If you’re looking to buy a new handgun or rifle and you haven’t settled on a chambering, you might be doing a little digging into your best options. Proceed with caution! Googling “what’s the best rifle caliber?” will lead to information overload like you can’t imagine. The sheer number of calibers and chamberings available today is dizzying. It’s enough to lead to serious analysis paralysis. How are you supposed to pick one?
The truth is that chamberings and calibers follow trends, often based on technological advancement. For example, beginning a few years ago and continuing today, the 6.5 Creedmoor became the hottest thing going in center-fire rifles—so popular that it spawned an entire genre of internet memes and jokes. While the 6.5 Creedmoor is a tremendous round with a lot of things going for it, there’s no reason to trade in or “upgrade” a rifle you’ve already got. Your chambering/caliber didn’t become obsolete just because it’s not the new kid in town anymore. In fact, many old-school calibers are still among the best and most versatile options around. If you’re shopping for a new gun, consider picking one of these faithful old standbys rather than the newest round on the block.
Why Stick with the Classics
Classics are classic for a reason—they work. Rounds that have been around for decades and enjoyed steady popularity have had all the kinks worked out. Through time, the market has weeded out the not-so-hot options and let the best choices rise to the top. Old standbys like the .357 Magnum and the .30-06 Springfield have stood the test of time. They get the job done, and on top of that, you’re apt to find more choices of projectiles and weights in these common chamberings. Virtually every ammo manufacturer produces rounds in the old standbys, so it’s easy to find a factory load that works best in your particular firearm.
Plus, I’ve always said that if worse came to worst and I was left ammo-less on a hunt, I want to be able to walk into any tiny sporting goods store in any tiny town and find on the shelf a box of ammo that my gun will shoot. They’re probably not going to have the latest .300 Super Whiz-Bang Wildcat, but you know what they’re dang sure going to have? Plenty of .30-06.
Standby Center-fire Rifle Cartridges
I’ve already mentioned my personal favorite old-standby big-game hunting cartridge: the .30-06 Springfield. It’s been around since 1906, and you can find more than 100 combinations of projectiles and brands on the market. It’ll handle almost any big game in North America with the right bullet, and almost every modern rifle manufacturer makes guns chambered in it. You can’t go wrong.
The .30-30 Win. is another standby, even older than the .30-06, having been introduced in 1895. There’s no way to verify, but it’s said that the .30-30 has taken more deer in North America than any other cartridge. You’ll typically see the .30-30 in a lever-action rifle, and although it’s not the fastest or flattest-shooting round, it’s a tried-and-true deer slayer.
Other classics in this category include the .300 Win. Mag. (1963), the .270 Win. (1920s), the .243 Win. (1955), and the .308 Win. (1950s). And, yes, I have to admit that the 6.5 Creedmoor is rapidly working its way into the “classic” category. It’s only been around 15 years, so we can’t call it an old standby yet, but its versatility and wild popularity probably have it marked for inevitable legend status.
Standby Rimfire Rifle Cartridges
There’s one all-time undisputed king of the rimfires, and its popularity dwarfs all others: the .22 LR. It is the most common ammunition sold worldwide (in terms of units). Whether you’re hunting squirrels, shooting competitions or plinking in the backyard, the .22 LR is THE old standby rimfire cartridge. It’s cheap, it’s effective, it’s accurate, it’s almost recoil-less, and you can buy rounds by the thousands in big buckets. It can’t do everything, but what it does, it does exceedingly well. And assuming there’s no ammo shortage going on, you’ll find .22 LR in every sporting goods store in the nation.
Other rimfires that don’t really approach old-standby status include assorted .22 variants (.22 Long, .22 Short, .22 WSM). The only other rimfire I can think of that you might consider a classic is the .17 HMR, which has been around for about 20 years and makes for a supremely accurate varmint-hunting cartridge with a longer range than the .22 LR.
Standby Handgun Cartridges
Today, the 9 mm Luger is on top of the heap in terms of units sold, and for good reason. It’s been around for 120 years and is in use by many of the world’s militaries and law enforcement agencies. Just about every manufacturer makes it, and you’ll find plenty of load options. It’s a classic, and a very good one, and you won’t go wrong with 9mm as a self-defense cartridge.
The .38 Special (1898) and its younger-but-bigger brother, the .357 Magnum (1935), were once immensely popular but are slipping in sales numbers as revolvers have faded in popularity. But both are very capable self-defense cartridges with a lot of loading options. The two cartridges are virtually the same except for case length—the .357 is longer. You can safely shoot .38 Special ammo in a .357 Magnum gun, but not the other way around. These two cartridges definitely qualify for old-school old-standby status.
The .45 ACP, developed in 1904, is a classic old standby with something of a cult following. This round is big, which is its main selling point—even today there are plenty of shooters who proudly proclaim they won’t trust their life to “any caliber that doesn’t start with a 4.” The fact that Colt adopted the .45 ACP as the standard chambering for the now-classic M1911 handgun probably helped the round’s popularity, and although the 9 mm has far eclipsed it in sales, it’s still a definite classic.
Innovation is a good thing, and ammo companies are coming out with new-and-improved cartridges all the time. There’s nothing wrong with trying out the latest and greatest, but there’s also nothing wrong with sticking with the classics that have stood the test of time. They’re called classics for a reason!