Hunting Guns: From Your First Rifle to a World Class Battery
The following is a guide to building a battery of hunting guns, step by step through key articles to select your own world-class battery. There are some useful tips and a couple stories for illustration. My original motivation was the Guns and Shooting Online article "Hunt the World with Five Firearms" and considering the trade-offs when choosing mine. There are links to ballistics, recoil and killing power charts at the end of this article to help with your research. Here are the sections (kind of like chapters in a book) into which I divided this article:
1. Key Factors and Game Classification
Covering the easier factors first: budget, available ammo and eye sight. The first thing to avoid are the "too good to pass up" deals. Stick to the plan. Become informed, learn what is best for your purposes and then look for the best deal on a good quality firearm that can last for generations. For available ammo, I will only be referring to a handful of the most common calibers.
If you can clearly see your sights and the animal at the yardage you will be hunting, then you are good to go. If you chose to use iron sights, practice until you are comfortable with them. Most people can acquire targets faster and shoot more accurately with a good riflescope. If you are new to shooting, start with a .22 LR rifle; it will pay for itself in ammo savings alone.
We may not be hunting all classes of animals, but we need to be aware of them. We are in their territory and they may choose not to ignore us. This influences the guns we carry, including sidearms. Having a common system for categorizing animals helps to simplify firearms selection. Winchester's CXP (Controlled eXpansion Performance), Federal's ammunition catalog and the Hornady HITS system use the same basic divisions, which are based on live weight. (Class 4 includes the most dangerous game regardless of live body weight.)
2. First Guns: Safety, Targets, Hunting and Protection in the Field
Take a firearms safety / hunter safety course before you purchase a gun. Your first rifle is typically used to learn the basics of shooting safety and accuracy. Once proficiency is achieved, you can use it to hunt small game and varmints.
It should be chambered for a rimfire cartridge. The rimfire .22 Long Rifle is the classic caliber and pays for itself in saved ammo costs. With hollow point, expanding bullets it is ideal for hunting small game within about 75 yards, which is as far as squirrels and bunnies are usually encountered.
For your first rifle, I would avoid semi-autos. Give your brain time to think about the last shot before taking the next one. Build accuracy first. For my first rifle, my Grandpa handed me a single-shot .22. It worked fine and took a while to go through a box of ammo. Making sure each shot counts is far more important than how fast you empty the magazine; an empty magazine may not be a good thing.
The first .22 I bought had the same action as my first deer rifle; this started the muscle memory training. Bolt, pump and lever actions are good choices. When stress increases, IQ drops, so simpler is better. I practice with rifles for hours before going into the field; aiming, handling, operating the action and the safety.
An exception to choosing a .22 LR as your first rifle would be if you know you will be varmint hunting at longer ranges. In that case, stepping up to the .22 Magnum (WMR), .17 HMR or .17 WSM would make sense.
I like the .22 WMR, because there are handguns I like that are chambered for it and I like to keep my ammo supply simple. I don't hunt small game or varmints that much. If you're into varminting, do your homework. Here are some suggested Guns and Shooting Online articles for additional reading:
Firearms for protection in the field: when in the field with a rimfire rifle, I like to carry a .357 Magnum revolver in non-grizzly country and a .44 Magnum revolver in grizzly country. You might consider getting a .22 LR pistol at the same time as your first rifle and practicing with both. Once a high level of proficiency is achieved with your .22 handgun, you can get a larger caliber pistol to carry with you in the field.
Chose a handgun with a 4" or longer barrel. A 6" barrel will provide a longer sighting plane for better sighting accuracy and superior velocity, energy and trajectory. Consider ballistics by the inch and whether the additional speed, energy, trajectory and killing power are important to you versus the additional bulk and weight. Suggested reading:
3. Animal and Rifle Basics; Stopping Versus Killing
This stage involves two equally important areas. You need to understand both to make a good decision.
