While we hunters are blessed with more caliber options, bullet types, and specific loads than ever before, we’re now burdened with the conundrum of what ammo to buy. But if you follow these basic steps—and then spend the proper time at the range—a freezer full of quality nutrition is only a trigger-squeeze away.
You’ll notice that this rundown is devoid of specific caliber recommendations. Volumes have been written and friendships have been lost arguing the merits of a given caliber over another; here, we’ll stick to some less-covered ammo considerations. For info on rifle calibers, consult a gun shop or your favorite hunting website.
When it comes to hunting rounds, loosen the purse strings. A five-dollar hike in price could be the difference between a full freezer and a growling belly—not to mention a wounded animal. You’re better off skimping on gear and apparel, and splurging when it comes to the kill shot. Again, if in doubt, consult a professional.
Shoot the ammo loaded and developed by the company that made your rifle. Several of the major rifle companies also manufacture shells tailor-made for their specific guns, as they have a serious financial stake in the performance of their rifles. Steer clear of bargain or discount bulk ammo for hunting. These rounds may be fine for the range, but when it comes to game-dropping capabilities, stick with trusted name-brands.
Hand-Loaded vs. Manufactured
Unless you’ve spent several years and hundreds of rounds perfecting the ideal hand-load for your rifle, don’t assume a few hours in the workshop will produce the best hunting round. If a buddy or neighbor has loaded up “an ideal round for your gun,” be skeptical. Take the rounds to the range and see if they punch through the pages of the thickest phonebook you can find. Also, be cautious of “hot” loads; if hand-loading directions are not followed to the letter, some of these rounds cannot only damage a rifle, they can be deadly.
Foreign vs. Domestic
It isn’t hard to find ammo at a bargain price. However, these rounds are used mainly for range purposes, or for pre-season practice. Most, if not all, of these “bargain” loads are mass-produced; the brass can be weak and the primers less than reliable. When it comes to down-range, game-dropping performance, stick with U.S. manufacturers.
Most of the same rules apply to shotgun shells, especially when it comes to manufacturer—go with a proven American brand. Reloading, on the other hand, is easier to dial in and in general, precision is less important. What is important is using the right load for each situation. Various shot sizes exist, from #8 for doves up to #1 for waterfowl. Like shotgun gauges, the smaller the number, the larger the pellet, and the fewer of them in each shell. You want a large enough shot to kill your quarry, but not so large that it mangles the meat. Most shells are marked with the type of game for which they’re intended; our advice is to start there, then experiment with hotter loads (higher velocity, more recoil) to find out what you can shoot comfortably and that has the killing power you need. You’ll likely have shell-length options, too, based on your shotgun’s chamber—most take both 2 ½- and 3-inch shells, and some will accommodate a 3-inch magnum. Again, start small and work your way up—unless you’re shooting at fast-flying ducks, in which case you want the largest, hottest load you can get without blowing your shoulder out of socket. —the editors