We get many requests from new hunters for guidance on what rifle to buy for hunting purposes. The field is awash with many choices of both rifle brands and styles, as well as calibers. So, in response to those questions, I will offer up a few suggestions. But before I do, I want to lay a little truth on you.
The rifle, and the bullet are a distant second to one thing that will dictate your success. Your ability to shoot. Before all the rifle caliber debates can have any meaningful guidance, you, the hunter need to know that shot placement will carry the day. Being able to put the bullet, any bullet, where it will humanly harvest the game, is far and away the number one predictor of how your hunt ends. If you are not at the range, either training or practicing, then the best rifle and bullet combination will serve you not good. I will now get off my soap box and on to the matter at hand.
I have nothing against auto-loading rifles. I own them and have used them for work purposes and recreation. However, for hunting I generally steer people towards manual rifles such as the bolt gun and lever action, with the majority of the time, being the bolt gun for a larger selection of available calibers.
Next comes the topic of brands. Here we are treading in a minefield. People get very possessive about their favorite brand of rifle and any detractors are seen as heretics. To avoid getting more than my normal amount of hate mail, I will share some brands I have experience with, that I would not hesitate to purchase. These include, in no particular order, Winchester, Ruger, Tikka, Sako (which is really just an expensive and better finished Tikka), Remington, Mossberg, Browning, Kimber, and CZ. My suggestion to the new buyer is to go to your local gun store and handle the rifles to see which best fits you. Examine the finish. Work the action. Look at the safety mechanisms. When you find one or two that seem to fit, talk to people who own them and get feedback. Look on the Internet (which can be a frustrating source of both positives and negatives on any one brand) and see what end users are saying. Sometimes the price of a rifle does not corollate with the level of accuracy you get. I have seen many of the new Ruger American bolt rifles shoot as well or better than the Kimbers which easily go for three times as much. What you buy with the Kimber is not a better gun if accuracy is your only metric. You buy a rifle that has been hand finished, will have quality stocks that don’t flex, and an overall feeling of quality. Personally, I would prefer to use the cost difference for a quality scope and ammunition to practice (see paragraph two for reference).
On the topic of optics, do not skimp here. If you decide to go with a magnified optic, such as a rifle scope, get the best scope you can afford. The difference is durability (scopes, despite their advancements in manufacturing) are still not as robust as the rifle it is mounted on. Better quality scopes will have clearer glass which will allow for better viewing. Additionally, the coatings and high-quality glass will give the users more available light, thus extending their hunting time further into dawn and dusk, which happens to be when many game animals are most active.
Let us pause for a moment while I don an asbestos suit.
Calibers choices abound. And if I thought people get particular about their favorite rifle brand, talking smack about their favorite caliber can be akin to bad mouthing their mother. So, let me say this. For me, I stick to standard calibers, and for any North American game animal, the .30 calibers such as 30-06, or 308 will do the job. I like tried and true calibers that are well represented in the stream of commerce. I want to be able to walk into a Walmart or hardware store in any part of America and buy ammunition for my rifle. I don’t disparage the more exotic calibers and I have been known to hunt with some of them. But the bulk of my hunting is the tried and true 30-06. It works for everything from antelope to elk and bear and I would not hesitate to use it for moose. I’ve shot pigs with it and kudu with it and many animals in between. It works. As for the bullet selection, I live in California and I hunt in this state as well. We are required to use lead free ammunition. There are a few choices but I find the Barnes TSX or TTSX bullets to be the most readily available. These shoot well out of my rifles and they do the job down range. I cannot ask for anything more. They tend to be more expensive than lead bullets but I am disinclined to run afoul of the Game Warden. So, I zero my rifle with these rounds. I practice with cheaper stuff, and hunt with the good stuff.
If anyone is wondering, my go to hunting rifle is a Ruger (in the aforementioned 30-06) with a Leupold scope. I have taken a fair bit of game with this combination so I stick with it.
Once you have your new set up, get to the range and zero it and practice. We can help you out at California Tactical Academy. We stock a large selection of ammunition in popular calibers and we usually have a good supply of the Barnes ammunition for California compliance. You can shoot as far out as 1000 yards on our public range and if you want training, we got you covered. Don’t spend time and money for a rifle and hunt, without getting the proper training and practice. The shot of a lifetime doesn’t care how much you spent. Just how well prepared you are. And remember, nothing replaces marksmanship and proper shot placement. We will see you at the range.
About the writer
Mike Lazarus holds 27 years experience as law enforcement officer. 19 years SWAT including sniper, assaulter, team sergeant. FBI certified firearm instructor. MP5 and Sub Machine gun instructor. Defensive tactics instructor. Police Academy instructor. 13 years US Army with multiple overseas deployments. Airborne, SOTIC, PSD, SRT, small arms armorer, various other military schools. Faculty member, California State University, Northridge. Faculty member, Ventura College. Hobbies include outdoor sports, hunting, competitive shooting.
Check out our Hunter Education Follow-Up Class on August 26th.