Hunting rifle on sticks

Hunting 101. Your First Rifle.

Guns are our teeth and claws. To be fair, you don’t need to own a gun to hunt (see below), and there are many alternative ways to harvest game. Many people are enthusiastic about the traditional hunts with coursing dogs and birds of prey; bowhunting, especially in the USA and Canada, is one of the most popular outdoor pursuits; and in terms of bare efficiency nothing beats the old-fashioned line of gin traps or simple wire snares. But for most hunters a gun is an essential tool, the alpha and omega of hunting. Here are a few tips on getting your first rifle.

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A rifle is a weapon that fires a single projectile (a.k.a. a bullet), so that it hits with a definite spot, in the case of hunting – the vitals of the animal, at a considerable distance: up to 500-600 yards in the case of experienced mountain hunters. Professional snipers can reach out even farther, but 95% of hunters ought to limit themselves to 300-350. It is normally fired at a stationary, or slowly moving target; you can use a rifle to kill a sitting bird or a small game animal, but the principle object of rifle hunting are animals known as “big game”. While there’s a lot to be said for the old-fashioned way of starting with birds and animals like doves and rabbits, and then progressing to deer, bear and boar, the reality is that most modern hunters begin their hunting career with big game. And need a rifle.

Buying a new rifle – and we strongly recommend that, unless you really know how to tell a gun advertised as “in good condition” from a gun that actually is in good condition, your first guns should be brand-new – so, buying a new rifle has never been easier, and at the same time has never been harder. On the one hand, modern manufacturing technologies ensured that even the most affordable guns with the most affordable ammunition are just as reliable and shoot as well as, if not better than, the best guns from 50-70 years ago. On the other hand, with so many guns of roughly the same quality, it’s really difficult to choose just one.

Gun writers and magazines should be of help, but as far as beginners are concerned, they only add confusion. The problem is that the typical gun buyer they write for already has a small arsenal and needs to be convinced why the latest fantastic product is more fantastic than the previous one. This encourages gun writers to focus on subtle, minor, and sometimes imaginary differences and advantages, which are a bit like top speed of supercars. If, say, a Lamborghini can go 200 miles an hour, while a Corvette does “only” 195, it could win or lose a Le Mans race, but you’ll never notice the difference while driving under normal conditions. The same applies to guns.

This said, some choices are better than others. The best gun for you is the one that is well fitted to both your physique and the requirements of the hunts you’re going to partake. The problem is, when you’re only beginning, nobody knows what hunts are going to be your favorite – not even you. Therefore, you should start your firearms collection with something that is the most versatile.

Like any hand-held weapon, a rifle is a compromise between firepower and the limitations of a human body. There’s no such thing as too much firepower; it is the energy of the bullet that allows it to reach the animal, penetrate its body, and kill it. But, as Isaak Newton pointed out back when guns were still clumsy and primitive things, each action has an equal and opposite reaction, known in the gun world as “recoil”. The power that throws the bullet towards the target also throws the gun back to your shoulder. If you don’t want to suffer brain concussion and broken bones, the gun ought to be heavy enough. But if you make it too heavy, you’ll have problems carrying it around over hill and dale. In practical terms, a gun that weighs more than 10 lb. is very difficult to haul; better make it 8.

a hunter with a rifle
Lightweight composite stock and cannelured barrel of this rifle are examples of features that are good in themselves, but will hardly give an edge under average hunting conditions.

Other aspects of rifle design are also compromise-based. For example, the bigger and heavier the bullet, the more reliably it penetrates the animal body and kills it. But on the other hand, the lighter the bullet is, the faster it can leave the barrel, and the trajectory that it travels by looks less than an arc and more like a straight line. This provides a very important advantage – you’re less likely to miss because of miscalculating distance. And if you try to send the bullet too fast, as in so-called “Magnum” cartridges, you’ll have to burn a whole lot of powder, and that doesn’t only boost recoil, but also increases the pressure and temperature inside the barrel, which dramatically decrease the number of shots you can fire before the barrel is worn out.

Various rifle cartridges are optimized for different tasks. Some, meant for the biggest animals like Cape Buffalo, stress bullet weight, sacrificing muzzle velocity and the lightness of the weapon, making the rifle so heavy that in the golden days of the safari the “big guns” were carried behind the client by a special servant known as the “Gunbearer.” Others may, by contrast, choose a smaller bullet diameter (a.k.a caliber) and weight to achieve maximum starting velocity. But there are a few cartridges that strike a near optimum balance of all aspects of ballistics, and you should probably focus on one of those.

