Hunting Rifle Selection for Big Game: Plain and Simple Basics, by SplitHoof

Recently I have been asked by a number of friends and associates for specific recommendations on the selection of suitable rifles for hunting big game (including feral hogs, deer, problematic black bears, etc.). Rather than spending considerable time conversing with everyone on an individual basis through a whole bunch of e-mail messages, I will offer some of my own brief personal observations as a starting point, and then will be glad to answer any additional questions for those who may be so inclined to ask.  I must make it perfectly clear from the start that I do not consider myself to be some anointed “expert”, but rather someone who has learned a few lessons over the past years.  Because my views are not going to be published in any for-profit endeavor, I am not beholden to any particular manufacturer for opinions expressed.  With this in mind, I will focus on a few different models that will provide excellent service, yet be cost effective and of a good value for the money spent. 

When hunting any kind of game, the objective is to dispatch the game animal quickly and humanely while using a minimal number of rounds of ammunition.  Of primary importance in this are two critical factors: exactly where the bullet strikes the animal, and the construction of the bullet itself; it must be matched to the type of game to be taken.  In order for the bullet to strike where it must, the operator must be able to deliver the shot from any number of field shooting positions, under time pressure. The weapon selected for this need not be fancy or expensive, but it must be reliable, and the operator must know it thoroughly inside and out.  There are several action types to choose from, such as single shot, semi-automatic, pump, lever, bolt, etc., and all can be used effectively, and each has specific advantages to offer.  Due to the popularity of the basic bolt-action design, many manufactures offer it in a wide variety of calibers and barrel lengths.  Add to this several different stock designs and finishes, other features such as blue steel or stainless, detachable magazines, integral scope mounting bases, sling swivels, etc., and one can have many different choices that can seem complicated.  I have observed that weapons featuring all the latest gadgets, bells and whistles, and in the flavor-of-the-day wiz-bang calibers offer no real advantage for the majority of hunters, but likely serve to keep the manufactures busy dreaming up what they will offer the following year.  However, understand that there are some special circumstances where specialized equipment can make the difference for an experienced hunter, but this article is not geared in that direction.  Let us not waste money on stuff we don’t need.  Let us instead invest in a simple, reliable and accurate weapons package, and become highly proficient in the use of such.  

For the purpose of this article, I will focus on a few bolt-action hunting rifles, currently offered in popular calibers.  Why?  For starters, the basic mass produced bolt-action design is simple to operate, reliable, very strong, inherently accurate, easy to maintain, easy to carry in the field, and affordable.  Given a decent optical sight and a couple of small extras, it will be just as good as anything else for the greatest majority of our needs.  True, custom rifles built from the ground up are fun to own and give great pride of ownership, and performance to match, but they can be cost prohibitive.

Ammunition and caliber selection:  If there is one aspect of my choices that will generate debate, it is this one.  There are many suitable calibers that will do the job, some better than others.  Many are so very close in ballistic qualities that the differences in actual field conditions are negligible.  Several are re-hashed versions of older cartridges that failed commercially, and have been brought back to life under new names.  A few may actually offer very good performance but are expensive when compared to others.  True, the cost of a few rounds of ammunition is only a very small part of a successful hunt, but the ability to properly use any given rifle and achieve good results demands that the operator use sufficient ammunition in practice to be skilled.  One has only to compare the costs of different cartridges (with similar bullets) suitable for big game hunting to see what I mean by this. While this can be mitigated to some extent by assembling your own ammunition, for many this is not cost effective due to initial start-up costs.  Another major factor in caliber selection is the ability to purchase ammunition in just about any place in the world.  Try finding the latest wiz-bang ammunition in some small town sporting goods store or local Wal-Mart on a Sunday afternoon, let alone in a foreign country. For this reason, I stay with my two favorites, the .30-06 Springfield and its shorter cousin the .308 Winchester.

The .30-06 Springfield is a long-time favorite for literally millions of hunters in every corner of the world.  Adopted by the United States military in 1906, it has accounted for a huge number of game animals, large and small.  It is very versatile, and is offered by every major manufacturer in a wide variety of bullet configurations suitable for just about any game one could take within the scope of it’s power range.  I have used it with great success to take a variety of game, and have found it to be very accurate in a number of different rifles.  With the availability of decent military surplus ammunition of good quality, sufficient practice in field shooting scenarios and techniques can be done without burning up a pile of more expensive hunting loads.  

Adopted by the United Stated military in 1955 as the T-65, and first commercially offered by Winchester, the .308 is my second favorite choice for gig game.  It uses the same bullet diameter as the .30-06, but in a slightly shorter case.  Because it uses a shorter case, the length of the rifle’s action can be made a bit shorter, thus reducing the overall length. The ballistics of this cartridge are very close to that of the .30-06, although bullet weights for hunting are typically lighter than that of the .30-06.  The .308 Winchester has taken a large number of game animals, and like the .30-06, it well suited for our purposes.  In military nomenclature, it is known as the 7.62×51 NATO, with lots of good surplus loadings available for less-expensive practice sessions. It has a history as a sniping and machine-gun round, and is very versatile. I have had excellent results with this cartridge hunting a variety of game.  My most accurate center-fire rifle, a Remington 700P, is chambered for this.

When it comes to selecting a suitable big game hunting rifle, there are what seems to be endless choices of caliber, finish, stock material, barrel length, sight arrangements, and other options in the fore-mentioned action types by a whole bunch of manufactures. What follows are some observations as to brands and models of the bolt-action types observed by myself and a couple of associates whom I have hunted with and also have a good bit of shooting experience.

Ruger: Offering several models based on the Model 77 action, the newest and improved offerings called the Hawkeye line, feature very good triggers, integral scope bases, choices of finish and stock material, and models of compact or standard length.  My personal favorite is the “All Weather” line in stainless steel with synthetic stock.  At this time, it is listed in .308 and .30-06.

Remington: The Model 770 is a base model entry-level rifle featuring a polymer stock with integral trigger guard in a very simple action. An associate uses one in .30-06, and is able to get quite acceptable accuracy from it.  While not my preference, it will get the job done.  The Model 700 is the rifle by which all others are judged.  Released in 1962, it is one of the most accurate rifles out of the box.  Available in many different versions, it is favored as a basis for many custom rifles, and has a proven record in military use and as a sniping weapon by countless law enforcement agencies. As a hunting arm, it is offered in numerous calibers and configurations.  It has been my go-to hunting rifle model, and has never failed my uses.  It’s short-action cousin, the Model 7, is a shortened version and very well liked.

Savage: Often overlooked, Savage offers quite an impressive line of quality bolt-actions mostly based on the Model 110 and it’s variants.  A unique feature is the barrel system, which uses a special retaining nut that can be removed and replaced much easier than most designs.  Custom builders like this for creating switch-barrel rifles.  My preferences are models in the Weather Warrior series, featuring the newer AccuTriggers and the new AccuStock design.  I have seen Savage rifles used to take game, and observed their use in various tactical shooting competitive events, and believe they represent a very good value.

Mossberg: They currently offer hunting rifles in .30-06 and .308 Winchester in the 100 ATR line.  Several of the variants feature rifle scope bases installed, and some have a very durable applied metal finish. Synthetic stocks are available.  While I have limited experience with this line, and they are very new, I liked the sample I test-fired.  

Thompson Center (T/C): Offers a line of bolt-action rifles called the Icon.  While not inexpensive, features such as integral scope bases, detachable magazines, quality barrels and several finish and stock options make this brand worth a good look.  Available calibers are several, including .30-06 and .308 Winchester.

Winchester/FN: The Model 70 dates back for many years, and has included numerous variations in a variety of calibers. Often referred to as the “Rifleman’s Rifle”, it has an almost cult following.  However, due to a storied history of manufacture and company ownership, it would take quite a bit of writing to cover even half of it, and at this time I am not sure of exactly what is being offered and in what configurations.  I can say this: if one researches the different Model 70 variations, he can find some very quality used rifles out there.  The newer versions produced here by FN look promising.

No big game hunting rifle is complete with out a few basic accessories.  Some are affixed to the rifle itself, some can be carried by the hunter.  Suffice to say that those accessories that are not affixed can become lost or forgotten, so plan accordingly.

Telescopic sights are a great aid to accurate shooting, and when chosen properly can help ensure a successful outcome.  For big game rifles, a high magnification is not really necessary, and I have had great success using 4X or 6X fixed power models.  I recommend using some form of the basic duplex reticle.  Other types can be too busy, and it is easy to become confused when making a quick shot.  Variable power range models are acceptable, and the better quality brands are repeatable throughout the power range.  I have had very good results using scopes built by Leupold, and recommend them for many applications. Excellent quality is the norm, and the range of available models is extensive. One inch main-tubes are well suited to hunting rifles, but for peak performance a 30 millimeter main-tube is tops. However, expect to pay a premium for this.  I have used models featuring illuminated reticles, but this feature elevates the cost substantially, usually beyond the budgets of most hunters.  One more important point: the bigger a scope is, the higher above the centerline of the rifle’s bore it must be mounted.  This can severely interfere with getting a proper cheek weld on the stock, thus making field shooting more difficult.

Iron sights are unfortunately missing from too many rifles these days, but I have them on my favorite Model 700 as a backup if my scope is damaged in the field.  The scope rings on this rifle are the quick detachable type, helping to make the transition from scope to iron sights much quicker.

Slings are a great aid, not only for carry, but also as an aid to field shooting if you have learned the proper technique.  Most rifle manufactures offer only a basic carry strap design, but I have found that the “Ching Sling” is excellent.  [JWR Adds: The very best nylon Ching Slings were formerly made by Wilderness Products (sadly discontinued), but very good quality leather Ching Slings are still made by Galco.] This sling design requires the installation of a third swivel stud forward of the trigger guard.  Once you learn to use this, you will want one on all your rifles.

Bipods of the folding type mounted under the forearm have worked very well for me.  I always try to get into the most stable shooting position, and this type offers the greatest speed.  I use bipods made by Harris exclusively. While not the lightest, they are the best quality for the price.  Some folks don’t like them for whatever reason, but I have found them to be an essential accessory.  Avoid the imported copies if possible.

Factory rifle packages that include scopes are a nice idea, but most feature cheap, lower quality imported optics.  Spend a bit more money up front to set up your rig correctly.  It will be worth the expense later on. 

All the above information is a start on equipment selection, but it is only the views and expressions of one man.  Every hunter or shooter will have their own ideas about what may be best suited for them, and there are enough options out there to handle most every need.  If I can add one more important aspect to this, it is that proper training and practice in safe, efficient gun handling skills and field shooting techniques is absolutely necessary.  All the best equipment in the world will not make up for a lack of purposeful quality practice. In a future SurvivalBlog post, will present a detailed writing of what practice and range drills have proved useful to me for those who are interested.