Choosing a Hunting Rifle
By Bob Beers
To intelligently select a hunting rifle, I discovered that the beginning deer hunter/shooter (me, in this case) must first choose the cartridge that he or she wants the rifle to shoot. Not all cartridges are available in all rifles.
For my purposes, based mostly on anecdotal evidence, I decided that a 150 grain bullet sounded about right to me for shooting deer. I narrowed the choice of cartridges to four that are widely available with that bullet weight: .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, and .300 Winchester Magnum. Eventually, I decided that the .308 Winchester would suit my purposes as well as any, and that is what I chose. (The others are also excellent deer cartridges, so if one of them is your favorite, I have no quarrel with that.)
For years I had thought that when somebody said they have a .308 or a .30-06, they were talking about the model of their rifle. Little did I know that ".308" is a rifle that fires the .308 Winchester cartridge and that ".30-06" is a rifle that fires the .30-06 Springfield cartridge.
Standard cartridges are manufactured to specifications that include specific physical dimensions and dynamic characteristics. Standard cartridges are also uniquely named. So, the name of the cartridge indicates the specific physical and dynamic characteristics of the cartridge.
In order to safely fire a cartridge, the rifle must be designed to fire that specific cartridge. It can fire no other. That means I had to find some rifles that are designed to shoot the .308 Winchester cartridge.
What is an "action"? The cartridge is moved from the storage location to the chamber by a series of actions in and around the receiver. There are four basic types of actions used in repeating sporting rifles: bolt action, pump action, lever action, and self-loading (autoloading or semi-automatic) action. In addition, there are several types of single shot rifle actions: break-open, falling block, rolling block, trapdoor and perhaps others, but because I wanted a repeating rifle I concentrated on those.
The bolt action receiver is the simplest of the designs that allows the rifle to be loaded with more than one cartridge at a time. Since a bolt action receiver has the fewest moving parts, it is easier to maintain and has proven to be very reliable. It is also the most popular type of action today, and I decided that I wanted a bolt action rifle. For detailed descriptions of the other types of actions, see the articles in the "Locks (Actions), Stocks and Barrels" section of the Rifle Information Page.
Stock materials are generally wood, laminated wood, and plastic/fiberglass. For those of us just learning this stuff, the stock is the support structure that cradles the barreled action and allows you to fire the rifle from your shoulder. The stock is what you hold when you shoot.
Wood is the traditional stock material, and walnut is the wood of choice because of its inherent characteristics, although cheaper hardwoods are also widely used. Walnut is sturdy, aesthetically pleasing, and feels good in the hand, particularly on cold days, but is typically more expensive than other materials.
Laminated woods are the strongest and most durable of all common stock materials. They resist warping because the laminations are laid in different directions, feel good in the hand, but are a little heavier than walnut or synthetic stocks.
Synthetic materials are gaining popularity, not only because they are typically less expensive, but less affected by moisture than walnut stocks. The rifle manufacturers love injection molded plastic stocks because they are incredibly cheap and keep the price of rifles down and profits up. For this reason they are heavily promoted. Their drawbacks are sensitivity to temperature extremes and a lack of rigidity that negatively affects the accuracy of the rifle. Injection molded plastic stocks are quite flexible and for that reason a sling should not be used to steady the rifle when shooting. The lateral pressure on the sling will bend the stock against the barrel, causing the bullet to fly off course.
Better synthetic stocks, for example hand laid fiberglass stocks with full length aluminum reinforcements, are sufficiently rigid to provide excellent accuracy, but cost as much as a wood stock to produce.
In any case, I decided to go with an inexpensive injection molded stock to keep the price of my new rifle down. Such stocks on hunting rifles, although far from ideal, have at least proven to be satisfactory for most purposes. For more on stocks, see Chuck's article in the "Locks (Actions), Stocks and Barrels" section of the Rifle Information Page.
Barrel lengths generally vary from about 18 to 26 inches. But, all lengths are not available on all models. Typically, the barrel selection from a given manufacturer of a particular model and caliber of rifle is very limited.
The length of the barrel basically affects four things: the stiffness of the barrel, the length of the rifle, the weight of the rifle, and the speed of the bullet as it exits the end of the barrel. (For us novices, the speed of the bullet as it exits the end of the barrel is typically called the "muzzle velocity.")
The longer the barrel, the more it will "wiggle" when the cartridge is fired, which will affect its intrinsic accuracy. Typically, shorter barrels, of the same diameter as the longer (reference) barrels, are inherently very slightly more accurate. However, for a hunting rifle, the difference is insignificant.
Rifles with short barrels are lighter and shorter than similar rifles that have long barrels. That makes sense, since the barrel is the heaviest part of the rifle. Lighter and shorter rifles are easier to carry on those long hunting trips and to maneuver in the underbrush.
