first published on August 3, 2021 by Josh Brooks[mashshare]
Alright, let’s tackle a tough subject. This is going to be a bit of a longer article, so feel free to skip around using the table of contents below. Specifically, this article is targeted at new and first-time hunting rifle buyers, but, if you’re an experienced shooter there’s a couple of nuggets of knowledge in here for you as well. For my experienced shooters by the way, I’d love to hear from you down in the comments section. I’ve bought a dozen or more hunting rifles in my life-time, and I’ve fired probably close to fifty different brands and types. Between all of us though, we’re probably in the thousands for that subject matter, so your input is definitely needed.
Let’s get into it. How do you choose the best hunting rifle for you? It’s a tough question to answer, and there are going to be some variables for every shooter. I’ve done my best here to put together a guide that will help you find the perfect rifle specifically for you. I’m going to inform you on what to look for in a hunting rifle. The types of hunting rifles that exist on the market today. Who some of the top brands and manufacturers are. And, last but not least, I’m going to give you some tips and tricks on when and where you can find the best deals on a hunting rifle.
Choosing a rifle scope is going to be something for another article all together.
This is a must-know thing going into the process of getting the best hunting rifle that you can. It’s also something this article can’t entirely help you out with. I don’t know enough about you, dear reader, to know what your budgetary constraints are in life. Maybe you’re extremely blessed, and getting a hand-made Blaser with all of the bells-and-whistles is on the menu for you. Maybe you’re an average-joe working in the trades looking to get a solid hunting rifle at a mid-level budget. Or, maybe you’re that same average-joe looking to get his son his first hunting rifle, and you don’t want to break the bank.
With all of that in mind, there is a solid hunting rifle for most every budget. Before you start shopping, decide how much you are willing or able to spend. Then, start searching for rifles in that price-range. You can use the rest of the article below to help you figure out if the rifle you are eye-balling is right for you, and more importantly right for your budget. Some of the key-points in this article will tell you where and what you can and cannot sacrifice when you are making your purchase decision. Also be sure to check down in our comments section for more advice from readers who also have a ton of experience in buying hunting rifles.
Alright. So, you’ve made the decision that it’s time to buy a new, or maybe even your first hunting rifle. You’ve set aside the money for the rifle, and you know exactly what your budget is. Now what? How do you know if a rifle is of a good quality when you make the purchase? What kind of things should you be looking for at the gun-counter or online? Don’t worry, we have some answers for you.
Depending on you, and your target game animal. If you’re hunting larger game at close range, having the world’s most accurate rifle might not be super important. If you’re in the mountains of Wyoming shooting at 1,000 yards, then the accuracy of your rifle really matters. What matters even more though, regardless of the situation, is the accuracy of the individual pulling the trigger behind the rifle.
It’s a simple fact in shooting, and it’s one some shooters don’t like to talk about. Most rifles and handguns are more accurate than the shooter using it. Having a custom made rifle chambered in 6mm that holds a 5/16th inch group at 100 yards is great, but if you can’t shoot at that high of a level, maybe it’s not the absolute most important thing for you. Maybe instead, you buy a long-range precision shooting course, or just spend some time out hitting steel at 500+ yards.
Bottom-line on accuracy in a hunting rifle, the best hunting rifle is only going to be as accurate as the shooter behind the scope. It takes a shooter on a different level to really stretch the capabilities of most hunting rifles on the market today. Manufacturers have just about maximized the precision of barrels in the modern shooting world, and that’s the reality of the situation.
Do you remember the Val Kilmer movie Ghost in the Darkness? There is one scene in particular in that movie that rings true here. It’s when Val Kilmer’s character is face to face with one of the lions. He raises his borrowed rifle, pulls the trigger, and immediately has a malfunction. Now, in the movie, that could have cost his character his life. In real life, that could be the difference between you being mauled by a grizzly bear, or not getting that buck you’ve been pursuing for the last week. Again, depends on the game.
If your hunting rifle is not dependable, then it’s time to change it out immediately. Every hunter needs a rifle that will fire, on command, 100% of the time. No having the bolt get stuck. No having ammunition that doesn’t fire. These are things that lead to you being deep in the woods for several hours with a rifle that has, can, and will fail you at the exact wrong time.
