Rifle Weight

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.

  1. For rimfire rifles such as the .22 Short, .22 Long, .22 LR, .22 WMR and .17 HMR, a small game hunting rifle can reasonably be as light as 6 pounds or as heavy as 7.5 pounds. It is hard to see the point to a small game rifle much heavier than 7.5 pounds.

  2. Even the mildest centerfire rifles should weigh a little more than the lightest rimfire hunting rifles. .22 centerfire rifles intended for small game and predator hunting, as well as rifles chambered for light military cartridges such as the .223, .30 Carbine and 7.62x39 used for the same purposes, should ideally weigh between 6.5 and 7.5 pounds. Varmint rifles chambered for the same cartridges will be heavier, probably averaging between 8 and 10 pounds. Rifles chambered for revolver cartridges such as .32-20, .357 Magnum, .44-40, and .45 Colt are also well suited for rifles weighing 6.5 to 7.5 pounds.

  3. Rifles chambered for relatively mild CXP2 class game (deer and antelope) cartridges, such as the .243 Winchester, .243 WSSM, 6mm Remington, .250 Savage, and .257 Roberts should weigh not less than 7 pounds, and about 7.5 to 8 pounds is probably ideal. Rifles of that weight chambered for cartridges in this class are pleasant to shoot, as they should be. Varmint rifles for these cartridges will be heavier, of course, probably 8.5 to 10 pounds.

  4. 7 to 8 pounds is also a good weight for traditional "deer" rifles chambered for such cartridges as the .25-35, 7-30 Waters, .30-30, .32 Special, .35 Remington, .38-55, and .44 Remington Magnum.

  5. 7.5 to 8 pounds is a practical weight for cartridges such as the 6x62 Freres, .240 Weatherby Magnum, .25-06, 6.5x54, 6.5x55, 6.5x57, .260 Remington, and .300 Savage.

  6. Rifles for cartridges such as the 6.5mm Remington Magnum, 6.5x68S, .270 Winchester, .270 WSM, 7mm-08, 7x57, 7x64, .280 Remington, 7mm SAUM, 7mm WSM, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .303 British, 8x57JS, .338-57 O'Connor, .356 Winchester, .358 Winchester, and .45-70 (with standard pressure loads) should weigh no less than 8 pounds and probably no more than 9 pounds to keep recoil energy at or below 20 ft. lbs. while still remaining conveniently portable.

  7. Rifles for cartridges such as the .257 Weatherby Magnum, .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Weatherby Magnum, 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm STW, 7mm Weatherby Magnum, 7mm Ultra Mag, .300 SAUM, .300 WSM, .300 H&H Magnum, .308 Norma Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, .338-06, .35 Whelen, .350 Remington Magnum, 9.3x74R, and .444 Marlin should not be lighter than 8.5 pounds or heavier than about 9.5 pounds.

  8. Rifles for such hard kicking numbers as the .300 Weatherby Magnum, .300 Ultra Mag, 8x68S, 8mm Remington Magnum, .338 Winchester Magnum, .358 Norma Magnum, 9.3x62, 9.3x64, .450 Marlin, and .45-70 (with high pressure loads) should scale not less than 9.5 pounds (the weight of the old, hard kicking, M1 Garand).

  9. Rifles for extreme cartridges such as the .338 Ultra Mag, .338 Lapua, .340 Weatherby, and .375 H&H Magnum need to weigh 10-11 pounds or more, and even in such heavy rifles they will still generate very uncomfortable recoil.

  10. No rifle that can comfortably be carried for long periods in one hand is really heavy enough to tame the recoil of cartridges such as the .30-378 Weatherby, .338-378 Weatherby, .375 Weatherby, .375 Ultra Mag, .378 Weatherby, the various .416's, .458 Magnums, and so forth. Rifles for these cartridges need to be as heavy as the hunter can endure, preferably 12-13 pounds or even more.

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!

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Copyright 2003, 2007 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.