Our top choices in this category are the .30-06 and the .308 Winchester. With proper ammunition, they can be used on anything from prairie dogs to brown bears and moose. In fact, a well-placed bullet from either caliber will kill even any of the African “Big Five”, but that would require expert knowledge of your gun and the anatomy of the prey, which is why it’s not allowed today. On the other hand, these cartridges don’t wear out the barrel as much as some more powerful rounds, and the rifle to fire them can be made light enough without generating too much recoil.

Admitted, there are many calibers that can do the same, but the advantage of the .308 and .30-06 is their wide distribution. Walk into any gun store in the world, from posh “premises” of “best gun and rifle maker only” in London, England to a dusty blue-collar store in rural America, and from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski, Russia to Windhoek, Namibia, and you’ll likely find a wider choice of different brands and bullet types in .308 and .30-06 than in any other caliber. Which is another proof of the versality of the calibers.

As for the action, there are many beautiful and useful firearms designs. The best semiautomatics, like the Russian SKS and the American AR-15 combine sufficient reliability and best rate of fire. The American lever actions are sleek and handy. The double rifles for dangerous game are beautiful (but very expensive) examples of gunmaking art. But our recommendation for the beginner is a bolt-action rifle. These days it is the default hunting rifle design: it is strong, accurate, and simple enough to be made affordable and reliable at the same time.

As for specific companies and brands, all depends on you. Thankfully, we’re living in the good old days right now, when even the most affordable weapons are usually safe, accurate and reliable enough, and will last you long enough until you gain the basic skills and realize what your specific requirements to hunting guns are. There’s no need to spend a small fortune or high-end, custom weapons. However, beware of the lower-than-low priced “range ready” rifle and scope combos. While the rifles in such sets are usually OK, the scopes and mounts don’t always “hold their zero”: whether your rifle would still be shooting where you aim it after a couple of practice sessions and/or lugging it about is not guaranteed.

A hippo in a scope
A telescopic sight makes the target appear closer and stand out clearer, for a more precise shot

In fact, the scope is perhaps the most important part of your rifle. Humankind invented many different devises that help you align the rifle so that it will shoot where you want it to shoot: from the primitive, but lightweight and nearly infallible iron sights to the modern red-dot sights, and they all have their uses. But the default sight for any hunting rifle now is the scope, shortened for “telescopic sight”.

Like other parts of the rifle, the parameters of a scope are a compromise. The higher the magnification, the more accurate your aim can be, but on the other hand high magnification correlates to narrow field of vision, and with a narrow field of vision you may fail to find the animal, especially at a close range, in the scope. Variable-power scopes of about 2-7x or 3-9x are a good compromise that is usable for most hunting conditions, from driven hunts to mountain hunting, and while it may not be perfect for either, it’ll do until you figure out what you need.

Just don’t try to save on optics! More hunts have probably been ruined by scopes than any other part of a rifle. Good optics will show you the animal in the treacherous light of a misty evening when through the cheap optics you’ll only see a vague blur. Even more important is the ability of the scope to keep the reticle – the part that you use to actually aim at the target – in place. If it moves even slightly, because of shaking, falling, or sometimes just for no apparent reason, the rifle will be shooting quite a long way off where you think it does, resulting in a near certain miss.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that the most affordable rifle with a premium scope will serve you better than a premium rifle with the most affordable scope. Considering that a guided big-game hunt can easily cost a few thousand dollars, a few hundred that make the difference between the cheapest and the trustworthy are more than justified. Especially given that a good scope may outlast a few rifles. The rings and mount – the parts that secure the scope to the weapon – are no less important. Buy the best you can afford, and when in doubt, you may be wise to leave the mounting to a competent gunsmith.

A rifle with a telescopic sight
This classic European rifle has iron sights as backup, but the main sight is the scope

A bolt-action rifle chambered for .30-06 or a .308 Winchester and topped with a 2-7x or 3-9x variable power scope is not a weapon you’ll often meet in a hunting story – experienced professional writers typically prefer a more specialized weapon over an all-around one. But it will have you covered for most big-game hunting scenarios, and will last you at least until you’ve figured out what your preferred type and style of hunting is and what rifle and caliber are better suited for it. Even after that, it will still make a great rainy-day or backup gun, or may come useful when you need to loan something to your buddy.

And don’t forget that even if you currently can’t get yourself a rifle for any reason (e.g., you’re an expat in a country where only citizens can own a weapon), it doesn’t yet mean you can’t hunt. Many outfitters across the world offer a gun rental service to your clients. In fact, we even have a “gun rental” filter on our search engine. All the hunts you see below are rifle hunts with a gun rental option. Good luck!

 

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