Hunting is a primal activity that ties us to the land and our heritage. It is immensely rewarding to be able to capture your own food and provide for yourself. Choosing the best hunting rifle is an important part of the process that relies on your understanding of hunting and your own capabilities.
What Makes a Good Hunting Rifle?
You need a hunting rifle that will work when you need it to, every time. Imagine you take your bear hunting rifle and it does not fire or the bolt gets stuck and you cannot cycle a new round. We can all imagine how that story ends.
Whatever type of hunting rifle you choose, you need to have faith that it is going to work effectively every time. Otherwise, you may find you don’t want to be in the woods with an untrustworthy rifle at the wrong time.
Accuracy is important in a hunting rifle, but not always as much as a target or tactical rifle. For instance, if you are looking for a rifle for hog hunting, your target will have a large area to hit and will probably be pretty close. It needs to be accurate enough to hit what you’re aiming at, but you don’t need the tightest possible group at the shooting range.
On the other hand, if you’re using a rifle for elk hunting in the mountains, you may make a shot at several hundred yards or further. Then you will want a very accurate rifle because there are many variables in the shot, and little changes can cause you to miss entirely.
If all you ever did was sit at a bench and wait for an animal to walk in front of you, the weight and ability to carry the rifle would not matter much. Since most of us don’t hunt this way, you want a rifle that you’re happy to take with you.
Typically this means a rifle that cuts down on bulk and weight, so it is less physically demanding to carry over long distances.
The more intense your hunts, the more your hunting rifle will need to stand up to. If you hunt in extreme environments, you will want a rifle that is going to stand up to the challenges. A pretty blued rifle with a walnut stock is a fine, classic hunting rifle - but you may cringe at seeing the finish damage of hunting in extreme environments. This is something to take into consideration based on your hunting habits.
Types of Hunting
Although there are as many kinds of hunting as there are animals, let’s consider some common types of hunting and group them together by the types of firearms used.
Small game usually refers to the pursuit of small animals eaten or used for fur. These are commonly animals such as squirrels and rabbits. Most small game hunting is done walking through a hunting area, and shots are at relatively close range.
Varminting is more of a sport than a game pursuit, and involves shooting similarly sized animals - as small as woodchucks, up to coyotes. Some varmints, such as prairie dogs, are targeted by skilled shooters. They provide challenging shots as they can be seen at long distance, across windy plains, and can quickly disappear back into a hole.
Small game hunters usually use a low-powered rimfire round such as .22 LR, .17 HMR, or .22 Magnum. Varmint hunters, who don’t usually care about preserving meat, might use more powerful smallbore cartridges such as .223 Remington, .22-250, or .243 Winchester.
Medium game hunting usually refers to animals around the size of deer. In parts of the world, it may refer to animals such as sheep or antelope. Medium game animals are not particularly tough to kill. A wide variety of hunting rifle calibers are used, anywhere from .223 Remington to belted magnum rounds like the .300 Winchester Magnum.
Caliber selection for medium game is typically guided by the size of local animals, and the average hunting distances in the area.
Large game animals are all dangerous to some extent because of their size and physical capabilities. These animals include elk, moose, bear, and typical safari animals. “Dangerous game” animals usually include aggressive species such as brown bear, buffalo, and large cats.
Hunting rifles for large game must be carefully selected. Hunting rifle calibers for large game may include belted magnum cartridges such as .300 Win Mag or .375 H&H, or heavy big-bore cartridges like .45-70 or .458 Win Mag.
A long-range rifle for big game focuses on sending a lot of energy a long distance, while a stopping rifle is designed to shoot a large animal at close distance and kill it very quickly.
Although high-power rounds are popular in big game hunting, classic cartridges such as .30-06 Springfield and .270 Winchester remain popular and sufficient in the right hands.
Brush hunting refers to hunting animals, usually medium or large game, in thick brush. Distances are very limited, so long range shots are typically not necessary. Animals may be dangerous or aggressive when encountered at close distances. Short range, powerful rounds such as .45-70 and .444 Marlin are favored at this distance. Brush hunters will typically prefer short, handy rifles with powerful ammunition which can be quickly cycled for a follow up shot. Lever action rifles in particular are popular.
Types of Hunting Rifles
Bolt action rifles are one of the most popular types of hunting rifles. They are good all-around hunting rifles. Robust and accurate, they are capable of tackling most types of hunting. Bolt action rifles can be had in almost any caliber imaginable and usually feed from either a fixed or detachable magazine.
