Hunting is a heckuva lot of fun, and the proceeds — savory game meat, unique memories, and new friendships — are worth their weight in bug spray and doe urine. But if you’re new to the sport of hunting, you may or may not have had a mentor to lead you into the right way of taking game animals, which includes shooting them humanely.
Shooting an animal — whether it’s small game such as rabbits and squirrels or medium to big game such as turkeys, javelina, whitetail and mule deer, pronghorn sheep, and others — is an awesome responsibility. The task, killing something, carries with it an ethical responsibility to accomplish the harvest humanely, without undue suffering by the animal. That means you need to pick the right tool for the job — something you can handle and something that will kill the game animal with one shot.
So you and your new hunting rifle have to be able to deliver on that goal of a one-shot kill. If you have never bought a firearm or been in a gun store, then picking and purchasing your first hunting rifle can be a challenge.
No one wants to look stupid, and everyone wants to spend their money wisely. Here are three tips that will help you find that first rifle you’re looking for to use while hunting North America’s game animals.
1. Do Some Research
There is lots of info on the internet, but most of it isn’t as good as what you see here at The Truth About Guns, so don’t believe everything you read. Stick with trusted online resources like TTAG, or go old school and actually buy a book on hunting.
Three guys who I know and trust to talk about hunting rifles include David E. Petzal, Bob Robb, and Bryce Towsley.
Petzal, former executive editor of Field & Stream and a longtime rifle columnist, wrote The Complete Book of Hunting, still available online in its original hardcover form, back in 1990. It’s a comprehensive look at hunting with a gun, covers gun and equipment selection, game species, and big-game hunting techniques.
Robb is probably better known as a bowhunter, but he has taken plenty of game with a rifle. His Ultimate Guide to Elk Hunting is a paperback dating back to 2001 and covers the techniques and strategies of several North American elk hunters. Their advice covers hunting elk throughout their range and offers guidance on choosing the top-end of centerfire-rifle performance. Robb also authored the paperback, Hunting Wild Boar in California 6th Updated Edition if feral hogs are on your hunting season dance card.
Bryce Towsley has written about firearms for 38 years. He knows guns and ballistics and how they relate to the real world, and currently writes a column on gunsmithing for The American Rifleman. His books include Gunsmithing Modern Firearms: A Gun Guy’s Guide to Making Good Guns Even Better and Big Bucks The Benoit Way, which is about an Eastern hunting family and their success at hunting deer. His “Prepper Guns” hardcover is also worth reading, though not directly on the topic of hunting rifle choices.
Of course, check with your friends and family about what they use, and why, and where they buy their hunting supplies. I would try to find a store that had a staff who hunts and who have experience in the type of game hunting I was considering.
That probably won’t be at a big-box store like Walmart (which just announced it would stop selling handgun ammunition, and which has already backed out of AR-15 sales).
Many states require new hunters (regardless of age) to take a state-approved hunter-education course. Go ahead and sign up for it. You’ll have to have the course eventually, and if you take it ahead of committing money to a rifle choice, you’ll gain valuable wisdom that can cement your pick before you start shopping.
Fortunately, reading about hunting isn’t as difficult as reading about particle physics, so doing a little research before you buy your first hunting rifle won’t be drudgery.
Most important, please take an NRA training course.
The gun-rights group is better known these days for its missteps in politics and the personal enrichment of its leadership. But the National Rifle Association got its start training shooters in firearms safety, and their First Steps Rifle Orientation should be a must-do item on your list.
Then, once you know how to handle firearms safely, sign up for the Basic Rifle Shooting Course. You’ll get a solid grounding in gun handling that will serve you well when you’ve decided to begin your search for a hunting rifle.
Also, if you attend the NRA Annual Meetings, you can see the wares of nearly every major rifle manufacturer, side by side, and factory reps are there to answer questions. They also won’t try to sell you a gun at the show because they can’t. It’s a really low-key experience and a chance to look at a lot of guns side by side.
2. Take a Test Drive
The research you’ve done will narrow the field of choices you might consider, and it will also expose that you’re not just going to buy a rifle. It also means buying ammo, probably an optic (such as a riflescope or red dot), carrying case or sleeve or both, eye and ear protection, and cleaning supplies, at a minimum.
When new shooters ask me what I shoot, I’m careful to say that what I shoot isn’t necessarily what they need. But I do offer to take them to shoot whatever I have in my safe, my treat.
Most hunters I know are happy to take a new shooter to the range and let them feel the shooting experience without any financial commitment. Good manners dictate that you offer to cover the range fees and ammo, or buy lunch afterward, but that’s between you and your contacts.
