When it comes to hunting big game in Canada, is there just one rifle calibre that can do it all?

If I could only use one rifle/cartridge combination for all my hunting, what would it be? I'm often asked that question, especially by new hunters planning to buy their first firearm. They typically say they're looking for an all-around rifle, as it will be the only one they plan to own. While I don't have the heart to tell them that one rifle is never sufficient—they'll figure that out on their own soon enough—I do have some suggestions.

If the objective is to find just one rifle that can do it all, you first need to determine what exactly “do it all” means. Say your hunting is confined to forests in eastern Canada, where shots for deer, moose and black bear are typically taken at less than 100 yards. That demands a quick-handling, short-barreled rifle—Browning's BAR or BLR in .308 would be ideal.

If your tastes run more to antelope and deer on the prairies, however, a lovely .25-06 bolt-action, such as Ruger's M77 Mark II, would fit the bill. And if mountain hunting for elk, moose and mule deer is your idea of doing it all, you might be better served with a Remington Model 700 XCR in .300 Win. Mag.

The point I'm trying to make is that your choice of rifle and cartridge will depend largely on the game you plan to hunt, and the terrain.

But say you're forced to choose just one rifle/cartridge combo for hunting all of Canada's big game (let's keep grizzlies and polar bears out of the equation, as they're simply in another league when it comes to appropriate firepower). You'd want something that's suitable for a wide range of duties, from antelope at 300 yards, elk at 250 and moose at 200, to whitetails at 100 yards and black bears at 50. That's a lot to ask from one rifle.

Clearly, the choice lies somewhere between the .270 Win. and one of the .300 magnums. I'm a big fan of the .270, having taken everything from black bears to moose with this cartridge over the years. That said, the cartridge is limited to 130- and 150-grain bullets-which sacrifices some downrange energy and penetration-making it a bit iffy for larger animals such as elk. Yes, thousands of elk have been taken with the .270, but you do have to be careful with your shots (likewise with the .280 Remington).

Many hunters espouse the virtues of the 7mm Rem. Mag., but I wouldn't consider it the best all-around choice—despite the fact I frequently shoot one. While it's certainly a fine round, it's limited by the unavailability of bullets heavier than 175 grains, as well as its higher cost. The same goes for the whole group of .277 and .284 magnums, including Weatherbies, WSMs and RUMs.

On the other end of the scale, the complete family of .30-calibre magnum cartridges is certainly capable of handling all Canadian big game. Many hunters can't handle the recoil, however, and then there's the high cost and limited availability of ammunition-all of which conspire to knock this group out of contention as the best option.

In the end, then, the choice really boils down to the venerable .30-06 or the .308. Found anywhere ammunition is sold, these cartridges are affordable and the recoil is within the tolerable range for most hunters. Of the two, however, I prefer the '06, simply because of the availability of a wider range of factory-loaded ammunition. In particular, you can get factory ammo up to 220 grains, while the .308 is limited to 180 grains. This difference shows itself with larger game such as elk, moose and bears, where penetration is critical.

What really tips the scales in favour of the .30-06, however, is that the full range of factory-loaded ammunition-from 55 to 220 grains-allows the hunter to better select bullets according to the game and hunting conditions at hand. There's a reason, after all, that this calibre is 101 years old and still going strong.

Final decisions

So you've settled on a .30-06. Now, which model to buy? If you stick to one of the major rifle manufacturers, you won't be disappointed. Among the most popular are Browning, Remington, Ruger, Sako, Savage, Tikka and Winchester. Next comes your choice of action. While today's levers, semi-autos and pump rifles are superb, it's tough to beat the reliability and durability of the bolt-action. And buy the best 3-9X scope you can afford-no rifle/cartridge combination can live up to its potential if you can't see your target.