When it comes to selecting the best rifles for hunting — factory rifles included — today’s hunters never had it so good.
My first “real” deer rifle was an old pre-’64 Winchester Model 70 chambered in .270 that was my dad’s pride and joy. He bought it when he got out of the navy after serving in WWII and gave it to me when I was in high school in the late 1960s. I could not have been prouder. Topped with a Lyman Alaskan 2.5X scope and loaded with factory Winchester ammo with the 130-grain Silvertip bullet, it could put three shots in a 1 ¾-inch cluster at 100 yards.
Back then, that was considered very accurate. Today, pretty much any off-the-shelf factory rifle in the moderately-priced category — around $500, more or less — will give you MOA accuracy or better if you take the time to find the factory ammunition it prefers.
Sadly, some sleazebag stole dad’s rifle when I was in college. I needed a new one and wanted something I could hunt deer and elk with — back in the late 1970s, the .270 was considered quite marginal for elk — I purchased a Belgian-made Browning BAR chambered for the 7mm Rem. Mag. And I did, indeed, kill my first bull elk with it in 1978, as well as several mule deer, whitetails, and pronghorn.
As the years have gone by, I’ve owned a ton of different rifles, both production factory guns and a handful of custom rifles, chambered in cartridges ranging from the .22 LR to the .375 H&H Magnum. Some have had beautiful wooden stocks, some workmanlike synthetic stocks. I’ve had guns with barrels shaved down to save weight, and heavy bull barrels built for maximum accuracy. Some have had trigger jobs, custom bedding, aftermarket recoil pads, you name it.
After all this, I’ve learned that, for maximum efficiency, a hunting rifle should be a tool designed to meet the specific needs of its owner in the field. It needs to fit the shooter, which means that you might want to have the factory stock cut down or lengthened a bit so that when the gun is brought up to the shoulder, the cheek is firmly on the cheekpiece and the head automatically in the proper position to see through the optic.
Bolt action rifles dominate the big game hunting world. Although, the MSR (Modern Sporting Rifle) is growing in popularity. Lever actions, double rifles, and single-shot guns have their place. However, it is the bolt action rifle most people still turn to for general-purpose big game hunting.
Bolt action rifles are fed cartridges from one of two types of magazines, removable or fixed. Removeable box-type magazines allow you to hit a button and drop the entire magazine out of the rifle, making both loading and unloading convenient. Fixed magazines cannot be removed; to unload the gun, you have to work the bolt and eject each cartridge separately. Both work fine and dandy.
Rifle stocks come in two basic types – traditional wood, and stocks made from synthetic materials, first introduced in the 1960s by California custom rifle maker Chet Brown. His stocks were built out of fiberglass, and competition shooters loved them since they do not shrink or swell up like wood can, which can put pressure on the action or barrel and adversely affect accuracy. Synthetic stocks today are made from lots of materials, including fiberglass, Kevlar, graphite, boron, urethane, and plastics, some hand-laid, others injection-molded. There are also wood laminate stocks, whereby wood consisting of many thin layers of wood bonded together at high pressures with epoxy, resulting in a dense, stable composite.
A common misconception is that synthetic-stocked rifles are inherently more accurate than wood-stocked rifles. This is not true; accuracy depends on barrel quality, bedding quality, and a host of other variables. It is true that a synthetic stock rifle is less likely to change its point of impact in extreme weather, and that synthetic materials are a bit stronger than wood.
Which is better? It’s really a personal choice, though when hunting in wet environments, I prefer a synthetic stock.
The days of “long tom” 26-inch barrels are gone. Modern propellants burn completely in shorter tubes, with bolt-action rifle barrels usually coming 22- to 24-inches long. I personally like 22-inch barrels in most of my bolt guns, though I have some ultralight mountain rifles with 20-inch barrels. This is a length that makes it easy to pack through brush and up and down mountains if need be, with a nice balance. Barrels come in different contours, ranging from No. 1, which is a light sporter, up to No. 6, which is a heavy bull. No. 2 and 3 are standard, No. 4 is a heavy barrel with some taper, often found on varmint rifles, and No. 5 and 6 are bull barrels with little or no taper. Basically, the thicker and heavier the barrel, the less it heats up as you continue to shoot, which of course, can affect accuracy. For most hunting rifles, the No. 2 and 3 contours will get it done.
For some reason, many hunters overlook the importance of their rifle’s trigger, which is odd, since a crisp, clean trigger break is significant to accurate shooting. Most factory rifles come with triggers that can be adjusted to break somewhere between 2-7 lbs. The standard adjustment weight range is 3-5 lbs. I like my triggers to break right at 3 lbs. This weight doesn’t take a lot of squeezing to fire the rifle, but it’s not so light that it’s easy to set off inadvertently.
If you own a rifle with a trigger that has some trigger “creep,” that is, it doesn’t break cleanly and crisply, an aftermarket trigger replacement is money well spent. This might set you back a couple of Franklins, but in my mind, it is money well spent.
An often overlooked aspect of the best hunting rifles is their relationship with their ammo in terms of accuracy. A quality hunting rifle is only as good as the riflescope and ammo that accompanies it.
Luckily, the quality of today’s factory ammunition. Back in the day, I handloaded a lot, both to achieve maximum accuracy but also because premium-class hunting bullets like the Nosler Partition were not available in factory ammo. Today, the world’s best hunting bullets can be found in ammo that is loaded at the factory with modern, upgraded propellants to consistencies not possible decades ago. If you want to handload, go ahead – and I still do, for a couple of my rifles – but the odds are, you can find everything you’ll ever need in factory ammunition produced by one of today’s well-known manufacturers.
Today’s factory ammo is so good, there really isn’t a reason for all but the most persnickety shooter to handload. Bullet choices range from good to great, and the “premium” bullets that were only available to handloaders back in the day are all available in factory loads today.
The wise hunter will begin his search for a load by first choosing the right bullet type for the task at hand. Long-range shooters have different requirements than those shooting at under 100 yards, for example. There will be several different bullet makes and weights loaded by different manufacturers that meet those criteria; buy a box of each, head to the range, and see what shoots most accurately in your rifle. Keep a logbook of your range testing so you can refer to it at a later date.
No matter where you hunt, or what rifle you hunt with, a high-quality riflescope is paramount with regard to its overall accuracy.
There’s no reason to hunt with a fixed power scope these days. Variable power scopes are precise, rugged, and will not fail you – as long as you stay away from bargain-basement products. For general-purpose big game hunting, something in the 3-9X and 2.5-10X class are perfect. If you have to stretch your shooting a bit, something in the 3-12X and 4-16X range is a good call.
The scope’s tube diameter is important. Standard American scopes have one-inch tubes, and they are great. Today you can also buy scopes with larger 30mm tubes, and I even have a couple with 36mm tubes. These do allow more light to reach the eye, but the tradeoff is a much larger and heavier scope.
Also, remember that the larger the objective lens, the more daylight it will gather, making it easier to see on the cusp of daylight. I personally don’t like scopes with an objective lens smaller than 40mm. A 50mm objective lens is as big as you want to go.
- Action: Bolt
- Stock: Synthetic
- Barrel: No. 2 or 3 Contour
- Trigger: Aftermarket Replacement
- Ammo: Quality Factory Ammo
- Optics: Variable 3-12X – 4-16X
Above all else, the best hunting rifles are ones that fit the shooter well, and that the shooter is comfortable shooting in any field situation presented.