Understand the difference between what it takes to immediately stop a charging animal versus killing it. An animal shot through the heart might cover a hundred yards before expiring. If the animal is 50 yards away and charging you, you still have a problem. The shots that stop them immediately are either brain / spinal-column shots (immediate paralysis or death), or those that break both shoulders, preventing the animal from running. When an animal is coming after you, distance is critical.
Learn how to shoot your gun accurately. (You can't miss fast enough to stop a charge.) Carry an adequate gun and be able to hit a moving target. William H. Wright started hunting grizzlies in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana when there were only trails. He used a single-shot rifle that fired a 700 grain bullet. One in the chest and he never had to worry. Later he took up photographing animals and published his book in 1909.
We may see something and be mistaken about what we saw. We may hear and still doubt. When we experience something, most of us become believers. This progression is natural.
First, read about and study firearms (Guns and Shooting Online is an excellent reference), then kick some tires, hop behind the wheel and go for a test drive. For handguns, this is easy at most gun ranges. You can rent and try a few pistols after completing your safety course. Keep reading about hunting, tracking, survival, navigation and learn basic camping skills. Then, when you are in the field, having a firearm with you is a natural extension of your skills and experience.
If you are so inclined, get a shotgun and do some clay target shooting. Take a friend with you and take turns throwing clays for each other. Make sure the person doing the throwing is to the side and behind the shooter. A break-open single-shot is fairly inexpensive and fun to shoot. This is great practice for hitting moving targets. Some times animals don't stand still, especially for a second shot. I used to roll tires down hills with targets in them for practice.
Learn the anatomy of the game animals in your hunting area. Have a three-dimensional model of each animal in your mind. Know where to shoot to hit the brain, spine, heart and lungs from any angle. Then aim for the specific place on the animal to hit that target, not just the center of mass.
Start with small game hunting. Learn how to clean them and take care of the meat.
4. First Deer Rifle
Why should you start your big game hunting career with deer? If you are a North American reader, deer are more common than other Class 2 game animals and usually easier to find. They can be hauled out of the woods by one person after field dressing and are typically found closer to roads than other North American Class 2 game.
Once a downed animal is recovered and field dressed, it is important to take care of the meat. Cooling the carcass is important, especially in hot climates. I've used a second refrigerator for this or ice chests on location. Deer and most Class 2 game will typically yield about 50-90 pounds of de-boned meat. Many butcher shops are willing to process wild game after you have field dressed it. Be sure to locate one ahead of time.
Deer rifle basics: When moving up to a centerfire deer rifle from your rimfire .17 or .22, the first thing you will notice is the increased recoil and muzzle blast. Newton's third law of motion states that for every force there is an equal and opposite force. The amount of recoil is affected most by rifle weight, then by bullet mass, bullet muzzle velocity and the mass of the powder gasses propelling the bullet. Subjectively, rifle fit is important to minimize felt recoil.
For your first Class 2 game (deer) rifle, a rifle/cartridge combination that generates less than 15 foot pounds of recoil energy is a good general rule. A .30-06 rifle of typical weight generates around 20 foot pounds of recoil energy and this is about the most kick an average person can get used to shooting.
A .30-30 rifle is great for hunting Class 2 game and has a maximum point blank range in excess of 200 yards. One of the largest grizzlies killed in British Columbia was taken in self-defense with a 170 grain .30-30 bullet through the brain at eight feet. The guy lived there and had hundreds of hours with his rifle.
The .243 Winchester is another good deer cartridge. It has the flat trajectory required for longer shots and may be all you will ever need.
An interesting alternative to a less powerful deer cartridge is the reduced recoil ammunition offered by Remington (Managed Recoil) and Federal Cartridge (Fusion Lite). These reduced recoil cartridges essentially duplicate the recoil of a .243 Winchester in all-around big game calibers, including .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield. Use the reduced recoil loads for hunting Class 2 game, yet have the option to switch to full power loads later, if you have an opportunity to hunt Class 3 game.
