Buying a New Hunting Rifle
“That’s it!” exclaimed the hunter, throwing his Stormy Kromer to the ground. Shaking his head in disgust, he added, “I missed another buck. Less than a hundred yards. I’m headed to the gun shop as soon as I get home. It’s time for a new rifle.”
I secretly wondered if he had properly sighted in his rifle or if he had a bad case of buck ague, closing his eyes and jerking the trigger. Or was there really a problem with his rifle? I suspected it really did not make any difference, as he was convinced the reason for missing several deer lay with his rifle. He wanted a new gun.
I glanced across the campfire at my neighbor, Tom, who is new to hunting. I had invited him to shoot a doe. It would be his first deer. Months earlier—after he had gotten his hunter safety card, purchased a hunting license, learned how to handle and accurately shoot one of my Ruger No. 1 single-shot rifles, learned deer anatomy and proper shot placement—that I would take him hunting. He had been an excellent student. I wondered how he would react to the disappointed hunter. Tom smiled and asked him, “What are you going to get?” The query was answered with a shoulder shrug.
The answer to this question hinges on a couple of major decisions. The first is, what do you intend to hunt? That answer would provide a way to address caliber and round. The second is choosing one of four types of rifle actions: single-shot, lever-action, bolt-action, and semi- automatic in modern sporting rifles.
I went on to explain, “I dearly love single-shot rifles and own several chambered in rounds for predators, big game, and dangerous game. Lever actions were extremely popular starting in the late 1800s through the 1960s. They are definitely making a huge comeback. I own those made by Marlin, Winchester, and Henry, but prefer single-shots and bolt action rifles. I am not a fan of semi-automatics for hunting.”
I’ll share some ideas from three friends who are hunters.
Brian McCombie is a gun writer/hunter who writes for many hunting and shooting publications, including those of the NRA. He has tremendous shooting and hunting experience with a huge variety of firearms.
Tim Fallon and his family own the FTW Ranch, where they teach Sportsman’s All-Weather, and All-Terrain Marksmanship (SAAM) Hunter Training. I have hunted with Tim throughout North America, in Asia, in Europe, and in several African countries. He and I serve on the DSC Foundation’s Board of Directors. The FTW has trained thousands of hunters through their various “courses,” including their “New Hunter Program,” where I occasionally serve as an instructor.
The third hunter is Brandon Houston. He and I partner in H3 Whitetail Solutions, our wildlife management/ hunting consulting company. Brandon has hunted all his life and has introduced many youngsters and older people to hunting. He too is often asked to help hunting operations suggest firearms/caliber/rounds for their clients to bring, regardless of their hunting experience.
When I posed the question about buying a hunting rifle, all suggested taking several things into consideration.
The first of those was what the rifle would be used for and what do you intend to hunt with it? Will it be a rifle intended to only hunt varmints/predators, medium- sized game meaning mostly deer and black bear, a bigger game like elk, caribou, moose, and big bears? Or could it possibly be used internationally?”
The next question was about how much the user wanted to spend while knowing that factory rifles with excellent accuracies, like those built by Ruger, Remington, Savage, Browning, Winchester, Tika, Weatherby, and Howa can be bought for between $500 to about $1,200. Another option is semi-custom type rifles, built by Christiansen Arms, Sako, Weatherby, Remington, Kimber, Nosler, and others. These usually cost between $1,200 to about $3,000. The next step up is custom rifles, such as those made by Hill Country Rifles, MG, Rifles Inc., Brown Precision, Best of the West, and increasingly, and almost daily, a longer list. Custom rifles usually start at $4,000 and continue up to $12,000. Visit www.Guns.com to compare.
In buying a new rifle the question often comes down to what you can afford to spend. Most rifles are sufficiently accurate for almost all real-world hunting. In spending whatever on a rifle, it is a really good idea to buy a scope matched to the rifle and caliber. If you are buying a semi-custom rifle do not top it with a bargain-basement optic. Serious hunters spend as much if not more on their scopes than they do on their rifles.
As mentioned, bolt actions are king when it comes to hunting rifles. They are available in both right and left-hand actions. So, if you are left-eye dominant, there indeed is a rifle available for you as well.
Wood, Synthetic, or Steel?
In looking at the basics of a rifle, consider whether you want one with a wood stock or one that is made of synthetic materials. Beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder. Personally, I love beautifully figured wood. I have several rifles stocked in fancy walnut. I use them rather than putting them on the wall to be admired.
There are a variety of synthetics used in making rifle stocks. These are tough and durable. They are not affected by water (meaning swelling or warping as wood stocks could possibly do), which does affect accuracy. (Personally, I usually recommend someone buying a new rifle strongly consider a synthetic stock.)
Regarding wet conditions, if you are hunting where the weather tends to be wet, you might want to consider buying a rifle built from stainless steel, rather than more traditional blued steel. But remember that stainless steel also can corrode and rust. Such rifles need to be properly cared for.
Consider the Fit
Another consideration when buying a new rifle is being certain that it fits the shooter properly in terms of “length of pull.” This refers to the distance between the trigger and the back of the stock.
To determine if a rifle properly fits, bend your arm to 90- degrees at your elbow. After making certain the rifle is not loaded in any way, grasp the rifle so the index finger is on the trigger, then place the end of the stock against the upper arm at the elbow. Is the stock too short for grasping the trigger, or is it too long? If it fits properly, you can hold the gun against your arm and the center of the tip of your index finger rests on the trigger. Something to consider is that when hunting, you’re apt to be wearing heavy coats. Take that into consideration. Thankfully too, some off-the-rack rifles come with spacers that allow the lengthening and shortening of the length of pull.
