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GOOD FIRST BIG GAME RIFLES

By Chuck Hawks


This piece is directed primarily to the person thinking about getting their first big game rifle. I hope you've learned the basics of shooting, and hunting, with a .22 rifle. (See my article Buying That First .22 Rifle if you don't have a .22 yet.) Along the way I hope you have become a pretty good shot. Now you want to try big game hunting, so you are thinking about your first centerfire rifle.

You probably need a rifle suitable for what is called medium size big game, animals generally less than 350 pounds on the hoof. In North America, and most of the world, these are mainly various species of deer, antelope, goats, and sheep. Here in the U.S., where by far the most commonly hunted big game animals are deer, we tend to call these "deer rifles," but of course they are suitable for all similar size game animals.

These are not dangerous animals, but they are wary. With a well placed bullet from any reasonably adequate rifle they are not particularly hard to kill; but wounded and excited they can run a long way, to die a miserable death long after the hunter has given up any hope of finding them. So what is needed is an adequate rifle that the hunter can shoot well. Bullet placement is the prime ingredient in killing power. Helping to select such a rifle is the purpose of this article.

Most deer in North America are killed well within 200 yards; in fact, most deer are killed within 100 yards. But there are places where a 200 yard shot is a short one, and 300 yard shots are common. (My article The Deer Rifle examines the different types of deer rifles, and the types of hunting for which they are most suitable.) The point is that a good first big game rifle should be suitable for the conditions in which you intend to hunt.

Energy and killing power

Kinetic energy is the most common measure of killing power for rifle bullets. And it is, in fact, a reasonable indicator. Energy figures from ammunition tables give us an idea of how much power a bullet will have when it impacts a game animal. Energy powers things like bullet expansion and penetration, which destroy tissue, disrupt the functioning of vital organs, and cause a quick, humane death. Of course, energy alone does not guarantee that these things will occur. Nevertheless, it is a good rule of thumb that, for humane killing power, a bullet should be carrying at least 800 ft. lbs. of energy when it hits a medium size big game animal. All of the cartridges that I will suggest as suitable for beginners will meet that standard at the maximum range they are normally used.

As an example, let's take Federal Cartridge Company's figures for their .30-30 factory load, which launches a 150 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,390 fps. At the muzzle that bullet carries 1,900 ft. lbs. of energy. At 100 yards the energy has fallen to 1,355 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the energy is down to 945 ft. lbs. At 300 yards the energy has fallen to only 650 ft. lbs., below our 800 ft. lb. minimum. One could conclude that the .30-30 is about a 200+ yard deer cartridge, based on its energy, and one would be right.

I judge bullet placement to be the most important factor in killing power. But other factors such as remaining energy, bullet diameter, bullet weight, expansion, and penetration also influence killing power. (Those interested in a more detailed examination of the factors involved in killing power might want to read my article The Killing Power Of Big Game Rifles.)

The bigger the bullet diameter, the larger the hole it tends to make in an animal. 6mm/.24 caliber is the minimum bullet diameter recommended for use on big game animals.

The bullet weight required increases as bullet diameter increases. A good deer bullet for .24-.25 caliber cartridges weighs about 100 grains. For .26 caliber cartridges, a 120-129 grain bullet is about right. For the .27-.28 caliber cartridges, a 130-140 grain bullet is excellent. For .30-.32 caliber cartridges a 150-170 grain bullet works well.

Fortunately, modern bullets from the major American bullet makers generally penetrate and expand satisfactorily for their intended purpose. If you choose a bullet designed for medium game hunting, it will probably do its job if you do yours.

Trajectory

Another factor that limits the practical range of any cartridge is its trajectory. A bullet is useless if its trajectory requires so much "hold over" that it becomes difficult to estimate where to hold in order to hit the target. To illustrate, let's compare the trajectory of the 150 grain .30-30 bullet with that of the 100 grain 6mm Remington bullet.

The .30-30's trajectory is such that, if a scoped rifle is zeroed so that the bullet's maximum mid-range rise above the line of sight is 3", the bullet will fall 3" below the line of sight at about 235 yards. Based on its trajectory, then, the .30-30 is about a 235 yard deer cartridge.