You can test this by shooting, and shooting a lot. I get it, ammunition can be expensive. But, if you’re going to trust a rifle to feed your family, you need to trust that it will function every single time. You can also get a general idea on the dependability of a firearm by reading reviews, watching videos, and through firearm rentals at your local firing range.
I love this question, and this conversation. One of the simple facts of life is that the cheaper an item is, the less durability it will have. Now, when it comes to firearms, this isn’t always the case. Some of the cheapest hunting rifles out there are incredibly durable monsters that will probably still be ran a century after society has collapsed. Why is this?
It’s a simple answer really. It’s not the 1800s anymore, and it’s also not the 1990s. Tooling, machining, and in general, Gunsmithing has evolved. While there are some QC issues that come up with mass production, the benefits here really do outweigh the negatives and you’ll find most reputable companies will do whatever it takes to make it right. The largest benefit for the manufacturer is that they can put more products out to their customers in a timely fashion. The largest benefit to the customer in that equation is that the cost of production comes down with the volume and speed at which they are able to produce. You have got to love free-market capitalism.
All of that said though, durability is extremely important for your general-purpose hunting rifle. This is a rifle that you will be taking out into the wilderness. It will be exposed to a ton of weather conditions, and let’s be real, it’s probably going to get beat up by the environment. These things can have a negative impact on both the accuracy and dependability of your rifle. So, make sure the rifle you pick up can withstand the beating you’re going to give it out on your hunts.
These are small points, but points that are worth adding into this section. Both the ergonomics of your rifle, and the rifle’s overall weight should be something you take into consideration. Unless your hunting spot consists primarily of a stool sitting next to a flat bench, and the road to it is paved with gravel, you’re probably going to want a lightweight and comfortable rifle. After all, you are going to be moving miles with, and sitting hours behind the scope of this thing.
Do not over-estimate your ability to stay cognizant and aware of your surroundings when you are miserable. We have a term for this in the infantry, but it applies here. Everyone has a limit on their tactical endurance. Now, I know, I said the word tactical in a hunting rifle buyer’s guide, but trust me it applies. This term is used when someone mentally checks out because they’re exhausted. Mentally checking out because of exhaustion will cause you to either completely miss your opportunity to take down your game, or cause you to miss your shot.
The weight and ergonomics of your rifle will contribute to your ability to stay focused while on the hunt in the long-term. So, purchase wisely here. Only skimp on this if you know your spot, and know it’s not a major factor. You’ll thank yourself for it in the long-term.
Are you hunting squirrel and rabbits? You probably don’t need a .308, I mean, if you want anything left after you pull the trigger that is. When you’re selecting your hunting rifle, make sure that the caliber and style of the rifle you choose suits the game you are hunting. There are three primary types of game.
Whatever you are hunting, it probably falls into one of these three categories. If you’re hunting whales, I can’t really help you. You probably need a harpoon or somethhing. Know your target, and what has been proven to reliably kill it without stripping all of the meat off of it. Also, don’t be that guy, under-select your caliber, and then leave the animal wounded because you’re too tired to go on a long track. If the right caliber is used, and the shooter is competent, you’ll get a clean humane kill nine out of ten times.
Does the stick go boom? You can probably get meat with it.
There’s an almost unlimited number of hunting rifles out there, but what are the main types, and what are the best types? These are reasonable questions to ask, so we’re going to do our best to answer them. Now, if I stayed here for the next year, I might be able to cover down on this completely and give you every answer. Unfortunately, neither of us have that kind of time, so we’re really just going to cover down on the basics.
There’s something to be said about a bolt-action hunting rifle. When you think of a classic hunting rifle, the first thing that probably jumps into your head is a bolt-action long gun. There’s a reason for that too. Bolt-action hunting rifles are some of the most common, low-priced, and easy to acquire rifles anywhere in the United States of America. They are generally well-built and capable of tackling whatever kind of hunting you need it to. Bolt-guns are also some of the most robust types of hunting rifle as well. Each version generally comes in a myriad of different calibers, and this enables them to be used for a number of different types of prey.