The downside of lighter weight guns is that the recoil (that force that pushes against you when you fire the gun) is more severe than that of heavier guns. So is muzzle blast, since it is closer to the shooter. Recoil and muzzle blast are not things to ignore, as they noticeably degrade practical accuracy and are the number one "killers" of the pure pleasure of shooting.
In longer barrels, the very high gas pressure behind the bullet has more time to push the bullet to and faster and faster speeds, so the longer the barrel, the higher the muzzle velocity (MV). The ballistics for most modern rifle cartridges are developed in 24" test barrels. According to Remington estimates, a rifle cartridge on the order of the .308 Winchester loses about 20 fps of MV for each inch the barrel is reduced below the reference level of 24".
All things considered, I prefer the longer barrel and heavier rifle to reduce the recoil, with the added benefit of more bullet speed and consequently a slightly flatter trajectory.
Metal Materials and Finishes
Most metal parts of a bolt action rifle are made of carbon steel or stainless steel. Carbon steel is less expensive, but readily rusts. However, carbon steel parts are usually treated to significantly retard rusting, especially if the gun is properly maintained. The most common treatment is called "bluing," due to the blue-black appearance of the metal after the steel is processed.
Stainless steel resists rusting, but is more expensive. Don't be misled, stainless steel does rust, just very, very slowly! With proper care, stainless steel won't show any perceptible rust for many, many years. Stainless steel is typically a satin silver color, but can be blackened by chemical treatments or coatings.
Other types of metal finishes do exist, but are not prevalent at this time. For my purposes, a blued carbon steel rifle is fine.
Remington and Savage Arms Rifles
Remington not only manufactures cartridges, but some of the world's most popular rifles. Savage Arms manufactures rifles that are known for their excellent "out of the box" accuracy and revolutionary adjustable AccuTrigger. (Remington triggers are also user adjustable, although the company discourages the practice for liability reasons.) Although there are many other reputable rifle manufacturers in the world, including Browning, CZ, Henry, Howa, Kimber, Marlin, Ruger, Sako, Steyr/Mannlicher, T/C, Weatherby, and Winchester, to name but a few, I decided to limit my search to Remington and Savage--you have to start somewhere.
Well, Remington sure makes a lot of different rifles! Currently, Remington manufactures centerfire rifles of seven different basic models. Within each basic model group there are a few to several variations, and within each of those variations, a few to several calibers. The variations of the rifles include different: actions, stock materials, barrel lengths, metal materials and finishes, and calibers.
Remington offers several different models of rifles chambered for the .308 Winchester cartridge. Of these, the Model 700 SPS, Model 700 SPS DM, and Model 710 are rifles with a bolt action, synthetic stock, and blued carbon steel metal parts.
Savage Arms also offers several different models of rifles that are chambered for the .308 Winchester cartridge. Of these, the Model 111F, Model 111FCNS, Model 111FHNS, and Model 111FXP3 sport blued steel barreled actions and synthetic stocks.
Significant differences can exist between rifles of the same caliber that fire the same cartridge. The most striking difference between the Remington and Savage bolt action rifles is that the Savage Arms rifles are manufactured with an adjustable "AccuTrigger" that is very user-friendly. The trigger press weight can be easily adjusted between approximately 2.5 and 6 pounds, and is usually quite good as shipped from the factory. Savage even provides a little tool with which to adjust the trigger with every rifle.
Unfortunately, while the trigger release weight of Remington rifles is easily adjustable by means of set screws after the stock is removed, as set by the factory the trigger is usually too heavy and creepy (caused by excess sear engagement).
A sluggish, hard trigger action not only affects accuracy, but is highly frustrating for the shooter. And, Remington no longer provides instructions regarding trigger adjustment with their rifles. In fact, they coat the trigger adjustment set screws with some kind of hard goop that must be chipped off before the trigger can be adjusted, and claim that their trigger must be adjusted only by a gunsmith. While untrue, this discourages most users unfamiliar with the Remington action from adjusting the trigger. Blame this situation on the company lawyers, to whom lying is second nature.
After considering my options, I decided to purchase a Savage Model 111FCNS rifle. Although, it is somewhat more expensive than the cheapest Remington and Savage models, it comes with the adjustable AccuTrigger, which was the deciding factor.
For me, a rifle scope is an absolute necessity. My practical accuracy decreases substantially without good optics. Magnification and light grasp (a big objective lens) are over sold in today's scope market. A 3-9x40mm scope is all the glass you will ever need for big game hunting, and in most instances a lighter, smaller 2-7x33mm scope is better. And a fixed 4 power scope remains a good choice for a versatile big game rifle.
