A Firearms Battery for Novice and Intermediate Hunters and Shooters

By Chuck Hawks

This article is in response to a Guns and Shooting Online reader request. Basically, the question is what guns to buy, including rifle, handgun and shotgun, and in what order? I remember an article, published long ago in an outdoor magazine, where a number of gun writers were asked a similar question about rifles. Most suggested a .22 rimfire rifle, which is exactly where I suggest starting.

1. Rimfire Rifle

A rimfire rifle chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge is where a beginner should learn sight alignment, trigger squeeze, the basic shooting positions and so forth. Recoil is nil, the report is mild (always wear ear protection) and ammunition is inexpensive. This allows a novice shooter to focus on learning the fundamentals without developing a flinch and to do a lot of practicing without breaking the family budget.

If you are an adult who is reasonably serious about hunting and shooting, I suggest starting with a good .22 hunting rifle. Skip the traditional beginner's cheap, single shot .22 in favor of a nice small game rifle you will be satisfied to own and use for many years. The Browning T-Bolt (straight pull bolt action), Ruger 77/22 (bolt action) and Marlin Model 39 (lever action) are examples of handsome steel and walnut .22 rifles, but there are many other good choices. (See the articles "Buying That First .22 Rifle" and "Recommended Rimfire Hunting Rifles" for additional information.)

2. Rimfire Handgun

Once you have mastered your .22 rifle and maybe tried your hand at small game hunting, you are probably ready to take another step toward becoming a well rounded hunter and shooter. At this point you should consider expanding your gun battery to include a .22 handgun. As with first rifles, the ubiquitous .22 LR is the cartridge for which your first handgun should be chambered, and for the same reasons of mild recoil and report.

The lessons of proper sight alignment and trigger squeeze learned with your .22 rifle will transfer when you begin shooting your first handgun. Of course, you will have to learn new grip, stance and shooting positions for pistol shooting with both one and two hands.

Once you have mastered the fundamentals of handgun shooting and have practiced enough that you can outshoot about 80% of the casual shooters at the range (don't expect to outperform the serious match shooters), give small game handgun hunting a try. Small game hunting is just as much fun with a handgun as with a rifle and more challenging. Since it is more difficult, the rewards are greater.

My favorite .22 handgun is a revolver with adjustable sights and a 5" to 6.5" barrel. The Ruger Super Single Six, Colt Diamondback (now discontinued) and S&W K-22 Masterpiece (Model 17) are traditional choices, but there are others. The choice between a single action or double action revolver is strictly a matter of personal preference. With either type you will need to learn to manually cock the hammer before squeezing the trigger for best accuracy. If you are pre-sold on an autoloading pistol, Browning, High Standard and Ruger offer good single action .22's with adjustable sights. (See "Good First Handguns" for additional revolver and pistol suggestions.)

It is worth noting that some single action revolvers are available with interchangeable .22 LR and .22 WMR cylinders. The design of traditional, Peacemaker type revolvers makes this possible and practical, but insist on models with adjustable sights. The modern Ruger Super Single Six Convertible and discontinued (but still excellent) Colt New Frontier .22 are examples of the type. These revolvers allow more flexibility for rimfire hunting, since the .22 Magnum is suitable for animals tougher than cottontail rabbits and squirrels. Jack rabbits, foxes, coyotes and the like are on the menu at handgun ranges and the .22 Magnum cartridge shoots flat enough for medium range handgun varminting.

.22 Magnum JHP ammunition is more destructive than even the best .22 LR loads, as well as most standard .25 and .32 caliber handgun cartridges. For this reason, a .22 WMR revolver is an excellent choice for a camping, hiking, fishing and general outdoor companion. Because of its flatter trajectory and increased hitting power, it also has enhanced personal protection possibilities, especially in the field where bad guys may be encountered at much greater range than typical indoor (across the room) distances.

Many hunters never feel the need to progress beyond a rimfire handgun. Hunting big game animals, such as deer and feral hogs, with a powerful centerfire handgun is a rather specialized sport that requires a lot of dedication and practice. Its appeal depends on how interested in handgun shooting you become and whether you primarily hunt for meat or for the challenge of the sport.

3. Shotgun

Okay, we are going to assume you have become competent with your .22 rifle and handgun. Next up for the well rounded shooter is the shotgun, which will be your first centerfire firearm and the first to generate significant recoil. Recoil, or kick, is something that you will have to get used to. It is best taken in small doses, especially in the beginning.

Shotgun shooting technique is entirely different from rifle and handgun shooting, starting with the fact that you don't aim a shotgun precisely at the target, you point it ahead of a moving target. There are no sights to align on a shotgun (ignore the traditional front bead), you point with the blurry shape of the barrels beneath the target, upon which your eyes are focused. You don't "slow squeeze" the trigger of a shotgun until the gun fires when the sights are aligned, as with a rifle or handgun; you pull a shotgun trigger (but don't jerk it) at the moment the lead looks correct. Plan on spending plenty of time at your local skeet, trap or five stand sporting clays range to learn how to shoot a shotgun. You will find that experienced shooters are usually quite willing to help beginning shotgunners learn the ropes.