Here are some Guns and Shooting Online articles I strongly recommend reading:
5. External Ballistics
External ballistics concerns bullets in flight and is what most shooters mean when they say "ballistics." (Internal Ballistics concerns what happens before a bullet leaves the muzzle and Terminal Ballistics is what happens to the projectile after it hits the target.) Bullet effectiveness and ballistics work together. Higher velocity means less time for gravity to work on the bullet during its flight to the target , the wind to affect its path and the target to move. Bullets have different shapes that determine how well they go through the air (ballistic coefficient). The frontal area, internal construction and mass/diameter (sectional density) of the bullet determines its terminal performance (expansion and penetration). The following are the main factors.
Velocity (fps), speed, measured in feet per second, determines how far the bullet travels each second.
Bullet weight and smokeless powder charges are measured in grains. There are 437.5 grains in an ounce and 7,000 grains in one pound. This measurement of weight comes from the Bronze Age and is based on a grain of barley.
Kinetic energy is measured in foot pounds and is a useful measure of the "work" something can potentially do. The energy remaining at impact powers bullet expansion, penetration and tissue destruction.
To maximize bullet effect, all of the available energy needs to be expended inside the target. Of course, the bullet must penetrate deep into the animal's vitals to maximize killing power. Generally speaking, 800 foot pounds (or more) remaining energy at impact is recommended for hunting deer and general Class 2 game.
Sectional Density (SD) is defined as the ratio of a bullet's weight (in pounds) to the square of its diameter (in inches). Heavier bullets of a given diameter and shape retain velocity and energy better, flattening trajectory. Other factors (including bullet construction and expansion ratio) being equal, increasing SD increases penetration. A smaller diameter bullet will penetrate easier than a fatter bullet of the same weight, like an arrow versus a ball. Recommended reading:
Ballistic coefficient (BC) is a function of mass, diameter and drag coefficient. It indicates how easily a bullet passes through the air. The higher the BC, the lower the air drag and the better a bullet retains its speed and therefore its energy. See:
To help tie this information together, read:
Factory loaded ammunition comes packaged in boxes that have the caliber, bullet weight and often the muzzle velocity, energy and trajectory printed on them. Bullet manufactures supply the BC and SD of their products. Ammunition and bullet manufacturer's ballistics tables show the bullet's velocity, energy and path through the air (trajectory). When you understand these factors you will be able to choose appropriate calibers and bullets for your intended purpose. Guns and Shooting Online offers a wealth of ballistics information; see the Tables, Charts and Lists index page.
After reading these articles, you should have a better understanding of ballistics than most hunters.
6. Rifles for Heavy Game and Five Firearms for Hunting around the World
Your first deer rifle may be adequate for larger game, provided you learn to shoot accurately, pick a sufficiently powerful cartridge, use an appropriate bullet and shoot at an appropriate distance. For your peace of mind, there are rifles suitable for hunting Class 2 animals that are adequate for hunting dangerous game in a pinch. The .30-06 Springfield is the most popular caliber for hunting both Class 2 and Class 3 game and it is the minimum caliber recommended for hunting the great bears.
Powerful medium bore rifles (.338-.375 caliber) are generally the best choice for hunting large animals (Class 3), such as elk, moose, kudu, eland, wild cattle and grizzly/brown/polar bears. Not many of us get around to hunting the American bison, but if you do, he's in the Class 4 category for a reason. Suggested reading:
When I first read "Hunt the World with Five Firearms," I was convinced I already knew the best choices for me and, by extension, everyone else. I learned a few things along the way and cogitated why five experienced hunters had different answers. A couple of reasons are the preferred game and time spent hunting in different areas of the world. For example, the .338 Win. Mag. is similar to the .375 H&H in power and very popular in Alaska, but it is not legal for hunting lion, buffalo, rhino and elephant in most African countries. Each person has their own answers. The more they learn and experience, the better their choices get.
