By Chuck Hawks
The weight of a hunting rifle, within certain limits, can be controlled. Any hunting rifle must be light enough for its owner to carry without undue strain and hardship, yet heavy enough to allow accurate shooting and to moderate the recoil of the cartridge for which it is chambered. It should also balance correctly, swing smoothly and handle swiftly.
Which naturally leads to the question "What is the optimum weight for a hunting rifle?" The answer, to an extent, depends on the intended purpose of the rifle and the cartridge for which it is chambered. A varmint rifle, normally carried little and shot a lot, should be heavier than a mountain rifle, which will be carried over difficult terrain for long distances and seldom fired.
Rifle weight is a key factor in free recoil energy and velocity. The more a rifle weighs the less it kicks. So rifles for powerful cartridges should weigh more than rifles for mild cartridges. As a practical matter, a .243 rifle can be lighter than a .270 rifle, which can be lighter than a .300 Magnum rifle.
Ultra-light rifles that weigh in the area of 5 pounds are hard to hold steady from field positions and hard to swing smoothly on running game, even if recoil (as in the case of a .22 rimfire) is not an issue. They should be avoided for general purposes. Practically any rifle should weigh at least 6 to 7 pounds or its handling and practical accuracy (how accurately it can be shot in the field) will suffer.
On the other hand, while it might be very desirable if a big bore elephant rifle were extremely heavy (around 20 pounds for example) to help moderate its ferocious recoil, a rifle that heavy very quickly becomes a burden to carry in the field and handles with ponderous slowness. It's just too heavy for general purposes. Sadly, 12 to 13 pounds probably represent the maximum practical weight of even a very powerful rifle for most hunters.
The famous U.S. military rifle of World War II and Korea, the semi-automatic, gas-operated, M1 Garand makes an interesting case study in rifle weight. This weapon weighed 9.5 pounds and was chambered for the .30-06 Springfield cartridge. Practically everyone thought it was too heavy, yet most soldiers also thought that it kicked pretty hard. Had it been lighter its recoil would have been even more pronounced. And, in the event, virtually all soldiers were able to carry it as far as required. In hindsight, the M1 was probably on the heavy side, but not by much. Perhaps 9 pounds would have been an ideal weight to balance portability against the recoil of the .30-06 cartridge in a battle rifle.
Having been a recreational shooter for some 40 years, and having owned rifles for cartridges from the .22 Short to the .458 Winchester Magnum and weighing from 4.5 pounds to about 10.5 pounds, I have formed some opinions about practical rifle weight. I am average in size for my generation, standing about 5' 10" tall and weighing about 170 pounds. I am a reasonably experienced shooter with no better than average recoil tolerance. My recommended weights for general purpose hunting rifles follow. Note that these weights include a scope and mount, which probably adds about a pound to the catalog weight of most hunting rifles.
Determining the proper weight for a hunting rifle requires a careful compromise between handling, balance, swing, portability, recoil moderation, and the physical capabilities of the shooter. Get it wrong and you can end up with a fire-stick that is almost as dangerous to the hunter as to the game!
Copyright 2003, 2007 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.