What about rifle barrels and barrel length? If you are going to be hunting regularly in open country with little brush to negotiate, a longer barrel is fine, say upwards of 24 to 26 inches. If you regularly hunt in thick brush, you might opt for a shorter barrel, say 22 inches.
If you are recoil sensitive, consider buying a rifle that has a muzzle brake. The “felt” noise is loud, but muzzle brakes greatly reduce recoil, often to the point of being able to see bullet impact. Many of today’s hunting rifles come from the factory either with the muzzle of the barrel threaded for a muzzle brake or already installed. Many hunters/shooters are using “suppressors” which not only greatly reduce the noise, but considerably reduce recoil as well. The only experience I have with what some call “silencers”—and they do not completely eliminate the sound of a shot—is with Silencer Central. They not only produce suppressors, but help with proper and necessary paperwork, and they deliver your suppressor to your front door.
Barrel twist—the length it takes for the bullet to make one complete revolution— for the most part does not need to be considered by those buying rifles unless it is a case of a custom rifle. Most commercial rifles have appropriate rifle twists for the most commonly used bullets. If you plan on having a custom rifle built, visit with the gunsmith regarding what bullets you intend to use, as that may make a difference regarding what twist rate is used. Rifle barrels are like individuals, too, and may shoot one particular bullet (weight and design), and powder charges better than others.
Caliber and Round
Given those basics, it is time to consider caliber and round. “Caliber” is the diameter of the bullet, and “round” or cartridge is the shape, size, and length of the cartridge or case.
I asked Brian McCombie about choices in calibers and cartridges. He replied, “One of the things I tell people, you do not need a Howitzer. A lot of guys want to go as big as possible, like .300 Win Mag, .45-70 Government, and the like. “They do of course work”, he continued, “but they may work too well, depending upon bullet and load. Those big and fast-moving bullets can wreck a lot of venison.”
McCombie continued, “I usually suggest primarily deer hunters consider the .308 Winchester and undersized calibers. Then, it comes down to good shot placement and well-designed and constructed bullets. One of my favorite hunting calibers for deer-sized animals is the .260 Remington using the 120-grain Barnes VOR-TX copper round. A shot into the deer’s vitals and that hunt is over.”
I broached Brandon Houston, who’s with H3 Whitetail Solutions, with the same question. He replied, “The first thing I tell people, regardless of the rifle they buy or the caliber and round, is to know your gun and practice with it as often as possible. Find out what particular ammo (bullet and load) your rifle shoots most accurately. Remember, rifles are like people, all are different! My personal rifles are bolt actions made by Ruger, Savage, and Remington. Choose a rifle in caliber and round that fits and suits you and the type of hunting you plan to do.” He continued, “As for calibers, primarily regarding hunting whitetails on the properties we manage, the three which I see most often are the .243 Win, .270 Win, and .30-06 Springfield, but also an increasing number of 6.5 Creedmoors. When it comes to hunting larger game such as elk, big mule deer, moose, and the like, I discourage the use of .243 Win and 6.5 Creedmoor. Personally, I like hunting with rounds I can use for whitetails but also elk and moose-sized animals. Those include the .270 and .30- 06 I have already mentioned but also the 7mm magnums, and .300 magnums (both long and short).
The advice on buying a hunting rifle from Tim Fallon comes last. The 12,000- acre FTW Ranch Tim oversees is essentially a great series of rifle ranges, but they also do considerable hunting. They run various specific instruction courses that involve long-range steel and life-sized animal targets. Hundreds of “students” (including those who are just now learning to shoot and hunt, to those who have hunted throughout the world for many years) go to the FTW ranch for training. They train students to be capable of making long-range shots, out to 1,000 yards, and to only squeeze the trigger after they have made every attempt to get as close to their quarry as possible.
When I asked Tim about buying a new rifle, he advised that speed does not kill, but bullet placement does! He suggests you get a gun in a caliber you can manage and shoot well. He says in training, they strive to help those attending courses to rid themselves of bad habits that could cause them to miss a shot.
“With regard to calibers, rather than being specific regarding a caliber, we advise the hunter to match caliber to the game pursued. You have probably not addressed the weight of a rifle. We have hunters come through primarily who are interested in hunting the mountains. Those hunters usually choose lighter-weight rifles. However, realize that heavier guns tend to be shot more accurately. Also, don’t buy a lightweight rifle then mount a heavy scope on it. “
Tom continued, “When sighting-in, do not shoot your rifle more than three shots in succession. Before shooting again let the barrel cool to the touch. Never shoot your gun hot! Zero (adjusting your scope) from your first three-shot group. Hunting is ALL about your first shot’s accuracy. Most rifles that are well built using ammo well- matched should have the first two shots touching or very close to touching. The third shot should be no more than one-half to three-fourths of an inch off-center from the first two.
My Own Favorite
Personally, my favorite rifle and the one I tend to recommend when it comes to hunting Whitetails, mule deer, and elk are rifles chambered in .280 Remington. My 280 Remington rifles are made by Remington and Ruger. They are topped with Trijicon AccuPoint and Trijicon Huron scopes. I shoot Hornady’s 150-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter loads. I have found these combinations to be extremely accurate, shooting less than 1 MOA at 100 yards, and they are deadly when I do my part by placing a bullet into the vitals.
To reiterate, before buying a new rifle, determine what you plan on hunting and the terrain hunted, how often you plan on shooting at the range, and what you can reasonably and actually afford to spend on rifle and scope combination. Plan to spend time at a gun shop looking and handling a variety of rifles, then choose one that you personally like as to its looks and its feel of handling. Let the adventures begin!