7. First Three Big Game Rifles
When taking a backup rifle on an important hunt in the lower 48 U.S. states, I have two .30-06's, so they can shoot the same ammo. For hunting Alaska and similar areas of Canada, I would prefer two .338's. By taking two rifles of the same caliber, I find I have to carry less total ammo. I always plan to be in the field with a rifle that can handle most anything I would run into.
I hunt mostly deer and sometimes hunt in big bear country. I hunt for meat, so for world-wide hunting, the big bovines would be on the menu. Here are my choices:
A 1.5-6x30mm riflescope does nicely for any of these rifles. The 1.5-6x magnification range provides a wide field of view for close range shots and sufficient magnification for shooting big game animals at distances beyond the maximum point blank range (+/- 3") of the all-around cartridges.
If I did more Class 3 hunting, #3 would be a second .338 Magnum. Or, if I intended to hunt Class 4 game, #3 would be a .458 Win. Mag. bolt action weighing at least nine pounds. (A nine pound .458 rifle shooting 500 grain factory loads will generate around 60 ft. lbs. of recoil energy.)
All three of my rifles above are zeroed at 200 yards and good to within a couple inches out to 250 yards with the factory loads I use. They all drop about 40-45" at 500 yards, good to know in the unlikely event I have to lob bullets at an escaping, wounded animal.
Most people settle on one bullet weight per caliber. I prefer 180 grain bullets in .30-06. For hunting moose or grizzly bears, I would use 220 grain bullets. They have an outstanding .331 SD and provide even deeper penetration than the 180 grain, as deep as a .375 H&H Magnum.
The bolt-action rifles should ideally be made by the same manufacturer for the same feel, bolt angle, safety and to build muscle memory. Winchester Model 70's would be an excellent choice in the medium price class. The identical scopes would be in quick detachable mounts for easy removal by hand, or (as I've done) tape an Allan wrench to the sling. I've hunted a lot of rocky country where one slip may result in a damaged scope. Consequently, all three rifles would also have iron sights for emergency use.
Are consistent barrel lengths important in a given caliber? According to Remington, the difference between a 22" and 24" barrel on a .30-06 rifle shooting 150-180 grain factory loads should be about 40 fps (20 fps per inch). Choosing the same barrel length on rifles shooting the same cartridge will mean one less set of trajectory numbers to remember.
Other viable cartridge choices include the 6.5x55mm SE, .260 Remington, .264 Win. Magnum, .270 Winchester, .270 Wby. Magnum, 7mm-08, 7mm Rem. Magnum, .308 Winchester and .300 Win. Magnum. Pair cartridges of the same caliber (example: .308 Win. and .300 Win. Mag.) or mix and match.
The 6.5mm, .270 and 7mm cartridges provide the best sectional density. Even the 6.5x55 is known to have bullets pass completely through moose and bear. A 7mm Magnum is probably the best choice for long-range shooting of larger animals. The .300 Win. Mag. sits halfway between the .30-06 and .338 Win. Mag. in speed and energy.
The .270 Winchester makes a viable substitute for the .30-06 and is the second most popular all-around caliber. The .270 Winchester is based on the .30-06 case simply necked-down to accept .277" diameter bullets. Jack O'Connor made the .270 famous and used it to harvest elk, moose and plenty of Class 3 African game. Why did I pick the .30-06 over the .270 Winchester? Maybe for the same reasons three out of four of Guns and Shooting Online editors chose the .30-06 when limited to five firearms for world hunting. The fourth did pick the .270. The .270 shoots flatter and the .30-06 can handle heavier bullets.
8. My First Rifle and a Couple of Lessons
The first rifle I bought is similar to #1 (above). It is a Remington Model 700 ADL bolt-action with a 3-9x40mm Bushnell riflescope that has never lost its zero. I bought this outfit after using my Dad's customized 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser with a 6x scope. The first running deer I couldn't keep in the scope taught me the need for a wider field of view. Like others who have learned, I always carry a variable power scope on its lowest setting to maximize field of view. For longer shots, there is time to dial it up.