This article is about building an initial battery of firearms, not a shooting primer, so we will move along to choosing a suitable shotgun. If your ultimate goal is bird hunting, a 20 gauge field gun would be a good place to start. As long as it is not an ultra light model, a 20 gauge gun kicks less than a 12 gauge and kills birds or clay targets almost as well. It is also easier to handle and swings faster.

There are various types of shotguns, including break-open models with single or double barrels, pumps and autoloaders. I am a big fan of break-open, double barreled shotguns, particularly side-by-side field or skeet models with 28" barrels. For trap shooting or sporting clays, 30" barrels are appropriate on a double gun. Bear in mind that a double is about 4" shorter than a repeater with the same length barrel, which gives the double gun an unsurmountable handling advantage in the field. Guns don't get any safer or easier to operate and a classy double gun is probably the most aesthetically pleasing of all firearms.

Unfortunately, although simple to use, a fine double gun is very expensive to make and, therefore, to purchase. After the First World War, manufacturing costs, particularly the price of skilled hand labor, rose and have continued rising to the present day. The rapidly increasing price is what caused the popularity of double guns to decrease. Far cruder "shooting machines," in the form of pump and autoloading repeaters, gradually came to dominate the shotgun marketplace. Not because they are better, or even as good, but simply because they are more affordable.

Among double guns, there are over/under and side-by-side models. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. Top grade guns of either type are prohibitively expensive for most beginning or intermediate shooters, but there are a few adequate and more reasonably priced models available on both the new and used markets. Among O/U guns, the Ruger Red Label and Browning Citori, both reliable and well made, certainly deserve consideration. If you can afford something approaching a "best" gun, check out the Merkel and Grulla side-by-side doubles. (See the article "Affordable Doubles" for more suggestions.)

Today, most aspiring novice and intermediate shooters will be forced by economics to buy a pump or autoloading shotgun. I suggest eschewing the bargain basement models with matte metal finish and plastic stocks. Spring for a shotgun with a polished blue metal finish and a walnut stock. How can you expect the gun's internals to be well fitted and finished if the manufacturer cannot even bother to finish the outside of the gun properly? Among pump guns, the Browning BPS, Ithaca Model 37 and Remington Model 870, all with walnut stocks, are popular choices that should serve you well for many years. Avoid a very short or long barrel on your repeater. 26" is a good barrel length for a field or skeet gun and 28" is all you need for sporting clays.

Gas operated autoloaders offer one big advantage over other types of shotguns (including recoil or "inertia" operated autoloaders): reduced recoil. A gas gun doesn't actually lessen the total amount of recoil, as there is no way to circumvent the laws of physics. What gas operation does is spread the recoil over a longer period of time. The recoil amplitude is lower, because the recoil time is longer. Bottom line, the kick hurts less.

Any autoloader is less reliable and requires more maintenance than a good double or pump gun, but serviceable autoloaders are available from Browning, Beretta, Remington and Winchester, to mention some well known brands. My personal favorite, and the only autoloading shotgun I own, is a 20 gauge Remington Model 1100 Sporting Series. This versatile gun can be used in the field, as well as for breaking clay targets. Because it is gas operated and not a lightweight, the recoil is mild. (See the article "Recommended Shotguns" for a list of decent shotguns of all types at every price point.)

Whatever type and model of 20 gauge shotgun you choose, stick with low brass field/target loads containing 7/8 ounce of shot. This is the standard 2-3/4" shell that made the 20 gauge's reputation. It is entirely adequate for breaking clay targets, as well as for most upland bird hunting. Your shotgun is going to kick a lot more than your .22 rifle, so minimize the recoil by shooting sensible, 7/8 ounce loads. After you become proficient with a shotgun, you can graduate to heavier loads for special purposes, such as waterfowl hunting.

4. Centerfire Rifle

After you have achieved competence with your rimfire rifle and learned to handle the recoil of a 20 gauge shotgun, you can consider stepping up to a centerfire rifle. Having whetted your appetite by hunting small game, you are probably lusting for a centerfire rifle suitable for shooting deer and similar size animals (Class 2 game).

There are a plethora of suitable centerfire hunting rifles on the market. Actions include break-open (both single and double barrel models), falling block single shots and repeaters using lever, bolt, autoloading and pump mechanisms. Bolt and lever action hunting rifles are probably the most popular types.

It would be hard to go wrong with a Browning BLR, Marlin Model 336 or Winchester Model 94 lever action deer rifle. If you prefer a bolt action, good choices from well known manufacturers include the Browning X-Bolt Hunter and Medallion grades, CZ 550 American, Remington Model 700 BDL and CDL grades, Savage American Classic, Weatherby Vanguard Sporter and Deluxe grades, Winchester Model 70 Sporter and Featherweight. For a list of recommended rifles of all action types, see the article "Recommended Centerfire Hunting Rifles."

