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How to Choose Your First Hunting Rifle

Gun Buying Primer

How to Choose Your First Hunting Rifle
Brittany Boddington on the sticks with her Kimber 7mm-08, her first and still her favorite rifle.

So, you’re going to take the plunge and get a centerfire hunting rifle. There are plenty of good choices, both new and used, and some amazing bargains. But first, let’s ask (and answer) two critical questions: Who is the rifle for and, what is the purpose? Before we get to that, allow me one major assumption. We’re going to talk about a first centerfire rifle, but I’m going to assume that, whomever this new rifle is intended for, that person has a decent .22. Always and forever, the .22 rimfire is the great teacher. It’s the cartridge we start with and, as bad habits creep up—often induced by new and unexpected recoil—the .22 rimfire is the cartridge we return to, almost the only way to lick those bad habits and get back on track.

The Primary User

Who is the intended user? Adult men and women join the ranks of hunters every year. So maybe the rifle is for you or for your spouse or partner. Maybe it’s for one of your kids or grandkids?

Whomever it’s really for, let’s consider physical stature. One size doesn’t fit all. Even if it did, we all have different recoil tolerances. It’s not necessary (or desirable) to explore the limits, but recoil that I, at 190 lbs., find acceptable may be dangerously objectionable to a person with half the body mass. Recoil is just one concern and perhaps not the most important. Gun fit is essential and ties together with power because a poor-fitting rifle will have more felt recoil. A smaller, lighter person probably needs a shorter stock, perhaps a higher comb, and may be more comfortable with a lighter rifle. This point is not subjective: Lighter rifles kick more. The quickest and easiest ways to reduce recoil: Add gun weight or go to a less powerful cartridge. Felt recoil is subjective, depending somewhat on position and personal determination, but a properly fitting stock may enable shooting a more powerful cartridge in perfect comfort.

Making It Fit

Young people can grow at an alarming rate, so a stock that fits now may be too short in just a year or so. The most common situation is the original stock is too long. “Standard” length of pull (LOP) is 13.75 inches for most manufacturers. At 5’9” I’m pretty much Joe Average; the standard LOP fits me perfectly, but a six-footer might need a quarter-inch more stock. Donna, my wife, is six inches shorter; her ideal LOP is about 13 inches. Most manufacturers offer “youth” models with shorter stocks, usually with LOP of 12.5 inches, which is pretty short.


Natalee Stephenson with axis buck
Joseph Stephenson set up an AR with reflex sight and a 7.62x39mm upper for his daughter, Natalee, to start hunting with. She took this fine axis buck at about 60 yards with one perfect shot.

Any wooden stock can be easily shortened by taking a slice off the buttstock and resetting the recoil pad. If you save the slice it’s easy (and not too unsightly) to put it back in after the youngster grows out of the shorter stock. Synthetic stocks may be hollow or foam-filled, so typically they aren’t as easy to shorten and restore as wood. However, there are options.


Savage’s AccuStock comes with inserts for length of pull and height of comb, while Mossberg’s bolt-action Patriot Youth model is supplied with multiple LOP inserts. Height of comb can be a major problem, especially with the larger scopes popular today requiring higher mounting. The simplest answer is probably a strap-on cheekpiece. I think they’re ugly as sin, but absent an adjustable comb, a properly installed cheekpiece may be the best way to ensure a comfortable and consistent cheek weld, which also helps reduce felt recoil.

Actions

The many basic bolt actions are probably the most likely choices: Mossberg Patriot, Remington 783, Ruger American, Savage 110, T/C Compass, Weatherby Vanguard, and others. Prices and options vary, but it’s almost shocking how little a basic bolt-action rifle costs today, all set to go right out of the box, and they shoot.

The basic bolt-actions are probably the most affordable options, with several available in mirror-image left-hand versions. There are other arguments for the bolt-action besides cost. A bolt action is not “safer” than other action types. However, bolt actions offer the widest choice in cartridges. Not unimportant, it is extremely easy to visually check a bolt-action to see if it is loaded/unloaded, and it’s easy to remove the bolt, instantly rendering the firearm safe and inoperative.

However, the bolt action isn’t the only option. Single-shots, especially break-open designs, also have appeal. Last time I was at the Y.O. Ranch, young Natalee Stephenson’s parents had an interesting concept for her first deer rifle. Her dad, Joseph, fixed her up with an AR. Adjustable stocks are common in ARs, and he put a reflex sight on the Picatinny rail. Although legal in many areas, I’m not excited about the .223 for deer-sized game, especially for beginners. However, there are other cartridges that fit the AR-15 action. Joseph chose an upper in 7.62x39mm. Natalee got a good, close shot and flattened her first deer, a big axis buck.


Allow me one plea from the left-handed minority: If this first centerfire hunting rifle is for a left-handed person, please make it a true left-hand action or a genuinely ambidextrous action. The reason is not convenience and certainly not because I’m trying to sell left-hand actions. Rather, it’s a matter of safety: In the however unlikely event of a case-head rupture or other catastrophic failure, all actions that eject to the right are designed to vent hot gases and shrapnel to the right, away from a right-handed shooter’s face and eyes. Similarly, a true left-hand action that ejects to the left vents the bad stuff to the left, away from the southpaw shooter’s face and eyes. While it’s true that catastrophic failures are rare, it only takes once, so please keep this in mind if your primary user is a southpaw.