My Uncle Kenny and Grandpa Lemire both used .30-06's with iron sights for hunting deer and elk. Kenny hunted and fished in grizzly country year-round. My Dad used his customized .264 Win. Magnum, about a 10 pound rifle with a 4x scope. He reloaded, so I grew up in Montana with ballistics tables and big bears. My brother used his .303 British with open sights and 180 grain bullets. It has advantages, too.
Just before buying my first rifle, I was lucky enough to start hunting with a guy from the backwoods, Mr. Kincaid, a fighting Irishman. He and his dad hunted the upper Great Lakes' woods year around to put meat on the table. Lon's dad used a .300 Savage lever-action and iron sights with great success. Lon used a .30-06 with a 3-9x scope and see-through mounts.
Know where your bullets go even at very short range. You don't want to be a few inches off and miss a brain shot in a life or death situation. A bear at 35 MPH is amazing. Sometimes you don't get a second chance to learn a lesson. That's why reading and writing for others is a good thing.
My Great Uncles were excellent hunters, among the best, not that they or I thought about it at the time. They used .30-06 bolt action rifles. One time when Uncle Elmer was elk hunting he spotted a big buck that had bedded down in some thick brush behind a fallen log. Elmer was above the buck, had the wind in his favor and decided to see how close he could stalk. He made it to the other side of a log from the buck. When Elmer let out a whoop, the buck launched straight up in the air, legs churning before he hit the ground. It made my Uncle's day.
However, Uncle Axel, the oldest, was the ghost. He once made my cousin jump when he appeared beside him during a stalk. I did it once to a friend, but it is not a good idea to startle someone with a gun, not that my uncle or I did it deliberately.
None of them were as good as their dad, my Great Grandpa Bilquist, with a shotgun. He brought more birds home with his .410 than his children did with their 12 and 20 gauge guns. Occasionally he would take out his 12 gauge, but he was from the old school of cost to meat in the pot ratio. Ammo availability and price have always been important to me, too.
I first leaned about the using .338 Winchester Magnum for Alaskan hunting by reading Outdoor Life magazine. I read that there was a debate between the .338 and the .458 Winchester Magnum. The guys who hunted thicker woods or had bad experiences with clients who had wounded great bears in heavy cover tended to favor the .458, the rest considered the .338 the best all-around Alaska round. The guides emphasized two things: bullet placement and conditioning. They didn't like wounded animals, or a client wasting his money because he couldn't get up a mountain. They also preferred guiding a guy who could put .30-06 bullets in the vitals to someone carrying a magnum who could not.
Then I got to know a ranger who used the .338 in a single-shot rifle with a 4x scope. He preferred the weight, handling and was committed to achieving one shot kills. He and his wife, a former wildlife ranger who used something like a 7.5x55mm, filled their freezer ever year with all kinds of game. These two anchored the .338 Win. Mag. in my mind as one of the best choices in calibers above the 30-06.
A couple things are clearer to me since I have worked though putting these selections together:
9. A Complete Hunting Battery, Including Varmint Rifles, Handguns and Shotguns
To achieve a complete gun battery there remains three gaps: varmints, birds and, to a certain extent, a quick handling woods rifle. The latter usually means a shorter and lighter lever or pump action rifle. A semi-auto could be an option, but they're growing more restricted and may be slightly less reliable in the most inclement situations. For a deer/woods rifle, a lever-action .30-30 is the classic example. It has twice the power of a .44 Magnum revolver and has a long history of taking all North American big game, including one of the largest grizzlies ever taken in British Columbia.
The two top rifle cartridges between the .22 Magnum and the .30-06 recommended in "Five World Firearms" were the .243 Winchester and the .257 Roberts. These are very good combination varmint and medium game cartridges. They are capable long range cartridges with moderate recoil. Varmint hunting can help ranchers and farmers with rodent issues (with their permission) and varmint hunters, accustomed to engaging small, unpredictable targets at long range, are known to be among the best big game shots. Suggested additional reading:
Staying within a four-rifle limit, thus leaving room for a shotgun, my rifle choices for hunting around the world are:
At home, for plinking, practice, small game hunting and pest control, the .22 LR remains the cartridge of choice. There is bound to be someone starting to hunt, or a wife who could be interested, which is sufficient reason to justify a .243 Winchester rifle.