A bolt action rifle may be fired once before the user manually cycles the bolt, feeding a remaining round from the magazine and re-setting the trigger.
Calling back images of cowboys on the frontier, lever action rifles are popular for some types of hunting. They can be chambered in powerful, large bore cartridges which can stop animals quickly at close range. Typically, they are light and handy for snap shooting but sacrifice long range capability.
A lever action rifle may be fired once before the shooter manually operates the lever on the bottom of the rifle to load a new round and ready it to be fired again. This operation is smooth so the shooter can rapidly get a new round loaded, and allows the shooter to keep their eye on the sights while cycling the gun.
Like a shotgun, pump action rifles use a sliding pump mechanism to cycle rounds. They are manually operated and must be pumped each shot. Pump action rifles are very fast to cycle and are very handy for close-range hunting, but may be awkward to operate in some supported shooting positions. They may also lack accuracy, particularly at long range, vs. a bolt action rifle.
A semi-automatic hunting rifle may also be referred to as a self-loading rifle. Every time the rifle is fired, the action automatically cycles to empty the spent round, load a new one, and reset the trigger for firing. The only thing the shooter must do is release the trigger and pull it again to fire another shot. Semi-automatic rifles feed from a magazine which is usually detachable but may be fixed.
A semi-automatic rifle is one of the fastest ways to get a follow-up shot from your first round fired. They vary in accuracy but some, especially based on the AR-15, can be exceptionally accurate. The biggest drawback to a semi auto hunting rifle is the potential for malfunctions to interrupt the shooting. Additionally, some states may ban or restrict the use of semi-automatic rifles for hunting.
Single and Double Barrel
Both single and double barrel rifles must be loaded one round at a time directly into the barrel. They are mechanically simple, very reliable, and very accurate. Single and double barrel rifle actions are very strong and can use high powered rifle calibers.
The biggest drawback is obvious; having only one or two shots before having to reload. The single or double rifle is lightweight, finely balanced to the shooter, and has a touch of class. They are often preferred by experienced and distinguished sportsmen who enjoy a handy rifle and the challenge of limited shots. Additionally, double rifles are frequently used on big-game hunts because of the powerful cartridges they can fire and the immediate second shot available if the first round fails to incapacitate a dangerous animal.
Hunting Rifle Recommendations
Now that you know a little bit more about hunting rifles, let’s look at some options to find the best hunting rifle for you.
1. RUGER 10/22
There are few rifles that could claim to have started as many peoples’ shooting careers as the humble Ruger 10/22. With its light weight, simple sights, and semi-automatic action, it is a great beginner hunting rifle for learning to hunt small game or even tin cans.
One of the greatest features of the 10/22 is its modest price and the low cost of ammunition, making it perfect to get your footing in hunting without making a huge investment. A scope can be easily mounted by attaching a Picatinny rail to the holes on top of the receiver. Because the 10/22 is such a popular rifle, there are so many aftermarket parts that you could upgrade or replace any part in the gun if you wanted - with little to no gunsmithing experience required.
It may not bring down the trophy elk, but learning to shoot safely and having the capability to reliably bring small game can be just as important.
- Light weight
- Low cost and cheap ammo
- Easy to use
- Classic design
- Limited power
- Factory sights are not very precise for some uses
- May be sensitive to some types of ammunition
This Rifle is Good For:
It would be hard to find a definitively better beginner hunting rifle than the Ruger 10/22. Even for experienced shooters, the simple pleasure of a semi-automatic .22 can still bring joy and pleasure. For the price and the training capability, it’s a high recommendation for any person who enjoys sport shooting.
2. MARLIN 336 STAINLESS STEEL
It’s been said that no cartridge has killed more deer in the woods of North America than the classic .30-30 in a lever action rifle. Of these, the Marlin 336 remains one of the most popular deer hunting rifles sold.
The Marlin 336 is a lever-action rifle which feeds from a 6-round tube magazine located under the barrel. It features classic buckhorn sights with a brass bead, and is drilled and tapped for the additional installation of a scope. The model shown here also has a stainless steel finish, making it incredibly resistant to the rust and other corrosive damage of hunting environments.
As far as brush hunting goes, .30-30 is one of the most popular hunting rifle calibers out there. Capable of taking medium game including deer, hog, and even black bear, it’s a capable rifle for close-distance encounters.
