Not everybody has the space, budget, or need to own a bunch of firearms gathering dust and rust. In America, we’re fortunate. We have few limits on firearms ownership. Like-minded folks elsewhere in the world often have legal limits on the number of firearms they can own. They get by but must keep their choices as versatile as possible. So, just as a thinking exercise, what could we pare our arsenals down to?
First, let’s review basic purposes. There’s no room for specialization, so we’re going to assume we have no requirement for guns designed for specific target disciplines, whether Cowboy Action, Three-Gun, High Power, International Trap, you name it. There is always an underlying need for personal or home defense. Best choices are arguable, but in a pinch, almost any firearm can serve. Likewise, for practice and informal target shooting.
We’re also going to assume the person gathering this three-gun battery does some hunting: small game and varmints, maybe pests on the farm; bird shooting, maybe doves or turkeys (or anything in between); and a bit of big game hunting which, in North America, means from whitetails up. Just three firearms for all this? Let’s try it and see if we agree.
1. Rimfire Rifle
Gotta have a little gun for inexpensive, recoil-free practice. Needs to be low enough in power so that it won’t mess up edible small game, but powerful enough for larger varmints and accurate enough, and effective to at least medium range.
A good .22 LR is the basis for most shooters’ batteries. Cheap, quiet, accurate, fun, almost indispensable. There are few options, but the .22 LR just isn’t powerful enough for coyotes, and effective range is limited, past 75 yards gets difficult.
My first answer would have been a .17 HMR, a wonderful and shockingly accurate little cartridge. You can't beat the fun a .17 provides in a crowded prairie dog town, easily effective at 150 yards. But, the hot little .17 is too destructive for rabbits and tree squirrels (head shots only.). And, in my experience, its light little bullets just don’t have enough energy to be reliable on coyotes.
The alternative? A .22 Magnum (properly .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire or WMR). Yes, .17 HMR and .22 WMR ammo is a lot more expensive than .22 LR, but still a fraction of any centerfire. .22 WMR ammo is made by everyone, readily available, and with a variety of loads, from 30-grain bullets that are very fast, to 50-grain bullets that are faster than any .22 LR load—and hit much harder.
There was a time when .22 Magnums had a reputation for so-so accuracy. The cartridge is probably not as accurate as the .17 HMR, but current ammunition is greatly improved, with better bullets. The WMR is plenty accurate enough for small game and varmints, powerful enough for reliable use on coyotes, and effective to at least 125 yards. It is the best choice if we’re limited to “just one rimfire.”
The shotgun is probably the most versatile tool. Just by switching loads (and maybe choke tubes), it’s effective for small game, all feathered game, coyotes, deer, even black bear, and many people believe a shotgun is ideal for home defense. Today’s shotgun shells (and chokes) are so advanced that some hunters are flattening turkeys at amazing ranges with .410s.
Even so, I’m not going to argue for any of the small gauges. A shotgun does its work by weight of shot charge, with as many of the right-sized pellets in the pattern as possible. So, to a degree, and certainly for utmost versatility, bigger is better, at least to a point. I went the 10-gauge route for a while, for turkeys and waterfowl. Guns are heavy, recoil is fierce but, mainly, have you tried to feed a 10-gauge lately? The 20-gauge is marvelous and wonderfully popular. But if we are limited to just one shotgun, it needs to be a 12-gauge, offering the greatest variety of loads and utmost versatility.
Mr. Phillips suggested it should be a 3 ½-inch 12 gauge. Maybe. The heaviest 3.5-inch 12-gauge loads equal the 10 gauge, with a 2.25-ounce payload. Lighter gun, same recoil (probably more, since the guns are lighter), but maximum capability. The only drawback is a longer shot string. My Kansas friend, Mike Sanders, is a trapper and predator control guy. For calling, Sanders relies on a 3.5-inch 12 gauge with coarse shot. This load is absolutely effective without messing up the pelts. He goes through a case of shells every winter.
Of course, the beauty of a shotgun: For different tasks, just change shells (and chokes). Don’t like the recoil? Use lighter loads. This is a slight rub. Pump guns with 3.5-inch chambers should also digest all 3-inch and standard 2.75-inch shells, but many 3.5-inch autoloaders are a bit finicky, and won’t cycle with light target loads. I like to do at least some casual clay target shooting with any shotgun I own, so my “biggest” shotguns are 3-inch 12-gauge. With a maximum payload of two ounces (lead), it does everything I need to do, but most of the time I shoot much lighter loads. My turkey gun is a Mossberg pump in 3-inch 12-gauge, but we also have a 3-inch 12-gauge Franchi autoloader. It digests everything from the heaviest turkey and waterfowl loads down to light-recoil target loads, a pretty good sporting clays shotgun.
3. Centerfire Rifle
Wow, we could argue this one endlessly. If, like millions of Americans, your hunting universe stops with whitetail deer there are dozens of good choices from .243 on up. If you live out West, with greater variety, or have a yen to hunt elk or maybe go north for moose, then I’d lean toward a versatile .30-caliber. Jeff Phillips suggested a .30-06 or .300 Winchester Magnum. Good choices, and if you wanted to make a case for the .308 Winchester, I won’t argue.
For me, if I had to settle on just one centerfire (glad I don’t.), it would be a .30-06. For most of my hunting, and the ranges I’m comfortable with, I don’t need magnum velocity and recoil…and there isn’t much difference anyway. With modern loads, a .30-06 pushes a 165-grain bullet about 3000 fps. This is not slow, easily treading into .300 Winchester Magnum territory.
The .308 Winchester is slightly more popular today, and certainly available in as rich an array of loads. However, with much less case capacity, the .308 will always lag behind the .30-06 in velocity (and resultant energy). With heavier bullets, the gap increases.
Back in the 1950s, Grancel Fitz was the first person to take all varieties of North American big game. He used a Griffen & Howe Springfield in .30-06, his tally including all four of our wild sheep and the big bears. For sheep and goats, I prefer something a bit flatter-shooting, and no .30-caliber would be my choice for our big bears. However, there’s nothing in North America the .30-06 can’t do or hasn’t done, and the bullet choices are there. Hornady’s current (Tenth Edition) reloading manual suggests that the .30-06 can propel a 220-grain bullet at 2550 fps, very credible velocity for such a heavy bullet. Maximum suggested velocity for the .308 Winchester with 220-grain bullet is 2250 fps. That’s a 300-fps gap in velocity, a huge 12 percent, with a greater drop in bullet energy (because the formula to derive foot-pounds squares the velocity).
Our biggest bears may not be on your radar scope. If they are, I’m not recommending the .30-06. Faster .30s deliver more velocity and energy, and larger calibers hit harder. Realistically, the .30-06 is probably unnecessarily powerful for deer, but it’s a wonderful elk cartridge. And, since this discussion is about limiting ourselves to just one centerfire, it’s hard to imagine any cartridge more versatile than the .30-06, at least without a lot more recoil.