The 6mm Remington is a long range cartridge with a muzzle velocity of 3,100 fps. A 100 grain bullet from a scoped 6mm rifle, also zeroed for a 3" mid-range rise above the line of sight, will fall 3" below the line of sight at about 296 yards. Based on its trajectory, the 6mm Remington is about a 300 yard deer cartridge.

Medium range rifles like the .30-30 usually shoot blunt nosed bullets at medium velocity, which are less likely to be deflected by twigs and brush. They are larger caliber, and punch a larger diameter hole in the target. However, such bullets shed velocity faster than pointed bullets and the result is more bullet drop and a shorter practical range.

Long range rifles like the 6mm Remington shoot spitzer (pointed) bullets at high velocity. Because of their high ballistic coefficient, spitzer bullets retain more velocity and energy down range. This flattens trajectory to minimize bullet drop. So if your hunting is likely to require long range shooting, choose one of the high velocity, flat shooting cartridges recommended in the "Long Range Rifles" section below.

Recoil or "kick"

Recoil is also measured in foot-pounds of energy. The principle objective factors that influence recoil are the weight of the bullet, the weight of the powder charge, the muzzle velocity of the bullet, and the weight of the rifle. A heavier bullet, a bigger powder charge, higher velocity, and a lighter rifle all increase recoil.

Subjectively, the shape of the stock has a great influence on how much a given amount of recoil affects the shooter. A stock that fits the shooter is the most important factor in controlling recoil. Rubber recoil pads don't lessen the amount of energy with which a given rifle recoils, but they soften the blow to the shoulder. A muzzle brake diverts some of the propellant gas as it leaves the barrel to soften recoil, but increases muzzle blast by directing it closer to the shooter, so they are a mixed blessing. Gas operated autoloading actions reduce felt recoil by delaying it. The same amount of recoil is spread over a longer time. The effect is very noticeable, and the gas operated autoloader is the action of choice for the recoil sensitive shooter.

Probably the worst mistake a beginning big game hunter can make it to buy a rifle that kicks too hard. Almost anyone can learn to shoot a powerful high intensity or magnum rifle by carefully and gradually working up to it. But as the first deer rifle for an inexperienced shooter, such a rifle will cause most shooters to develop a flinch.

Flinching is inadvertently jerking the rifle due to the anticipation of recoil (and muzzle blast) while pulling the trigger. Flinching is normal, it simply means that your body does not want to get hit. Virtually everyone flinches to some extent. Boxers use the same reflex to their advantage when they slip punches. But, for the rifleman, any movement when the gun goes off is poisonous to accuracy. The louder the muzzle blast and the greater the recoil of the rifle, the stronger the tendency to flinch. Even the most experienced shooters can shoot better groups with a mild, light kicking gun than they can with a roaring, hard kicking magnum. Make sure your first deer rifle is the former, not the latter.

As a practical suggestion, I recommend starting with a rifle that delivers no more than 15 ft. lbs. of recoil energy, and less is better. Here are some examples of recoil energy measured in 7.5 pound rifles shooting typical factory loads. A .243 Winchester, .257 Roberts or 6mm Remington rifle shooting a 100 grain bullet, and a 7-30 Waters shooting a 120 grain bullet delivers about 10 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. A .260 Rem. or 6.5x55 SE rifle shooting a 120 grain bullet, or a .30-30 rifle shooting a 150-170 grain bullet kicks with about 11 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. A .260, 6.5x55, 7x57 or 7mm-08 shooting a 140 grain bullet develops about 13.5 ft. lbs of recoil. A 7mm-08, 7x57, or .300 Savage rifle shooting a 150 grain bullet plus the .260 and 6.5x55 with 154-160 grain bullets develop approximately 14-15 ft. lbs. of recoil. (See my Rifle Recoil Table for a comparison of other popular cartridges and loads in various weight rifles.)

Rifle Weight

As we have seen, the weight of the rifle has a considerable effect on recoil. A lightweight rifle intensifies recoil and a heavy rifle minimizes recoil. Most standard weight rifles run 7 to 7.75 pounds without a scope. A scope and mount usually add about a pound. A scoped rifle weighing 8 to 8.75 pounds is not too burdensome to carry in the field, and it will be considerably more comfortable to shoot than a 7 pound lightweight. The bottom line is to avoid very light rifles.

