I realize the gunwriting business and much of the hunting and shooting industry revolves around a certain amount of "Walter Mitty-ism" but the climate of late is bordering on the ridiculous. The lynchpin event that resulted in the Robert Heinlen quote that serves well as a title was the fact I worked for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers at the Fairbanks Outdoors Show as well as attended a local gun show over the same weekend.
I knew better...really, I did.
The older I become (and possibly the more cantankerous) the more I realize that specialization is a genre that really takes little talent. It is a much more arduous a task to make something good for many things than to make something excellent for a very narrow window of use. Case in point with rifle design- I looked at rifles that were tailor made for all sorts of uses, sheep hunting ultralights in wee speedy calibers, varmint rifles that weighed 13 pounds in even more wee and speedy calibers, heavy game rifles that fired cartridges the size of cigars, super magnums that fired standard bullets at impossible speeds- but few rifles that I'd consider just good general purpose rifles.
In the years gone by, most of the generally available rifles were what could call general purpose but of late even the term "general purpose rifle" has resulted in some rather esoteric designs that baffle the imagination. Consider that the basic design of rifles has changed very little since the work of Mauser, Whelen, and Browning (the profusion of cartridges notwithstanding- I don't generally consider cartridge variations progress). So what does constitute a "general purpose rifle" and just what is it good for. Col Cooper made a stab at it in his "Scout Rifle" design and I owned one for a few years and did some good work with it. I found few faults with it other than ferocious price but it isn't what I really consider the sole example of general purpose. To begin the idea one must establish just what the instrument is for- too many items find their way into our inventories as answers to questions we never asked.
What's it for? Obviously a general purpose rifle is not intended to shoot the most specialized of targets, in the hunting world that would constitute the largest and smallest specimens- prairie dogs and elephants. On the target range it would preclude the most specialized disciplines- I'd have a hard time calling benchrest or biathalon rifle "general purpose" by any stretch of the imagination. We could readily say that a general purpose rifle ought to weigh something less than eight or nine pounds fully equipped to maintain its status as conveniently portable and it should come chambered in a cartridge that is powerful enough to cleanly take the general run of game on the continent the user is located on.
For North America that would be things like deer, elk, moose, black bears, caribou, sheep, goats and the like at most common hunting ranges- say to 300 yards. Most people shoot poorly at even less than that and I consider any shot further to become a specialized endeavor. It would be hard to beat the 30-06 cartridge and any of the similar chamberings (.308, .270, .280, 7x57, 8x57, etc.) for that kind of shooting. Cooper also included combat in his list of things a general purpose rifle ought to be equipped for and while I have no personal desire to see combat I can only agree that historically the rifle has been used in that role extensively. Given that the majority of the world's armies fire massive amounts of underpowered ammunition at each other, I would gladly take my rifle over any of the current offering of assault carbines if it came right down to killing other people. In summary, I would suggest we leave the varmint cartridges, most of the magnums and the "medium and large" bores out of the question. A .338 Winchester Magnum is a great cartridge in its place but I can't say I'd consider it that useful as a general purpose round and consider the .223/22-250 class of cartridges in much the same light.
I think the general purpose rifle ought to be bolt action. I dislike the automatics immensely for a variety of reasons and its hard to think of the single shot or double rifles as "general purpose" given some of the parameters. Most people can be taught the operation of the bolt rifle in an afternoon- to include stripping down the bolt and maintaining the weapon, even the relatively uninitiated. I must confess I find the autoloading rifle out of place in the hunting field despite their growing popularity here and while I've spent a good deal of time with one on the range it is certainly not a favored action of mine. As a military arm the autoloader tends to have more moving parts and be more difficult to teach the manual of arms on than a good bolt action ever was. As the world's armies largely abandon marksmanship for "fire superiority" (whatever that means) I can only guess that means if you can't shoot well you should just shoot a lot. A serious rifleman only needs a few rounds to accomplish what needs doing. In the wars of the past the thought of going head to head with a platoon of crack riflemen filled field commanders with dread- ie. the Boers, the American Colonials, and the Jaeger regiments are some of the more obvious examples. Today's wars tend to have troops spraying a lot of ammunition and killing each other with high explosives instead.
The general purpose rifle then is a bolt action weighing a nominal 8.5 pounds and chambered for a "standard" cartridge. I believe we all shoot better with a telescopic sight and for something to be called "general purpose" I think a fixed 4x is more than sufficient for nearly any field shooting one might do (generalized or otherwise) and although I don't like variables personally I wouldn't be opposed to a low powered variable of the 1-5x or 2-7x class with objective lenses of less than 36mm. I do think the scope and mounts should be rugged enough to withstand the rigors of field use- the failures of over sized and powerful target scopes in the hunting fields are legendary. I won't mind iron sights on a rifle but I really think these days they're something of an anachronism. Most factory iron sights are little more than ornamentation and I'm usually delighted if a rifle is equipped with decent sights but if its not- so what, a fixed 4x will be generally more accurate, just as quick and just as robust. I know folks wring their hands about scope failures but I've hunted with scopes a lot under rigorous circumstance and have had exactly one failure in the field.
So in review we have a rifle that looks and sounds very much ordinary- a .30-06 (or similar) bolt action rifle weighing 8.5 pounds (give or take) with a decent 4x scope. Almost any manufacturer of bolt action rifles is going to produce such a piece and in the fiercely competitive firearms market the price will often be held in check by competition. Since this type of rifle has been popular for decades the used market is bursting with excellent buys as well on these rifles as their owners abandon them for pieces with more flash and pizazz- probably to their chagrin. The market is flooded with much more specialized pieces but they could be looked at as things more inferior than this one- it will readily accomplish 99% of anything you're apt to need a rifle for- bragging at the hardware store excluded. The manufacturers and the gun press would like you to believe that you need a battery of rifles- one perfected for each individual species you might hunt. While such an endeavor might be fun for the end user and profitable for the maker- it is wholly unrequired.