There are multitudes of rifles and scopes on the market. So, how do you pick the right one? Choosing the right hunting rifle takes time, patience, and the ability to answer three critical questions.
by Scott Haugen
I field a lot of questions about rifles. Most of those questions go something like this: I’m new to hunting. What rifle should I get? Another common one is: I’m going on a mule deer hunt. What rifle would be best?” And then there’s: I’m looking for one rifle that does it all. What would you suggest? Or, I don’t like recoil, so what’s the best rifle for big game hunting? Or, I hunt whitetails but would like to hunt deer and elk out West. What rifle should I get? The questions go on and on.
If you’re looking to get a big game rifle, start by asking yourself these three questions.
What’s your budget?
Will you invest in multiple rifles in the future or are you looking for one all-around caliber you’ll rely on for years?
How often will you hunt with the rifle?
My buddy’s daughter wanted to start big game hunting two years ago. She’s in her early 20s and loves fishing and the outdoors. We all went on a cow elk hunt. A few days before the hunt, the young lady went to a local sporting goods store and picked up a .30-06 fitted with a scope on sale for under $400. She sighted it in — she had done a lot of target shooting in her life with .22s — and felt comfortable. On day one of the hunt, she made a perfect, one-shot kill on a cow elk. She did the same this past season. This setup was a good choice and an excellent buy for her. She goes on one hunt a year and provides her family with all the big-game meat they need.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum — a retired buddy who goes on multiple big game hunts a year. He wanted a quality rifle, so he had one custom-built. He chose a .300 Win. Mag. outfitted with a scope, and his total bill was a tick under $8K. Money wasn’t an issue for him, and the caliber was perfect for his adventures. With this rifle/scope combo, my buddy can hunt anything in North America except for coastal brown bears. Coastal brown bears require something bigger.
The scope should be factored into the budget when budgeting for a new rifle. Rifle scopes can run anywhere from $100 to thousands of dollars. Regarding quality scopes, the better they are, the more expensive they get, almost always.
Ensure it fits when picking out a hunting rifle at the local gun shop. It must have the correct length of pull for your body. The length of pull is the distance from the trigger to the butt of the rifle that nestles into your shoulder when shooting. If the rifle is too short, getting hit in the face by the scope when you shoot the gun is a concern, especially when aiming uphill. If the gun is too long, accuracy can be compromised, for several reasons. To find the perfect fitting rifle, place the butt of the rifle in the crook of your elbow. Next, fold your forearm around the stock, letting the butt rest on your lower bicep. Next, put your index finger on the trigger. The stock is too long if your finger doesn’t reach the trigger. If your finger wraps around the trigger, past the second joint, it’s too short. I like a length of pull where the tip of my index finger rests on the trigger, as this helps with a steady, consistent trigger pull, thus optimizing shot accuracy.
Some rifles allow fitting adjustments via an adjustable stock, and some rifles that are too short can sometimes be fitted with aftermarket recoil pads that make them longer.
When picking a caliber that’s right for you, remember that proper shot placement is more important than a big, powerful rifle. While a .300 Win. or .30-06 Sprg. will drop deer-sized and even larger game in their tracks; they come with recoil and can be heavy. If deer are all you’re going to hunt, consider going with a smaller caliber rifle, one in the .270 Win. range. My wife’s favorite deer rifle is a .260 Nosler, one she and our sons killed a lot of deer with when they were growing up.
If you will hunt elk or moose one day, a .300 Win. Mag or 7mm Rem. Mag are great, all-around calibers. Then again, I’ve seen plenty of elk and moose cleanly killed with .270s because the shot placement was perfect.
The .30-06 is still one of the most versatile calibers ever created. A buddy took all of North America’s big game with his trusty .30-06, including brown bear. Brown bears are unique beasts. A .375 H&H is a solid go-to if they’re on your list.
Also, when picking out a gun, think of the terrain you’ll be hunting in. Hunting whitetails from a treestand differs from hunting open-country mule deer or pronghorn.
For the past 23 years, I’ve made my living by hunting and writing about it, even hosting some TV shows. Due to my work, I’ve used dozens of rifles and scopes on hundreds of big game hunts worldwide. Before every hunt, I sighted in and shot each gun. I mounted nearly all the scopes myself and became intimately familiar with the operation of each rifle. Sometimes I’d only use a rifle on one hunt before retiring it, and sometimes that rifle followed me on multiple hunts for a range of big game species.
A couple of years ago I grew tired of mounting scopes, sighting-in rifles, and testing loads to see what shot best. There are so many good guns and versatile calibers out there; I just wanted one gun that did it all. So, I decided to have a custom rifle built.
I wanted one rifle with which I could hunt every big game animal in North America except the coastal brown bear. I’d been on multiple brown bear hunts and took a massive boar one year that will never be bettered. I’m done hunting coastal brown bears. Inland grizzlies, however, are still on my list as I love hunting them, so I sought a caliber that could effectively put one of those down.
I wanted an efficient, all-around caliber in a lightweight rifle and scope that would allow me to shoot out to 1,000 yards. I’m not getting any younger, so I wanted a lightweight rifle I could easily pack in the mountains. My choice was a 28 Nosler. I asked Curt Mendenhall, a noted custom gunmaker in my area, of Curt’s Custom Guns in Oakland, Oregon, to build it. I’d shot Curt’s guns before and loved everything about them.
Curt built my custom 28 Nosler rifle using a full titanium Pierce action. The Benchmark match grade barrel sits in an MPI kevlar stock which weighs only 15 ounces. Hawkins Precision aluminum rings are machined with a 25 MOA to extend the range. A Triggertech rounds out the build. The bare rifle–before scope and sling–weighs 5.5 pounds.
I chose a Trijicon AccuPoint 4-16×50 in a duplex crosshair with a green dot reticle for a scope. I’ve shot Trijicon scopes for nearly 20 years and love their reliability and performance in the wide range of conditions I’ve used them in worldwide.
The scope features a capped elevation adjuster, scope caps, and a dust cover. I went with a slender, custom-made, woven version sling created by Oregon Paracord. I prefer a narrow sling over a wider version, as the thin one rides well on my shoulders. My sling is less than an inch wide, and the total weight of my entire setup is 7.25 pounds.
I shoot 175-grain Nosler AccuBond Long-Range factory ammo moving at 2,900 FPS. I’ve been elated with this bullet’s performance on elk and numerous other big game animals. With a 100-yard zero, this load shoots -2.4″ at 200 yards, -9.2″ at 300 yards, and -20.8″ at 400 yards. I’m a stickler for accurate ammo, and this one is perfect.
Taped on my rifle are two yardage charts. One is taped to the inside of my rear scope cap, showing the yardage holdover of 400 yards. The other is taped to the side of my gun and shows all the adjustments out to 1,200 yards.
No matter what rifle, caliber, and scope combination you decide on, you must be able to shoot it confidently and accurately. If you don’t like shooting it because it kicks too hard, it’s not the right gun for you. If you settle in to pull the trigger, hoping you hit the mark, either that rifle’s not the one, or you need to spend more time practicing on the range, finding a load that performs better.
Once you find a rifle with a perfect fit, you’ll know it, and everything about it will be comfortable. You’ll be drilling targets with impressive accuracy, and when it comes time to shoot an animal, you’ll do it with precision and no hesitation.