- Stainless steel finish
- 6+1 round capacity
- Drilled and tapped for a scope
- Rapid action for cycling a new round
- Limited range - .30-30 round loses power quickly past 200 yards
- Sights are imprecise - great for quick shots, not target work
- Some shooters may find the recoil heavy compared to the moderate power of the ammo
This Rifle is Good For:
It’s a great rifle for hog hunting or any other variety of close-range brush hunting. Inside of 150 yards, the rifle is capable of snap-shots with a cartridge powerful enough to kill a wide variety of animals. The mechanical action is simple and robust, and the stainless steel finish will ease your worries about rusting in wet or humid environments.
3. RUGER MINI-14 AND MINI-30
The Mini-14 is a rifle by Ruger which is based on a scaled-down M1 Garand or M14 type action. This action is semi-automatic and fed from a detachable box magazine.
The Mini-14 is available in several calibers such as .223 Remington and .300 Blackout, while the similar Mini 30 is available in 7.62X39mm. All of these calibers have one thing in common - they’re intermediate calibers, meaning somewhat less powerful than most “full power” rifle cartridges.
With its semi-automatic action and intermediate calibers, the Mini-14 makes a nice “ranch rifle”. It’s lightweight, handles well, has a relatively large magazine size (check your local laws when using it for hunting), and has enough power to knock down medium game and pest animals at moderate distances.
The Mini-14 uses a classic military-style iron sight set up, which many users will find familiar and instinctual. It also features a scope mount machined directly into the receiver, and enhancements such as a recoil buffer to reduce the shock transferred to the scope.
- Lightweight and handles well
- Low recoil
- Relatively low ammo cost
- Large magazine size available
- Moderate accuracy; 2-3 MOA is typical
- Best at intermediate distance
- Not very powerful
This Rifle is Good For:
The Mini-14 and Mini-30 are great ranch rifles or for use as a general purpose semi auto hunting rifle. The caliber is best suited to activities such as hog and varmint hunting. In general, they are good working rifles for people who want the quick handling and utility of a light semi auto rifle.
4. RUGER AMERICAN WITH VORTEX CROSSFIRE SCOPE
The Ruger American is a popular budget hunting rifle for people who want high performance from a reasonable price. The American is praised for its good trigger and high accuracy, right out of the box.
This particular Ruger American is a package deal which includes a Vortex Crossfire scope already mounted to the rifle. The Crossfire is another item known for good performance with a lifetime warranty. Together, they make up a ready-to-go package that’s ready to start hunting as soon as you pick it up.
The American is available in both a .243 Winchester and 6.5 Creedmoor hunting rifle. Both calibers are very capable for taking medium game, and have light recoil for the shooter. The action is fixed in the stock with an integral bedding block, ensuring accuracy.
Some cheaper rifle packages include an off-brand scope which is not always of great quality, and often ends up being replaced quickly by the owner. The Vortex Crossfire included in this package is a high-quality beginner scope from a reputable brand. It comes factory mounted and boresighted, meaning it will require only a few shots to get it dialed in to your exact zero.
- Complete ready-to-hunt package
- Adjustable marksman trigger - 3 to 5 pounds
- Includes a good quality scope
- Factory bedded action and free-floated barrel
- Great value
- Limited caliber selection
- Basic rifle, fit and finish may not be as nice as more expensive rifles
This Rifle is Good For:
A good all-around hunting rifle for a value-seeker who doesn’t want to compromise capability for their budget. If you are looking for a hunting rifle under 1000 dollars, you could easily buy this rifle package along with accessories and extra ammunition and still come in under budget. For somebody who wants a budget hunting rifle and doesn’t want to spend time setting it up, a package like this is an ideal choice.
5. RUGER M77 GUIDE GUN
Typically, a “guide gun” refers to a gun carried by a hunting or fishing guide to protect clients in areas with dangerous animals, and as a backup to kill a large animal quickly if the hunter misses their shot or fails to put the animal down immediately.
Naturally, a guide gun should be a no-fail rifle with a powerful cartridge and quick aim. The Ruger M77 Guide gun provides all these capabilities. Firing the powerful .375 Ruger cartridge, it has enough power to quickly kill large and dangerous animals.