Power Packages

Success is hard to argue with, and the 7.62x39 Russian filled the bill nicely: minimal recoil, good accuracy, and adequate power out to moderate range. I wouldn’t have thought of the AR (or the 7.62x39), but after all, we start our recruits with ARs, and many have done little shooting prior to boot camp. My generation tends to assume a bolt action for a first hunting rifle, so I haven’t forgotten Joseph Stephenson’s choice. Depending on game to be hunted, other AR cartridges could include the 6.8mm SPC or the 6.5mm Grendel. Or, in the states where straight-wall cartridges are used in lieu of shotgun slugs, Winchester’s new .350 Legend is certainly in the running, offering plenty of power with surprisingly mild recoil.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a youngster or a grown-up. What is needed is enough power to get the job done, without undue recoil. So, what’s the job?


An American hunting rifle must be deer-capable, right? The .22 centerfires are legal in most places today, but I see them as expert tools, not for beginners. My first game animals, mule deer and pronghorns, were taken with a .243 Winchester. Since its introduction in 1955, the .243 has been the premier “crossover” varmint and big-game cartridge and perhaps the most common choice for a first centerfire. It is still a fine choice, accurate, easy to shoot, and amazingly effective for its size. If the hunting rifle is intended for deer, we could stop right there, although I suppose we could include other 6mms and versatile .25s like the .257 Roberts and .25-06.

Our big-game landscape has changed. Some breed of deer is usually most important, but out West elk populations are higher than ever. In some places, feral hogs now exceed deer in hunter participation. Plenty of elk are taken annually with .243s, always aided by shot placement, which the .243 makes easy. However, the .243 isn’t enough gun for elk and, in my opinion, very marginal for really big boars.

Many of you may consider this a silly discussion. Just get a 6.5mm Creedmoor and be done; then you’ve got enough gun for pronghorns to pachyderms, at all ranges and under all circumstances, or so the masses say.

Yes, the little 6.5mm Creedmoor is awesome for long-range target work and great for deer and deer-sized game. However, the 6.5mm Creedmoor is not America’s only hunting cartridge. I started both my daughters on wild hogs with the .260 Remington. In Brittany’s case, the 6.5mm Creedmoor didn’t yet exist; with Caroline, several years later, the fledgling Creedmoor was almost unknown. Their .260s worked fine, but I switched both of them to 7mm-08 Remington because ammo was more available, and I believed the 7mm-08 was more versatile.

Today the Creedmoor is probably more available, but I remain convinced the 7mm-08 is a more versatile hunting cartridge and a better choice as a “first hunting rifle,” especially for youngsters and women of smaller stature.

Recoil of the 6.5 Creedmoor, .260 Remington, and 7mm-08 are about the same, and 140-grain bullets are 140-grain bullets. However, the 7mm-08 is loaded a bit faster, has greater frontal area (.284 versus .264), and is available with heavier bullets. Like the Creedmoor and .260, the 7mm-08 fits into short-actions. This is not important to me, and perhaps not to you, but for smaller people it makes a difference in both gun weight and handiness. For me (and maybe for you), we could forget all these short modern cartridges and make a strong case for the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser, 7x57 Mauser, and, perhaps best of all, the .270 Winchester: Mild recoil, plenty of speed, and plenty of power for game up to elk.

However, the .270’s necessity for a .30-06-length action, though not a problem for me (and perhaps not for you) is a drawback for youngsters and petite women. Which takes me right back to the 7mm-08. So, why not the .308 Winchester? Well, that depends on a person’s recoil tolerance. The .308 is a powerful cartridge, about 97 percent of a .30-06. Since the .308 will be housed in a short action with (usually) less total gun weight, it kicks about the same as a .30-06. If you don’t care about action length, consider the .270 Winchester. If you do, look at the 7mm-08. Both offer huge performance with little pain.

Best Choice?

There’s no standard answer, and perfection is elusive. Too light and it’s gonna kick—and also be unsteady in impromptu field positions. Too heavy and it’s gonna wear him or her down. Too long and a short person will have trouble controlling muzzle direction; too short and you’re going to sacrifice velocity and downrange energy.

Finally shamed into joining the “Creedmoor Club,” we have a Mossberg Patriot 6.5mm Creedmoor on hand, stainless/synthetic. To some degree, total weight can be controlled by scope and mounts. I had a high-magnification scope on this rifle for target use, and total weight with sling was (I should have guessed) right at nine pounds. Without scope, total weight with fluted barrel and synthetic magazine is 6.5 pounds. With alloy mounts and a trim scope, I can get it out the door at 7.5 pounds. I think this is just about right for a “ready to go” weight. With sensible choices in scopes and mounts, most of today’s affordable and accurate basic bolt actions can be held to about this weight, heavy enough to keep recoil manageable and light enough to carry. It’s too early to determine what size our two young grandsons might be when they’re ready. Or, at this stage, if they’ll be right- or left-handed. I figure this 6.5mm Creedmoor is a good rifle to hang onto for them. If it were just chambered to 7mm-08, I figure it would be darn near perfect.

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