Hunting is one of my favorite survival skills. Not only does it bring you closer to nature, but it forces you to engage your primordial instincts. Rather than being surrounded by the constant glaring distractions we’re all used to – TVs, traffic, gossip – you’re in the heart of the wild, and your every sense is forced to be razor sharp.
As you lay down each step with the care and deliberateness of a gymnast, you listen for the gentle thud of hooves. You feel the wind blowing in your direction, raising the hairs on the back of your neck. As you spot on your prey, you forget about your clothes, your sweat, the blisters on your feet. Your rifle and your body are one unit, and together you move towards your prey. Instinct takes over as you stalk, but finely honed marksmanship skills and the expert craftsmanship of your gun are what inevitably will make the kill.
The question is: does your rifle have what it takes? Is your gun a match for your body and hunting techniques? The most expensive rifle in the world won’t do any good in inexperienced hands, so do you have the training and skills to safely and effectively use that hunting rifle?
The truth is, everyone’s a salesman these days, and there are hundreds of rifles to choose from. While there definitely isn’t just one that is best suited to the job, some rifles are better than others in terms of efficacy and affordability. Here I’ll go over some of the best ways to shop for a rifle, and we’ll cap it all off with what I think is the absolute best hunting rifle on the market.
Shopping for the perfect hunting rifle
Don’t sell yourself short. Even if you have the best tracking skills around, when it comes down to it, a reliable gun that’s going to give you plenty of power without weighing you down is what’s going to make for a successful hunting trip. With stores swarming with salesman looking to take the highest commission, it’s hard to know what you really need, and which rifle’s going to do the job. Here are a few parameters to look into when you make your decision.
Number one on my list! I don’t care if you have all the money in the world – in the end, a gun is a tool, and you want one that’s going to deliver results without breaking the bank, or being an expensive club. While it’s true that you typically get what you pay more, sometimes you just end up paying for more than you need. Shop smart, and don’t be fooled by flashy features you don’t need.
However, make sure when you shop around for your hunting rifle that you factor in the cost of a scope with your budget. Though many hunters go without, you don’t want to be caught without the money to get one if your rifle proves difficult to aim.
I can’t tell you how many exhausted hunters I’ve talked to that carry around massive, elaborate rifles for something as straightforward as whitetail hunting. Sure, you want a sturdy rifle, but if it weighs more than ten pounds, seriously consider how you’re going to feel after a day of tromping around in the woods with it. If by the time you lay eyes on your prey, you lack the energy to hold your rifle steady, it’s too heavy to be practical for the job.
A big factor in making a decision for a hunting rifle purchase is determining the type of action that you prefer. They all have their advantages and drawbacks, but typically the most preferred by rifle hunters is bolt action. These rifles offer the most accuracy at longer ranges due to having less recoil than semi-automatic weapons. They’re also compatible with a wider range of ammunition, make less noise when chambering, and are much easier to maintain due to their simple design.
Though this term’s definition can vary, generally caliber refers to the diameter of the bullet that the barrel of the rifle will accept. Whatever you do, don’t buy a gun that only accepts a caliber of a bullet that’s next to impossible to find, or is wildly expensive. When you shop around for a hunting rifle, sometimes it’s actually best to start by shopping around for ammunition first, just to see what’s always on the shelves, and how affordable it is. From there, you can work your way back to a compatible rifle.
Though it definitely varies a bit from region to region, some of the most commonly stocked and affordable ammo calibers are 7mm REM and .270 WIN. Both are plenty big enough to handle medium to large game, from sheep to elk and bears. Select a few calibers that are in your price range, then check out the rifles that are available in that size.
This may seem like a lot to take in, but once you break it down it’s really pretty simple. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the number of choices and specifications out there, start with the basics. Work your way backwards by first asking yourself the type of game that you’ll be after. Then, evaluate the caliber of bullet necessary to take down that prey.
From there, it’s really a matter of preference in determining what weight feels the best in your hands, the type of action that you prefer, and finally, how much you’re willing to spend. Using this process, you don’t have to be a seasoned pro to select the perfect hunting rifle.
The best hunting rifle for (almost) any job
And so here we go, the Pandora’s Box of hunting topics – which hunting rifle is best for the job. This is a hotly debated topic, so don’t go crazy in the comments telling me how wrong I am – everyone has a preference and an opinion. What we’re looking for here is the most accessible (i.e. easy to find and affordable) rifle that does the best job, even in inexperienced hands.
Perfection in the basics: the Mauser 98
This wasn’t an easy choice to narrow down, and I’ll be honest, it came really close between this rifle and the Mosin-Nagant. Both are excellent rifles, with repeating bolt action and a long history of some seriously happy shooters. However, the Mauser wins for its simple, efficient design that has not only stood the test of time, but inspired countless other rifles in its wake.
These rifles have been around a seriously long time – since the 1870s. They were originally designed for the German military, but were quickly adopted as a popular hunting rifle into the 19th century. Originally, they were single shot bolt action, but have since been adapted for repeating shots, making them great for beginners (no need to stop and reload as your target prances away).
The rifle uses an internal magazine with a five round capacity. This is a manually operated rifle, so the mechanisms are much easier to clean and maintain since there are fewer moving parts. This rifle uses 8mm Mauser ammunition, which is relatively easy to find, though they can be a little pricey since they’re so large. However, being that this is a military rifle, you can often find the ammunition in bulk discounted quantities through surplus and bulk ammo sites – just do some shopping around online before you head to your local outdoors store.