For quick and reliable aim, the rifle is fitted with fixed iron sights. Additionally, it has scope mounts machined directly into the receiver for accuracy and reliability. The barrel is threaded and ships with both a radial muzzle brake to significantly reduce recoil and a barrel weight to reduce some recoil without the noise of the muzzle brake.
The stock is an attractive but weather-resistant laminate wood which will not warp or swell with humidity as a standard wood stock would. The rifle is finished in a matte stainless steel which will neither rust nor give off a glare in the sun. Similar to the classic Mauser action, the M77 uses a large claw extractor for reliable controlled round feed. With all of these features, you won’t have to worry about the durability or reliability of the rifle in any condition.
- Powerful cartridge
- Fixed iron sights
- Muzzle brake and padded stock to reduce recoil
- Attractive, weather-resistant finish
- Very reliable action
- Heavy recoil, not for inexperienced shooter
- Limited magazine capacity
- Ammo can be expensive and difficult to find in stores
This Rifle is Good For:
Any type of big game hunting, especially at close to intermediate distances. For instances, it could be a great rifle for elk hunting. The power might be a bit much for medium game animals, but will really shine on animals such as elk, moose, bears, and others which a hunter or guide will want to drop quickly.
6. WINCHESTER MODEL 70 SUPERGRADE
The Winchester Model 70 is one of the classic and most desired American Hunting Rifles. The Model 70 Supergrade is a particularly nice model for hunters who want a fine hunting rifle.
To start with, the Supergrade uses the famous Pre-64 receiver system, which includes a three-position safety and claw extractor. It uses the MOA trigger system for a clean trigger pull, and the barrel is free floated and hammer-forged for accuracy and consistency.
The Model 70 Supergrade features a number of upgrades from the standard Model 70. The metal is finely polished and blued to a deep black gloss. AAA or AAAA Maple (the number of A’s indicates the complexity of the grain in the wood) is used for the stocks, with a classic ebony forend tip. The stocks and bolt handles are finely checkered, with the bolt body jeweled.
- Beautiful fit and finish
- Classic hunting rifle with reliable action
- Multiple calibers available
- Highly Accurate
- Expensive for the features
- Wood stock and blued finish susceptible to environmental effects
- So nice, you might actually hesitate to use it on intense hunts
This Rifle is Good For:
A shooter who wants a beautiful, finely fitted hunting rifle that could become a prized family heirloom. Somebody who hunts for sport and enjoys a fine rifle but does not need one to tackle the most adverse conditions. Available in multiple calibers up to a .300 win mag hunting rifle, there are caliber options to take most any type of game you’d consider.
7. CVA HUNTER COMPACT WITH SCOPE
The goal of hunting should always be to take your target game with one clean, well-placed shot. No unnecessary meat damage or suffering for the animal. In reality we all know that things happen and sometimes extra shots can give us more options. Taking one clean shot and getting your harvest is an immensely rewarding opportunity.
For someone who can forego a repeating rifle, there are advantages to a single shot rifle. Because they are mechanically simple, they tend to be lightweight, accurate, and reliable. They can also be very inexpensive due to the simplicity of manufacturing.
The CVA Hunter Compact is a very inexpensive, lightweight, and capable single shot rifle for a great price. Chambered in .243 Winchester, it is capable on medium game but has negligible recoil. The included scope means it’s ready to be sighted and shot right out of the box, and a 13” length of pull makes it ideal for youth and small framed shooters.
- Very inexpensive
- Lightweight, easy to handle
- Low recoil
- Very accurate
- Short stock for small framed shooters
- Single shot
- Plain looking, fit and finish will not be highest quality
- Included scope is a good starter but may leave quality to be desired
This Rifle is Good For:
It would be great for a beginner hunting rifle for a supervised youth shooter. The length of pull and low recoil make it easier for a younger shooter to handle, and a single shot rifle prevents a new shooter from turning around with a loaded gun after their first-shot excitement. Given the low cost, light weight, and simplicity, the rifle is also a great general use utility rifle for hunting and farming activities. It could make a great rifle for coyote hunting on your property, for instance.
8. BROWNING X BOLT HELL’S CANYON LONG RANGE
Long-range hunting is a discipline which requires skill, discipline, and appropriate equipment. Finding a good long range hunting rifle is an important part of that equation.
The Browning X Bolt Hell’s Canyon Long Range model (a mouthful) is specifically built for successful long range hunting in harsh conditions. It’s available in a number of all-around hunting rifle calibers including the Nosler and Creedmoor family of cartridges and .300 Win Mag.