Medium range rifles and cartridges

If you will be hunting in terrain where a shot over 200 yards is unlikely, a medium range (or woods) rifle/cartridge is recommended. My article Ideal Deer Cartridges presents the argument for three of the very best of these, the .30-30 Winchester, the .300 Savage, and the .32 Winchester Special. All three of these cartridges are usually chambered in traditional lever action rifles, the Marlin Model 336, Winchester Model 94, and Savage Model 99. The Marlin and Winchester rifles are still going strong, but (unfortunately) Savage has discontinued the Model 99. All three are available in good numbers on the used market.

Traditional lever action rifles are also chambered for a number of short range cartridges, from the powerful (and hard kicking) .450 Marlin to totally inadequate pistol cartridges. For hunting medium size big game, none of these offers any advantage over the three cartridges discussed in the paragraph above, and all have significant disadvantages.

Thompson/Center offers the Encore break action single shot carbine in 7-30 Waters (a cartridge based on the .30-30 case necked down to 7mm) and .30-30 Winchester. Inexpensive but serviceable break action single shot rifles made by Harrington & Richardson/New England Firearms are also chambered for the .30-30 cartridge.

The .30-30 Winchester is one of the best selling centerfire rifle cartridges in North America. It is available everywhere ammunition is sold. The .32 Special and .300 Savage cartridges are still widely distributed, but no new rifles are currently being made for them. So the .30-30 is the obvious choice in a new medium range rifle.

Long range rifles

Most long range rifles today are bolt action or single shot types. Browning, Dakota, H&R, Mossberg, NEF, and Ruger make the single shots, and practically everyone makes a good bolt action rifle. These two types are by far the most popular, and probably the best, actions on which to base a long range rifle.

To keep recoil within our limits, any of these rifles should be chambered for one of the following flat shooting cartridges: .243 Winchester (90-100 grain bullet), 6mm Remington (90-100 grain bullet), .257 Roberts (100 grain bullet), 6.5x55 SE (120-125 grain bullet), or .260 Remington (120-125 grain bullet).

All-around rifles and cartridges

The all-around rifle is one that is suitable not only for deer, but also larger game. And it must shoot flat enough to be useful (although not necessarily ideal) for plains and mountain hunting.

The bolt action is the overwhelming popular choice for an all-around rifle, but it is not the only possible choice. Falling block and break-open single shot rifles will also qualify as all-around rifles. The Savage 99 and Browning BLR lever actions are possible alternative choices.

Most all-around cartridges burn enough powder to exceed our recoil limitation. But there are a few that sneak in under the limit, so long as they are fired in rifles of reasonable weight. These are the 6.5x55 Swede, .260 Remington, 7x57 Mauser, 7mm-08 Remington, and our old friend the .300 Savage. All of these cartridges handle 140-150 grain bullets very nicely. The 7mm-08, 7x57 and .300 Savage offer moderate recoil with 140-150 grain bullets plus the ability to handle bullets up to 175-180 grains if necessary (albeit at increased recoil). On balance the 6.5x55 SE and .260 Remington with their selection of 120-125, 129, 140 and 154-160 grain bullets seem to be the best choices for a mild recoiling all-around rifle.

Action types

Many shooters are inclined to buy their first centerfire rifle with the same type of action as their .22 rifle. Familiarity builds confidence. On the other hand, some types of rifles are better suited to certain types of hunting, and most of us are able to quite easily shift from one type of action to another. So while it certainly doesn't hurt to have one's .22 and one's deer rifle operate in a similar manner, it is not of overriding importance, either. Buy whatever type of action you feel is best suited to your needs.

Hunting rifles are typically bolt, lever, autoloading, single shot, or pump action types, in about that order of popularity. The bolt action and the falling block single shot action are the strongest, most accurate, most reliable, and chambered for the greatest variety of cartridges. They are also the most suitable for the reloader, since they minimize case stretch and make it easy to recover cases without ejecting them onto the ground. Both of these action types are at their best as long range or all-around rifles.