Handguns are needed for protection and have been touched on. In the field, when I'm not in dangerous game country and have a .30-06 in my hands, a .22 WMR revolver is usually on my hip. It's easy to carry a few extra rounds for it; otherwise, I carry a .357 Magnum (or larger) sidearm.
My first shotgun was a beautiful Spanish side-by-side 12-gauge with a 3" chamber. After a couple years, I traded it for a nice Remington Wingmaster 20-gauge pump gun. When my sons were old enough to hunt and shoot, one was into shotguns and the other into rifles. I bought myself a new .30-06 rifle and a Browning BPS 12 gauge pump shotgun with a 3-1/2" chamber that came with interchangeable choke tubes. I got one for each of my sons and gave them one of my older guns. My older son got the 20-gauge Remington and subsequently returned it when he got his own 12 gauge. I decided I would rather have my familiar 30-06 back, so I swapped rifles with my very willing younger son. Now, we are all happy and the cycle of guns continues. I've inherited my Dad's, so those will also get passed on.
I believe the 12-gauge is the most versatile shotgun bore, so in a limited gun battery, I would chose a 12-gauge first. The longer chambers can also shoot the shorter shells, so a gun with a 3-1/2" chamber can shoot 3" and 2-3/4" shells.
A 12-gauge gun stuffed with rifled slug loads can serve as a serious back-up rifle at short range. Among slugs, there is one that I know works in both smooth and rifled barrels, the Dupo 28. It stabilizes itself in flight and when it impacts, it splits into the equivalent of three .380 pistol rounds. For dangerous game backup, solid slugs are best.
I know of one occasion when a man carrying only bird shot loads was saved from being seriously injured or killed by a grizzly bear. He was bird hunting in the willows below the Mission Range in Montana when he jumped a grizzly by accident. The grizzly charged at point-blank range. His wing-shooting reflexes gave him just enough time to trigger one shot before the bear had him down and was mauling him. Later, he found out he had gotten off relatively lightly, because his shot had broken the bear's jaw. Even when bird hunting, carrying a couple slug loads is a good idea.
If you use a shotgun for protection in the field, or for hunting anything larger than small game, I would suggest using slug loads, not buckshot. I prefer the range and versatility of the slug. You need to get the right slug for the barrel (rifled or smooth) and generally plan on shooting at less than 50 yards. I know a guide who grew up in Northwestern Montana, grizzly country, and regularly horse-backed into the Bob Marshall wilderness. His camp bear-medicine was a 12-gauge with slugs. One day he walked around the corner of the tent and came face-to-face with a grizzly. He emptied his .44 Magnum revolver and spun back to the tent, grabbing his 12-gauge. The bear was already down from the pistol bullets. He had both, just in case, and it only happened once. Brenneke slugs are particularly known for their deep penetration. A plethora of articles and information can be found on the Guns and Shooting Online Shotgun Information index page. Suggested reading:
With a .22 LR rifle, .30-06 rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun, you can hunt and kill almost anything on the North American continent. In an expanded battery, my fairly complete selection for North American hunting would include:
As a wise and expert shooter once told me, "It's better to have fewer guns and more ammo." I currently have a fair selection of both and a plan for expanding them, thanks to the information on Guns and Shooting Online. I have not hunted in Africa, so I have not gotten a .458 Magnum rifle. I've also not taken a big bear and decided not to a couple decades ago, unless there is a local need. So far, there hasn't been.
10. Ballistics, Trajectory, Recoil and Hornady HITS (killing power) Tables
What gun article is complete without tables of numbers upon which to cogitate? Here are a few of the many relevant tables found on the Tables, Charts and Lists index page on the Member Side of Guns and Shooting Online:
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