A 26” barrel preserves as much velocity as possible for those long-distance shots, and ends in a muzzle brake to reduce the recoil. As the rifle weighs under 8 pounds even in magnum calibers, the muzzle brake is a welcome addition to reduce recoil for the shooter. Part of the secret to cutting weight is the ultra-light and weather-resistant McMillan stock. The stock includes a recoil-reducing pad and stud mounts for your hunting rifle sling.
Shooting the X-bolt action is a pleasure too. Between the super crisp 3 to 5 pound trigger and the 3-lug, 60 degree bolt throw, the rifle is incredibly shoot to smooth.
- Very smooth action and trigger
- Available in powerful hunting rifle calibers
- Finished in attractive and resistant Cerakote
- Long barrel increases bullet velocity
- Feeds from detachable magazines
- Included muzzle brake and recoil pad
- Relatively expensive
- Does not include scope mounts
- Many of the caliber options are expensive or difficult to find
This Rifle is Good For:
It’s built to be a great long-range hunting rifle, capable at distance yet light enough to carry. If you’re a long range hunter who wants high-performing, reliable equipment and is willing to pay for it, this rifle could be a great match for you.
9. STEYR ARMS SCOUT RIFLE
The concept of a scout rifle has existed for several decades in one form or another, but the Steyr Arms Scout is perhaps the most essential version created. A lightweight rifle with detachable magazines and a forward-mounted scope, the scout rifle is meant to be light and handle quickly. Chambered in an all around hunting caliber, it’s meant to be a general utility tool for the rifleman.
The Steyr Scout doesn’t treat all of these descriptions as requirements. For instance, the rifle has a forward mount for a scout-style scope, but a standard scope can still be mounted over the bolt. Additionally, backup iron sights mean the rifle can be used without a magnified optic. From the factory, the rifle weighs only 6.6 pounds.
The rifle feeds from a 5-round detachable magazine, and a slot in the rear of the stock holds a second magazine ready to go. Additionally, the lightweight polymer stock features an integrated bipod to help you steady your aim without bolting on additional equipment.
- Very lightweight
- Multiple optic options
- Integrated bipod
- Nice single-stage trigger
- Somewhat expensive
- Scout rifles are divisive - some shooters like them, some can’t get a feel for them
This Rifle is Good For:
A lightweight .308 hunting rifle that’s great for backpacking, hiking, and hunting in regions with a lot of walking involved. The form factor is simple, light, and capable as a hunting rifle.
10. HATSAN EDGE SPRING AIR RIFLE
So far, we’ve focused entirely on cartridge firearms, as is typically appropriate for hunting. However, air rifles have their advantages as well. One of the biggest advantage is ammo, which costs a fraction of what even the cheapest rimfire ammo costs.
The cheap ammo costs and nonexistent recoil allow a shooter to practice fundamentals over and over again to keep their technique strong. Small game is a possibility too - such as an air rifle for squirrel hunting.
The most common caliber for air rifles is .177, but it’s not the only option. Although larger pellets will go a little slower, they will retain their energy better and be less affected by wind. A .22 air rifle for hunting or a .25 caliber air rifle for hunting provides the capability for a shooter to take small game such as squirrels, rabbits, and some birds.
Using a spring powered air rifle means that the shooter must manually pump the action to build up power. The upside of this is that there is no charging of tanks or supplying gas canisters to run the air rifle - just pump it and provide pellets, which can be purchased by the thousands. This makes it an ideal rifle for training and even preparing for scenarios where one would have to provide their own food for an extended time.
The Hatsan Edge is available in .177, .22, and .25 calibers. It features adjustable fiber optic sights, as well as a 3-9X32 power scope which is rated to survive the unusual recoil of the air rifle.
- Cheap to shoot
- Good for training
- Can be shipped to you in most states with no FFL transfer
- Lacks power
- Must be manually pumped to charge the shot
This Rifle is Good For:
Any shooter or hunter who wants to expand their capability for cheap training, plinking and small game hunting by adding a basic air rifle to their collection. Also great for teaching new shooters on a less powerful gun with little gunshot noise.
Hunting is a great sport that connects us with our roots, our food supply, and our heritage. Of course, the best rifle in the world won’t make up for a poor hunter. But, choosing your best hunting rifle for your use will go a long way towards making sure you have a great hunting experience.