When it comes down to newcomers to the sport of big game hunting, one of the most common questions that comes up is which rifle to buy, and which caliber. For which caliber, check out my Popular Hunting Cartridge Ballistic Shootout. To make things quick, any of those cartridges will do the job, even the 100+ year old 30-06; you gain very little with modern cartridges. What has changed is the availability of inexpensive, accurate, durable, bolt action rifles. New rifle designs that take advantage of modern machinery, combined with durable plastic composite stocks means you don’t have to spend a month’s salary on a hunting rifle anymore. The other piece of the puzzle that I recommend is including optics. Scopes and red dots are a lot easier to learn how to use and scopes can build confidence sooner with more accurate target hits. Rifle scopes also aid in identifying what you’re shooting at; handy for keeping beginner hunters from firing at fellow hunters in the bush.
All of my recommendations below will be:
- Cheap. New hunters don’t usually dive in with both feet on a $2000 rifle + scope. From a practical point of view, you don’t gain a heck of a lot with a more expensive rifle and most of your shots won’t need $1000 glass. You can get into the sport with an inexpensive, plastic stocked bolt action rifle and be 99.9% as effective as the decked out hunter wearing $800 worth of clothes and carrying $2000 worth of rifle.
- Accurate. As a beginner, there’s nothing worse than fielding an inaccurate or fussy rifle.
- Easily scoped.
- Composite plastic stocks. Wood stocks look great, but they cost more and you feel awful after you scratch or abuse them. A plastic stocked rifle won’t hold you back in the field and is better at hiding scratches and other damage.
If you’ve got a little bit extra budget, consider putting it into a better optic or into a stainless rifle.
Beginner Hunting Rifle 1: Savage Axis XP
For just a bit more than $300, you can get an accurate bolt action rifle with a scope. For just a bit more, you can get the rifle in stainless and you won’t have to worry about scratches or rust as much. That’s really hard to beat. Even if you don’t want the scope, buy it with the scope anyways. It’s just $30 more in most stores, and you can throw that $30 scope onto a 22 if you dislike it. The stock is a bit ugly, the trigger needs a bit of work, and the magazine is a bit cheap. But it’s cheaper than most other rifles and offers excellent accuracy like most Savages. Alternatively, go for a Savage Axis II with factory Accutrigger.
Beginner Hunting Rifle 2: Ruger American
A bit into the $400 range, but that extra $100 shows. The stock is nicer than the Axis, the trigger better, it comes with aluminum v block bedding instead of just pillar bedding, and it comes with a rotary plastic magazine that looks a bit like the Browning X-bolt magazine. The 3 lug bolt also gives a slightly shorter bolt throw. This is clearly the Cadillac of our budget beginner rifle range.
Beginner Hunting Rifle 3: Marlin X7
Right in the $300 range, the Marlin XL or XS7’s come with an upgraded “pro-fire trigger system” similar to Savage’s Accutrigger. That’s an important advantage, because trigger pull has a big impact on practical, in the field accuracy. Like most of the other bolt action rifles listed here, it comes in a pillar bedded stock and the barrel is free floated. On the downsides, it comes with an internal box magazine, instead of having a more convenient box or hinged floorplate. I hate internal box magazines!
Beginner Hunting Rifle 4: Remington 783
Very similar to the Marlin (an evolution of it) and almost into the $400 range, the Remington 783 combines a new adjustable trigger with a modern looking stock and detachable magazine. This rifle is a heck of a lot better than the Remington 770 and is the easy choice if you want a Remington, or if you want the best magazine or a thicker barrel.
Beginner Hunting Rifle 5: H&R Handi-Rifle
I thought I’d toss a budget single shot into the mix. The H&R Handi-Rifle in a synthetic stock can be a handy little rifle and is easier to prove safe and safe carry than a bolt action rifle due to the H&R’s break open design. Since the action is so far back, with an equal length barrel, the H&R comes in 5-6″ shorter overall compared to a bolt action rifle. That makes it easier to maneuver in a small blind and more compact overall. It also puts the weight closer to the body, making it easier to hold the rifle while aiming. That’s an important consideration if the shooter is small in stature or can’t hold the rifle out too long while aiming. The triggers on these are supposed to be pretty terrible, so budget for a trigger job.
Rifles to Avoid as a Beginner
- Semi automatics. If you’re brand new to shooting, it can be difficult to learn the mechanisms involved in your rifle. A semi-automatic is more complex to use and it can be easy to forget that there’s a live round ready to go waiting in the chamber right after the excitement of your first kill. They’re also a bit more fussy on ammo than a bolt action rifle.
- Lever action rifles. I’m going to get sooo many emails about this, but buying a new lever action rifle comes with more baggage than necessary. Most of them are $400+, 30-30 is not very flexible, and they’re not nearly as accurate as a good bolt action rifle. They are more compact and generally easy to carry, but in my mind, those are not worth their shortcomings as a first rifle. Now as a secondary rifle when you know your shots are going to be close in, why not?
- Pump action rifles. Pump action rifles are an abomination. Bolt action rifles are more accurate and less expensive.
- Big magnum rifles. If you think you might need to shoot Elk or Moose, get a 30-06 or 7mm rem mag at the most. When I watch new shooters fire a 300 win mag in a lightweight rifle, I see their flinch develop and persist. You can’t shoot accurately if you’re anticipating a big kick from your rifle or you can’t afford to fire off a few rounds at the range every once in a while.
- Rifles on the used market. If you can get a smoking deal from an uncle, go for it. Otherwise, don’t bother with the used market. Rifles hold their value very well and most people sell used for exactly what they paid for them new. The chances of getting stuck with a lemon rifle that has a wandering zero or has other problem just isn’t worth the minor savings over new, especially when great new rifles are only $300-$400.
- Remington 770. The Savage Axis is better at that price point, and the Remington 783 is a much better rifle from Remington for a little bit more.