If you’re a beginning hunter, one of the first things you’ll want to do is get a hunting rifle (unless you intend to hunt birds, in which case you’ll need a shotgun). Choosing the right rifle is possibly the biggest and most important decision you’ll make in your hunting career. Unfortunately, it also can be one of the most difficult. This article will try to make it easier.
It’s sensible to choose your cartridge before you go rifle shopping. The following short article will get you started in this process:
You’ll want to do additional research before finalizing a decision, but this should point you in the right direction.
An early decision you’ll have to make is what kind of action you want in your rifle. The “action” is the part of the rifle that handles the loading, firing, and unloading of ammunition. While there are several kinds of rifle actions available; these seem to be the most popular for hunting:
- bolt action. A bolt action is almost certainly the most common action in hunting rifles. In simplest terms, a solid cylinder of metal (the “bolt”) is slid forward and locked down to secure a cartridge in the gun’s chamber. Bolt actions are strong and reliable, as well as visually appealing. If they have a drawback, it might be that it takes awhile to become fast at ejecting a spent case and reloading a new round.
- semi-automatic action. Once a semi-automatic rifle’s magazine is loaded, it will take care of reloading itself. This represents a big advantage for a quick follow-up shot in the event that the first shot didn’t do the job (and trust me, this will happen to you). Early models of semi-automatic rifles drew some criticism for their lack of reliability (meaning that they might jam or otherwise malfunction at just the wrong time), but the modern offerings seem to do fine.
- lever action. This is the kind of rifle you may have seen John Wayne twirling in some of his cowboy movies. Pulling the lever up locks a cartridge into the chamber, while pulling the lever down opens the chamber and ejects the spent case. Lever action rifles are reliable and fun to use. Some people will tell you that they’re less accurate than a bolt-action rifle, and while this may be true, I wouldn’t let it worry me, as the difference is pretty minor for hunting purposes.
- pump action. Pump actions are more common in shotguns than rifles, but such rifles can be found. The pump is usually actuated by the forestock, which you slide back and forth to cycle the ammunition. Like lever actions, pumps are probably somewhat more intuitive to use than a bolt action. Pump action rifles occasionally get criticized for lack of strength, but provided that you’re buying a reputable brand (more on this later), this is someone else’s problem.
All in all, I’m inclined to recommend a semi-automatic action rifle as a first hunting gun, mainly because they’re simply easier to use than the other styles. But a bolt action will work fine, and there’s a certain cachet to them.
The important decisions behind you, you’ll now want to decide what kind of finish you want on the gun. The choices for the finish on the metals are:
- bluing (either glossy or flat). Bluing (which is really black) is a chemical treatment of high-carbon steel that inhibits rust. Bluing is the traditional choice, but this is probably mostly because they didn’t have stainless steel back in the old days.
- stainless steel. Slightly more expensive (usually) than blue finish, stainless steel is a more practical alternative. Bear in mind, however, that buying a stainless gun doesn’t let you off the hook for proper gun care. Cleaning is still a must and even stainless steel will rust if you neglect it for long enough.
- Parkerizing. Parkerized guns have an electro-chemical treatment of the steel that (like bluing) inhibits rust, and (unlike bluing) reduces wear on sliding pieces. Parkerizing (which is actually a trademarked term) has been very popular with military guns for several decades, and is a viable alternative finish for your rifle.
The material in, and finish of, stock is also something you’ll need to decide on. The most common choices are:
- walnut. Walnut is the traditional wood used in gun stocks. In years past, the wood was treated with tung (or similar) oil to provide a strong, water-resistant finish, but in recent years, most walnut stocks are coated with some form of polyurethane. Most people consider walnut stocks to be the most aesthetic choice.
- laminate. Laminate stocks are basically a very high-quality plywood (though the laminate stock makers will flay me for this choice of words!). Laminate stocks are probably a little more durable than walnut, but by the same token, they are also a little heavier.
- synthetic. Synthetic stocks, usually black in color, are made of a variety of materials. They represent the lowest-maintenance alternative.
The choice of finish is really up to you. I personally feel that guns should have walnut stocks and blued metal, but…I’ve been known to be rather opinionated about such things. It’s your gun, so decide what you like best.
We are blessed to live in a time when there are many, many suppliers of high-quality, affordable firearms. It would be absolutely pointless (as well as well beyond the scope of this article) to try to rank the major rifle makers. Originally, I planned to mention a few of the biggest names, but I decided that probably wasn’t necessary. If you have a question about a specific gun maker, ask around, or feel free to send me an email.
Traditional advice for gun buying is to go to a gun shop, try out a bunch of rifles and choose the one you like best. To this, I have but two words:
The sad reality, in this age of ten-day waiting periods and liability disclaimers stamped all over a gun, is that most gun shops aren’t letting anything out the door until it’s officially owned by someone else. In other words, you’re going to buy before you try. The best you can hope to do is to find someone with a gun similar to what you’re interested in and see if they’ll let you try shooting it. If you join a gun club, your chances of doing this successfully go way up.
On the topic of new vs. used: I am a big fan of buying used guns, provided that they have been adequately maintained. In round numbers, you’ll probably spend 60% of what an equivalent new gun would cost, which is a pretty good discount for a few dings and nicks. This being said, however, don’t believe someone who tells you that “they don’t build ‘em like they used to.” Where guns are concerned this is nonsense: modern manufacturing processes result in far greater quality control than was possible even a decade ago. A gun you buy today will be as well-made as any.
Regarding where to buy, you have to find your “comfort level.” I have bought several used hunting rifles from private parties found through the Internet, and I’ve been very pleased with all of them. In each case, though, I was taking a chance of buying from an unscrupulous seller, a risk that I decided I’m willing to take. If this happens to you, you’ll have little practical recourse, so…decide what your level of risk tolerance is before you do this. If you decide that you are willing to buy online, your choices will go up dramatically, and you’ll probably save some money. You will pay a shipping fee (probably about $30 for a rifle) and you’ll need the seller to send the gun to an FFL (Federal Firearms Licensee), for which there will be a small fee (should be about $50 but be sure to ask) associated with that, so factor that into your decision-making.
I hope that I haven’t overwhelmed you with the information in this article. I’ve tried to provide some guidelines here that will help make your selection easier, but the real decision making is, of course, up to you. Have fun with it, take your time, and, as always, feel free to contact me here at ScopedIn if you have any questions.
And remember: no true hunter is happy with only one rifle!
Postscript: those who wish to learn a little about selecting optics for their new hunting rifle are encouraged to read this article on scopes.