This is also a great rifle for all skill levels. It doesn’t weigh too much, but has enough heft to it to make it stay in place during the shot. At around nine pounds, it’s not going to slow you down too much on a hike, but also adheres to my rule for awesome rifles – that they be heavy enough to use as a club when you’re out of ammunition. This rifle also has two sling swivels, so you can add a strap to it to make it easier to pack around. The strap can be leather or paracord, according to your preferences. If you want to try paracord, take a look at our tutorial on how to make a paracord rifle sling.
Sure, it has some kick, but not enough to throw you off your target too much. In my experience, it has the perfect balance of weight and power though, making it easy to shoot with accuracy for people that are less than expert marksmanship. The iron sights make it easy to line up a shot, with two front sights, and a curved tangent rear site. You may want to consider looking at some scopes for flighty targets like white tail deer, or if this is your first experience hunting with a stronger rifle.
The design of the Mauser rifle is one that has been used to create countless other rifles – if you look at several other designs, the majority of them are based off of this one. This rifle has earned a reputation for safety and reliability, with a design that’s meant to last. It’s an easy rifle to shoot, that has plenty of power without overburdening an inexperienced marksman.
What I particularly love about the Mauser 98 is that it’s not just an effective weapon, but one that was designed with the shooter’s safety in mind. There are two gas relief holes bored into the bolt sleeve. In the event that a cartridge is stuck and the firing pin hits the primer in the cartridge, the holes provide gas relief, while keeping the cartridge inside the action. Basically, this prevents the gun from being blasted apart by the trapped gas, and prevents the debris from the cartridge from hitting the shooter in the face. Pretty thoughtful of those Germans, huh?
Another great feature of this rifle that really makes it ideal for both experienced hunters and novices alike is the trigger let up. This rifle was designed for soldiers, many of whom were nervous and filled with adrenaline in the midst of combat. The two stage trigger was made with considerable let up, so that a premature shot may be prevented by a nervous soldier. It’s difficult to gauge the exact amount of give, but in my experience it feels like close to a quarter of an inch.
These guns are typically produced with a walnut stock – very sturdy, and completely gorgeous in a gun rack. There’s also an internal design features that distributes the recoil produced by firing to reduce the kick. Everything about this gun is simple, sturdy, and brilliant.
As far as accessories go, believe it or not this rifle was originally designed to be used with a bayonet. If you get your hands on an older model Mauser 98, make sure to shop around for some awesome antique accessories. The great thing about Mausers and their accessories is that they’re not only pieces of history, but they were absolutely built to last. This is never an antique that’s going to just sit on a shelf – these beauties are meant to be shot. During World War 1, attachable grenade launchers were even made for these rifles!
Finally, these rifles, despite all of their efficiency on the field and rich history, are extremely affordable. You can get a standard Mauser M98 for between $200 and $400 typically, depending on its condition and age. Older, more collectible models can reach in the $1000 range though. It’s all a matter of how much you have to spend, and how important the nostalgia of your hunting rifle is.
There are dozens of makes of these rifles out there, since it’s been in production longer than almost any other firearm out there. Do your research before you make a purchase, and make sure you’re familiar with the rifle’s specifications and features. Since many of these guns are old or antiques, you’ll also want to take some of the precautions necessary when buying used firearms. Make sure that there are no cracks or visible deterioration on the outside (and inside, if you can get a good enough look at it) of the muzzle.
If you can’t get a good look at how things look on the inside, the general rule of thumb is that a gun that shows signs of poor maintenance and wear on the outside is going to just as rough, if not more so, on the inside. Speaking of maintenance, your gun will also require a professional cleaning kit so you should take a look at our tutorial on how to clean a rifle (especially if you’re a beginner).
If after all of this bragging on them, you’re still not really sold on the Mauser, then check out everyone else’s favorite, the Mosin Nagant. It’s often been touted as the Russian version of the Mauser, with similar styling and power, and a comparable reputation for handling and accuracy. They can be a bit pricier than a Mauser, but generally hang in the range of $400-$600. Depending on the Mosin you get, it usually takes the same cartridge as the Mauser as well, with a repeating bolt action.
I won’t go so far as to say that a hunter is only as good as his rifle – but it sure helps to have a good shooter at your side. In an era where firearms are being demonized, and the sources of our food becomes more and more unclear, hunting should be on the top of everyone’s list. The healthiest food in the world exists in the wild, with the leanest free range meat you can lay your hands on – all for the price of a good rifle and a round.
I like to look at my hunting rifle as an investment in feeding my family a healthy meal that I can honestly say I know was raised free and clear of antibiotics, CAFOs, and all the other junk that goes into the standard meal these days. Sure, rifle shopping is pretty addictive, but it’s also a very serious business. This is the tool that’s going to be putting meat on your table, and hopefully keeping money in your wallet. And if you want to know more about guns that can bring you food and safety, take a look at our reviews on the best survival rifle.
Don’t buy something that’s just going to look fancy on your wall – buy something that’s going to get the job done, ultimately for the least amount of capital. It’s an investment, and you want to secure yourself the highest possible return.