Occasionally, the question comes up if I could have only one firearm, what would it be? I’m sure that everyone contemplated this question at some time. In times of plenty, many hunters have been able to assemble a “golf bag” of assorted firearms, each for a specific purpose. Let’s start with a basic assortment, getting down to my final choice.
If I were to be limited to one shotgun, it would be a single barrel single shot 12 gauge, modified choke. This is a simple, rugged, and effective piece. Having a single shot forces one to conserve ammo, and with today’s choices in ammo patterns can be controlled from upland game to moderate distance waterfowl and turkey. I have seen #6 shot penetrate plywood at 100 yards when fired from a modified choke shotgun, so I have enormous respect for a shotgun. Sure, lots of people will disagree and call for either an improved cylinder or a full choke, depending on personal experiences and choice. The modified may not be the best for the extreme ends of possible shots, but it covers so much of the middle that it remains the best all-around choice. A slug load will cover close-range big game hunting.
Many will call for a slide action, a double, or a semiautomatic. My point is the more parts, the more chance for something to break. A single barrel is the simplest and can be the most durable. If a person is practiced in holding spare shells between the fingers of the forearm hand, reloading can be quick enough. Also, a single shot works for both right and left handers.
With a 12 gauge, ammo can be found almost anywhere, and one can often get empties from those who shoot factory ammo and do not reload. A reasonably priced Lee Loader, a bag of shot, a bag of wads, and a pound of Red Dot will go a long way. The 10 gauge is harder to find, harder on the shoulder and game, and much heavier. The 20 gauge is fine, and some of the newer magnum loads have plenty of power. Still, I feel more confident with a 12 gauge. The .410 is far from ideal, a specialty for squirrel, but it’s limited range and tight patterns limit its use. And I am not forgetting the sweet 16 gauge – it’s almost a 12 gauge, but just try to find ammo when you run out a long way from a major sports store.
My choice for a rimfire rifle is a simple bolt action chambered for .22 long rifle. Again, a single shot is effective, but there is not much difference between a magazine fed or a tube fed bolt action and a single shot. A rifle capable of shooting shorts, longs, and long rifle ammo is most desirable. Shorts are quiet and don’t mess up much meat on edible small game. Longs are a strange number, combining the lighter bullet of a short with the longer case of the long rifle.
Ammo ranges from subsonic target loads to hyper velocity cartridges, pioneered by the CCI Stinger. Rifles have personalities, and often one must try a few brands to find the most accurate loading for a specific rifle. However, just about any loading will be “head of critter” accurate at 25 yards, maybe 50 yards. A common .22 long rifle hollow point will put a tough raccoon on the fur stretcher or end the clover munching of a big woodchuck with a well placed shot. No, we don’t get the “red mist” so glorified in varminting magazines, but dead is dead. Ammo is fairly easy to find, and any shortages have been caused by people expecting to buy five 500-round bricks instead of a single box of 50, like we did 50 years ago. A knowledgeable manufacturer told me if I wanted to see the cause of a shortage to look in my neighbor’s closet and see the stack of accumulated (hoarded) bricks.
The .22 magnum and the various .17 rimfires have their place, but they are more expensive than and not as versatile as the lowly .22 rimfire. The .22 Magnum rimfire is too explosive when loaded with hollow points, and a .22 full metal jacket punches a hole like a .22 lr solid. The various .17s are designed more for varminting, though there are a few game rounds. Still, they are more expensive and ammo is harder to find off the beaten path.
The semi autos are fine, though illegal for Pennsylvania hunting as of the time of writing. A slide or lever is fine too, but I have never owned one that shot as accurately as a bolt action. One of the higher priced slide action .22s proved unable to maintain a 3” group at 50 yards with a quality scope installed. That one was pretty, and I am sure it sold quickly off the used rack. Also, I had a lever action, 1960’s vintage, that I wish I had back. I could never get it to group, and belatedly I think I know why. The receiver was aluminum alloy, and the barrel was pinned in place. I think for some reason the barrel became loose in the receiver. Now, I’d tear it down and assemble the barrel into the action with accu-glas bedding compound. But that one went away decades ago.
For a centerfire rifle I’d pick a bolt action .30-06 or .308. They are ballistic twins, so there’s no real argument about which is better. Again, the bolt is simpler and stronger – and often more accurate than a lever, slide or semi-automatic. Ammo is available about anywhere, and a handloader can assemble loads from 100-grain bullets to 220-grain. Though they might not be as highly rated today, they are capable of taking all North American game – including Pennsylvania.
Sure, there are smaller bore centerfires with more velocity and flatter trajectories. There are fatter bores that fling heavier bullets, but again they work in specialized areas of hunting. What we need is something that effectively covers as much territory as possible.
Ammo can be found about anywhere ammo is sold, and power and recoil are adequate and bearable, respectively.
The 150- through 180-grain bullets are most commonly picked for Pennsylvania hunting. Either does the job on whitetail deer and black bear. In my youth, I knew an old gentleman who used his .308 for fall turkey. He would aim for the point of the wing and take out a section of backbone. There isn’t much eating there, and they died instantly. He shot everything from woodchucks to bear with that rifle with a 150-grain load. He knew his rifle and where it was hitting. The old saying is true: “Beware the man who has but one rifle. He likely knows how to use it.”
So, if I were limited to having but one long gun to last me the rest of my earthly days, what would I choose. I look at the utility of a shotgun, the killing power of a .30 caliber centerfire, and the alleged pipsqueak .22 rimfire. What would I choose if I could have but one?
I think it would be the old Remington bolt action that was my father’s. I began hunting and shooting with that .22. rifle. It put meat on my mother’s table many times in my rural youth, and I made a box of 50 rounds last a long time. It brought coons and foxes to the fur stretcher for additional income, and it cleansed hayfields of woodchucks. A suspicious deputy game protector once told me I could be after deer with it when he surprised me waiting out an old fox squirrel. I guess he knew from experience.
Ammunition is relatively inexpensive, and one learns to stalk and still hunt with a .22. Personally, I liked to use shorts as at the close ranges I encountered they were effective and did not disturb other game. •