There are many reputable scope brands on the market, and some that are not so reputable. Burris, Bushnell, Leupold, Mueller, Nikon, Redfield, Sightron, Simmons, and Weaver scopes have all received good reviews on Guns and Shooting Online. In choosing a scope, buy quality over features or high magnification. Check the Product Review Page and the Scopes and Sport Optics Page for details.
After choosing a high quality scope, it must be mounted to the rifle. It is beyond the scope (no pun intended) of this article to provide a tutorial on that subject. Suffice it to say that a scope can be securely attached to a rifle with quite a variety of mount styles made from different materials. Whatever mount you choose, it must hold the scope securely and completely immobile on the rifle. Choose the lowest rings that will allow the scope to physically clear the rifle. The lower the scope sits on the rifle the better it is; avoid high, see-through, or swing-away mounts like the plague.
I have learned that care and caution are paramount when mounting a scope. It seems that many scopes have been damaged as a result of improper installation, so follow the directions that come with the mount.
Having successfully mounted the scope, it must now be "sighted-in." This means that the scope must be adjusted so that when we shoot, the point of impact is at the aiming point of the scope picture (where the lines cross, or where the dot is, etc.).
For deer hunting, we want the bullet trajectory to be within +/- 3 inches of the line of sight. The point at which the bullet falls more than 3" below the line of sight is called the maximum point blank range (MPBR). So, we should sight-in a scoped rifle accordingly.
The easiest way to accomplish this is by reference to a ballistics table that lists the trajectory of the popular rifle cartridges and loads at common distances commonly found at rifle ranges, such as 100 and 200 yards. Then you just sight-in the rifle to hit so many inches high at, for example, 100 yards. There is an excellent example of such a trajectory table on the Tables, Charts and Lists Page.
In the case of a .308 rifle shooting a 150 grain boat-tail bullet at a MV of 2800 fps, the scope should be adjusted so that the bullet hits 2.8" above the point of aim at 100 yards. So zeroed, the bullet's trajectory peaks 3" above the line of sight at 135 yards and does not fall 3" below the line of sight until it has reached 275 yards. Thus the MPBR of a .308 rifle so sighted is 275 yards, and no hold-over is required on deer size game out to at least that distance.
Again, it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a tutorial relative to external ballistics (bullet flight characteristics). There is an abundance of reference material on the subject and many ballistic calculators available on the Internet. The important points to be made here are that the scope must be sighted-in, the shooter must know where the bullet will hit at various ranges, and the shooter must understand the flight characteristics of the bullet to maintain acceptable accuracy through the desired target range.
Review: How did I Choose My Deer Hunting Rifle?
1. Select cartridge: .308 Winchester. Why: this cartridge is a widely available cartridge that has acceptable performance characteristics.
2. Select bullet weight: 150 grains. Why: anecdotal data indicates that 150 grains is an excellent bullet weight for hunting North American deer with a .308 caliber rifle.
3. Select bullet type: Soft point Expanding. Why: expanding bullets impart the most damage on the soft tissue in the chest cavity kill zone.
4. Select rifle: Savage Arms Model 111FCNS. Why: This model is the best reasonably priced rifle that I could find to satisfy my requirements; and it has the excellent, user adjustable, Savage AccuTrigger.
5. Select a scope and mounting system: In my case I ultimately chose one of Bushnell's top of the line Elite 4200 models and a hardened steel mounting base and rings. Why: This scope and mounting system satisfied my requirements and are reputed to be very rugged.
I am now ready to practice, practice, and practice some more--then go deer hunting.
One Final Thought
Not very long ago, as I was reading some articles written by experienced hunters, I happened across one written by Terry Wieland in Rifle Shooter magazine that struck home. The following excerpt is from his article.
"In the late 1980s, I went to Alaska to hunt brown bears on the coast, but I also had licenses for mountain goat, black bear, and black-tailed deer. That, as you can see, is a wide range of uses, especially when you consider that hunting the goats meant climbing heavily timbered, almost vertical slopes covered with icy rocks. I took a .375 H&H for the bears, and a .300 Weatherby for everything else. To be on the safe side, I loaded some 200-grain Bear Claws for the Weatherby just in case I ran into a bear, but everything else would be hunted with factory 150-grain Nosler Partitions."
"Great plan, in theory. As it turned out, I took only one animal: a brown bear that appeared unexpectedly while we were hunting deer. I shot him three times with the 150-grain Partitions. The third shot broke his neck, luckily, and that was that. The lesson I learned, however, was that when you are in bear country, you should carry a bear rifle regardless--and that means having it loaded with bear ammunition, too."
So, if we are going to hunt deer concurrently with elk or bear, maybe we should change this article to "My Elk Hunting Rifle" or "My Bear Hunting Rifle." Food for thought!
Copyright 2006 by Bob Beers. All rights reserved.