A Western Big Game Guide’s 9 Favorite Weapons

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My tenure over the past decade as a big game guide in the West, combined with a lifelong obsession with hunting, puts me in the field over 150 days a year. From ground squirrels and spring-loving toms to bull elk and an assortment of feathered and furry quarries, the West Mountain offers plenty of year-round hunting opportunities. And since I’m so often in the mountains or a blind duck, there are a few trusted weapons I rely on. Of course, the following guns aren’t the only guns you can use to hunt West, but they’ve all served me extremely well. And if you’re trying to line your gun cabinet with the proper firearms for hunting all western game species, these rifles, shotguns, and pistols will get the job done.

Deer, Sheep and Antelope Rifle: Custom Remington 700 .280 Ackley Imp.

The rifle will shoot 1/2 MOA with the correct loads. Colton Heward

A capable centerfire rifle is a necessity for hunting the wide diversity of ungulates found across the West. The popular .300 Win. Mag. will certainly kill any big game species you need, but I prefer to have at least two different guns: one gun for deer and antelope sized game and another for larger creatures such as elk, bear and moose. I would class any cartridge between the .243 Win. and the variety the .284 offers more than enough for deer and antelope. My current centerfire is a custom rifle chambered in .280 Ackley Improved. This custom, decked out build features a Remington 700 action, PROOF Research carbon fiber wrapped Sendero Light barrel, PROOF Research Mountain stock, and a Timney HIT trigger set at 2.5 pounds. Leupold’s VX-6 HD 3-18X44 scope puts the icing on the cake for this build, which tips the scales at just under 8 pounds. The Imp .280 Ackley. is an inherently accurate cartridge, but this rifle driver consistently fires .50 MOA groups with Federal’s 155-grain Terminal Ascent factory offering. I’ve shot desert sheep in Nevada, pronghorns in Wyoming, and several whitetail deer in Texas with this rifle. He never let me down.

Elk, Moose and Bear Rifle: Browning X-Bolt McMillan LR .300 PRC

The Browning McMillan X-Bolt LR in .300 PRC,
The author’s Browning X-Bolt McMillan LR chambered in .300 PRC. Colton Heward

Assuming you fire a well-constructed bullet, any cartridge between .284 and .338 has proven deadly on big-boned game like elk and moose. Can both species be killed with smaller cartridges? Absolutely. In fact, I cleanly killed a mature bull at 365 yards with a single 162 grain Winchester Copper Impact bullet last year with the new Western 6.8 cartridge from Browning and Winchester. However, my time as a guide has taught me that these smaller cartridges don’t allow as much room for error as the larger ones (but you also need to be comfortable with the amount of recoil that a larger bullet heavy product to be precise with it).

Browning Xbolt McMillan

With that in mind, my current setup for elk and black bear hunting is Browning’s X-Bolt McMillan LR chambered in .300 PRC. My only complaint about this rifle is that it’s slightly heavier (over 8.5 pounds with scope and fully loaded) than what I’m used to carrying, but the weight definitely helps suppress the recoil feeling. Firing 190-grain Hornady CX bullets, this rifle sounds steady steel at 1,000 yards and packs plenty of terminal punch beyond 500 yards.

Short Range Rimfire Rifle: Ruger 10-22

This Ruger 10-22 is generational.
This Ruger 10-22 has been in the author’s family for three generations. Colton Heward

Rimfire rifles provide valuable training opportunities to hone your marksmanship. They are also effective weapons against vermin and small game. When hunting ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and rock chucks, my ring light of choice is a Ruger 10-22 that belonged to my grandfather. It’s not the prettiest rifle, but I’ve hunted with it more than all the other rifles in my vault combined due to its durability and accuracy. I’ve had the 10-22 for 30 years, and with my son showing a budding interest in hunting, I look forward to the day when I can pass this rifle on to him. I hope he finds it as much fun as I do.

The Ruger 10/22 may be decades old, but it's probably still more popular than ever.

Long Range Rimfire Rifle: Savage 93R17 BTVSS .17 HMR

The second rimfire I take in the field, especially when shooting rock chucks or shooting prairie dogs over 100 yards, is a left-handed Savage 93R17 BTVSS .17 HMR. The .17 HMR cartridge is an effective killer on small creatures and can take out coyotes as well. The Savage is also incredibly accurate, making holes within holes when firing from a bench. This cute little rifle doubles as a bunny gun, though a headshot is a must to preserve what little meat is in there.

