Posted on March 5th, 2015 / By Tom Anderson of Wildlife Pursuit
Once you have made the decision to go hunting and have a place to hunt, you’ll have to pick out an appropriate weapon. Unless you plan to hunt one species in the same type of ecosystem, versatility will be important in addition to the considerations below. I will explore several factors which will hopefully help you determine a good choice for your first rifle. If “everyone” in your hunting group uses a certain “pet” caliber, you plan on hunting very large or dangerous game or you are interested in ultra-long range hunting, your choices are beyond the scope of this article. I also will not deal extensively with predator hunting except to note that the most common cartridges are .223 and .22-250 in a heavy-barreled bolt action or single-shot rifle with a high-magnification scope. However, some of the big game cartridges discussed below can be purchased (or hand-loaded, of course) in light, low recoil offerings
which are also suitable for predators.
Before selecting your rifle, you will have to choose the cartridge that will best match the terrain, game and hunting style you plan on enjoying.
If the state or locale where you plan on hunting does not allow hunting with center fire rifles, your choices for hunting deer will essentially be between a muzzle-loading rifle or a shotgun of either 12 gauge or 20 gauge with a low magnification sight.
Wide open pastures, farm fields or western expanses call for a flatshooting bullet that retains sufficient energy at ranges that commonly exceed 200 yards. While almost any cartridge/rifle/scope combination can shoot accurately at these extended ranges with enough practice, a cartridge that allows the same point of aim out to 300 yards reduces the necessity of accurate range determination.
For deer or antelope, a bolt action rifle in .243, .25-06, .270, .280, or .30-06, with a scope up to 10x would be a great choice in these conditions. For elk, caribou or moose, .270 caliber would be considered a minimum by most. More robust and commonly utilized choices would be .300, 7mm, or .338 magnum calibers.
Remember that the price you pay for launching a heavy bullet at high speed from a magnum rifle is a heavier rifle due to longer actions, heavier bullets to carry around, and substantially increased kick. I do not remember the noise or kick from any shot taken at game, but bruised shoulders from numerous practice shots of magnum rounds have haunted me for days afterward. The last thing you want is to fear pulling the trigger when Mr. Big is in your sights.
In the tight quarters of dark forests, steep canyons or swamps, shots are commonly under 100 yards. Under those conditions, a shorter weapon that allows you to easily get on target will be the most useful. While a scope provides target magnification and gathers more light than the naked eye, open sights, peep sights, or a “red-dot” type sight usually make it easier to quickly find your target in low light or tight quarters.
Typical cartridges used in these conditions are .30-.30, .44 magnum, .308, or a shotgun loaded with slugs.
So, what is the “perfect” first rifle? I know that there are other factors such as availability of ammunition and budget (don’t forget the cost of the ammunition), and that opinions abound on this question. However, since you asked, I will give mine: a bolt action rifle from a domestic manufacturer in .270 or .30-06 with a moderately-powered, clear scope.
This combination will be suitable for many common hunting condition, is readily available, has moderately-priced ammunition, and is extremely versatile through a myriad of loadings. And, if you can afford another rifle, buy a .22 caliber rifle, and practice with it relentlessly in order to perfect your form and trigger control.