For your first centerfire hunting rifle, think in terms of high intensity cartridges from .24 (6mm) to .28 (7mm) caliber and medium range classics, such as the .30-30. Suitable and reasonably common hunting cartridges, at least in North America, start with the .243 Winchester and include the 6mm Remington, .257 Roberts, .25-06, 6.5x55mm, .260 Remington, 7mm-08, 7x57mm, .30-30, .300 Savage, .308 Marlin Express and .32 Winchester Special. All of these kick less and kill almost as well as the slightly more powerful "all-around" cartridges on the order of the .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .308 Winchester and .30-06.

Actually, the 6.5mm, 7mm, .30 and .32 caliber cartridges I just mentioned, with suitable loads, can also be pressed into service for hunting larger (Class 3) game, such as Rocky Mountain elk, at moderate range. They are not optimum cartridges for the job, but it is proper bullet placement, not raw power, that cleanly harvests big game animals. On the other hand, a .24 or .25 caliber rifle, while not well suited for hunting large game in the elk class, can reasonably be used for occasional varmint shooting and small predator hunting, purposes for which the larger calibers are poorly suited.

For beginning and intermediate shooters, I always recommend standard cartridges. Leave the magnums to experienced shooters, you don't need them. Choose the cartridge for your first centerfire rifle carefully, based on an honest appraisal of your shooting ability and hunting needs. Consider your anticipated environment (woods, mountains, plains, etc.), intended game (deer, feral hogs, small predators, etc.) and recoil tolerance. The latter is particularly important, as buying an overly powerful first centerfire rifle can induce a tendency to flinch you will have to fight for the rest of your life. I speak from experience in this regard, having purchased a .303 British sporter in my teens that was too much gun for me at the time.

5. Centerfire Handgun

Your experience shooting a 20 gauge shotgun and your centerfire rifle will stand you in good stead when you graduate to a centerfire handgun. The muzzle blast and recoil of a centerfire handgun suitable for hunting and personal protection will subjectively seem similar, or worse.

Most aspiring handgun hunters, who are also concerned about defending their home in an emergency, should consider a centerfire revolver. A good centerfire revolver is ideal for home protection and is also the most popular choice for novice and intermediate handgun hunters. Barrel length should be between 5.5" and 8", with 6" or 6-1/2" being ideal. A revolver with a 6" barrel can be easily carried in a conventional belt holster and is not too unwieldy for close range personal defense. In addition, a 5.5" or longer barrel is desirable for its longer sight radius and enhanced ballistic performance.

The choice between a single action (SA) or double action (DA) revolver is strictly a matter of personal preference. With either type you will need to manually cock the hammer before squeezing the trigger to achieve the most precise bullet placement. Actually, double action (trigger cocking) shooting was developed for instantaneous self defense at near contact range. When better accuracy matters, and it almost always does, use the split second required to cock the hammer and take advantage of the resulting light, clean, single action trigger pull. Suitable revolvers include the Freedom Arms Model 97 (SA), Colt Python (DA, now discontinued), Colt New Frontier (SA), Ruger Blackhawk (SA) and Ruger GP100 (DA), among others.

Centerfire handgun hunting is primarily a revolver game. Few autoloading pistols are suitable for handgun hunting. Perhaps the most widely distributed of these is the 10mm caliber Glock 20. The 10mm Auto is just about the only reasonably available auto pistol cartridge for handgun hunting. For example, perusing the Cor-Bon ammunition catalog reveals that the 10mm is the sole auto pistol cartridge included in their Hunter ammo line.

The same Cor-Bon catalog shows that there are several reasonably common revolver cartridges for which they load big game hunting ammo. These include the .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt +P, .454 Casull, .460 S&W Magnum and .500 S&W Magnum. Of these, only the .357 Magnum is remotely suitable for a first centerfire revolver. Unfortunately, many aspiring handgunners never really master the .357, let alone the big bore magnums.

The greatest attribute of the .357 Magnum is its versatility, since any .357 Magnum revolver can also shoot all .38 Special ammunition. This allows the beginner to start with light .38 Special target/practice ammo and gradually work up through .38 Special +P loads to midrange .357 Magnum loads and, finally, full power .357 Magnum hunting loads.


The five types of firearms covered above should allow you to progress through the novice and intermediate shooter/hunter levels. You may never feel the need for more guns. Practically speaking, most of us could probably get by quite nicely with these five guns.

However, as with most recreational activities, the deeper you get into shooting and hunting, the more likely you are to want additional equipment. This is perfectly natural, although perhaps hazardous to your budget. A flat shooting varmint rifle, a medium bore rifle specifically for hunting Class 3 game, a 12 gauge waterfowl shotgun or a dedicated trap gun are common and easily justified additions to your basic firearms battery. Expanding your basic gun battery will allow you to have more fun and participate in a greater number of the shooting sports.

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Copyright 2013, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.