Wild 93R17

Duck Shotgun: Winchester Super X3

Overall, the vast majority of waterfowlers shoot either a 12-gauge shotgun or semi-automatic shotgun to take advantage of larger payloads and the ability to fire three rounds. Both rigs are also easier to load and unload when hunting from an awning. My collection of waterfowl guns has grown in recent years, but the one I catch most often is the Winchester SX3.

Winchester SX3

The 3½-inch SX3’s gas-powered action cycled every cartridge I’ve ever run through. But more importantly, I shoot the gun well. The SX3, a favorite among snow goose hunters for its smooth recoil and functionality, features a Dura-Touch coating that protects the shotgun from the constant abuse and corrosion duck hunters put through to their weapons.

Highland Shotgun: Browning Citori Lightning

Browning Citori Lightning

Over-and-under guns go hand in hand with upland bird hunting. There are many great O/U options out there, but the one that has always topped them for me is the Browning Citori, an affordable breaking action rig that comes in a gauge and price to meet needs and means. of most hunters. My first Citori was an older 20 gauge Lightning model. It now proudly bears the knocks and bumps of years of use and abuse from hunting across the West. I pull an under gauge because the shots are usually close and upland birds are easier to take down than ducks and geese, so you can get away with smaller payloads. Sub-caliber shotguns are also lighter than a 12 gauge, which makes a big difference when climbing steep faces for the mountain chukar.

Turkey Shotgun: Benelli Super Black Eagle

The SBE has been a reliable turkey gun.
The original SBE with a full choke was the author’s go-to turkey gun. Colton Heward

Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) changed the game for turkey hunters, making even a delicate .410 caliber a legitimate weapon for killing long beards (where legal). But paying more than $10 per shell isn’t an option for many hunters. And if you hunt turkeys like I do – calling them close – the TSS isn’t a necessity. That’s why my turkey gun for years has been a Benelli Super Black Eagle 12 gauge inertia gun. While there are plenty of aftermarket choke options, the full factory of this classic autoloader paired with Winchester’s #5 3-inch Longbeard XRs was the best for me. He is able to kill a turkey at 50 yards, although I don’t need to shoot at that distance.

Truck Gun: Christensen Arms CA-15

The CA-15 is ideal for coyote hunting.
The CA-15 is an ideal coyote rifle. Colton Heward

Most western hunters have a dedicated truck gun. Mine is a Christensen Arms CA-15. During the fall, this rifle always rides with me, mainly to shoot coyotes. The CA-15 is lightweight, accurate, and the collapsible stock makes it easy to store or keep out of the way inside my vehicle. Hornady’s Varmint Express ammo loaded with a 55 grain V-MAX bullet produces the most consistent groupings for me, usually around 1 MOA. I consider it good enough for and AR I shoot at 300 yards. My scope of choice on this coyote exterminator is Leupold’s bombproof VX-3 HD 4.5-14X40. The low magnification of the scope allows for quick shots when calling predators up close, while the top end still lets me reach out if a wary dong hangs up. This rifle also doubles as a great rock chuck gun when I don’t have a rimfire handy.

Weapons Christensen CA-15

Personal Defense Pistol: Springfield XDS .45 ACP

The XDS offers peace of mind.
The author rarely needs to draw his XDS, but it’s good to have it if a mountain lion or black bear intrudes. Colton Heward

Living in Utah, I never felt the need to carry a handgun while hunting for protection, but that changed a few years ago. I was roaming the hills looking for lost woods when I came over a ridge and came face to face with a mountain lion. The lion never showed any aggression, but we did have one stare within 100 yards that I remember vividly. As I slowly backed away, I felt helpless with no way to defend myself. Luckily the lion stayed put, but that week I went to the local gun store and bought a Springfield XDS chambered in .45 ACP that rarely leaves my side.

Springfield XDS 45

The XDS weighs just 21.5 ounces and sports a 3.3-inch barrel, making it easy to carry around the backcountry. One of the downsides of the XDS is its unique 5+1 magazine capacity. It would be nice to have a few more shots to fire at a moment’s notice, but on the rare occasion I do have to use this weapon punches, I think I’m accurate enough to subdue a threat with six punches. Like home defense weapons, any soft or hollow point ammunition is sufficient for personal defense against lions or black bears (I don’t come across grizzly bears often). If you’re hunting in grizzly country, you better shoot a solid cast iron bullet that could penetrate a bear’s dense skull. A personal defense pistol adds weight but provides peace of mind knowing I have firepower nearby in case of an emergency.

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