A bolt-action rifle is defined simply as any rifle that fires one round at a time, in between the shooter manually cycling the action on the rifle. Bolt-action rifles are among the most durable, reliable, accurate, and rugged rifles in existence. They have all of those qualities for one simple reason. They’re easy to make right, and hard to make wrong.
Semi-automatic rifles are also known as self-loading rifles. Every time the trigger is pulled, a cycle of operations begins. There are eight primary steps in this cycle. These steps are feeding, chambering, locking, firing, unlocking, extracting, ejecting, and cocking. An easy way to remember this is by remembering the sentence Funny Chicks Like Farting Under Extremely Easy Circumstances. We had another sentence we used in the military to remember this, but it’s not exactly safe for work.
Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself right now, What does this have to do with hunting rifles. I don’t blame you for thinking that. While the AR-15 amd AR=10 platforms can and do work very well for hunting, they are generally not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a hunting rifle. So, what gives?
Well, there are a solid number of hunting rifles out there that are indeed semi-automatic. Specifically in the small-game and varmint hunting space. Even more specifically the Ruger 10/22 semi-auto, which is an affordable long-time favorite of shooters around the world.
All of that said, there are a few draw-backs to having a semi-auto hunting rifle. While they’re battle-tested, and definitely proven by where we are now in the 21st century, the reliability and accuracy of a semi-auto rifle can sometimes come into question. Since a semi-automatic weapon relies on the eight steps of the cycle of operations, there is a margin of error that will always exist. That margin of error, according to Murphy, will inevitably crop up right when you have your target dead center of your cross-hairs.
Now that we’ve talked about the two primary types of hunting rifles in the modern-world, lets talk about some alternatives. Lever-action rifles from companies like Henry, and pump action shotguns or air-rifles definitely have their place. As do single and double barrel shotguns. However, I don’t think any of us want to stretch this article out to 5,000 words, so let’s talk about each briefly.
If you’re here and you’re brand new to this space, welcome. For the experienced guys, this section might not be super important to you. When you’re looking to get the best hunting rifle, there’s a few key things to consider. You already know a lot of it since you’ve read this far, but now we’re going to get a bit nitty and gritty. Understanding what brands exist, what their price points are, and who you can trust with your money to deliver an outstanding product is something that comes with time. Knowledge of who exists in the market is something that we can share with you pretty easily though.
While I can’t give you all of the answers, because since the time of this writing there’s probably been two dozen new companies that have popped up, I can tell you who the tried and true brands are.
Ruger was founded in 1949 by Alexander McCormick Sturm and William B. Ruger. Since their inception, they’re a company that has exceeded all expectations. They now make some of the finest hunting rifles that fit into the above categories anywhere in the market. On top of this, their rifles are known for their durability, reliability, accuracy, and their overall versatility. If you need a specific hunting rifle for a specific task, they probably have a rifle that fits the bill perfectly.
If you’re looking at a Ruger rifle, then you’re already in good hands. I also highly recommend any of their .22 caliber rifles, for a lot of shooters, this was their first firearm. With it being their first firearm, it was also probably their first love, and it most likely is the cause of their long-term love-affair with firearms all through their life.
Winchester. Do I really need to say more to convince you?
Winchester is a company that started in 1866, and it was founded by the legendary Oliver Fisher Winchester. The company started with the objective of innovating in the firearms world, and over the last century and a half, they have done that with every rifle they have ever produced. If you want to read more about the history of this legendary company, then I highly recommend checking out this link, which is an overall history of Winchester by the company themselves. No one can tell your story better than you, so I’ll let them do the talking.
With a Winchester rifle, you’re getting a solid rifle, every time. Recently, I reviewed the Winchester XPR Bolt-Action. It’s a well-made, low-cost hunting rifle that is perfect for most jobs. It comes in a variety of calibers, and we were able to really stretch the range out on it.
Winchester is another one of those rifle brands where I can confidently say you are looking in the right place if you’re looking at their products.
When I say Browning to a gun-person, a couple of images probably come to mind straight away. The M1911 semi-automatic pistol. A water-cooled .30 caliber machine gun. And last, but certainly not least, the M2. Browning .50 caliber machine gun. These are just three of the legendary weapon systems made by Browning, and two of those designs are still in use by militaries around the world today, and for good reason. Browning knows how to make a weapon system that will get the job done every-time. If you need a quick history lesson on Browning, here’s a link you can check out.
