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Beginner's Guide to Rifles

by Robert Ranstadler

Finding the Perfect Rifle for You

Rifles Shooter Sighting Target

Choosing the right rifle is paramount in staging a successful hunt and forging a prosperous new path in the sport. At first glance, it might seem like there’s a myriad of endless and intimidating choices out there, which can make getting into hunting a bit daunting for novice hunters and those new to the lifestyle. A little research can go a long way, however, in selecting the right rifle. What follows is a brief primer intended to get new hunters started on the right path to selecting an appropriate rifle.

Common Characteristics of Rifles

Rifles Telescopic Sights

Rifles vary considerably in form and function, but all share a few things in common. The most obvious feature is a rifled barrel, from which the category of weapons derives its name. Rifling is a series of twisting grooves along the inner-diameter, or “bore,” of the barrel that causes fired bullets to longitudinally spin upon departing the “muzzle” (front opening) of the weapon. Ballistically, the spinning of the bullet leads to improved distance and accuracy. Although hunters and soldiers made use of long rifles as early as the 1700s, mass-produced rifles became available during the mid-nineteenth century. This was a significant improvement over less accurate “smoothbore” muskets and carbines of earlier eras.

Another common feature of modern rifles is the method in which they are loaded. With a few unique exceptions, all present-day rifles are loaded from the rear or bottom of the weapon. Older long rifles and smoothbore muskets were loaded from the front of the weapon, which required the shooter to ram ammunition and propellent through the muzzle, down the length of the barrel, with a wooden or steel rod. Modern rifles, however, are loaded predominantly by mechanical means, called “actions,” that differ depending on their purpose and configuration.

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All rifles also share relatively common firing mechanisms, or actions, that chiefly consist of parts designed to extract, load, chamber, fire, and eject a variety of ammunition. The main area where this mechanical exchange takes place is called the “receiver” of the weapon. Some rifles feature upper and lower receivers while others only have a single receiver. Regardless, the receiver usually features four pieces, called a “trigger,” “hammer,” “bolt,” and a “firing pin” that mechanically work in conjunction with one another to strike and ignite loaded ammunition. Firing sequences and specifics vary per rifle, which is discussed in greater detail below.

The final pair of features common to all modern hunting rifles are “stocks” and “forends.” Shoulder stocks are mechanically fixed to the rear of the rifle (although some fold or collapse for fit and storage) and are designed to be placed in the pocket of the shooter’s shoulder when firing the weapon. Forends, or foregrips, are attached below the barrel of the weapon and allow a shooter to steady the rifle or load ammunition with his or her offhand. Stocks and forends vary considerably in size, appearance, and individual application but basically serve to make rifles more stable and comfortable during the aiming and firing process. Cosmetics and material preferences also play a part in selecting stocks, with some hunters opting for unique finishes and patterns suited to their individual styles and tastes.

Actions

As mentioned above, the principal means by which a rifle mechanically loads and fires ammunition is referred to as its action. The most popular models available on today’s hunting rifle market are bolt and lever-action weapons, although some hunters opt for pump, semi-automatic, and break-action rifles. A brief description of each major type of action, along with an accompanying example, are provided below.

Bolt-Action Rifles

Rifles Remington Model 700

Bolt-action weapons are relative newcomers, when compared to some other types of rifles, but enjoy incredible popularity among both veteran and novice hunters alike. Bolt-action rifles come in both single-shot and repeating varieties, with the latter relying upon the use of box magazines to hold additional ammunition below the receiver. 

Bolt-action rifles require the shooter to operate a handle, which rotates and locks a cam that extracts, loads, fires, and ejects ammunition. With each fired shot, the shooter is required to remove their hand from the trigger, pull back the bolt, reseat the bolt, return their hand to the trigger, and take aim. Bolt-action rifles are great for all sorts of applications, from getting rid of pesky varmints all the way up to hunting big game.  One of the most iconic and popular bolt-action hunting rifles in history is the Remington 700 (pictured above).

Lever-Action Rifles

Rifles Winchester Model 1892 Deluxe

Lever-action rifles are a second type of repeating firearm that first appeared during the early 1800s. These rifles were quite popular in the Old West and are still of great use today. In a lever-action rifle, the shooter fires a shot, cocks a lever located under the receiver with his or her shooting hand, and fires a subsequent shot. Actuating the lever ejects a spent cartridge, extracts a new cartridge from a tubular magazine, loads the new cartridge into the chamber, and cocks a hammer all in two motions. This generally allows for a greater rate of fire than single shot or bolt-action weapons.

Lever-action rifles are well-suited for short to medium range hunting and ideal for brush hunting. While they’re capable of firing more quickly than their bolt-action cousins, lever-action rifles are a bit shorter and use specialized ammunition that makes them less than an optimal choice for long-range sporting. Pictured above is a model 1873 Winchester, a weapon famously advertised as “The Gun that Won the West” and still available for purchase today.

Pump-Action Rifles

Rifles Remington Model 7600

Pump-action rifles operate much like modern shotguns, with the shooter having to pump an articulated forend that, like a lever-action rifle, ejects and loads ammunition. Of all the actions presented here, pump-action rifles are decidedly the least popular of firearms used by hunters today. Many enthusiasts debate why the pump-action rifle has taken a back seat to more popular actions with little consensus. 