During the test drives, you’ll find out pretty quickly what you like and what you don’t like. More important, you’ll find out what you can handle, and what you can’t.
Overwhelmingly, new people I’ve introduced to shooting love shooting smallbore rimfires, and they’re most comfortable using bolt actions because the manual of arms is easy to understand. Also, finding a good rifle in a reasonable price range is fairly easy.
Among the deer-hunting cartridges, I’ve found new shooters have enthusiasm when they shoot rifles chambered in .22-250, .223 Rem., .243 Win., .257 Roberts, .260 Rem., 6.5 Creedmoor, and 6.5 Grendel.
Most new shooters get recoil fatigue when they enter the .270 Win. realm, but they can generally tolerate it, along with the .25-06 Rem., 280 Rem., .284 Win., .308 Win. and others like that, including 7mm-08 Rem. and 7×57 Mauser.
Magnum cartridges, starting with the .257 Weatherby Magnum, are generally too much for most people who are just starting out, and 7mm Remington Magnum, 300 Winchester Magnum, and above are too much for almost all beginning shooters.
It’s most important to find a gun that you enjoy shooting and carrying. So that means light enough to carry for several hours in the field, and not so light you’re punished by recoil at the buttstock when you shoot it.
3. Some Universal Considerations
Without getting into your choice of chambering, there are a few universal concepts to keep in mind prior to plunking down your plastic.
It’s very difficult to get a thorough, correct fit from your rifle when you’re buying it at the gun store. Ideally, you should already check this by shooting a loaner, but if you haven’t, head position is the most crucial element to get right.
If your head is in any position other than straight up and down, you’ll oscillate around your center of gravity when standing as your brain seeks to find its balance. That translates into wobble.
In the video below, author Ryan Cleckner talks about the topic in more detail.
If you crane your neck left, right, or forward to see the sights or eye relief on the scope, you’ll be unstable. Part of this head position on the stock is due to length of pull (LOP), that is, the distance between the trigger and the middle of the buttpad.
Too long a LOP and you’ll have trouble getting your hand to the trigger, and you’ll feel like you’re falling off the back end of the gun. Too short, and you’ll come forward onto the front part of the comb and get too close to the optic. However, if you’ll be wearing thick winter clothes, take that into account.
The right way to get the gun up is to have a natural head position and bring the gun to your face, not the other way around. If you can’t get the optics in line with your eye when you bring the gun up, the fit is wrong, and the Shooting Gods will punish you with inaccuracy and pain. Ask me how I know.
You can help your stock-fit experience by buying one of the newer stocks that allows some adjustability. The Ruger American Hunter short-action line comes with a Magpul stock that’s adjustable for LOP and comb height. Ruger’s Precision Rifle and Precision Rimfire Rifle come with adjustable buttstocks as well.
Mossberg offers partially adjustable stocks on some of its MVP and Patriot bolt-action rifles and the 464 lever actions. Savage offers stocks with adjustable LOPs, as does Browning in its X-Bolt lines. Some Remington Model 700s, especially the long-range models, have adjustable stocks.
The Weatherby Vanguard Synthetic Compact has LOP adjustability. You can also improve your marksmanship with many synthetic and wood stocks by adding adjustable combs or wraps.
If you decide to go with a semi-automatic rifle that has a buffer tube on it, you can fit a whole bunch of multi-position adjustable stocks on it pretty easily.
You’ll have to decide on an action type, but some of that will be dictated by the chambering you choose. I prefer bolt actions for hunting, but you may be happy with a pump action, lever-action rifle, semi-automatic, and or single shot.
You’ll also have to choose a stock from a dizzying list of materials, including hardwood, laminated wood, polymer, and fiberglass. I like the looks of wood, but synthetics are more durable and more resistant to the elements. An effective recoil pad is also worth looking for.
Beyond chambering, your choice of barrel includes materials (carbon steel or stainless), length (generally 16 to 26 inches), contour (thickness), and muzzle treatment (threaded or not threaded for an appliance).
A longer barrel will certainly affect the rig’s overall length and weight, but they aren’t inherently more accurate. It’s worth looking at this TTAG article, The Truth About Barrel Length, Muzzle Velocity and Accuracy, for more on the topic.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed when picking your first hunting rifle. But if you use a process of elimination — action, chambering, stock style, and barrel style — you can quickly get your choices down to just a few inside your price point and make your final decision from that list.
Here are a few more topics that can help you choose the best hunting rifle for small or large game: