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The single largest investment that novice hunters normally make is a new hunting rifle, which is sometimes an overwhelming process for those new to the sport. Like any other major purchase, however, a little research goes far in making a smart decision. Below are some general suggestions on selecting an entry-level firearm suitable for novice hunters or those otherwise unfamiliar with the ins and outs of deer hunting rifles.
Size and Fit
When evaluating a rifle, a prospective buyer should, first and foremost, be concerned with three interrelated factors: length, weight, and fit.
The average length of a deer hunting rifle is around 40-inches, which includes the stock, barrel, and receiver. Most standard barrels measure between 18 and 22-inches.
Overall weight is related to length, in that longer barrels tend to weigh more. Weight is also influenced by the caliber, with larger weapons generally weighing a bit more than their smaller caliber cousins. Heft is also dictated by stocks; synthetic and plastic stocks are generally lighter than wooden stocks.
Ultimately, finding a comfortable rifle comes down to achieving a great fit and is honestly a matter of personal preference. Consider how the weapon feels in your shoulder, the comfort of the grips, and the ease at which you can aim and handle the weapon.
Caliber and Ammunition
Caliber, or the size of the inner-diameter of the rifle barrel, is probably one of the most hotly debated topics among deer hunting enthusiasts. Nuanced debates aside, remember that bigger is not always better. Larger guns often produce significant recoil, making them poor choices for smaller shooters.
Rifle ballistics are dictated by bullet mass (size and substance) and muzzle velocity (speed). A smaller bullet might provide a greater “punch” than a larger bullet relative their relative velocity and construction.
Moreover, some hunting localities don’t legally allow the use of some cartridges. Ammunition restrictions typically stem from public health, environmental, and safety concerns. Always check with your local authorities before making a purchase.
The terms “caliber” and “cartridge,” although sometimes used interchangeably, are not one in the same. Caliber refers to the diameter of the bullet. Cartridge, on the other hand, refers to the size and shape of the overall ammunition.
Deer hunters favor a variety of ammunition for many different reasons. According to a 2017 article by Outdoor Life, some of the most popular cartridges include: .30-30 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .280 Remington, .270 Winchester, .243 Winchester, .300 Winchester, .308 Winchester, and 7mm Remington Magnum.
Sights, Actions, and Finishes
In addition to everything covered above, there’s a few other things to consider before making your first purchase.
Many of today’s deer rifles require the use of scopes, or other advanced optics, for hunters to properly aim them at their intended targets. While sometimes included with a rifle, buyers more often purchase scopes separately and mount them at additional expense.
Another thing to consider is the “action” (mechanics) of the rifle, which is an entire subject upon itself. The three most popular types of deer hunting rifle actions are bolt, lever, and break (pretty much in that order). Selecting an action is mostly a matter of preference and budget.
Finishes and coatings are the materials and veneers that rifles are constructed from and covered with. Wooden stocks have a great feel and look but tend to cost a bit more. Synthetic stocks are cheaper but more resistant to water and moisture. The metallic parts of a rifle are normally made of “blue” steel (the industry standard). Corrosion resistant, tactical, and sharper looking variants are also available at increased cost.
Enough background, let’s get down to the rifles. With the novice hunter in mind, the below selection is limited to currently produced, entry-level firearms with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) listed under $500.
H&R 1871 Handi-Rifle
Harrington & Richardson might possibly be the oldest firearms manufacturer you’ve never heard of. Founded in 1871, H&R has a solid reputation for producing some underrated firearms popular with older generations of shooters. An American company, originally based out of New England, H&R continues to produce inexpensive and reliable firearms today.
The H&R 1871 Handi-Rifle features two details that distinguish it from the rest of the rifles on this list. First, it’s the least expensive of the group, costing less than $300 brand new “out of the box.” Second, it’s built around a break-break action mechanism, which is incredibly simple and reliable to operate (although limited to a single shot at a time).
Additional features include a high-density polymer stock, a patented Transfer Bar System (making the weapon very safe to handle), 22-inch steel barrel, sling swivel studs, and a rubber buttpad.
H&R offers the Handi-Rifle in seven calibers suitable for deer hunting, with testers having few complaints about the weapons average accuracy. Some critics complain about the consistency of the platform, in that H&R changes the configuration of the rifle from year to year without updating their catalog. Some calibers feature open sights, for example, while others have scope mounts. Otherwise, that Handi looks like a great entry-level firearm with a great asking price (MSRP $252).
Savage Arms AXIS
Savage Arms is an American company with over 100 years of experience producing reliable and accurate weapons. One of their newest lines, the AXIS series of bolt-action centerfire rifles, builds upon their proud tradition of delivering excellent firearms at a respectable price.
The Savage AXIS incorporates a few universal features seen among most of today’s entry-level class of hunting rifles—namely, a bolt-action frame seated in a black synthetic stock offered in a variety of popular calibers. Bolt-action rifles are generally some of the simplest and least expensive weapons to produce and operate, while synthetic stocks offer unparalleled durability at a great price. Savage currently offers the AXIS in nine different calibers, ranging from .22-250 Remington to .308 Winchester.
Other features include a 22-inch carbon-steel barrel, contoured grips and forend,
a 4-round detachable box magazine, a shock-absorbing rubber buttpad, pre-drilled and tapped holes for scope mounts, and sling swivel studs. The entire package weighs in at 6.5 pounds and, in the words of Savage Arms, offers “silky smooth bolt operation.” All this, coupled with the fact that a lot of professionals give the AXIS pretty high praise, make it a rifle definitely worth considering for a first purchase (MSRP $369).
O. F. Mossberg & Sons, like Savage, is an American company with an operating history extending back for a century and is therefore no stranger to producing quality long guns. The Mossberg Patriot, along with some higher end offerings in it’s line-up, have sold well on the hunting firearms market for decades.
The Mossberg Patriot cost about $30 more than the above AXIS but offers a few neat extras that might be attractive to certain hunters. Like the AXIS, the Mossberg Patriot is centered around a 22-inch barrel settled in a black synthetic stock. A nice little touch, however, is some shallow fluting on the matte blued barrel that adds a nice look to the weapon. Some enthusiasts also gush over the contours of the stock that make the weapon great to handle and shoot.
Additional features include a recoil reducing buttpad, stippled grips, sling swivel stud mounts, a 4-round box magazine, and pre-installed weaver mounts (that facilitate mounting a scope). Total weight is 6.5 pounds, while overall length is just under 43-inches. Mossberg only offers this rifle in .243 Winchester. Despite the limited caliber choice, the Patriot is still a whole lot of gun for the asking price (MSRP $396).
Remington Model 783
As far as industry pedigrees are concerned, the name Remington is synonymous with the American hunting rifle. Founded over two centuries ago, Remington is one of the oldest manufacturers in the United States, period. Despite facing several financial challenges of late, the company nevertheless continues to produce quality firearms.
The Remington Model 783 comes complete, out of the box, with a pre-mounted and bore-sighted riflescope. Be forewarned, however, that the 783 is a budget rifle with budget optics. This isn’t to say that the 783 isn’t accurate, just don’t expect the clearest of sight pictures through the 3-9x 40 mm factory scope. The 783 additionally features a synthetic stock, 22 or 24-inch barrel, Supercell recoil pad, and adjustable trigger. The entire package is one of the heavier entries on this list, weighing in at just over 7 pounds.
While generally well received among many hunters, the 783 has also been the subject of several mixed reviews. On the plus side, it’s offered in a greater variety of popular deer hunting calibers than some other weapons on this list, including .270 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, and 7mm Remington Magnum. The 783’s box magazine is also made of steel, rather than plastic, which makes it a more durable accessory. On the other hand, a lot of owners seem unhappy with the overall quality of the weapon, as its been produced and packaged on a shoestring budget. Regardless, Remington is offers great features for the asking price, giving novice hunters a whole lot of bang for their hard-earned bucks (MSRP $399).
Ruger American Rifle Standard
Sturm, Ruger & Co. was founded in 1949, making it one of the newest firearm manufacturers on this list. What the company lacks in history, however, is more than made up for in its impressive market presence. Ruger is the one of the largest firearms manufactures in the United States today, only trailing behind Smith & Wesson and Remington.
Simply put, the Ruger American Rifle Standard is a popular long gun for all the right reasons. It’s the most expensive of the five rifles presented on this list but of unmatched quality and craftsmanship. Among other features applauded by firearms critics, is the rifle’s box magazine which, unlike standard models, employs a rotary mechanism that ultimately makes the forend more comfortable and pleasant to handle. Moreover, the rifle sports great ergonomics, with a superb buttpad, well-placed safety tang, and quality-constructed barrel and receiver.
The sole criticism of this rifle is that its inaccuracy when shot with cheap ammunition. So, if you’re willing to shell out a few extra dollars for higher-grade ammo, this might be the right rifle for you. The Standard holds up to 5 rounds and is offered in 13 different calibers including .243, .308, .270, and .30-06. Ammunition is chambered and shot through a 22 or 24-inch barrel, with the entire package weighing a hair over 6 pounds. All and all, a great deal for the asking price (MSRP $489).
Time to Shop Around
While I’ve attempted to provide some useful information and suggestions on an initial firearm purchase for novice hunters, this article and the above list are far from exhaustive. When deciding on your first deer hunting rifle purchase, the best bet is to put in some extra time doing your own research and shopping around for the best deals. Handling used weapons or checking out the rifles at your local firearms or sporting good stores are always safe bets.
Bear in mind that, in addition to purchasing new rifles out of the box, there’s a very robust market in used firearms that can save you a tremendous amount of money in the long run; provided you’re willing to purchase a second-hand weapon.
Whatever your choice, stay safe and have fun hunting!