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If you own a rifle—bolt-action, lever-action, or semi-automatic—the caliber you choose can significantly impact your performance on the range, in the field, or battle.
Ammunition manufacturers produce such a comprehensive list of rifle cartridges, each optimized for a particular purpose, that it’s worth evaluating each round carefully.
Rifle Caliber Categories
Whether you’re a hunter, sportsman, or primarily interested in self-defense, there’s a caliber suitable for every application that you can imagine. Categorizing common rifle calibers is inherently challenging because there’s a considerable amount of overlap among them.
The purpose of a cartridge, and ultimately the rifle itself, depends on what you need it to do. Most rifle cartridges were developed for either self-defense/combat involving human adversaries or hunting. But, the rifles used in competitive shooting sports usually use combat or hunting calibers.
Common Rifle Calibers
Rifle Calibers for Hunting
One of the oldest traditions in the U.S. is hunting game for meat or sport. Depending on the type of game animal you want to hunt, and the range, the most suitable caliber could be the diminutive .22 Long Rifle rimfire or .375 H&H Magnum powerhouse.
Some of the most common rifle calibers for hunting include:
- .22 Long Rifle
No discussion of hunting or sporting rifle cartridges would be complete without the .22 Long Rifle — arguably the most popular cartridge in the world. Although this rimfire round is also found in pistols, some of the most common rifles chamber this cartridge. The Ruger 10/22, for example, has been the default beginner’s rifle for decades.
- .30-30 Winchester
Also called .30 WCF, this is the classic deer rifle caliber suitable for relatively short ranges. This caliber is probably most closely associated with Winchester and Marlin lever-action rifles. The most popular loads consist of jacketed soft-point bullets of 150 or 170 grains.
- .30-06 Springfield
The .30-06 is in the hunting category because it can accommodate heavier bullets and has more cartridge case capacity than the newer .308, which increases its versatility for handloading. The .30-06, having served the U.S. with distinction in the Model 1903 and M1 Garand rifles, was replaced by the 7.62mm NATO.
- .270 Winchester
Introduced in 1925, the .270 Winchester is based on a .30-06 cartridge case necked down to .277 caliber. The .270 developed a loyal following. Some shooters began to regard it as the mythical “perfect” all-around hunting cartridge due to its power, flat trajectory, and low recoil compared with the .30 06.
In the 20th century, most .270 rifles were bolt-action, but you can find AR-10-pattern semi-automatic rifles chambered in this round today.
- .243 Winchester
As with the .270, the .243 Winchester is a sporting round based on a necked-down cartridge. This time, the .308. As a hunting round, the .243 is eminently suitable for deer and varmints, producing soft recoil and a flat trajectory.
- 6.5 Creedmoor
The 6.5 Creedmoor began as a long-range target shooting caliber but has since become a popular hunting cartridge. This flat-shooting round generates lower chamber pressures than the .308 Winchester cartridge, preserving barrel life. The 6.5 can outperform .308, retaining energy more efficiently at longer distances. Although the 6.5 is categorized as a sporting rifle, the Department of Defense has also purchased this ammunition for its sniper platform.
- .300 Win. Mag.
A belted cartridge, the .300 Winchester Magnum, is a potent medium- to long-range hunting cartridge that you can use to hunt deer, elk, and moose. The .300 Win. Mag., depending on the barrel and other factors, can drive 150-grain bullets over 3,200 fps. The recoil-sensitive shooter should consider either a heavier rifle or the use of a recoil pad.
- .45-70 Government
Once a black powder cartridge, the .45-70 is still a popular choice for hunting big game, including bears. The .45-caliber bullet, weighing between 300 and 500 grains, is slow but penetrates deeply, delivering smashing power. You’ll typically find this round in single-shot and lever-action rifles.
Rifle Calibers for Tactical Shooting
Tactical shooting can be defensive or competitive. A tactical rifle is a shoulder weapon suitable for offense and defense, whether in the context of the home or battlefield. Defensive carbines and rifles need to be relatively compact to be maneuverable in confined spaces, such as vehicles.
Some of the most common rifle calibers for tactical shooting include the following:
- 5.56×45mm NATO
The 5.56×45mm NATO is the quintessential AR-15 rifle cartridge and the commercial’s military variant .223 Remington. This intermediate round is accurate, compact, recoils softly, and punches above its weight class.
While often dismissed due to its caliber, depending on the bullet and range, 5.56mm bullets can inflict highly traumatic wounds due to fragmentation. Among civilians, this round is commonly used for home defense and competitive shooting sports.
- .300 Blackout
Advanced Armament Corporation developed the .300 Blackout in cooperation with Remington to fulfill the need for an AR-15-compatible cartridge optimized for use with a sound suppressor.
Supersonic, the .300 BLK uses bullets typically weighing between 90 and 150 grains. Subsonic loads use bullets weighing up to 220. The .300 Blackout uses the same bolt face and magazine as the 5.56mm cartridge, necessitating only a change of barrel.
Although not as common, Wilson Combat introduced the .300 Ham’r to compete against the .300 Blackout, driving the same projectiles to higher muzzle velocities.
- 6.8mm Remington SPC
The 6.8mm Special Purpose Cartridge is a tactical and hunting round for the AR-15 platform that delivers a .277-caliber bullet weighing between 85 and 120 grains.
- .308 Winchester/7.62×51mm
This round falls into both the hunting and tactical categories due to the variety of loads available and the interchangeability between the commercial and military variants.
Frankford Arsenal developed the 7.62×51mm cartridge using the .300 Savage as a base to replicate the service ballistics of the .30-06 in a cartridge with a shorter case. Winchester introduced the .308 Winchester to the U.S. commercial market two years before the 7.62mm round’s adoption by NATO.
The .308 Winchester is suitable for hunting everything from deer and black bear to feral hogs and elk, depending on the bullet’s type and weight.
Once you decide what cartridge is most suitable for your purposes, you can begin the selection process for a rifle. Remember: proper training and practice are critical. An expert marksman with a good rifle can compensate, somewhat, for the inadequacies of their cartridge. The reverse is less applicable, however.
You should take advantage of every opportunity to reach out farther, hit harder, and group more tightly, depending on the application. Choose the cartridge that you find to be the most optimal for your needs and skillset.
The number of rifle calibers available is extensive. These are only some of the most common calibers. You should do your homework before buying a rifle chambered in a niche cartridge. Find out if a more popular and plentiful round will do the job.