Now, you know that Browning can make a quality military-use weapon system. But what about hunting rifles? Well, I’m happy to report that Browning does indeed make some of the finest hunting rifles on the market. One of their latest and greatest designs is the Browning X-Bolt hunting rifle, which you can read a review of here. At the end of the day with Browning, they’re absolutely a company that you can trust to help you get food on the table this upcoming hunting season.
Buy in confidence.
I can already see it down in the comments section, and I’m still typing the article. “Josh, you didn’t mention my go-to hunting rifle brand, therefore you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Let me end this section here on a strong note. There are a ton of other great brands out there in the hunting rifle space. Every year new players enter the market and change the game forever, forcing the old-hats to innovate and think outside of the box. That is the beauty of a free-market.
While I may not have taken the time to write about how Steyr makes a phenomenal rifle in the Scout, or that Savage Arms has been changing the game year after year, that doesn’t mean they aren’t quality products worth looking into. It simply means that I think the brands mentioned above have the largest variety of hunting rifles that fit all budgets from top to bottom.
If you’ve been in this space for a while, then you already know a ton of great brands. Hell, some of those brands that you know, I may not have even heard about. For example, I didn’t know a thing about Blaser until I started researching the high-end spectrum of hunting rifles. Now, while I’m drooling over the Blaser I’ll probably never be able to afford, let me end this section on this.
Do thorough research on the brand of rifle you are looking to buy. Reputation is everything in the firearms industry, and if a company has a bad reputation it will be easy to uncover it and find future concerns for the rifle you’re eyeballing.
I cannot personally tell you the exact best time or place to buy your new deer gun. To say that I could would be foolish. However, I have bought a number of firearms throughout my life. Through all of those purchases, I have learned a thing or two about getting the best deal available to you. Saving money is always a bonus, because it allows you to buy more ammunition to become a more proficient shooter.
The first thing that I do when looking to buy a new gun is checkout all of the usual suspects to find a good deal. If I can find an amazing deal through those usual suspects, I generally make the purchase on the spot and have it shipped to my FFL. Fortunately for me, I have a good friend who is an FFL, and he generally hooks me up on the cheap for the transfer. If you don’t have a friend who is an FFL though, or if you’re in an area where no FFL is immediately available, I would highly recommend checking out Guns.com to find the nearest FFL to your address. Then, go make some friends.
Now, let’s say none of the above is an option for you. Your only option is to go to the local sporting goods store, and find a rifle there. If this is you, don’t worry, I know your pain. I lived in small-town Michigan for a long time, and didn’t always have a lot of resources to get me the firearms I wanted. Rule number one for that situation is to make sure you don’t buy at a time of high-demand. Example: COVID-19 outbreak, or one week before Deer Season opens up.
Follow some of that advice, and you’ll be good to go.
In order for you to pick up the best hunting rifle possible, regardless of your budget, you must know the basics. I’ve always been of the school of thought that brilliance begins with the basics. What that means is, if you don’t know what you’re looking for exactly, there’s a strong chance you could make a poor decision. If you can master the basic fundamentals of knowing what to look for when you purchase a hunting rifle, it will be a much easier process for you.
Now that you’ve read through this article, you should have a bit of a better understanding of those basics. The next step for you is to get out there and test some rifles out. There is no better way to do this than by getting out to the range and getting some trigger time with rifles you are looking at. You can do this by borrowing the rifle from a friend if they own it, or by renting the gun from a local gun range. There’s also a plethora of firearms reviews on the internet that come from incredibly trust-worthy sources. So, make sure you do your own research before you commit to that shiny new hunting rifle. Reading this was just step one.
As always though, that’s just the opinion of one shooter. I’ve purchased my fair share of hunting rifles over the years. And yes, I too have gotten a lemon or two in the process that burned me. Let us know down in the comments section if you’ve ever picked up a hunting rifle you absolutely hated. Also, if you have any other advice for people looking at new hunting rifles this season, leave a comment. The comments are my favorite part of all of this, because we have the combined experience of hundreds of shooters right at our finger-tips. Welcome to the information age.