Building a Hunting Rifle Battery
Step by Step

By Chuck Hawks

I have already written articles covering "Good First Rifles," "The One Rifle Big Game Hunter," and "Matching the Gun to the Game" so this one is going to be about building a coherent rifle battery. I am assuming that the reader has learned to shoot, owns a .22 rimfire rifle and has done at least some big game hunting with his or her first deer rifle. Now it's time to consider building a versatile, but not overly extensive, battery of centerfire hunting rifles.

The all-around rifle

The place to start is an all-around rifle. This should be a medium size, medium weight rifle in one of the calibers on the "short list" of all-around cartridges. To narrow that description down, look for a repeating rifle that weighs between 8 and 9 pounds, including a scope and mount, with a barrel between 22" and 24" long. This rifle should be able to shoot 2 MOA groups, or better, at 100 yards (or 100 meters) from a bench rest.

It should be chambered for the .270 Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum, .308 Winchester, or .30-06 cartridges. There are other cartridges capable of similar ballistic performance to these (the 6.5mm Rem. Mag., .280 Remington and 7x64 Brenneke come immediately to mind), but none that fulfill all of the requirements of an all-around rifle cartridge as well as these four. (See "All-Around Rifle Cartridges" for more details.)

Most shooters will choose a bolt action for their all-around rifle, but as long as the rifle meets the above requirements, any action is acceptable. Its scope should be chosen for versatility and moderation. A low mounted, variable power scope in the 2-7x or 3-9x range with an objective lens no larger than 40mm in diameter is ideal. In a fixed power scope the 4x is the traditional favorite. Buy a quality scope with adequate eye relief.

The all-around rifle will be the lynchpin of the hunting rifle battery. Not only is it suitable for more types of hunting than any other rifle, it will often serve as a "back up" rifle--the second rifle taken on most hunting trips--even when it is not the primary rifle.

The medium bore rifle

I imagine that all hunters, even those who live in places where the largest game animal is a small deer or antelope, dream of someday hunting large and/or dangerous game. Elk, kudu, alg, moose, and bear are the stuff of dreams. Nothing is more appropriate for such hunting than a powerful medium bore rifle.

Once again, a repeating rifle is usually called for. The bolt action is by far the most popular, and offers the widest caliber selection, but other actions are available. The Safari Grade Browning BAR autoloader in .338 Win. Mag., an outstanding dangerous game rifle, comes to mind. A good medium bore rifle should weigh between 8.5 and 9.5 pounds (including scope) to help control recoil. The barrel should usually be 22" to 24" long; handy, but able to keep the substantial muzzle blast out of the shooter's face. A muzzle brake should not be used.

The scope should feature quality construction, plenty of eye relief, and a wide field of view. The latter is particularly important. The game is large, so high magnification is not necessary. A fixed power scope of about 2.5x or a variable power scope in the 1-4x, 1.5-5x or 2-6x range is about right.

The .338 Federal, .338-06 A-Square, .338 Winchester Magnum, .340 Weatherby Magnum, .358 Winchester, .35 Whelen, .350 Remington Magnum, 9.3x62 and .375 H&H Magnum, along with other cartridges of the sort, will do the job. The two most widely distributed medium bore calibers are the .338 Winchester Magnum and the .375 H&H Magnum. Anyone who might hunt beyond the borders of his or her own country would do well to choose one of those two calibers.

The deer/medium game rifle

Having gone up a step in power from our all-around rifle, it is now time to consider a step down in power. This will be a CXP2 class game rifle. CXP2 encompasses most of the commonly hunted big game species world wide including deer, antelope, feral hogs, wild sheep and goats. This rifle should be chambered for a mild kicking caliber that can reach out and touch a deer size animal at least 200 yards away. It should be medium-light in weight and sport a barrel from 20" to 24" in length, depending on caliber. Because it doesn't kick too much and is fun to shoot, it will probably become a favorite hunting rifle.

Depending on the specific application, the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, 6x62 Freres, .240 Weatherby Magnum, .257 Roberts, .25-06, 6.5x55, .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57 Mauser, and .30-30 Winchester are all good cartridge choices. Good calibers for the international hunter are .243 Winchester, 6.5x55, 7x57 and .30-30 due to the worldwide distribution of their ammunition.

The specifications of the rifle will depend on the specific requirements of the hunter. Some may see this primarily as their "mountain rifle" (medium-light weight, 22" barrel), others will regard it as more of a long range deer and antelope rifle (medium weight, 24" barrel), and for others it will be their woods rifle (medium weight, 20"-22" barrel). The most suitable type of action will depend on the anticipated range of applications. A single shot action is excellent for a mountain rifle, the bolt action is generally favored for long range rifles, and the lever action is hard to beat for a woods rifle.

