and tear

  • Reduced barrel and component life

  • If you ever need a specialty build for a dangerous game hunt, you will still likely need another purchase, as the magnum may still be unsuitable for the hunt

  • Detriment to smaller game animal’s meat or hide

  • Considerable up-front expense relative to regular/mainstream rifle calibers

  • Hard to find certain add-ons/accessories and guns

  • Not easy or affordable to train others with a magnum rifle

So, for the vast majority of those who are hunting game in North America, including many of those who are in bear country, a magnum simply doesn’t make sense.

Magnum rifles aren’t a bad thing, they just aren’t necessary all the time

Note, there is extreme flexibility with modern reloading components and even factory loads for magnum platforms, but they are highly specialized buildouts and may not be approachable for casual shooters or hunters. For instance, you can take a 150-pound deer with a .300 Winchester Magnum, but it won’t be pretty. If all you want is a dead animal it can be done, but it is neither needed, nor advised. Simply put, that kind of attitude of overkill is neither sporting nor ethical in most cases.  Loads exist to make it slightly less ridiculous a premise, but again, they are beyond the normal scope of approachability for most shooters.

It’s important to understand, there is a huge amount of value to the magnum platform, and this author is an advocate of magnum rifles for the use cases that make sense. Simply put, don’t buy a gun you aren’t sure you want to be owning longer-term – that’s a good litmus test for most new hunters.

Many hunters fall into the allure brought on by the false premise that you can buy “one gun to do it all”. The fact is, that you will likely never need that kind of versatility. And in all honesty, it’s more restrictive to think of hunting that way anyway. Even given that idea, a .30-06 Springfield or a .308 is likely suitable for any task you are generally going to encounter in North America, given the right loads. Even then, these guns are overkill for many of the game you will routinely stalk.

Don’t fall into that line of thinking. If you need something bigger for a trophy hunt, buy something bigger at that time. Dedicated hunters will spend more on a single trip’s outfitting and licensure than they ever would on multiple bolt action rifles—even those on a magnum platform.

Furthermore, do your best to know what the sweet spot is for the game you are going after:

  • Know your conditions: Are you shooting in flat windy plains, or hilly, brush covered ground?

  • Know your game: Are you stalking 40 lb. coyotes at 600 yards or small deer at 150 yards? The former might be best suited to a .22-250 with great optics and the latter with iron sights on a .270 Winchester

  • Known your comfort level: Sometimes this is hard to do for newer hunters, but you can borrow guns from friends, or even ask a shooting club member or instructor to help you experience shooting a couple of rounds of a given caliber on the range to get a feel for what you find comfortable

  • Value experience over internet hearsay: While there is a plethora of great information online about hunting, calibers, game stalking and products in the firearms industry, nothing compares with real life experience of shooting something yourself

Finally, a note to answer the question posed above: For deer hunting in North America, do you need a magnum caliber rifle? No, you do not. If you need additional flexibility, consider getting a 30-caliber platform like the .308 which will give you access to cheaper ammunition and great load options, or the .30-06 which will afford the same. If you need specialty rifles, do your game research first then go shopping for a suitable rifle.

If you simply want a great deer gun, and an approachable caliber that will last a long time, serve well as a primary tool for harvesting deer in North America, and will not cost you a ton of discomfort on your shoulder or in your wallet, you should consider what hundreds of thousands have chosen before you—an intermediate caliber to service an intermediate game need. The obvious being the .243 or the .270 in a bolt action.

Or a .308 for semi-automatic platforms: a .30-30 or a .45-70 Government for the lever action rifles. Yes, the .45-70 is a lot of gun, but it behaves well on game like large deer, it has a lot of loads to choose from, and it is predictable as a brush gun. One might argue it almost defeats the purpose of the argument made above to utilize the .45-70 for deer, but if you want a lever gun and want versatility, this caliber can provide it.

The end result, essentially, is hopefully, that you have an understanding of “why not a magnum” rather than a blanket admonition to not buy one. For most shooters, you simply won’t ever get the use out of it, without significant drawbacks to your normal shooting conditions. And it certainly isn’t needed for most things that most hunters are shooting

-Benjamin Worthen