Most shooters like a repeater, so the bolt action usually gets the nod. It is the most popular of all actions, and there are more models of bolt action rifles for sale than any other type. In the U.S. the Browning A-bolt II, Kimber 84, Remington 700, Ruger 77, Savage 110 series, Weatherby Vanguard and Mark V, and Winchester Model 70 bolt action rifles are the best sellers. Imports from Anschutz, Beretta, Blaser, CZ, Howa, Mauser, Sako, Steyer-Mannlicher and Tikka are also popular.

Browning/Winchester's 1885 (Low Wall and High Wall models), Dakota Arms Model 10, and Ruger's No. 1 are the top choices in falling block action, single shot rifles. All are chambered for a range of cartridges. Blaser, Mossberg, and Thompson/Center build modern break action single shot rifles, which are also chambered for a variety of cartridges. All of the above are excellent rifles for the beginning or experienced hunter alike.

Harrington & Richardson/New England Firearms builds serviceable, inexpensive, break action single shot rifles in several calibers including .243, 7mm-08 and .30-30. These appeal to the shooter on a tight budget.

Recommended cartridges adapted to bolt action and single shot rifles include the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, 257 Roberts, 6.5x55 SE, .260 Remington, 7-30 Waters, and .30-30 Winchester. At the very top of the power and recoil range are the 7x57 Mauser and 7mm-08 Remington. Remember to stay with rifles that will weigh at least 7.5 pounds with a scope (8 pounds for the 7mm rifles) to minimize recoil.

The lever action is the traditional deer rifle in North America, and still has much to recommend it. The two best selling sporting rifles in history are both lever actions (the Winchester 94 and Marlin 336). Lever action rifles have traditionally been chambered for what are probably the best balanced of all medium range cartridges, the .30-30, .32 Special, and .300 Savage. Anyone who buys a Winchester 94 or Marlin 336, or a used Savage 99, in one of these three calibers has as good a medium range deer rifle as has ever been made. For the person who wants a flat shooting lever action rifle, the Browning BLR or Savage 99 in .243 Winchester fills the bill. The BLR in 7mm-08 and the Savage 99 in .300 Savage qualify as all-around rifles.

The most popular autoloading hunting rifles are the Browning BAR and the Remingtom 7400. Both are good looking, accurate, and reliable rifles. Both are satisfactory as a first deer rifle, as long as the shooter remembers to make the first shot count, and doesn't rely on firepower. You can't miss fast enough to bag a deer! Both are available in .243 Winchester.

For the pump action fan, the choice is pretty much limited to the Remington 7600. The 7600 is a satisfactory rifle for beginners when chambered for the .243 Winchester cartridge. It is a fast handling rifle, particularly for woods hunting, and it has always surprised me that pump action rifles are not more popular.

Conclusion

To summarize, choose a rifle suitable for the conditions in which you intend to hunt. Pick a model that is heavy enough to minimize recoil in the cartridge you select. (You can check this by referring to my Rifle Recoil Table.) Start with a reasonably mild caliber that is easy to shoot accurately.

For medium range shooting, a lever action rifle in .30-30 Winchester, .32 Special, or .300 Savage is about as good as it gets. The autoloading and pump actions are also good choices. All three types can deliver a follow-up shot quicker than a bolt action, and much faster than a single shot rifle.

For long range shooting it is hard to beat a bolt action or falling block single shot rifle in .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .257 Roberts, 6.5x55 SE, or .260 Remington. These are also the best action types for those who choose to reload their own ammunition.

The bolt action, particularly, makes a good all-around rifle in calibers .260, 6.5x55, 7x57 Mauser, and 7mm-08 Remington. Although they are less popular, the other action types, when chambered for the same cartridges (plus the excellent .300 Savage), will also suffice. The 7mm calibers using a 150 grain bullet are about at our self-imposed limit of 15 ft. lbs. of recoil energy in a standard weight rifle, as are the 6.5mm calibers firing a 154-160 grain bullet.

You don't have to be a beginning shooter to appreciate these very sensible calibers. I own a Winchester Model 70 Featherweight in 6.5x55, a Browning 1885 Low Wall in .243, and a Marlin 336 in .30-30. These are among my favorite rifles, and the ones I shoot the most.

Good Hunting!


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Copyright 2001, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.

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