The scope should be tailored to the cartridge and rifle. A 3-9x40mm model will do nicely for the long range calibers; a compact 2-7x, 2-6x, or 4x fixed power scope will complement the rest.

The varmint rifle

Varmint hunting, the shooting of small rodent pests like prairie dogs, ground squirrels, ground hogs, and perhaps the occasional fox or coyote is a sport that practically every rifleman can pursue. The shooter who becomes seriously interested in the sport will want a dedicated varmint rifle. These are typically single shot or bolt action models with heavy 24" to 26" barrels.

The most common calibers are .17 HMR, .22 Hornet, .222 Remington, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift. For shooting at long range in strong wind the .243 Winchester and 6mm Remington are good choices, but otherwise they have too much muzzle blast and recoil. The most popular varmint caliber of all is the .223 Remington, which represents a sort of ballistic middle ground. The .223 also has the advantage of inexpensive and widely available factory loads.

Varmint rifles tend toward powerful scopes, usually 4-12x or 6-18x variable power models. The game is small and often distant. These are heavy, bulky rifles despite their small caliber, and not very versatile. They are, however, very efficient for their specialized purpose.

The big bore rifle

The last, and normally least used, class of hunting rifle that some hunters will wish to acquire is a big bore rifle. The big bore kicks very hard, and it has a rainbow trajectory that makes hitting at long range problematical. The only beasts for which such a rifle is best suited are the thick-skinned dangerous types, such as Cape buffalo, American bison, elephant, rhino, and wild water buffalo.

There are two main groups of powerful big bore rifles. The first are what I call the American big bores or buffalo rifles. These are chambered for cartridges such as the .405 Winchester, .450 Marlin and .45-70 Government. These are calibers intended primarily for hunting the largest North American game, such as musk ox and bison. The most popular of these is the .45-70.

The other, more numerous, group is the African or safari rifle. These are chambered for cartridges such as the .416 Rigby, .416 Remington Magnum, .458 Winchester Magnum, .460 Weatherby Magnum and .470 NE. These are primarily intended for hunting African elephant, Cape buffalo, and rhinoceros. The most popular of these cartridges is the .458 Winchester Magnum. Because of its standard (.30-06) length case the .458 Win. is also probably the most versatile of the elephant rifle cartridges for the North American hunter.

A strong single shot or lever action rifle is the traditional choice for the American big bore cartridges. Handloaded for a modern, strong rifle of bolt, lever, or single shot persuasion the .45-70 can be a real bone crusher (at both ends). Such rifles should weigh 8.5 to 10 pounds complete with scope, and sport barrels from 22" to 26" long.

A break action double-barreled rifle or a bolt action repeating rifle are the traditional choices for the African big bore cartridges. A rifle for these big boomers should weigh at least 9.5 pounds in use, and 11 pounds is better, to help absorb some of the recoil. Barrels are usually 24" to 26" in length. The recoil of these cartridges is so severe that only the most experienced shooters should attempt them. Everyone else should pass on elephant and rhino hunting and use their powerful medium bore rifle on the world's bovines, should the opportunity to hunt them be presented.

Double rifles often carry only "Express" type open sights; all other types are usually fitted with low power telescopic sights. Durability, maximum eye relief and a super-wide field of view are what is needed in a scope for a big bore rifle. The game is very large, often dangerous, and usually not far away. A fixed power, low mounted, 2.5x scope is a good choice. So is a low powered variable, such as a 1-3x or 1-4x model. This is the only class of hunting rifle for which a 2x IER type scope mounted forward of the receiver ("scout" rifle style) makes any sense. Such a rig will positively keep the scope out of the shooter's eye on recoil.

Closing comments

Of course, there is no end to the number of rifles an avid shooter can accumulate, given the time and money to do so. However, most hunters can get by quite well with all or even part of the battery mentioned above. Many hunters, for instance, are not avid varmint shooters, and very few people actually need a big bore rifle.

A rifle battery such as the one recommended above gives the hunter a choice of rifles for most purposes. Notice that the recommended big game rifles in the battery overlap. There is a back up for every purpose. The hunter can always bring two rifles on any hunt, in case the primary rifle is put out of service in some way.

Personally, I never embark on any hunt longer than a day hunt with just one rifle. A capable back up rifle just makes sense. And so does a versatile rifle battery.

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Copyright 2003, 2006 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.