Pump-action rifles are available in significantly lesser numbers and varieties than other firearms on the modern hunting rifle market. For this reason, many prospective buyers search for used weapons that are no longer produced by today’s firearm manufacturers. Remington, however, does offer a Model 7600, which still enjoys moderate popularity among some hunters (pictured above).

Semi-Automatic Rifles

Rifles Browning BAR MK 3

Semi-automatic rifles are the newest and most sophisticated type of rifles available to hunters today. As the name implies, the action in semi-automatic rifles is fairly user friendly, with the rifle automatically doing most of the work. Mechanical operation is dependent upon the gas and recoil generated by firing the weapon, which subsequently acts upon parts in the receiver responsible for manipulating, loading, and ejecting ammunition. Rate of fire is essentially limited to how fast a shooter can pull the trigger. 

The big pros of autoloaders, obviously, are ease of use and rate of fire. The trade-offs, however, are dependability and cost. Semi-automatic weapons are notorious for jamming if they’re not thoroughly cleaned and can sometimes run upwards of $1,500. There’s also a bit of a stigma attached to semi-automatic rifles, in that a lot of hunters don’t see them as very sporting. Finally, be sure to research your local laws and regulations before purchasing a semi-automatic rifle, as some states don’t allow hunters to use the rapid-firing weapons. Pictured above is a Browning BAR (Browning Autoloading Rifle) Mark III, a high-end semi-automatic rifle available in a variety of calibers.

Break-Action Rifles

Rifles CVA-Hunter with Rail Mount 

Break-action, or breech-loaded, rifles are some of the oldest and most reliable long guns in existence, and they see great popularity amongst big game hunters who favor the weapons for their ability to handle powerful cartridges. Break-action rifles are generally single-shot weapons—although double-barreled versions do exist—that require a shooter to manually break-open and reload the weapon with each subsequent shot. A neat feature of these rifles is their inherent ambidextrous design, allowing both left and right-handed hunters to shoot with ease.

Break-action rifles are a varied bunch of weapons, with collectors paying thousands of dollars for unique firearms and novice hunters buying cost effective entry-level sporting rifles. A Model 1874 Hartford Sporting Rifle, for example, can cost more than $2,000. Firearm manufacturer CVA, on the other hand, offers a very affordable break-action rifle for less than $300 (pictured above). The bottom line is to do your research when considering a break-action rifle as there’s tons of options out there.

Calibers

Rifles Different Type Bullets

Another defining characteristic of rifles is their caliber, or the size of the inner diameter of their barrels and corresponding ammunition. Caliber and ammunition selection are truly topics upon themselves, but a few general guidelines will get you pointed in the right direction.

First, calibers are expressed in both U.S. customary and metric measurements. Thus, a rifle chambered in .243 Winchester has a barrel with an inner diameter of two hundred and forty-three thousandths of an inch, while a 7mm Remington Magnum has an inner-barrel diameter of seven millimeters.

Second, calibers are sometimes identified by the company that designed them or the initial weapon they were first designed for, but there’s not necessarily consistency behind this practice. The .444 Marlin, for example, was designed by Marlin Firearms for use in Remington lever-action rifles. The 6.5mm Creedmore, on the other hand, was developed by Hornady and used in a variety of rifles. This can be particularly confusing or tricky when researching a potential purchase. Take, for instance, the Browning BAR MK 3 Stalker, which is chambered in nine different calibers including .243 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, and .30-06 Springfield!

All said and done, it’s probably best to confer with a knowledgeable friend, hunting guide, or firearms expert when selecting a rifle caliber. Too large a cartridge can be overkill while too small a bullet might be inadequate or inhumane. Be sure to do your homework!

Sights and Optics

Rifles Weapon Optical Sight

A final consideration is the matter of sights and optics that, like caliber and ammunition selection, are in-depth subjects in their own right. In the most fundamental terms, “sights” refers to the “open” or “iron” sights that are integral parts of the rifle. These vary in form and function but typically consist of a front tip or blade, located just behind the muzzle, and a rear sight, usually sitting atop the receiver. Aligning the sights allows shooters to compensate for windage and elevation while targeting game.

Optics, on the other hand, are a bit more sophisticated and include everything from scopes, which magnify and clarify targets, and reticles, which facilitate aiming and enhance sight picture. Scopes are generally like telescopes but feature crosshairs and adjustment knobs that permit hunters to shoot targets at extended ranges. Reticles can also magnify targets but are more concerned with making medium to short-range aiming easier for shooters. Popular devices in this category include red dot and holographic sights that overlay enhanced images on top of targets.

Worth noting is the fact that many of today’s newer hunting rifles are being produced without open sights altogether, meaning that the use of scopes is mandatory if a hunter hopes to hit his or her intended target. While seasoned hunters routinely debate the pros and cons of this development, using open or magnified sights is really a matter of personal preference, budget, and desired game.

Conclusion


Rifles Hunter with Trophy Bucks

Whether stalking massive elk on a dream hunt or chasing down a few squirrels at your favorite hunting spot, there’s a rifle out there for everyone. While the choices and selection might at first seem daunting, a little research can clear up quite a few questions. Hopefully, you’ve gained a better understanding of the different types of rifles available, which will go far in making a decision about your next purchase. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to reach out to a knowledgeable friend, seasoned hunter, or certified firearms expert.

Stay safe and go get hunting!


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